The day mobs overran the Capitol
Chaos ensued inside the halls of Congress on Jan. 6, raising questions and leaving a country even more divided
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In the early hours of Jan. 7, Congress certified the Electoral College victory of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris.
But first lawmakers withstood evacuations, a lockdown, and a stampede of rioters storming the Capitol. So did staff, security forces, and journalists. I was one of those journalists, covering the proceedings from the Press Gallery above the floor of the House of Representatives. Here’s my firsthand account of the events of Jan. 6 and a survey of the national consequences.
MY FIRST INDICATION something was wrong came when an aide passed through the Press Gallery and told me to make sure I had everything I needed at my side and to prepare for a lockdown. Perhaps for hours.
I had arrived at my reserved seat in the upper balcony of the U.S. House of Representatives earlier on Wednesday ready to cover political theater. The chamber does not allow bags or backpacks, so when the aide gave the warning, I scurried to grab my phone and laptop charger from the press room, then settled back in my seat.
A few minutes later, Capitol Police officers began running to every door in the House Chamber. They shuttered the glass doors with heavy wooden doors. About 100 lawmakers were on the House floor, with about 25 more lawmakers in the upstairs gallery.
As a babble of questions broke out, a police officer briefed legislators: Protesters had “breached” the Capitol Building and had gotten as close as the rotunda, where police had fired tear gas.
The officer told lawmakers to ready themselves to crouch beneath their seats but also be prepared to evacuate if necessary. Another burst of frightened chatter broke out, and one representative yelled from the upstairs gallery that someone should call President Donald Trump and ask him to tell protesters—whom he addressed at a rally before the march on the Capitol—to stand down.
After minutes of confusion, the officer told lawmakers to grab gas masks secured under their seats.
Press aides ran around, handing everyone in the upstairs gallery “escape hoods”—essentially gas masks that pull over your head to your shoulders.
I ripped the heavy gray packaging off mine but kept my eye on the situation on the floor. Soon, banging on the doors echoed throughout the chamber. The noise grew outside, and inside the chaplain for the day began praying aloud.
One lawmaker, Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., told members how to operate their gas masks. Capitol Police began to evacuate members through a side door. Upstairs, press aides told photographers to stop taking pictures. Some snapped away anyway. Then police gave the evacuation order for the gallery. I grabbed my laptop, chargers, escape hood, and reporter’s notebook. Almost as soon as I started to move toward the door, police changed their directions. “Get down!” someone yelled from behind me.
I crouched behind the seats. There were perhaps three reporters behind me, and the rest in a crowd ahead of me. I heard a bang and thought someone had shot into the chamber. My heart was pounding. I clutched my gear and an uninflated gas hood. My hands shook. I peered around the chairs I hid behind. I had the morbid thought that maybe someone would shoot if he saw exposed faces, but I wanted to see what was happening.
I could see that a small group of lawmakers and Capitol Police with drawn guns had barricaded the door with furniture. Above the furniture, protesters had broken holes in the glass of the door.
I heard several pops and could smell smoke. Another reporter said he heard an officer say “shots fired,” though I did not hear that directly.
Police and lawmakers tried to talk to the protesters through the glass. “This is un-American!” someone yelled. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself. … This is not the way to do it.”
The commotion continued downstairs, but the gallery was told to continue evacuation. “We can’t leave until you leave,” one exasperated aide told us. To get out, I had to duck below several banisters because I was too short to hop over.
Aides led us through the Capitol’s maze of basement tunnels to a location I can’t disclose in the nearby Longworth House building. On the way, I stuffed my reporter’s notebook into my right boot. The time was 2:57 p.m. Once I got to the room, I placed my unused escape hood on a table near the door. As quiet fell, one aide cried quietly while another comforted her. Around the room, a few staffers began to pass out water bottles.
Security initially told reporters we couldn’t be in the room, then said instead that if we tweeted about our location, they would take our phones.
Right in front of me, Democratic Reps. Eric Swalwell and Adam Schiff of California and Joe Neguse of Colorado huddled, discussing the situation quietly enough not to be heard. About an hour later, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., told the room that members planned to carry on with the Electoral College tally. Lawmakers from both parties clapped and cheered.
Security forces wouldn’t secure the Capitol for several hours.
IT WASN’T JUST LAWMAKERS in the House and Senate chambers who evacuated. Rebekah Hoshiko, communications director for the House Committee on Natural Resources, said she had to evacuate twice from an office in the Cannon House building. The first evacuation came at about 1 p.m. because of the threat of a pipe bomb nearby at the Republican National Committee headquarters. The second came when mobs overran the Capitol.
Hoshiko had previously assumed the day would turn violent but didn’t think it would happen until that night: “Given all of the protests that happened over the summer, everything happens after it gets dark outside.” She rode out the evening in lockdown with a small group of others in the Longworth House building.
Another Hill veteran, Conn Carroll, communications director for Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, told me he also anticipated trouble: “I knew it was going to be a bad day on the morning Metro ride in when I saw a guy with Trump gear on the train carrying a giant wrench. He did not look like he was in town to fix things.”
Meanwhile, Hoshiko, who used to be Rep. Bruce Westerman’s press secretary, said her former boss spent about two hours isolated from everyone when protesters breached the building. Westerman, R-Ark., had been in House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s office when the leader’s security detail hustled McCarthy away.
“The last thing [Westerman] had heard on the radio of McCarthy’s detail was that shots were fired,” Hoshiko said. “So he stuck his head out in the hall a bit later and nobody was there.” That’s when he realized he was in trouble. A bit later, Westerman heard rioters approaching.
The lawmaker hid in a bathroom in McCarthy’s office. He locked the door, turned out the lights, and silenced his phone. Rioters entered the office and tried to open the bathroom door. Westerman waited for about 2½ hours until Capitol Police could extract him.
Later that night, Westerman voted to uphold the election results.
In the room where I locked down for several hours, COVID-19 social distancing protocols fell by the wayside. Staff rubbed shoulders with lawmakers from both parties.
I tweeted everything (except our location) and monitored texts from Hill staffers who had to evacuate their offices, White House staffers who said security forces were on their way, and concerned friends and family watching the news. At some point, I began to hear reports that a woman had been shot in the House Speaker’s Lobby by Capitol Police. Later we learned the woman had died.
At about 5:30 p.m., the sergeant-at-arms said law enforcement had secured the building. It wasn’t until after 7 p.m. that Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking Republican in the House, told the room that members hoped to get back to the chamber within the next hour.
Shortly after 8 p.m.—with press members back at their stations—both chambers of Congress gaveled back into session.
In a statement to senators, Vice President Mike Pence called on lawmakers to “get back to work,” and addressed rioters: “To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today, you did not win. Violence never wins. Freedom wins. And this is still the people’s house.”
NOW AMERICANS MUST sort through still unanswered questions and reckon with the attack’s consequences.
First, the death toll. Five people died because of the melee. One, a rioter named Ashli Babbitt, was the woman shot by Capitol Police. Three people died of medical emergencies. Brian Sicknick, a Capitol Police officer, died on Jan. 7 due to injuries after someone in the mob hit him in the head with a fire extinguisher. Other rioters attacked police with metal pipes, flag poles, and other items. At least 50 officers were injured, and 15 required hospitalization.
Another, a 15-year veteran of the Capitol Police, committed suicide on Jan. 9. It’s unclear if Howard Liebengood’s death was related to the riot, but he was on duty at the time.
Second, the ordeal shows failures in the Capitol Hill security apparatus. Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving, and Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Stenger all resigned. Lawmakers have called for inquiries into why security forces were woefully unprepared. The Associated Press reported that the Capitol Police turned down the National Guard’s offers for reinforcements a few days before Jan. 6 and an offer to send FBI agents. Capitol Police planned “only for a free speech demonstration.” Apparently, law enforcement’s estimates of potential crowd size also varied widely—from 2,000 to 80,000, according to Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy.
Only one meager barricade—which rioters quickly overran—cordoned the Capitol where lawmakers would enter. A week later, it was still unclear how many officers were on duty on Jan. 6. But the Capitol Police force employs 2,300 officers to protect the 16-acre Capitol complex. Its $460 million budget is bigger than police budgets in Atlanta, Boston, and Detroit.
Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., reported parts of a conversation he had with Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy: “Long guns, Molotov cocktails, explosive devices, and zip ties were recovered, which suggests a greater disaster was narrowly averted,” Crow said. Federal authorities were investigating at least 25 cases of domestic terrorism days after the attack.
Gus Papathanasiou, head of the Capitol Police union, said the attack could have been worse: “We were lucky that more of those who breached the Capitol did not have firearms or explosives and did not have a more malign intent. Tragic as the deaths are that resulted from the attack, we are fortunate the casualty toll was not higher.”
In 2018, one of my first WORLD assignments was to cover Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing. One stark memory: the hordes of protesters who attended. Members of the public waited for hours outside the committee room to be let in. Once inside, they created regular disruptions by standing, chanting, waving handmade signs, and later, confronting lawmakers.
The Capitol Police arrested more than 200 activists during the three days of the initial hearing.
On Jan. 6, Capitol Police arrested six people and confiscated five weapons, according to MPD Police Chief Robert J. Contee (though federal agents made more arrests in the days that followed).
One Jan. 6 video showed a steady stream of rioters leaving the Capitol Building, while security officers held the doors open. Many cheered and pumped their fists in the air as they left. Some hoisted Trump flags or American flags. Someone had scratched a phrase on one of the doors they exited: “Murder the Media.” One man yelled off-camera, “Next time we come back, we won’t be peaceful!”
A third result of the riot is COVID-19 spread, with social distancing impossible in the midst of the evacuation and subsequent lockdown. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., a 75-year-old lawmaker, announced her positive diagnosis on Jan. 11. She decided to get tested after receiving a warning memo from the Capitol’s attending physician that the lockdown could have resulted in COVID-19 exposure.
I also received the same memo because I had been in a room with many lawmakers, and some didn’t wear masks. On Jan. 11, I also tested positive for COVID-19 (my symptoms have been mild thus far). More lawmakers also tested positive.
More repercussions rolled on: calls to impeach Trump and bar him from holding federal office again, tech companies’ crackdowns on Trump and some conservative voices, and questions about evangelical Christians and politics.
The mobs that overran the Capitol pinned down Congress only a few hours. The United States will wrestle with the consequences for years.
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