It was more than a small group of agitators who stormed the building Wednesdayand what happened was only the beginning.
Its 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. Its 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 blacka 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. Im not sure what hes saying, but I do make out There arent five of you anymore, are there?
A few blocks later a homeless woman yellsthis time at me, and close enough to startle me a bitwith 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 Im 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 Trumps voice emanates at full volume: a livestream of his address being delivered just a few blocks west of here. A threesome in full MAGA rattlehats, 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. Its a deep, distinct sound, like a shofar, and I remember the recent invocation of Jericho by the presidents 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 Pulaskis 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 shouldnt be laughing at that, its 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 Buildingthe fitting brutalist monstrosity that houses the FBIKenny Loggins Footloose is playing faintly; it almost sounds like its coming from inside the building, but I cant 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. Its the man30-something with a thick beardwhos 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 guitarits an obvious attempt to mimic Hendrix at Woodstock, but his energy is low and hes no virtuoso.
At this point Constitution Ave meets Pennsylvania, and an even larger body of marchers from the Ellipsewhere the rally is winding down after the presidents addressjoin into the stream. A rainbow flag catches my eyea 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: Theyre 15, but Ill take 10. The customer doesnt try to haggle any further. (Apparently the sales trick is effective.)
Another chant begins, though I cant tell if its the same woman. Whoever it is, she calls out, Where we go one
more than a moments 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. Its 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 redheadwith a nose ring, a mustache, and black clothes adorned with a subdued American flagis the first person I see who looks ready for a fight.
Theres 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. Theres a rainbow flag up there, and I wonder if its the same one I saw earlier, or if theyre scattered through the crowd. An old man is dressed as Uncle Sam; the climb up a chained ladder cant 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 dont need Gitmo, and Im not quite sure whats meant by it. From the same general area comes Ill 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 theres little effort to actually get through. Nonetheless, the front is rowdy, and crowd control measuresCS gas and pepper balls, mostlyare used liberally at the front. 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 red, his eyes burnt red and wet with tears. Hes lost interest in the cause: Im taking a fucking cab home, and nobody follow me. (This is a big dude, tooone I wouldnt want to mess with.)
The strong smell of cigarettes (and a few cigars) gives way to a different kind of smoke, and an older ladywandering through the crowd looking for a lost phonescolds 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 rowdy.
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 Im standingIve 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 thats already gotten to me. (CS gas, a common tool for crowd control, hurts like hell for a couple minutes but doesnt 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 sidea few brave souls had climbed up earlier, only to be chased off by Capitol Policefills completely. The police pull back and form a new line before disappearing from sight completely.
The young man next to mepale and diminutive, in a buttoned-down black wool topcoatdrops 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 helmetold-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 dont understand the question, but say yes. He has two batonsone 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 buildings 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: Revolutionits 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 themor worse, worked exactly as intended. Impeach Trump, indict riotersthat anger is not going away. Whats happening on the Capitol steps, with tens of thousands gathered, feels dangerously close to a legitimacy crisis. Commentary later will call this a dark dayor a disgraceful end to the Trump years, the tragic culmination of escalating, dangerous rhetoric and conductbut 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. Its not entirely surprisingthe 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 exodusapparently spontaneousis 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 stay. Though Pence has been gone for quite a whilehe evacuated when Congress didone of those who stays is taunting him in a singsong voice: Mikey, Ive heard rumors about you. Chatter in the crowd indicates its an accusation of pedophiliaa running theme among the gathered demonstrators.
On the train ride homethe car packed for the first time in monthsone woman tells an attentive audience that shes seen video online of John Roberts raping a young girl then shooting her in the head. Meanwhile, anotherwell-dressed, in her 60s, and sitting with her husbandreads 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. 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 thats evident in her voice, I think at first that shes outraged at the audacity of the claim. I turn, as subtly as I can, to catch a glimpse of her friend (whos sitting behind me), and see shes decked out in MAGA gear. Their furyhardly directed where I assumedquickly gives way to an odd kind of relief. In an instant they have been absolved, and the news spreads like wildfire through the car.