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Editorial: Roundhouse fence projects wrong image of government vs. the people

The Roundhouse has been fenced off and posted with "No Trespassing" signs since the start of the 2021 legislative session. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The Roundhouse has been fenced off and posted with “No Trespassing” signs since the start of the 2021 legislative session. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Erecting a foreboding chain-link fence around New Mexico’s Capitol building in January was likely a reasonable precaution at the time. After a year of often violent protests across the nation, and the startling Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, the FBI had warned about possible armed protests at all 50 state capitols.

It was just a week before the 60-day legislative session began. And state capitols across the country were fortified given the possibility of a D.C. repeat.

Almost two months later, a few Trump supporters have shown up at the Roundhouse occasionally, driven around the building waving flags outside car windows, and traded a few words with others in the area. That’s about it. There have been no reports of violence, no threats of violence, no major crowds, none of the back-and-forth between demonstrators and counter-demonstrators that can ignite the tinderbox of emotional political partisanship.

We used to embrace the marketplace of ideas as part of the democratic process, although people are still justifiably leery of protests after thousands of Trump supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol, with 800 of them actually making it into the building, including one of our own elected officials from Otero County.

Republican lawmakers recently called on Democratic legislative leaders to order the removal of the fence, arguing it fuels the perception “government leaders are afraid of our state’s citizens and that there is division between those who govern and the general public.” In addition to the fence, anyone arriving at the Roundhouse is greeted by State Police and National Guardsmen who screen arrivals.

They have a point. State lawmakers have never before been so physically distanced from the citizenry as during this legislative session, despite claims public participation is up with online and phoned-in testimony.

But Raúl Burciaga, director of the Legislative Council Service, said State Police agree with his recommendation to keep security measures in place, probably until the session ends on March 20. “Therefore the security fences will stay up until we feel comfortable that the building is safe and secure,” Burciaga said last week.

The fence allows State Police to establish one pedestrian checkpoint to control access to the building. But the chain-link fence around our Capitol has become more a symbol – not just of lingering opposition to the Trump administration and his supporters, but of division, power vs. powerless, us vs. them – rather than a practical security measure.

Average New Mexicans are already excluded from the Roundhouse due to COVID-19. The fence prevents them from making their voices heard on the steps of the Capitol. And the Fort Knox-like security initiatives project an image of antagonism against the public and are costing taxpayers more than $33,000 per day.

(Meanwhile, lawmakers’ addresses have been scrubbed from the Legislature’s website. While a reasonable argument can be made to exclude street addresses, when a lawmaker represents multiple municipalities and counties, as many do, constituents deserve to know at least the town their lawmaker resides in.)

A simple nod of the head from House Speaker Brian Egolf, Senate President Pro Tempore Mimi Stewart, Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth or Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham – all Democrats – is likely all that is needed to end what House Republican Leader Jim Townsend termed a “blockade.”

There’s a happy medium in here somewhere that keeps the building and inhabitants safe without making the seat of government look like the state’s fifth military base. To paraphrase former President Ronald Reagan, it’s time to “tear down that ugly chain-link fence” and open the Capitol grounds to the people.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.