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Friday, June 7, 2024

Capitol: No longer the safest place in America

A reporter who covers the Capitol and Congress finds out that safety can be fleeting in troubled times.
U.S. Capitol Police hold rioters at gun-point inside the U.S. Capitol. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

I still can’t stop watching the videos.

There are so many of them, each with new clues about what happened a week ago today in familiar corners of the sprawling U.S. Capitol complex. Thousands of insurrectionists outside calling for a revolution. Images of broken windows and defaced relics. My own raw footage of the chaos in the House chamber. And of course the heroic Capitol Police officer who appeared to lead a mob away from the Senate doors by himself as they advanced up a staircase I have climbed so many times.

In the last week, I have pored over the images again and again, muting videos if my children are nearby, pausing and rewinding. Finding new details.

I still can’t believe it happened. But it did, and the videos are the terrifying proof.

I want to piece it all together, to better understand my own experience that day as hundreds of angry rioters supportive of President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol to protest his defeat in the election. At the time, I was convinced I would be OK even as I ducked on the floor in the upper gallery of the House chamber with members of Congress and other reporters.

It’s now clear from the footage that there were rioters close to breaching at least three separate entrances of the House as we waited, the last group left in the chamber. Below, at the main entrance, we could see police keeping them out with a furniture barricade, shouting with their guns drawn, and broken glass in the door. What we didn’t know then was that on the other side of the House, rioters were also breaking the glass doors of the ornate speaker’s lobby, a frequent gathering spot for members and reporters. We did hear a gunshot as an officer shot one of them, dispersing the crowd. The woman struck by that bullet later died.

When we were finally taken out of the House gallery, police leading us quickly down a grand stairway, we passed another group of at least six intruders laying on the floor, officers over them with enormous guns pointed down. It appeared that they had been close to the area where we had waited.

Just an hour earlier, as TV reports started to come in about the insurgents outside, my mother sent me a text telling me to stay safe. I told her I was sitting in the press gallery overlooking the House chamber, covering the counting of electoral votes.

“Probably the safest place in Washington right now,” I texted back, not joking.

I believed that up until the moment I heard them pounding on the House door — probably even after that. I’ve covered the Hill on and off for almost 20 years, and I’ve always felt safe in the Capitol.

Sometimes overly so. During Trump’s impeachment trial a year ago, what seemed like hundreds of police lined the same hallways and staircases that the officer in the Senate defended alone last Wednesday. They were there ostensibly to protect the senators from the press, and our movements were unusually — and we thought unfairly — restricted.

But the police are also a comforting presence. In the summer of 2004, just three years after 9/11, I was sitting in a Senate press gallery when the entire Capitol evacuated in just a few minutes because there were reports of a plane headed toward the building. It ended up being a false alarm, but I have always marveled at how quickly the Capitol Police emptied the building, yelling at us to take off our shoes and run. “There is a plane headed for the Capitol! You have two minutes!” they yelled as we ran out.

Since then, and last week, I had faith that there would be similar procedures in place. If there was a problem, there would be a well-executed plan to keep everyone safe. Of course there would. This is the U.S. Capitol. A fortress. The seat of American government. It wasn’t a question.

But my strong sense of safety was eroded on Wednesday in slow motion, as the rioters gradually approached the inner sanctum of the U.S. House.

How could this be happening? Everyone was asking the same question in their heads, and to each other after we were rushed to safety. Not here.

In the days after, I have sorted through the video evidence, much of it recorded by the rioters themselves. And I have pored over the small details of the day with my husband, a reporter for another publication who was in a different part of the Capitol. His photos and videos, like mine, are chilling.

When I saved his images to my phone, making sure they were kept for posterity, they mixed with my own in chronological order. The time stamps told a story.

At 2:20 p.m., my husband filmed rioters trying to break through a main door on the east front of the Capitol. The door is unprotected, with no police visible nearby. At 2:33 p.m., from a different location, he filmed the rioters walking through Statuary Hall toward the House chamber, with two police walking by in the opposite direction. At 2:37 p.m., my photo of lawmakers on the House floor putting on gas masks. Two minutes later, video of lawmakers streaming out of the chamber. By 2:42 p.m., I am filming from a different location in the upper gallery, where they have moved those of us who remained, and peeking my phone above the balcony to capture the armed standoff below. At 2:50, a video I didn’t even realize I had taken, chaotic footage of the ground as they hustled us out of the chamber.

I am focusing on the good things, and the people who helped. None of us was hurt inside the House chamber, or across the Capitol on the Senate side, where an AP colleague was evacuating as the rioters pushed up those stairs. The rioters eventually were pushed out. Press gallery staff moved extremely quickly and got us out of the House safely.

Still, I am sad to lose that sense of safety I always had in the Capitol, not only for myself but for my country.

I’ll be back there soon, and security will be much tighter. But it’s not the safest place in Washington.

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