I grew up in the shadow of the United States Capitol during the seventies. For my friends and me, it was our personal playground. I rode my bicycle down the stairs and played soccer on the lawn. Although my small section of Capitol Hill was considered the underbelly, I knew it wasn’t just another federal building. The gold dome with the people scurrying back and forth to it told me that my playground was a place where important work was happening. As I grew older, I came to deeply appreciate that I had unfettered access to the center of our democracy.
That was then and this is now. Our nation has changed significantly since the 9/11 attacks and more so since the attempted Jan. 6 insurrection. Our nation, our state is on edge. None of us can forget the images we saw of our national Capitol under attack.
In Colorado, many of us were shocked by the vandalism directed at our state Capitol last summer. I freely admit my heart broke when I saw graffiti splattered on that grand building. As Colorado’s first African American Speaker of the House it’s a place that holds significant emotional and historical meaning to me.
This week I experienced a similar visceral reaction when I learned of a proposal to encircle the Capitol grounds with permanent fencing. The rationale for the fencing has a critical flaw. It failed to fully account for the fact that a functioning democracy is open, accessible, and transparent. A permanent fence is not only a permanent aesthetic blemish but also a permanent reminder to the people that our leaders do not fully trust citizens with democracy.
Once fences and walls are built it’s difficult to interpret the meaning as any other than “stay out” or “you’re not welcome here.” Is this really the message the General Assembly wants to send to the people of Colorado? I doubt it. However, it is the message the people will hear. At a time when trust in government institutions is at historical lows, now is not the time to further engrain that distrust by building a permanent fence around our state Capitol.
In Germany, there is a frequently referenced term called “mauer im kopf” or “wall in the head.” As the term implies, it is about the emotional, mental and cultural divide which develops when people have been separated by a wall. Despite it being decades since the Berlin Wall fell, several academic studies suggest German politics is still plagued by psychological scars caused by the Berlin Wall. This “wall in the head” has provided space for political extremists to erode long-standing democratic norms.
Fences have a way of dividing us because it makes it easy for us not to engage with each other. When we build walls in our heads it allows us to paint false narratives about our neighbors. Walls around our icons of democracy have the same impact. The people first lose a connection with the physical symbols of democracy and then a deeper more visceral connection to democracy.
I’m passionate about this because I have seen what fences have done to my hometown, Washington, D.C. The most majestic symbols of our democracy, the White House and the United States Capitol, have lost their sense of awe and wonderment. Children no longer have the opportunity to touch and feel democracy. My love for our democracy is built on my childhood memories of being able to run, jump, and bicycle all over the nation’s Capitol.
Democracy requires care and nurture. However, democracy does not receive proper care when it’s locked away and hidden from view.
Terrance Carroll is a former speaker of the Colorado House. He is the Executive Director for Unite Colorado. Unite Colorado is committed to bridging the growing partisan divide in order to tackle our largest challenges and leave a better state for future generations. He is on Twitter @speakercarroll.
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