When Donald Trump told gathered supporters in D.C. Wednesday afternoon that “we’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, and we’re going to the Capitol,” they didn’t wait. They started to march right away.
Even as Trump continued to speak, I watched them begin to peel off, first a few, and then hundreds. One guy looked at me taking photographs and said, “It’s almost over. We have to get to the Capitol!”
They moved quickly. The mood had been lighter earlier in the day, like a Trump-themed Comic-Con. But it darkened fast. Under banners like “GOD, GUNS, GUTS & GLORY,” protesters—I was still thinking of them as protesters, not rioters, at that point—screamed at counterprotesters along the side of the street, calling them “cheaters” and breaking into a steady, robotic chant of “TRUMP WON! TRUMP WON!”
As we got closer to the Capitol steps, there was some excitement: Fellow marchers had breached the building, people said. I wasn’t sure what that meant. As we got closer, though, I saw these marchers ripping open doors and climbing through windows. When I got to the doors, police had managed to close them again. There was a core group of young people at the very front, just outside, trying to force their way in.
There were a few cops, but not nearly enough. As I approached the door, I identified myself as press, and one cop started using my body to push people behind me backward. I heard one say to the other, “The best we can do is slow them down.” I rolled around them and walked straight in.
Directly inside, I saw no cops. As “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” blared from a speaker somewhere, large crowds chanted “USA! USA!” A man screamed about the American people’s will. The entryway was already messed up. Rioters were smashing the windows, and there was wooden furniture piled up and destroyed. I saw a man in a conference room with his feet up. He and his friends were smoking weed, and when we clocked each other, they offered me a joint.
In another room, people were lounging and rummaging through furniture. They put up stickers and scrawled slogans like “Trump Won” and “Our House.” Some invited me to take their picture. One young guy put his feet up on one of the desks, posed, and told me, “Yeah, this is my desk. I paid for this.”
At one point, I’m pretty sure I saw Gavin McInnes, the Proud Boys founder, strolling around inside in military-style gear. Others seemed to notice too: I heard murmurs of “Hey, it’s Gavin.” (Update, Jan. 7, 2021: McInnes says he was in New York on Wednesday and added: “I was adamantly against this rally from day one.”) Not long after, a “Boogaloo Boy” who wouldn’t give me his name shouted at me about currency and the Federal Reserve.
The mood was giddy, but it was chaos. Everyone was excited. People were chanting, “This is our America,” and “Whose house? Our house!” They were having fun, entertaining themselves. The priority seemed to be to have their friends take selfies with them inside the Capitol.
The people I managed to speak to didn’t seem to understand the gravity of what they had done. Inside a building they had broken into, they described themselves as “peaceful” to me. I talked to a kid from Florida, who must have been no more than 17 or 18. He told me, “This is nothing compared to what antifa does.” I said, “Look, they’re breaking the glass.” He answered, “Yeah, but at least they’re not destroying the things.” I showed him pictures of things destroyed. It didn’t register. On the way up, there was a woman holding a sign saying, “If we were leftists, we would be rioting.”
Even amid the “fun,” there were some very aggressive rioters. People shouted “fake news” and attacked journalists. I saw a group of people scream at a female journalist who had an accent, “Get out of my country!” I got away with only one woman incensed I took her picture. I kept the picture and walked away. (I later learned that police shot and killed a woman inside, and there are frightening videos of rioters storming different parts of the building, but I wasn’t there for either incident.)
Eventually, I did see some cops inside. They seemed to be standing by, waiting for orders. I’ve been to plenty of protests in the past year, and let me tell you: They don’t usually wait for orders. I’ve never seen anything like it. There was a guy smoking a cigarette, and a cop actually walked over, gently placed his hand on the guy’s shoulder, and asked him to put it out. And that was it.
Eventually, word must have come down. The cops started to smack through crowds with their batons and push them back. They pepper-sprayed people. Eventually, the officers retook the concourse outside the House side of the Capitol by using percussion grenades and tear gas. They had a fire extinguisher that appeared to be filled with pepper spray that they would explode in people’s faces to keep them outside. By then, rioters were using barricades to try to smash back through the doors. They were trashing the place.
Outside again, people were livid with the police. They chanted “Traitors!” and told them, “We had your back. We’re on your side!” But the cops just stood there solemnly in their riot gear.
I heard from a Slate colleague barricaded inside the building with other reporters who had been covering the Electoral College certification process that he was being moved out, maybe ahead of more police action. I decided it was time to leave. Like some other rioters, I walked away, and no one seemed to care. On my way out, I saw a guy pissing on the Capitol building. A cop in riot gear shot him in the face with what looked like a pepper ball.
Moments after I left the grounds, I heard commotion and saw the flash of another percussion grenade. The police were finally shutting it down for good.