It took less than 10 minutes to clear Lafayette Square in June. It wasn’t even past curfew, and it was still sunny. It was a Monday. Over the heads of the people in front of me, if I stretched way up on my toes, I could see them: two lines of police force with riot shields. In my phone, I noted that there were three different kinds of police. They began giving notice on a megaphone—which I could not hear and would learn about later in the newspaper—that curfew would begin in 20 minutes, that we would have to disperse then. Everyone was peaceful. This was less than a week after George Floyd was murdered by police. Everyone was angry. But we chanted and we sang songs and we stood peaceably behind the little fence they had erected to keep us out of the square.
They started moving toward us with 15 minutes until curfew. We stayed. We chanted. Later that evening, I would see people I grew up with post on Facebook that the cops began to advance because there were a few people seated top of a National Park building, or because maybe, possibly, someone had thrown a plastic water bottle at a line of heavily armed and trained police. Of course we know that’s not what happened. What happened was the president wanted a photo op, and in order for him to get it, the cops gassed us.
Police strategy is formulaic. They gassed the eastern border of the peaceful protest first to push people away from the church, and then advanced the lines of police to block that edge, and push everyone down 16th Street where, at the other end of the street, more police were waiting with batons, and more police behind them on bikes were pulling up every moment. They had the control in the situation. There were horses and more tear gas. There were arrests made and people pushed around, and there were the angry eyes of the cops I squeezed past to get out of an impending kettle.
Our group was diverse and young. We wore tennis shoes and black clothes and carried milk to combat tear gas and pepper spray. A woman who had been there the day before showed me the bruise on her calf from a rubber bullet, the purple sphere the size of a softball. There was a man with a backpack full of milk and a man with a backpack full of hand sanitizer. Everyone expected violence to come from the police and was prepared to receive it: goggles, tennis shoes, water on hand. No one had weapons. We were not allowed to be violent.
Watching the mob of Trump supporters on television yesterday, I kept fixating on how they were dressed. Fluffy beanies, scarves decorated with pianos, red velvet coats, a blue puffy coat, American Revolutionary war cosplay, many Trump flags. Their faces were out in the open. They waved at the cameras. In the beginning, they too were peaceful. They stood in front of the outgoing president while he told his little lies, and they laughed at his jokes. They clapped for him. Even on the march to the Capitol they were peaceful. Everyone was having fun flying their giant flags.
The First Amendment guarantees the right to assemble. Technically it only guarantees the right to “peaceably assemble,” but that’s the problem, isn’t it? Though demonstrations like the Black Lives Matter protests this summer can be entirely peaceable in action, no one who shows up to a protest is at peace.
You go to a protest because you are angry. And you go to a protest because you hope that maybe, if enough of you are together saying the same thing, someone will hear you. It’s a form of optimism. You have to believe that something could change in the future. You have to be angry that the present is not what you want it to be. I went to the protests in June because I was so angry about police brutality against black people in this country that it felt like I didn’t have another option. Where else are you supposed to put all of that anger? In a way, you hope the protest will take a little bit of it from you, that maybe by fighting for what you want, you can at least feel at peace with your own actions if not the world’s.
The people who stormed the Capitol yesterday were angry that their preferred candidate lost a presidential election. That’s basically the same reason tens of thousands of women marched on the National Mall in 2017 the week after Trump’s inauguration. I remember being at that protest, looking around and asking my friend, “Where are the police?” She was confused. “The police,” I said. “Where are they?”
Every other protest I had been to on federal property had been absolutely crawling with police in full riot gear, with their hands perched on their hips right above their guns. Capitol Police are famously aggressive. They arrest you for sitting in the hall. They arrest you for standing in a spot they don’t like. They arrest members of the disability rights community, snatching them out of their wheelchairs. That readiness to act seems to fade a bit if the people doing the demonstrating, be it tens of thousands of women or a group of white nationalists, aren’t initially perceived as a real threat.
The police failed to do their jobs yesterday, in that they were wholly unprepared to deal with the obvious threat that the mob presented itself as. Their inability to see what was gathering in front of them left them in a position in which their only real options were to start shooting or get out of the way. There was at least one shot fired, and a woman died because of it. After that, they got out of the way.
There are videos of police opening a barricade meant to keep people out. Videos of them helping an insurrectionist down the stairs. Videos of them taking a selfie with people illegally inside the Capitol building. There are very few videos of these people committing crimes being arrested.
As Buzzfeed News’s Molly Hensley-Clancy and Jane Lytvynenko reported, the plans to storm the Capitol, commit crimes, do violence, and overthrow the results of a democratic election have been being planned for weeks, in broad daylight and on public online forums.
But there they were, storming up the stairs of the Capitol, using some kind of heavy object to ram the doors. There they were breaching the perimeter of the Capitol while the House was in session. Lots of them. Filing right past the paltry number of police officers and into the halls, strolling into rapidly evacuated offices where classified information was unprotected for the six hours it took for Capitol Police to re-secure the Capitol.
On television, I watched them walk through the halls with their phones aloft. Some of them stayed between the red velvet ropes, even. So nice of them, to respect a velvet rope.
New York magazine’s Shawn McCreesh interviewed some members of the mob. He interviewed Darinna Thompson, a 49-year-old homemaker who said of her jaunt inside the Capitol, “But you should go in there, it’s beautiful. I thanked them for their hospitality—most of them are on our side, the Capitol police.”
Of course it’s fucking beautiful. The Capitol is a gorgeous building. It has an incredible dome that is finally finished being under construction. It is so shiny in there. All the floors and the walls are reflective. It is a feat of architecture. On tours, they tell you about the statues, and who has laid in state there. They show you the offices of the Speaker of the House and the Majority and Minority leaders. They lead you around with voices low and proud. “Isn’t it beautiful?” the guides ask when you reach the dome. “I’ll give you a little while to look.”
It is hard not to feel patriotic on the National Mall. America’s history is one of immense bloodshed and hatred. You can know that and still have your heart swell when you look at the Lincoln Memorial, still feel your breath catch in your throat as you look at Martin Luther King’s likeness pushing through the rockface. I’ve lived in D.C. for almost seven years, and everyone who visits asks if it’s worth it: to do all the walking to see the monuments, to climb all the steps to see Lincoln, to go all the way out to Jefferson, to sign up for the tour and go through security just to see the inside of the Capitol dome. Yes, I always say, it’s worth it. Because it is to me. It is nice to feel good about your country for one moment because you see something beautiful.
Yesterday’s mob got to have that. This summer you couldn’t get closer to the Capitol than Pennsylvania Avenue, because there were so many barricades and police. You couldn’t go see Lincoln because there were armed troops in lines on every single step. You couldn’t see the White House because they built a fence to keep us from it.
But now there are the photos of a man with his feet on Nancy Pelosi’s desk, of a man carrying a podium smugly out the door, of another making a phone call and playing representative in an office. At the end of all of their anger, they were rewarded. They got to enjoy themselves.
And then they went back to their hotels to have a laugh and a drink, without a mask in sight.
Hundreds of people yesterday attempted to undermine American democracy, and then went back to their hotel rooms with cherished memories and souvenirs and a good feeling in their hearts and a laugh in their throats.
Activists marched from the White House to the Capitol down the middle of the street this summer. It was so hot and everyone had to pee all the time. It was uncomfortable and exhausting and necessary. And on every march to the Capitol I remember wishing we could all go inside to see the dome, to gaze up at that giant marble expanse and feel small and air-conditioned and bolstered before beginning the long march back to the White House. But we couldn’t. That reward wasn’t available to us.