What I Saw at the Capitol Riot
It was more than a small group of agitators who stormed the building Wednesday—and what happened was only the beginning.
It’s all but silent as I step out onto 17th Street just past noon, a small gaggle of flag-waving MAGA folk to my left the only other people in sight. It’s warm enough to walk, so I make off for the Capitol on foot. At Black Lives Matter Plaza I pass a group of activists all in black—a dozen or so, with one not much older than me holding court as the rest listen faithfully and something that might be reggae blares over a single, high-powered speaker in the middle of the street.
At 14th Street a homeless man is screaming at the glass door of a boarded-up Five Guys, in one of those already-puzzling city dialects made incomprehensible by drugs or mental illness. I’m not sure what he’s saying, but I do make out “There aren’t five of you anymore, are there?”
A few blocks later a homeless woman yells—this time at me, and close enough to startle me a bit—with a thick, foreign accent of her own, but the content is unmistakable: “Biden is murderer. He make his sister pregnant when she was 14, he was 16…” I know I’m headed in the right direction, and I carry on before I catch the rest. A woman in pink earmuffs and a maroon plush coat holds up a cell phone from which Trump’s voice emanates at full volume: a livestream of his address being delivered just a few blocks west of here. A threesome in full MAGA rattle—hats, shirts, flags, etc.—come crossways with the same stream playing on all three phones.
At Pennsylvania Ave, where the crowd thickens as I merge with those walking over from the White House, a horn groans loudly in the distance. It’s a deep, distinct sound, like a shofar, and I remember the recent invocation of Jericho by the president’s supporters. A teenager, blond in a black suit and sneakers, crosses my path; the get-up marks him undeniably as a young Trump super-fan.
A fire-and-brimstone preacher stands in the shadow of Casimir Pulaski’s Freedom Plaza statue. He warns passersby, “The smoke of your torment will rise before the throne of God forever and ever and ever,” then lets an ominous chuckle before catching himself out loud: “I shouldn’t be laughing at that, it’s very serious.”
Around the corner, the livestream rings out from another massive speaker. Trump issues a warning of his own to “the Liz Cheneys of the world” before railing against the failed wars they began (and he failed to stop). At the J. Edgar Hoover Building—the fitting brutalist monstrosity that houses the FBI—Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose” is playing faintly; it almost sounds like it’s coming from inside the building, but I can’t be sure.
A laugh peals through the air, a real roaring cackle that catches my attention. I turn to see a couple sitting on the sidewalk. It’s the man—30-something with a thick beard—who’s laughing, and I catch only the end of what his companion had been saying: “…that Michelle Obama was a man!” As the laughter trails off I spot an old black man in a red flannel jacket playing the national anthem on an electric guitar—it’s an obvious attempt to mimic Hendrix at Woodstock, but his energy is low and he’s no virtuoso.
At this point Constitution Ave meets Pennsylvania, and an even larger body of marchers from the Ellipse—where the rally is winding down after the president’s address—join into the stream. A rainbow flag catches my eye—a big one held up by a marcher on the same pole as a Trump flag (the rainbow, in careful attention to the proper hierarchy, is on top). A woman somewhere in the middle starts a chant of “America First,” and the crowd quickly picks it up.
Vendors are scattered throughout the area with every piece of Trump or MAGA memorabilia imaginable. A middle-aged man with a soft, Midwestern face approaches one and asks, “How much for a flag?” The peddler responds with a heavy accent: “They’re 15, but I’ll take 10.” The customer doesn’t try to haggle any further. (Apparently the sales trick is effective.)
Another chant begins, though I can’t tell if it’s the same woman. Whoever it is, she calls out, “Where we go one…”—more than a moment’s pause as she waits for a reply—”…we go all.” As the day goes on the chant becomes a staple, and as the crowd becomes familiar the pauses disappear. It’s a slogan closely associated with QAnon.
As I approach the Capitol I see a big man standing at an empty wheelchair, snapping pictures of the scene; I wonder if I narrowly missed a miracle. Just past him a young black man with a bullhorn and a carefully groomed Afro chants “Biden loves minors” over and over as the crowd streams by. A young redhead—with a nose ring, a mustache, and black clothes adorned with a subdued American flag—is the first person I see who looks ready for a fight.
There’s scaffolding set up for the planned inauguration, and protestors have already climbed it in one spot, a narrow stand facing the building in line with the police barricade. There’s a rainbow flag up there, and I wonder if it’s the same one I saw earlier, or if they’re scattered through the crowd. An old man is dressed as Uncle Sam; the climb up a chained ladder can’t have been easy for him.
The crowd is packed in tight, and a cacophony of competing shouts merges into a stereophonic roar. I pick out bits and pieces. To my left I hear “We don’t need Gitmo,” and I’m not quite sure what’s meant by it. From the same general area comes “I’ll donate a vaccination—.223 hollow point.” A little less ambiguous. Somebody with a megaphone is in the middle of a speech: “If you stand for nothing, you gotta stand for something.” Close enough. A young woman with a bullhorn of her own lets out a lone motherfucker. An older man looks at me with a smile and asks if she kisses her mother with that mouth. A few seconds later the same voice drones at nobody in particular: Pussy, pussyyyyy, pussy, pusssaaaaaaayyyyyy.
The people atop the scaffolding call through megaphones for those on the ground to push forward. (They, of course, are quite content to stay right where they are.) Some do push against the police barriers, but there’s little effort to actually get through. Nonetheless, the front is rowdy, and crowd control measures—CS gas and pepper balls, mostly—are used liberally up there. The man who takes the brunt of the first pepper ball pulls back from the front, resting for a moment a few feet to my right. His face is flushed, his eyes burnt red and wet with tears. He’s lost interest in the cause: “I’m taking a fucking cab home, and nobody follow me.” (This is a big dude, too—one I wouldn’t want to mess with.)
The strong smell of cigarettes (and a few cigars) gives way to a different kind of smoke, and an older lady—wandering through the crowd looking for a lost phone—scolds the lot of us: “Stop smoking pot.”
A few minutes later, the police try to push the barrier out, swinging billy clubs and shooting pepper spray as they break into the crowd. They seem successful for a few seconds, but are quickly pushed back to the original line. A kind of détente is reached, with pepper and gas fired at the barrier from the steps whenever anybody up front gets a little too rambunctious.
Then, a miscalculation: either by an accident of the wind or a deliberate choice, the police fire CS gas not at the barrier and the militant vanguard, but back into the body of the crowd. It hits me where I’m standing—I’ve placed myself carefully, close enough to see the action but far enough (I thought) not to be in it. I try to shield my face with my jacket, but all I manage to do is trap the gas that’s already gotten to me. (CS gas, a common tool for crowd control, hurts like hell for a couple minutes but doesn’t do any real damage.) When I pull my head back out, the environment has noticeably changed. The deep volley is taken as a provocation, and protestors swell forward from around me and behind me. In a matter of seconds, the barrier is down. The barricades themselves (cheap metal) are kicked apart and the vertical bars piled up as weapons or projectiles. Things escalate steadily, if slowly. The scaffolding on each side—a few brave souls had climbed up earlier, only to be chased off by Capitol Police—fills completely. The police pull back and form a new line before disappearing from sight completely.
The young man next to me—pale and diminutive, in a buttoned-down black wool topcoat—drops his backpack to the ground and bends over to reach inside. I keep an eye on him, more than a little worried. He pulls out a Kevlar helmet—old-school Multicam from a surplus store. It doubles the circumference of his head. When he pops back up he takes a long, quizzical look at my coat then leans in to ask, through a gas mask, “You alright out here in corduroy?” I don’t understand the question, but say yes. He has two batons—one a simple wooden stick, the other a curved club with two heavy ends. He offers me the former. (I decline.)
The police reappear, this time at the very top of the building’s steps. They tangle with a few of the protestors up there, then things settle back into a sort of lull, interrupted by the occasional skirmish or volley of CS gas. I take stock of the signs and flags around me. One of the standards shows Donald Trump as Rambo. Another reads “Save our children” in big bold letters, and in smaller ones underneath, “from Hollywood pedophilia and crimes against humanity.” The other side bears a single word: Adrenochrome.
A man to my left makes a blunt proclamation: “Revolution—it’s past due.” The dramatic claim sums up fairly well the general mood in the crowd. There is palpable rage here, and not just among the QAnon fanatics or the rioters up front. It is about more than the election. Donald Trump is merely a focal point, as are (in the opposite direction) Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden. Their fury is aimed at a system they feel failed them—or worse, worked exactly as intended. Impeach Trump, indict rioters—that anger is not going away. What’s happening on the Capitol steps, with tens of thousands gathered, feels dangerously close to a legitimacy crisis. Commentary later will call this a dark day—or a disgraceful end to the Trump years, the tragic culmination of escalating, dangerous rhetoric and conduct—but on the ground it feels far more like the beginning of something than the end of anything. When Congress reconvenes at night, the establishment will be openly hardened against the right-wing resistance that boiled over today. Some will declare it dead, banished from the GOP. But there is something here that will not go away.
Meanwhile, word spreads through the crowd that some demonstrators have managed to get inside. It’s not entirely surprising—the police have hardly been present the whole time, and their interest only seemed to dissipate as the hours passed. The news is received warmly by the people on the steps. After a few minutes, a mass exodus—apparently spontaneous—is underway. I follow the wave away from the building, figuring there must be good reason for departure. As we move, news is quickly passed around that a woman has been shot by police inside.
While thousands leave, at least as many linger. Though Pence has been gone for quite a while—he evacuated when Congress did—one of those who stays is taunting him in a singsong voice: “Mikey, I’ve heard rumors about you.” Chatter in the crowd indicates it’s an accusation of pedophilia—a running theme among the gathered demonstrators.
On the train ride home—the car packed for the first time in months—one woman tells an attentive audience that she’s seen video online of John Roberts raping a young girl then shooting her in the head. Meanwhile, another—well-dressed, in her 60s, and sitting with her husband—reads aloud from Facebook on her phone. The rioters who invaded the Capitol building were not Trump supporters at all, she says. They were Antifa and BLM infiltrators, each and every one of them. Nothing violent or illegal was done by any of the thousands whose indignation was so clear, so forceful all around the building. This can’t have been us. We should not believe anything to the contrary.
A third woman overhears her too, and relays the story in a whisper to her companion. “She said it was BLM.” Her jaw clenched in anger that’s evident in her voice, I think at first that she’s outraged at the audacity of the claim. I turn, as subtly as I can, to catch a glimpse of her friend (who’s sitting behind me), and see she’s decked out in MAGA gear. Their fury—hardly directed where I assumed—quickly gives way to an odd kind of relief. In an instant they have been absolved, and the news spreads like wildfire through the car.