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Gary LanghamThe insurrection at the United States Capitol on January 6th was equal parts terrifying and disorienting. As always, during a crisis, it takes time for the full story to emerge, but a few things are clear now: words and principles matter, and unity can only occur after accountability. These events heighten our appreciation of the delicate nature of democracy and the critical role of a well-informed populace.

Washington, D.C. is a city full of meaning, down to the symbolic layout of its streets. When Thomas Jefferson recruited Pierre L’Enfant in 1791 to design the new forward capital, the resulting plan embodied symbolism in every detail. The L’Enfant Plan placed key roads, buildings, and monuments along four meridians that meet in the city center. One of these meridians, now 16th Street NW, formed the western edge of a triangle that L’Enfant envisioned would contain many of the city’s key buildings and monuments. Until international standardization in 1884, it represented 0 degrees latitude in the U.S., creating a line that connects many potent symbols: the White House, the Washington Monument, and the Jefferson Memorial. 

This April, the AAG will mark its 50th anniversary in our headquarters housed along 16th Street NW, aptly named Meridian Place, a fundamental part of the cartographic and symbolic centering of Washington, D.C. 

Inauguration of President Lincoln at U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1861
Inauguration of President Lincoln at the U.S. Capitol, still under construction, March 4, 1861. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540.

The capital is also a centering of the American people themselves: from the workers, many of them enslaved persons—who created the avenues and monuments of Washington, D.C.—to the voters, protestors, elected officials, and civil servants whose collective work built and continues to maintain the Capitol Building and the city many people call home. These symbolic markers, carefully constructed to visualize the principles to which the country aspires, contrast with the symbols on display during the violent demonstrations of last week. Confederate flags, images of Nazism, and the paramilitary trappings of vigilante militias remind us how entwined anti-democratic forces are with racial, religious, and ethnic intolerance. We must neither let the insurrectionists define our values nor allow racism and violence represent us. 

Many AAG staff who live in the District have been caught up in the curfews, still carrying out their duties, Zoom meetings, and sleeping under the sound of helicopters — working even as they fear for themselves and their nation. I am pleased to report that neither staff nor the headquarters suffered any direct impacts from January 6th. However, the toll on the many staff who live nearby, and the uncertainty and fear of recent and upcoming events, is tangible. Still, we look ahead. 

Expecting and engaging in a better tomorrow is one way of creating stability and hope. When I started my role as AAG Executive Director in August 2019, change was already a big part of the plan. We knew that we needed a new website, more and improved member services, and a value proposition with each member –- one that moved beyond journals and meeting discounts. COVID-19 was not in our plans, and it upended our hopes for 2020. We began this January full of optimism as vaccines suggested an end to the pandemic. Long planned, this month, we kicked off the total rebuild of our website and membership database. These upgrades will launch later this year and form a foundation that will help us re-double our commitment to member services and support the growth of a more diverse and vibrant geography community. Members will get a chance to preview the website and provide feedback during our virtual Annual Meeting this April. It has given us enormous hope and purpose to bring about positive changes that will benefit you, our members.

We also look forward to undertaking the substantial and consequential policy work here in Washington, D.C. The incoming presidential administration and the start of the 117th Congress bring ample opportunities for the AAG to help shape federal policy. With a renewed sense of optimism, we are committed to ensuring that federal policies reflect the priorities of all geographers. Next week, we will present these priorities to the Biden administration, including continued support of the Geospatial Data Act’s implementation and development of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure, robust funding for the National Science Foundation and other agencies, support for K-12 geography education, the revision and long-overdue reckoning with racist federal geographic place names, and the prioritization of geographic sciences to support climate change mitigation efforts. We will also urge the new administration and Congress to take deliberate steps to re-establish the federal government’s relationship with the scientific community and restore the public’s trust in scientific integrity, which has suffered significant erosion over the last four years. 

When D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser had Black Lives Matter painted on the street to honor the protest movement for Black lives last June, she chose two blocks of 16th Street NW, near the White House. Acknowledging the profound significance of naming places, she also issued an official decree to permanently rename the location “Black Lives Matter Plaza.” It was a moment of positive, even joyful resistance at another wrenching moment in the city and the nation. The connections between the struggle for social justice over the summer and the insurrection last week remind us of our history and both the promise and challenge of realizing a fully inclusive democracy. More than ever, I believe in geographers’ work as a crucial pathway to understanding ourselves, our communities, and our world. 

Read the AAG statement in support of democracy and accountability here.

—Gary Langham
AAG Executive Director

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0084

Please note: The ideas expressed by Executive Director Gary Langham are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. Please feel free to email him at glangham [at] aag [dot] org.