‘Insane’: WTOP reporter’s account of Capitol siege by pro-Trump rioters

January 7, 2021

Insane doesn’t even begin to describe what I witnessed at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

There was one precise moment I can point to when I realized that something immeasurably terrible was underway. It was in the middle of President Donald Trump’s speech, shortly after he had urged his supporters to head for the Capitol. I’d started following a procession making its way through the National Mall when I heard loud thuds emanating from the west front of the Capitol.

I recognized that sound immediately. It was one I’d heard several times before covering events in Charlottesville, Hong Kong and, most recently, here in D.C. over the summer. Volleys of stun grenades and tear gas had indeed been deployed at our seat of government. It sounded like canon fire, echoing down the Mall off the stone façades of the Smithsonian museums.

Trump supporters use fallen police barricades as ladders to climb over ledges leading to the U.S. Capitol building’s west steps, as a man motions for hundreds ahead of him to “move forward” and prevent a police advance. (WTOP/Alejandro Alvarez)

I remember seeing a mass of people at the base of the Capitol’s west terrace, and thinking, “alright, that must be where the police are holding them off.” I picked up the pace and, at that point, had no idea that a mob had penetrated the Capitol and invaded its halls. But I knew something was afoot.

“Move forward, patriots, we’re taking the Capitol,” was one of the first things I heard on arrival at the west lawn, where the air stung from lingering mace. It felt like they were besieging a castle, waving for people to scale walls and ledges using temporary metal barriers, which an aggressive crowd had earlier tossed aside like cardboard.

“We’ve been nice for too long,” I heard someone yell. And another: “Where are the gallows?”

Trump supporters cheer and yell on the National Mall as rioters rush at police outside the Capitol’s west front. (WTOP/Alejandro Alvarez)

It didn’t take me long to realize what was happening. Trump supporters were in an ongoing melee with riot police who had formed a defensive line before the building, beating back hundreds of people who were determined to pick up where a first wave of insurrectionists had left off.

What immediately struck me as unusual was the police were making no effort to clear the crowd for how violent they had become. Bottles and liquids were being lobbed at law enforcement — the same justification used to repeatedly and forcefully clear protesters from the vicinity of Lafayette Square during the racial justice protests.

I witnessed a man brandish a police baton; at one point, at least a dozen insurrectionists hoisted a large Trump billboard and attempted to ram Capitol police with it.

And yet, through all of this, neither the crowd nor the police made any significant movement for the span of an hour after the siege began. Repeated clashes later yielded some movement; only it was the police whose lines collapsed yet again, allowing Trump supporters to access the bleachers set up for the Jan. 20 inauguration through nightfall.

Armored police wearing gas masks guard the Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol building after an angry mob invaded its halls, ransacking and damaging offices and hallways. (WTOP/Alejandro Alvarez)

There will no doubt be questions about why law enforcement allowed what was essentially an insurgency to not only sack the Capitol, but succeed in paralyzing the nation’s legislature for an entire afternoon. And there absolutely should be. The warning signs were everywhere on messaging boards frequented by right-wing extremists.

Three people, including the leader of the Proud Boys, were arrested just this week for bringing illegal firearms or high-capacity magazines into the city. Right-wing groups furious over coronavirus restrictions tried to force their way into Oregon’s state capitol two weeks ago in a stunningly similar manner to what transpired in D.C. on Wednesday.

Thousands, stretching back down Pennsylvania Avenue, watch the storming of the Capitol building. (WTOP/Alejandro Alvarez)

The proverbial red lights were flashing, but many didn’t seem to take notice, or even downplayed the threat.

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about how I’m feeling the morning after these events, even from people I haven’t heard from for years. And honestly? I’m shocked at what happened. But not really surprised.

Like a few of my colleagues have noted on Twitter, the attack on the Capitol is a culmination of years of extremist sentiment and misinformation fostered on the depths of the internet and propelled into the mainstream by a constellation of politicians, media figures, grifters and malicious state actors.

A man beckons the crowd to approach police lines beneath the Capitol’s west steps. (WTOP/Alejandro Alvarez)

As for what ramifications this will have for both American politics and protests in the nation’s capital, I can’t say. Consequences are still unfolding, and a week can be an eternity these days.

I signed off on my Twitter coverage, saying I’d take the night to collect my thoughts — let’s be real, it’s going to take way more than a day to process all this, speaking in my capacity as a journalist and as an American. These are dark days.

Oh, and I still haven’t had that beer.

Alejandro Alvarez

Alejandro Alvarez joined WTOP as a digital journalist and editor in June 2018. He is a reporter and photographer focusing on politics, political activism and international affairs.

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