2021 Notebook: On Jan. 6, chaos inside the Capitol and out
THE BACKGROUND: On Jan, 6 as Congress was meeting to certify the victory of Joe Biden, hundreds of President Donald Trump’s supporters who claimed the election had been stolen violently pushed past police, broke through windows and doors and entered the Capitol, forcing legislators to interrupt their work and flee. Those whose work was upended included Vice President Mike Pence, who was presiding over the Senate and had to hide from rioters who were calling for his hanging.
A Capitol Police officer collapsed and died after engaging with rioters who descended on the building. A medical examiner later determined he died of natural causes. Many other officers were injured. A woman from California was shot to death by Capitol Police and three other people died after medical emergencies during the chaos. In the weeks and months that followed, four of the officers who responded to the riot killed themselves.
Federal prosecutors charged approximately 700 rioters with such crimes as violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds, assaulting a federal law enforcement officer and threatening House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. So far, more than 120 defendants have pleaded guilty to charges related to the insurrection, primarily misdemeanors. A House committee is now investigating the origins of the attack and what Trump did — or didn’t do — to stop it.
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Here, two Associated Press journalists involved in the coverage — once inside the Capitol and one outside — reflect on the story and their own experiences.
JOHN MINCHILLO, photographer, New York, who was beaten by rioters:
I went into it with the understanding that there was going to be potential violence. ... that’s why I was there in the first place. The place that we were assigned to was out by the Washington Monument by the White House. And we understood that this situation was rapidly degenerating even before POTUS came to speak, because the warmup acts were particularly aggressive.
There were television screens up, and it very much had the feeling of a concert. It had a circus-like quality to it. And they have big screens and in the photograph that I made that really sticks with me. They zoomed into a close-up of (Trump’s) eyes and the color grading is really aggressive, very high contrast. So the darks are really dark and the lights are really light and the color is really saturated and ... almost seems like a movie trailer for a Michael Bay movie, like “Transformers,” you know, something like “Rambo.” And they had jets flying over and really patriotic music and there was camo and fatigues and people waving flags. It had really intense music and it was very militaristic.
(AP photographer Julio Cortez and I then ran to the Capitol.) We turn around and we look towards the Washington Monument and there’s just a sea of people and they’re starting to trickle in. And we knew in that moment that this was going to go sideways very quickly, because we look behind us and there were 20 police officers and a few metal barricades. They put up more metal barricades for a typical parade in New York City than they had there.
I knew implicitly, don’t hit the ground and don’t fight back. You need to de-escalate. ... And I’m thinking to myself, “If I do anything to get these guys to start swinging at me, they’re going turn on everybody else.” .... I knew that if I started swinging .... they’re going to kill me, right? They’ll stomp on your neck and you’re done. ... And they were going to grab everybody that had a press credential. After Julio and I calmed down them down, they turned and said “He’s Antifa!” ... They go from calling me “press,” to “Antifa,” like that. And that’s when I was thrown over a wall.
I was relieved that we got out. And then I was angry that we were pulled from the front. We tried to go back through three different doors. We were on the door opposite the mall and on top of the stairs. It got dicey again and they were attacking me again. So we understood that at that point, we’re not going to get in. We were very frustrated about that.
MARY CLARE JALONICK, congressional reporter, Washington, D.C., was in the House chamber
At 1 p.m., the electoral count started. It began normally, with the two sides debating the electoral count from certain states ... But as they got into it, we started getting security alerts on our phones, and you could see that there were members on the floor looking at their phones. At one point I told my editor, “I’m going to go outside and try to look out a window and see what’s going on.” And a gallery staffer and I went and looked out a front window of the Capitol. It was kind of like one of those moments in a movie where it’s just like, “Oh my gosh,” because we looked outside and there were just so many people. Usually there’s a perimeter at events like this, but there was no perimeter and people were just right up against the building.
All of a sudden there was a lockdown at the Capitol. The House was gaveling in and out of session and there was a lot of chaos on the floor as members were trying to figure out what was going on. And then at some point they gaveled out for a final time and a Capitol Police officer went up to the rostrum and started talking in the microphone. That’s where you see the president speaking at the State of the Union — that is not a normal thing for a Capitol Police officer to be talking to members from the rostrum. And he said, “there has been a breach and tear gas was dispersed in the Capitol Rotunda.” He said to members, “you need to get your gas masks out from underneath your chairs,” and I don’t think many members even knew there were gas masks under their chairs. So it was total pandemonium on the floor. People are yelling out, “Lock the doors! Lock the doors!” There were some members who were yelling about Trump, and a Democrat yelled at Republicans, “This is your fault!” It was just total chaos. One member was up on his desk trying to help people get their gas masks on, and eventually they gave us gas masks in the press gallery and we’re trying to figure them out, and we have no idea how to open this thing or whether we should put it on. And when you open it, there’s this really, really loud buzzing. So all of a sudden there’s this loud buzzing just echoing through the whole chamber. And at one point we looked down and the House chaplain, who had just started a couple of days before, was saying a prayer. That was definitely a moment where it was like, “OK, this is pretty serious.”
The police evacuated all of the House members who were on the floor, but all of us in the upper gallery, press and House members, were still there because there were rioters in the hallway just outside. They moved everyone to one end of the gallery and police told us to duck down. At one point while everyone was ducking, there was a loud gunshot that rang throughout the chamber. It turned out that that was the gunshot that killed Ashli Babbitt, a rioter who was trying to get in through a broken window over a door just immediately adjacent to the House chamber. And when that happened, members really started to panic. Some of them were yelling to take off your pins, and there was obviously a lot of fear.
For a full overview of the events that shaped 2021, “A Year That Changed Us: 12 Months in 150 Photos,” a collection of AP photos and journalists’ recollections, is available now: https://www.ap.org/books/a-year-that-changed-us