I have lived in the city of Sacramento, the capital of California, my entire life. So it was disturbing a few weeks ago to learn that alt right organizations were threatening unspecified acts of terrorist violence in state capitals. Since I continue to “shelter” during the pandemic, I have not gone downtown to take a look, but I understand a protective fence was erected around the perimeter of the Capitol building before the scheduled inauguration of Joe Biden this past Wednesday. I don’t know how long it will be up. None of us know when it will be safe to let our guard down.
I hadn’t thought about it much before, but I suddenly realized that I love our state Capitol building. It has a big white sugary dome that looks beautiful against a blue sky. My Mom used to take my brother and me there often when we were little. My Dad worked for the Department of Public Works (later called “CalTrans”) in an office building right across the street on N Street. On Catholic School holidays (like Saint Patrick’s Day or the Ascension of our Lord), we’d routinely take the bus downtown to meet my Dad for lunch. We’d get off the bus on L Street, take a shortcut through the Capitol and go to Dad’s office. After lunch, Dad would go back to work, and Mom and my brother and I would go see a Disney movie at the Fox or the Crest on K Street. After the show, we’d wander around inside the Capitol halls or outside in Capitol Park, killing time till 5 o’clock when we’d go back through the Capitol and across the street to Dad’s office. Then he’d drive us all home.
So I grew up with a familiarity with the building. Yes, it was special. Buildings like this don’t happen anymore. It seemed like something palatial and majestic with its big dome, something rivaling the Italian Renaissance. But it was also very ordinary: everyone was welcome to come inside and gape at the marble floors and the statues, the velvety wall paper and the beautifully carved staircases, the big sweeping paintings.
Later when I left my parents’ house, I moved into a flat in midtown eight blocks east of Capitol Park. I enjoyed walking down there amid the camellia bushes and trees, the rose garden and war memorials. At this time I also attended many marches and political rallies that started and ended at the Capitol. It was my neighborhood park and I felt at home, both inside and out.
In fact the Capitol Dome itself always symbolized home for me. Before the state finished all those connecting freeways, the quickest way into town was east on I80, and over the Tower Bridge at the west end of Capitol Mall. When we’d return from a family vacation to San Francisco or Santa Cruz, it was a contest to see who could catch sight of the Capitol Dome first. Coming over the bridge and seeing the Capitol was like a big old “Welcome Home” sign. It always made me feel warm and fuzzy.
Of course things have changed over the decades. After 9/11, metal detectors were installed, so it’s certainly not a short cut to walk through the Capitol anymore. If you’ve got a bus to catch on J Street, you better just walk around the building. Plus, I no longer live down the street from Capitol Park, so it’s not a quick stroll away. I don’t think I’ve been inside the building since I brought my students for a tour. It’s been too long.
Since the terrorist attack on our nation’s Capitol on January 6th, I’ve heard more than one commentator call it our “Temple to Democracy.” I won’t argue with or expand on that right now, but I do want to say, that for me and my state’s Capitol, my feelings are more personal than that. I think of it as a community gathering spot, a parish church, or a town square. I feel sick that this space is being threatened. I am grateful that the current moment has shifted, that we might focus on a more positive path forward. But we must remain vigilant, we must guard and expand the democracy we claim to cherish so much. And I also hope we can gather again, in safety, in these public spaces we hold dear, in the very near future. Safety from viral infection, and safety from violence.
I pray and affirm that we are safe, healthy, and free as I welcome the inauguration of new national leaders who renew our devotion to public service and truth. Amen