What I saw at the Capitol Riot
It’s far from quiet as I walk onto 17th Street just after noon. A small group of MAGA people with flags on my left is the only other person in sight. It’s warm enough to walk, so I make my way to the Capitol on foot. At Black Lives Matter Plaza, I pass a group of activists who are all black – a dozen or so, one not much older than me holding court while the rest of the listeners loyally listen and something that might be reggae about an individual , powerful loudspeaker booming in the middle of the street.
On 14th Street, a homeless man yells at the glass door of a boarded-up five guy in one of those already enigmatic city dialects that drugs or mental illness have made incomprehensible. I’m not sure what he’s saying, but I realize, “There aren’t five of you anymore, are there?”
A few blocks later, a homeless woman – this time at me and close enough to scare me a little – yells in a strong foreign accent of her own, but the content is unmistakable: “Biden is a murderer. He made his sister pregnant when she was 14, he was 16 … “I know I’m going in the right direction and I’ll keep going before I catch the rest. Holding a woman in pink earmuffs and a plush maroon coat up a cell phone with Trump’s voice at full volume: a livestream of his address is being delivered just a few blocks west of here. A threesome in a full MAGA rattle – hats, shirts, flags, etc. – intersects with the same stream that is on is played on all three phones.
On Pennsylvania Ave, where the crowd thickens as I merge with those walking across from the White House, a horn groans loudly in the distance. It is a deep, clear 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 makeup undoubtedly marks him as a young Trump superfan.
A fire-and-brimstone preacher stands in the shadow of the Freedom Plaza statue by Casimir Pulaski. He warns passers-by: “The smoke of your torment will rise before the throne of God forever and ever”, then he giggles menacingly before he sounds out loud: “I shouldn’t laugh about it, it’s very serious.”
Around the corner, the live stream sounds from another massive loudspeaker. Trump warns “the Liz Cheneys of the world” himself before railing against the failed wars they started (and he couldn’t stop). In the J. Edgar Hoover building – the appropriate brutalist monstrosity the FBI is in – Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose” plays weakly; It almost sounds like it came from inside the building, but I can’t be sure.
A laugh goes through the air, a real roar that catches my attention. I turn around and see a couple sitting on the sidewalk. It is the man – 30 – something with a thick beard – who laughs, and I only understand the end of what his companion said: “… that Michelle Obama was a man!” As the laughter subsides, I see 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 not a virtuoso.
At this point, Constitution Ave meets Pennsylvania, and an even larger number of protesters from the Ellipse – where the rally ends after the President’s address – join the stream. One rainbow flag strikes me – a large one held by a protester on the same pole as a Trump flag (the rainbow is at the top, carefully observing the proper hierarchy). A woman somewhere in the middle starts a chant of “America First” and the crowd quickly picks it up.
The vendors are scattered across the region with every imaginable Trump or MAGA memorabilia. A middle-aged man with a soft face in the Midwest approaches you and asks, “How much does a flag cost?” The peddler replies with a heavy accent: “You’re 15, but I’ll take 10.” The customer does not try to haggle any further. (Apparently the selling trick is effective.)
Another chant begins, although I can’t tell if it’s the same woman. Whoever it is, she shouts, “Where are we going …” – more than a short pause while waiting for an answer – “… we’re all going.” As the day progresses, singing becomes a staple, and as the crowd becomes familiar, the pauses disappear. It’s a slogan that is closely related to QAnon.
As I approach the Capitol, I see a tall man standing by an empty wheelchair taking pictures of the scene. I wonder if I narrowly missed a miracle. Right behind him, a young black man sings “Biden loves minors” over and over again with a megaphone and a carefully manicured afro as the crowd goes by. A young redhead – with a nose ring, mustache, and black clothes adorned with a muted American flag – is the first person I see who looks ready for a fight.
Scaffolding has been set up for the planned inauguration, and the demonstrators have already climbed it at one point, a narrow stand opposite 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 before or if it’s scattered around the crowd. An old man is disguised as Uncle Sam; Climbing a chained ladder cannot have been easy for him.
The crowd is packed, and a cacophony of competing calls merges into a stereophonic roar. I choose little things. To my left I hear “We don’t need a gitmo” and I’m not exactly sure what that means. From the same general area comes “I’m going to donate a vaccination – .223 hollow point.” A little less ambiguous. Someone with a megaphone is in the middle of a speech: “If you stand for nothing, you have to stand for something.” Near enough. A young woman with her own megaphone lets out a loner 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 doesn’t boom on anyone in particular: Pussy, pussyyyyy, pussy, pusssaaaaaaayyyyyy.
The people on the scaffolding use megaphones to call the people on the ground to move forward. (They’re happy to stay exactly where they are, of course.) While some are pushing against the police barriers, there is little effort to actually get through. Even so, the front is noisy, and crowd control measures – mostly CS gas and pepper balls – are being used liberally up there. The man who bears the brunt of the first pepper ball pulls back from the front and rests for a moment a few meters to my right. His face is red, his eyes burned red and wet with tears. He’s lost interest in the matter: “I’m taking a bloody taxi home and no one follows me.” (This is a big guy too – one I don’t want to mess with.)
The strong smell of cigarettes (and a couple of cigars) gives way to a different kind of smoke, and an elderly lady wandering the crowd looking for a lost phone scolds us all, “Quit smoking.”
A few minutes later, police are trying to slide the barrier out, swinging Billy Clubs, and shooting pepper spray as they break into the crowd. They appear to be successful for a few seconds, but quickly revert to the original line. A kind of relaxation is achieved with pepper and gas fired from the steps onto the barrier when someone in front gets a little too loud.
Then a misjudgment: either due to a wind accident or a deliberate decision, the police do not fire CS gas at the barrier and the militant avant-garde, but back into the body of the crowd. It hits me where I stand – I’ve placed myself carefully, close enough to see the action, but far enough (I thought) not to be in the it. I try to shield my face with my jacket, but all I can do is catch the gas I can already think of. (CS gas, a common crowd control tool, hurts like hell for a few minutes but doesn’t do any real damage.) When I pull my head back out, the environment has changed noticeably. The deep volley is viewed as provocation and the protesters swell around and behind me. The barrier fell within seconds. The barricades themselves (cheap metal) are thrown apart and the vertical poles piled up as weapons or projectiles. Things are escalating steadily, albeit slowly. The scaffolding on either side – a few brave souls had risen earlier only to be evicted by the Capitol Police – fills up completely. The police pull back and form a new line before disappearing completely from view.
The young man next to me – pale and tiny, in a buttoned black woolen topcoat – drops his backpack on the floor and leans forward to reach inside. I’m keeping an eye on him, more than a little worried. He pulls out a Kevlar helmet – an old-school multicam from a surplus store. It doubles the circumference of its head. When he reappears, he takes a long, questioning look at my coat and leans over to ask through a gas mask, “Are you all right out here in corduroy?” I don’t understand the question, but I say yes. He has two batons – a simple wooden stick, a curved club with two heavy ends. He offers me the former. (I refuse.)
The police reappear, this time at the top of the building’s stairs. You tangle up there with some of the protesters, then things calm down again in a sort of lull, interrupted by occasional skirmishes or volleys 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 smaller ones underneath, “From Hollywood Pedophilia and Crimes Against Humanity”. The other side bears a single word: adrenochrome.
A man on my left makes a blunt proclamation: “Revolution – it’s overdue.” The dramatic claim sums up the general mood in the crowd pretty well. There is noticeable anger here, not just among the QAnon fanatics or the rioters at the front. It’s about more than the choice. Donald Trump is just one focus, as is (in the opposite direction) Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden. Their anger targets a system they believe failed – or worse, worked exactly as intended. Indictment against Trump, indictment against rioters – this anger does not subside. What happens to tens of thousands on the Capitol steps feels dangerously close to a legitimacy crisis. A later comment will call this a dark day – or a shameful end to the Trump years, the tragic climax of escalating, dangerous rhetoric and behavior – but on the ground it feels far more like the beginning of something than the end of anything. When Congress meets at night, the establishment will be openly hardened against the right-wing opposition that emerged today. Some will declare it dead, banished from the GOP. But here’s something that won’t go away.
Meanwhile, word spreads through the crowd that some protesters managed to get inside. Not entirely surprising – the police were barely present the entire time and their interest only seemed to dissipate as the hours progressed. The news is warmly received 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, thinking that there must be a good reason to leave. As we move, word quickly spreads that a woman has been shot by the police.
While thousands go, at least as many linger. Although Pence has been gone for a while – he was evacuated when Congress did – one of those who remain mocked him in a singing voice: “MikeyI’ve heard rumors about you. “Chatter in the crowd suggests this is an allegation of pedophilia – an ongoing issue among the assembled demonstrators.
On the train ride home – the car was full for the first time in months – a woman tells an attentive audience that she saw a video online of John Roberts raping a young girl and then shooting her in the head. Meanwhile, another – well dressed, in her 60s and sitting with her husband – is reading aloud from Facebook on her cell phone. The rioters who invaded the Capitol weren’t Trump supporters at all, she says. They were anti-Fa and BLM infiltrators, every single one of them. Nothing violent or illegal was done by the thousands whose outrage was so evident and powerful throughout the building. We couldn’t have been. We shouldn’t believe otherwise.
A third woman also hears them and whispers the story to her companion. “she said it was BLM. “Her jaw clenched in anger, which is evident in her voice. At first I think she is outraged by the audacity of the claim. I turn around as subtly as possible to take a look at her friend (who is sitting behind me) and see that she is wearing MAGA gear. Her anger – barely directed where I suspected it – quickly gives way to a strange kind of relief. In an instant they’ll be acquitted, and the news spread like wildfire through the car.