When 2021 dawned, it had been 206 years since the U.S. Capitol was last occupied by a force. As of Wednesday, we’re back to counting up from zero.
The anger had been simmering all day. Tens of thousands of Trump supporters assembled on the National Mall for a “Save America March” to hear from Eric Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Rudy Giuliani and Kimberly Guilfoyle, all of whom spoke before yielding to President Trump. Over the course of his hourlong remarks, the president ran through a familiar litany of conspiracy theories and other false claims about the election. His grievance-filled speech, delivered on the Ellipse in front of the White House shortly before noon, contained a single encouragement to nonviolence: He told rally-goers they would soon march to the Capitol “to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.”
“You actually did something I didn’t realize was possible,” Donald Trump Jr. had told the crowd earlier. “I’m looking at the crowd of tens of thousands—probably hundreds of thousands of people here—and you did it all without burning buildings? Without looting! I didn’t know it was possible!”
Even as he said it, preparations of a different sort were underway on the other side of the National Mall. With the grounds of the Capitol still empty except for the police ostensibly securing them, two men sat in camp chairs in front of the Capitol Reflecting Pool, white paper signs reading “militia recruiter” taped to their seats. They were handing out flyers announcing the organization of a “national militia” that would “occur throughout the morning,” members of which would wear silver armbands “signifying that they are lawful combatants.” Other paramilitary groups, like the Proud Boys, didn’t need signups: They’d arrived fully formed, marching down the Mall to the Capitol shortly before Trump spoke.
This was perhaps the most salient fact: The people most determined to start a riot at the Capitol were the ones who were there first. As Trump’s speech dragged on, first a trickle, then a stream of rally-goers peeled off and started to march down the Mall. But by the time the first of them arrived, the mayhem was already underway: Protesters who had forgone the speech had pushed through a series of police barriers onto the lawn and had even scaled a tall scaffold near the steps of the Capitol itself.
As more and more attendees arrived on the scene, these early protesters worked as traffic controllers, guiding a constant stream of people through the broken barricades onto the lawn. The men on the scaffolding shouted encouragement through a megaphone: “Push forward! Push forward! We’ve got them on the run! Where we go one, we go all!” On the ground, a man dressed like Uncle Sam performed a similar function, goading people to jump walls and cross barricades: “Those of you who come through these gates are walking into the right side of history!”
Nobody else was directing any traffic, and the crowd let itself be buoyed along by those who seemed to know what the plan was. The mood was bizarre; despite the violence that had already taken place and the continual advance of the people at the front, many of those arriving on the scene seemed unaware things were moving toward a clash at all. One woman stepped across the barriers to hand out copies of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. Others cheerfully sang “God Bless America.” But others, quicker on the uptake, took up the call: “Get on the lawn!”
The outmatched Capitol Police made sporadic efforts to deploy smoke and crowd-control irritants, but to little avail: Blustery winds blew them away before most of the crowd even noticed them. One man who had been at the front came staggering back to the barricades with tears streaming down his cheeks; he’d apparently been hit with pepper spray. The Chaplet woman was indignant: They can use tear gas here, but not at the Black Lives Matter riots over the summer? “That moron! Somebody ought to shoot her in the eyes with tear gas. Whatever her name is, the mayor.” And then, with a half-apologetic laugh: “I’m all full of anger, can you tell?”
The tension ratcheted higher still once news trickled out that Vice President Mike Pence, in defiance of Trump’s repeated requests and threats, had announced he did not have the power to unilaterally throw out electoral votes. One man saw the news on Breitbart, then began moving from cluster to cluster of protesters to share, leaving a trail of suddenly dismayed people in his wake: “He has betrayed us! Mike Pence has betrayed us!”
“Pence sold us out,” one replied in shock. Two young women tried to start up a chant: “Hang Mike Pence! Hang Mike Pence!”
One older man refused to believe it. Instead, he began following the sharer around, urging others not to listen to him: “It’s fake news. He’s trying to incite the crowd. He’s Antifa!”
Within minutes, it became clear that the Capitol Police were outmatched. The vanguard of the protesters—out-and-out rioters, now—had forced them back again and again, gradually scaling the steps of the Capitol all the way to the doors, climbing to the second floor balconies and breaking windows. And then, suddenly, they were in the building itself. They raced through the galleries hunting for the lawmakers themselves, to no avail—police had already hustled members of Congress and the reporters covering the Electoral College certification vote out of their respective chambers.
Despite missing the lawmakers, the rioters were still pleased with their conquest. “I see justice being done,” Ron Russell of Ohio told The Dispatch. “This is our house, our house. We’re taking it back. May not be today, but we will take this house back, guaranteed.”
“We’re coming to the Capitol,” added Ron’s friend Robert Unterzuber, “and we’re going to tear her down if necessary and drag them people out of there.”
The rally attendees who stormed the Capitol made clear their disdain for D.C. police officers. “The second I got to the top of the steps they f–king baton my leg,” said Christopher Alberts, who hails from Maryland. “They freaking rubber bulleted my arm.”
At 4:23 p.m., one man, identified by the New York Times as Richard Barnett, emerged from the Capitol proudly bearing a personalized envelope from Nancy Pelosi’s office that he presumably plundered as a souvenir, likely unaware that stealing or tampering with private mail is a federal crime.
Then again, breaking and entering isn’t a concern if you believe you can claim ownership rights to the Capitol. “We just hop on the building and for no apparent reason, they fired about four or five canisters [of tear gas] at us and, you know, no big deal, we got through it,” Trump supporter John Masiello told The Dispatch around 300 yards away from the Capitol later that afternoon. “I was on the building, which by the way, I own. I help pay for it.”
Around 5 p.m, a sea of Trump supporters began evacuating the Capitol, teeming into the streets and chatting with their fellow patriots. “I sat in Nancy Pelosi’s chair! They brought it out!” boasted Anthony Maffei as he parted ways with the crowd.
Maffei believes that more civil unrest is looming in the coming days. “If we have to get violent, then it’s time to get violent,” Maffei told The Dispatch as his friend Lonnie Wolfe—whose eyes were watering from apparent exposure to tear gas—nodded in agreement. “The people that are quiet, they’re gonna have got to step forward.”
After sundown, one rally attendee reflected on his experience earlier that afternoon climbing the Capitol’s scaffolding and reaching the terrace, where he said he was confronted by a line of D.C. police officers. “They weren’t too clever because they left the door open,” he said of the D.C. Metro Police. “So we got in through that door and then everybody came in,” the man said. “I wanted to see my representative, that’s what I wanted to do,” he told The Dispatch.
“If we go there and we’re inside, we’re actually physically in there, they can’t ignore us anymore,” the man’s friend chimed in. “We’re holding that place until they listen to us.”
Christopher Alberts, the rally-goer from Maryland, said Wednesday marked the beginning of a revolution. “The people that were here today are going to come back even more, and we’re not coming back peacefully, and we’re not coming back unarmed,” he said.
“America’s long overdue for revolution.”
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