Capitol Building, Washington DC: When this bastion of democracy was easy to visit

December 2017, and the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington DC are devoid of horned Jamiroquai lookalikes, Far Right slogans, chanting thugs in camo brandishing Confederate flags, and screams of "hang Mike Pence".

But wait, there is someone. A lone, middle-aged woman in jeans and a blue jacket. She's been here for hours she tells us, after driving in a rage from her home in the Mid-West and she's here to make a point.

Unlike the crowds of protesters who stormed Washington DC on January 6, she's chosen to make her protest a silent one and let her cardboard, hand-painted sign do all the talking. It's one-word message? "SHAME".

"I'm just so angry at Trump. I can't stand it. The way he treats women … the Tax bill … I had to do something. I had to come here."

How long will she stay? She shrugs. "'Till I'm less angry I guess."

It's a powerful image - this tiny woman making her point on the steps of this huge building. But it's understandable why she chose the white-domed Capitol, long regarded as a centre of Western democracy, to make her point. This is a seriously impressive building that has always been on the must-visit-when-in-Washington list, not just for Americans, but also for the lovers of history, politics – and The West Wing.

And it's not just the white-marbled exterior that has prompted many visitors to adopt – until recently at least – a church-goer's reverence when standing beside it. The cavernous inside floor area of more than 6.5 hectares is compelling, with its wooden panelling, statuary, walls of art works, framed documents and a museum.

Up until COVID-19 it was relatively easy to book ahead for a tour of the building or to watch democracy in action from the very same galleries where congressmen and women crouched in fear just a couple of weeks ago.

Of course, security was tight (something we were both thankful for), but friendly. I recall guards smiling and waving at us when they caught our accents. We had to stow our bags, show our passports and submit to several metal screenings before we followed the echoes of famous footsteps down long corridors that smelt of history and wood polish until we reached the galleries to witness a House of Representatives and a Senate hearing.

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I don't recall much of what was said in the hour or so we spent watching proceedings, our seats so close to the action below that we saw sweat form on the brow of the congressman with the gentle Frank Underwood accent.

His plea for more money to help sexual assault victims in his state was followed by a more strident female voice. She made her points about church-fearing folks being swamped by crime as puffed-up young interns tweaked microphones and filled water jugs around her.

Their arguments were compelling, the efficiency around them was impressive, the acceptance that hearing opposing views was necessary and the idea that the cogs of democracy were somehow visibly still turning despite real unease about what this then new presidency would call forth, was strangely comforting.

But that was then. Fast forward and the gallery where we sat is now known to millions around the world as the place where terrified members of Congress lay low, fearing for their lives.

'SHAME' indeed.

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