OPINION: Gold Dome as a fenced-in fortress? It beats building a moat

Workers install metal fences outside the Georgia Capitol building on Tuesday, March 30, 2021, the day before Sine Die, the final date for a bill to be passed by both chambers of the Legislature before being sent to the governor for his signature. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Workers install metal fences outside the Georgia Capitol building on Tuesday, March 30, 2021, the day before Sine Die, the final date for a bill to be passed by both chambers of the Legislature before being sent to the governor for his signature. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

As I approached the state Capitol on Wednesday, I was struck by a sign of the times: The first few sections of the 8-foot-tall spiked steel monstrosity that will envelop the old building.

The plan has been in the works for months as crews have dug footings and drilled deep piers (up to 80-feet deep!) to ready the fence for any future antagonism, whether it be a nuclear explosion or an angry crowd. And scaling the structure will be problematic because the spikes on the top would readily turn a person into a shish kabob.

The fencing is gray at the moment but, like any work in progress, it will get better, said Gerald Pilgrim, deputy director of the Georgia Building Authority, the state agency overseeing the project.

Once it is painted black “it won’t look as bad as it does now,” said Pilgrim. “It’s a shame we’ve had to get to this point where we feel we had to take this step.”

It is, he said, “like an insurance policy.”

Gov. Brian Kemp, the Building Authority and the Georgia Department of Public Safety all went for the idea after last summer’s protests caused the state Capitol to be surrounded by temporary fencing and round-the-clock sentries.

Then, with the Jan. 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol, things got more tense at state Capitols across the country, including here, with Humvees blocking doors and the People’s House looking like it was set for the zombie apocalypse.

The Georgia National Guard, the Georgia State Patrol and other law enforcement agencies surrounded the Georgia Capitol building with military equipment on Jan. 20, 2021, while streets remained closed and entrances were secured with trucks. State Capitols nationwide were on high alert because it was Inauguration Day for Joe Biden as U.S. president and Kamala Harris as vice president.  (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
The Georgia National Guard, the Georgia State Patrol and other law enforcement agencies surrounded the Georgia Capitol building with military equipment on Jan. 20, 2021, while streets remained closed and entrances were secured with trucks. State Capitols nationwide were on high alert because it was Inauguration Day for Joe Biden as U.S. president and Kamala Harris as vice president. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

The move, I suppose, will enhance security, as would a ring of concertina wire or a moat with alligators. The thinking is that the elongated black, spiked fence will be more aesthetically pleasing around Georgia’s proud Gold Dome than orange barriers and temporary crowd-control fencing. So, I guess there’s that.

But the fencing can’t help but give the property an Alamo-like quality or a prison-yard feel. Or, at least, make the grounds resemble Peaceful Acres Cemetery.

Sure, a long-ago poet once said, “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.” However, they do push it in those directions.

It all ties into a growing sense of a siege mentality, a batten-down-the-hatches view of life. It’s certainly symbolic of that thinking and it does make sense: Not only were there angry crowds out there last summer and the threat of irate right-wingers this winter, but Republicans in the Capitol have been beset by their own constituents.

In recent months and years, the GOP pols have been feeling embattled, whether by changing demographics in the state that threaten to turn Georgia back to the Dems, or by an increasingly shrill base ready to punish anyone who gets out of sync with an increasingly hard-line party dogma.

Those worries pushed the controversial election bill and even had legislators considering an effort that would allow authorities to charge anyone in a protest group with a felony if someone damaged property.

There have been critics of the fencing. Democratic state Sen. Sally Harrell told me, “It has a medieval quality to it with the spikes. What bothers me is that this is the People’s House and it looks like they’re trying to keep people away.”

It’s the way things are these days, she said. “That seems to be the solution to the problem: Put up a fence. I think people are bothered by how much it cost ― $5 million. There’s a lot you can do with $5 million.”

Pilgrim said the 1,400 feet of fencing and gates will run about $3.5 million and other work around the Capitol (like a computerized monitoring station) will push the tab to the full amount.

A rendering of the 8-foot steel fence being  built at the state Capitol, looking down Mitchell Street. (Credit: Georgia Building Authority)
A rendering of the 8-foot steel fence being built at the state Capitol, looking down Mitchell Street. (Credit: Georgia Building Authority)

Credit: Georgia Building Authority

Credit: Georgia Building Authority

On Wednesday night, people entering the Capitol expressed their opinions.

“Maybe it’s an eyesore. You want your public space to be without obstruction,” said David Jaffers, a lobbyist for convenience store owners. Then he pointed to a group of State Patrol officers standing near the fence, adding, “But guys like this would support it. It gives them extra time in an emergency.”

Lobbyist Sam Harrington said he’s waiting until it’s finished to express an opinion, “but in today’s society, it may not be a bad idea to have something like this.”

I reached out to former Gov. Roy Barnes, who said, “I think it is a bad symbol for an open and free government. It was an overreaction to a nonexistent problem.”

It’s another step in making the Gold Dome less accessible. A few years back, protests or assemblies were held on the Washington Street approach to the building, where there’s a large open area. Now they are pushed across the street into “Liberty Plaza,” which is a largely closed-off area.

And the state is planning to close off Mitchell Street south of the Capitol for ― what else? ― “security” reasons, which is largely so that legislators don’t have to look up from their phones when crossing the street.

“It has a medieval quality to it with the spikes. What bothers me is that this is the People's House and it looks like they're trying to keep people away."

- State Sen. Sally Harrell, D-Ga.

I checked around and it doesn’t appear there are many state Capitols surrounded by permanent spikes, although many threw up temporary fencing following protests and this year’s activities.

In New Mexico, a state senator complained about the fencing put up around the Capitol there.

“We act like the people of New Mexico are enemy combatants, and that’s just disgusting to me. We work for them,” said the senator, expressing the views of some pols in Georgia. The only difference is he’s a Republican and the ruling party throwing up the fence is Democratic.

But maybe the fencing will do some good. A study regarding fences around playgrounds surveyed the psychological impact on preschoolers and found there was a striking impact on the kids after they were closed in: “In the first scenario, the children remained huddled around their teacher, fearful of leaving out of her sight. The later scenario exhibited drastically different results, with the children feeling free to explore within the given boundaries.”

Perhaps the fence will serve as a steely comfort blanket for legislators. And with the increased safety, they can reach out and be all they can be — which, on second thought, is kind of a scary.

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