I didn’t go to the Capitol on Wednesday to cover the protests.
This thought crossed my mind repeatedly as I stood amid the smoke-filled air in the shadow of a Capitol building under siege by pro-Trump rioters, dedicated to overturning the results of a free and fair election.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, I had spent the previous two months reporting on President Donald Trump’s unwillingness to accept the results of an election he lost. I explained as he continued his elevation of election conspiracy theories and baseless claims to his 70 million Twitter followers.
But yet, I still didn’t expect these protesters to take such a sharp turn toward insurrection.
Wednesday started as any other field day. I spent Tuesday evening on the air, breaking down the Georgia election returns. By Wednesday morning, the biggest political story appeared to be the likely Democratic takeover of the U.S. Senate.
When I pulled up near the Capitol, I parked behind a van from Wisconsin. Dozens of protesters streamed out of Union Station, walking toward the National Mall. I posted in a Slack channel, “so many protesters, so few masks.”
As I approached the Capitol complex, I presented my Congressional press badge to multiple officers at several checkpoints, and while walking across the front of the building I observed hundreds of protesters standing outside the dome, shouting, “You work for us!” Flags from Florida and North Carolina joined the dozens of red, white, and blue Trump emblems that dotted the sky.
If there’s one thing you get used to while living and working in Washington, DC, it’s protests. First Amendment activity is everywhere, every day. I have attended dozens of protests as a journalist or observer. I expected the Capitol Police, used to this sort of display, to have the situation under control.
My morning passed like any other. Live shots for television and periods of down time, waiting for 1 p.m. At that time, the Electoral College count would begin — the story I was sent to cover, the reason for the protests. The frigid cold sent my shivering self scurrying into the Capitol building a little before 1. I hoped to observe some of the count before I had to be back in front of the camera.
Cheddar’s DC photographer, Shawn Klein, and I presented our credentials to three different officers at three different checkpoints before we were cleared to enter the building. There, we sent our belongings through the X-ray machine and walked through the metal detectors. Once cleared, we meandered about the building before ending up in the Capitol Rotunda. There, we yet again presented our credentials, just to prove our clearance to stand in that space.
We entered the House side of the building and Statuary Hall just in time to watch the senators stream from the House chamber and traverse the Capitol toward their own chamber, to debate the merits of tossing out Arizona’s electoral college votes. Having witnessed the start to what promised to be a brutal and long day, we left to return to the camera and an afternoon of live coverage of the debate.
As we approached the exit we had just entered through minutes before, we watched as Capitol Police officers hurried to the door, with a few running in the opposite direction. The officers manning that entrance told us we had to “exit through the tunnels” that run underneath the Capitol building connecting the central structure to all the Senate and House office buildings.
“The first floor is locked down,” one officer said.
We walked toward the closest office building, arriving just in time to see dozens of people, including several journalists, exiting. Another officer told us the building was being evacuated due to “protest activity” and we would have to exit another way.
We made it back outside, moving among the throngs of staffers. The protests on the east side of the Capitol didn’t appear to have escalated at all at this point. Just moments later, I received a message from one of our executive producers asking if we could go live around 1:50 pm. I agreed and we got ready.
We started to hear rumors that there had been a security breach. I couldn’t see a breach and reported that to my team, but we did witness protesters attempt to overtake the metal barricade separating protests from the plaza in front of the building.
Then, everything changed. At 2:02 p.m., we watched as the barriers could not stop the protesters, who streamed into the Capitol plaza and up the central steps, in the shadow of the iconic Capitol dome. They pressed against the police officers attempting to hold them back. After several tense minutes, they overtook the steps and flooded the balcony, climbing columns with abandon.
Through all of this, I attempted to provide context to our viewers as the situation escalated and changed every minute. At one point, I said it would be impossible to breach the Capitol, one of the most secure buildings in the world because they anticipate these kinds of attacks and host the most vulnerable event in American politics: the State of the Union.
I quickly learned I was wrong.
The first sign came as hundreds of people walked out of the Capitol, just like any other group of tourists, unchecked by any security.
One of those insurrectionists walked up to the press area and called me over. His eyes were red like he had been crying. He told me he saw a woman get shot and he had the video. He seemed upset and I asked if he was okay. He said his eyes were red because he’d been tear-gassed. I gave him my number. He never sent the video.
Shortly after, we watched a stretcher, escorted by police and surrounded by protesters, rushed to an ambulance. The ambulance quickly left the scene. We later learned that four protesters died.
After nearly two straight hours providing up-to-the-moment reports from outside the Capitol, enduring calls of “fake news” and angry rioters telling us, “You’re next,” and, “We’re coming for you,” it finally became untenable.
A large group shook the metal barriers surrounding the designated press area. They shouted epithets and hateful slogans, calling us “communist” and demanding we stop reporting. “Report the truth,” they said.
Some seemed just to be along for the ride: several people stopped me to ask questions or tell me about their experiences. One told me this was his first protest and he’d entered the Capitol and been tear-gassed. Surreally, I told him most protests didn’t go this way.
Then, this angry group, part of the larger angry mob, separated the metal barriers and streamed into the press area, surrounding journalists and shouting in our faces and the cameras.
I looked at Shawn and we decided to leave. We abandoned our equipment, taking just the camera and our live backpack, walking quickly and calmly from the scene.
At the beginning of the day, the Capitol Police told us if things escalated to violence or we felt unsafe, we should enter the secured perimeter to do our job. By the time that happened, the secured perimeter didn’t exist anymore. I could not see any officers to ask for help.
We returned to our DC studio and remained on the air until the evening. That was the first time I saw the images of protesters inside the building and faced the enormity of the day. Once I returned home, I struggled to turn off my brain, surging with adrenaline and the aftermath of covering a siege on the Capitol.
I wasn’t there to cover the protests, but the first lesson in journalism: the story doesn’t always go the way you plan. I expected to listen to a partisan debate about the election. I didn’t expect to witness a historic insurgency on the Capitol building.
My body felt the effects of the day: I woke up the next morning feeling like I’d been in a car accident. I had a sore throat from the smoke streaming through the air. I had a splitting migraine. But I got out of bed, got ready for the day, and went into the city to do my job.
That’s what we do. Journalists write the first rough draft of history and I am honored to have contributed to this drafting, as traumatizing as it proved to be.
The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of Cheddar and Altice USA.