Reporter’s essay: Capitol attack was a community invasion, not just an insurrection

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When I was a child, a burglar smashed a window and broke into my family’s home. A single image is seared in my brain from that incident: One large, muddy footprint on a toilet seat where he had climbed into the house.

My younger brother and I slept in our parents’ bed that night, terrified that a faceless stranger had rummaged through our home, looking to steal our possessions or perhaps do us harm. 

Our family felt completely violated. 

Those same feelings of terror and violation rushed back to me last week after a mob of thousands of pro-President Trump extremists battled police, smashed through windows and doors, and did the unthinkable: storm the U.S. Capitol in a violent attack to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election.  

That sacred, beautiful building — a temple of democracy and symbol of freedom throughout the world — has been a second home to me and countless others who work in its hallowed halls: lawmakers, staffers, police officers, food workers, maintenance workers, cleaning staff, journalists.

We’re a community on Capitol Hill. The hard-working husband and wife team that runs Cups & Co., the beloved coffee shop. The kind lady in the House dry cleaners who greets me with a smile and asks about my kids. And the countless Capitol Police officers who man the dozens of security checkpoints in the sprawling complex and keep us all safe every day.

Each of us has an important role in the building; each of us treats the Capitol, a living museum and monument to American history, with respect and reverence, as we would our own homes.    

That’s why the deadly assault feels particularly personal to many of us. The intruders to the Capitol didn’t just parade around and snap a few selfies. They smashed furniture, ransacked offices and stole laptops. They smeared blood on statues, urinated and tracked their feces on the floor and ripped down the nameplate of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). They terrorized lawmakers and staffers, who barricaded themselves inside their offices, hid under tables and texted “I love you” to family members.

Most frightening, perhaps, is that the violent mob, some of them armed with weapons, Molotov cocktails and zip ties, tried to hunt down Vice President Pence, Pelosi and other lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats alike — whom they wrongly and falsely saw as standing in the way of keeping Trump in power.

It was an unspeakable act of domestic terror, made all the worse because members of both parties say it was incited by the president of the United States. Trump urged his supporters on at a rally before the Capitol was sacked, they say, essentially siccing an amped crowd spun-up on conspiracy theories on the legislative branch and his own vice president.

One police officer, a member of the Capitol Hill community, was killed. Video has surfaced of a rioter pummeling an officer with an American flag pole; another incident captured on film shows the mob smashing a young officer in a doorway as a rioter tries to yank off his gas mask. 

After the breach, a line of officers fought the mob in the majestic Rotunda, under the watchful eye of George Washington painted on the ceiling by Constantino Brumidi amid the statues of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Gerald Ford, Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr. 

Acts of violence were committed by Americans who stood on the same sandstone floor that had once supported the catafalque carrying the caskets of men who knew violence and terror all too well: Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, John McCain and John Lewis. 

Marauders marched down the same marble halls the president walks through before delivering the State of the Union. They invaded the old House chamber, where John Quincy Adams sat, and a room housing a fireplace where Lincoln — before he guided the nation through a civil war — would warm himself.

The Speaker’s Office. The Ohio Clock corridor. The Crypt. They eventually broke onto the Senate floor just seconds after senators had been hustled to safety, but they didn’t take the House floor. Capitol Police, guns drawn, opened fire and killed one rioter, Ashli Babbitt, as lawmakers and journalists were hunkered down inside the House chamber.

Babbitt at the time was trying to climb into the Speaker’s Lobby, a symbol of the First Amendment where reporters mingle with lawmakers during votes to report on the people’s business. 

She was among four rioters who died that day.

Few of us who experienced the events of Jan. 6 imagined such a thing could happen.

The Capitol is an emptier place these days given the coronavirus pandemic, which on Tuesday killed more than 4,300 people — a new, dismal record for the country. Fewer reporters and staff are in the building to reduce the footprint and to protect those that need to go in to do the people’s business and to report on it.

The morning of the attack, before I left for the Capitol, my wife told me I didn’t really need to go in that day; it would be safer at home, she said. I replied that she might see some things on TV, angry protesters who needed to let off some steam, but pointed out the Capitol was practically the safest building in America, fortified after terrorists targeted it with a hijacked airplane on 9/11. 

I was wrong.

Unlike many others in the Capitol, I didn’t hear any gunshots or broken glass or pounding on our door. My colleague Mike Lillis and I were two floors below the House chamber, and we figured we knew the complicated maze of passages down there better than the invading forces. The only rioter I came face-to-face with was being led away in handcuffs, screaming: “See how you treat your patriots!” 

But we knew it was bad upstairs. Earlier, I saw two officers dragging an injured colleague to safety. At one point, a throng of officers scurried down a flight of stairs and ran toward us, yelling, “Go! Go! Go! Go!” 

We didn’t stick around to see what they were running from.

Exactly a week after the riots, I still haven’t brought myself to tell my own young children what happened that awful afternoon. The TV has been off.

Wednesday morning was actually the first time I hugged them since the attack because I’ve been self-isolating due to potential COVID-19 exposure during the hours-long lockdown. 

I plan to tell them stories of what some members of the Capitol Hill community did that day, to protect lives and honor the institution.

Like the story of Officer Eugene Goodman, who lured the mob away from the Senate floor, possibly saving countless senators from the unthinkable. Or Washington Examiner reporter Emily Larsen Brooks, whom I witnessed run to get water so an officer could wash his eyes out after rioters attacked him with mace. Or Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.), who was spotted in the wee hours of the next morning in the Capitol building picking up trash left by rioters. 

I will tell them what Mr. Rogers said about what to do when the news is scary: “Look for the helpers.” 

And I will long remember that we had a lot of helpers in our Capitol Hill community that fateful day.

Scott Wong covers the House for The Hill.

Tags Capitol breach Donald Trump Joe Biden John Lewis John McCain Nancy Pelosi
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