There are times I still feel guilty I didn’t go all the way down the stairs. We had just rushed out of the Senate press gallery, having been faced with the choice of staying behind locked doors or leaving the room after reports of shots-fired crackled over a US Capitol radio.
Rioters had breached the building and were wandering through the halls of Congress, interrupting the meticulous counting of the electoral votes that would make Joe Biden the next president.
A couple of reporters and I rushed out with no direction in mind but to capture a bit of history, and as we were scrambling down, I caught sight of the first group of stragglers from the corner of my eye.
They looked ill-kempt and ragged, like they were coming back late from a Nu metal concert, a lot of fleece and hoodies and Trump gear and flags. It would have been funny had it not been so serious, had there not been more coming.
I quickly scanned their faces and hands, and it didn’t appear that they were holding any guns, but then again, anything could be a weapon. So I raced back up to get a better view from a safer distance.
On the harder days, I beat myself up for not making it all of the way down. Maybe then I would have a better reason to still feel so startled, to still have nightmares of cracking glass and wild masses, to still, sometimes, feel something suddenly dropping in the pit of my stomach when I go back down those same stairs.
But then I watch the videos of angry men scaling walls and busting windows and brutally striking police officers and reporters and photographers, and rationality returns, along with the memories of the thunderous echoes of chants that grew louder as they reverberated through the dome, the jeering faces of people as they pounded down the wooden doors and stormed the seat of American democracy. And I remember all we came so close to losing that day.
There are some who don’t want us to remember. There are some now trying to paint a different picture, spin another narrative.
On Saturday, a former one-time Trump campaign staffer is hosting a rally in support of the more than 600 people arrested following the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol and that his far right-wing group believes have been treated unfairly. It is not expected to draw so many people, and even far-right extremists don’t seem to be so keen on it on the Internet, calling it “a false flag” and a government trap.
But that hasn’t stopped D.C. police and federal law enforcement agencies from putting on a show of force.
The seven-foot black metal fences that blocked off the “The People’s House” to visitors for months after Jan. 6 are back. Some congressional offices did not open on Friday.
Five people died in the Capitol riot, including a police officer who was beaten. Four officers who responded have since taken their lives.
In talking to domestic terrorism and disinformation researchers, I’ve found that the concern is not so much how many people are attending the Sept. 18 rally or how many of them will be extremists, but the underlying message that it intends to spread: the idea that the people who broke laws and brandished Confederate flags and Nazi insignia and trashed the nation’s arguably most iconic symbol of democracy are “political prisoners.” It is part of a broader, virulent anti-Democratic strain built on white supremacy that has deeply infiltrated the nation’s politics and refused to wane, those researchers say, without a united and forceful enough pushback on the part of powerful Republican elected officials.
It is a strain that I first saw on the rise when I became a state politics reporter for the Los Angeles Times in Sacramento in the summer of 2015, as Donald Trump campaigned for president with demonizations of Mexicans and immigrants and calls for (another) wall along the US-Mexico border. My first assignment was to help cover the arrival of the Dalai Lama at the state house, who preached unity and compassion; my second assignment was a bloody clash between neo-Nazis and anti-white supremacists in which seven people were stabbed. It was a strain I saw again at the “Battle for Berkley,” where white nationalists and far-left protesters scuffled under clouds of pepper spray, and yet again, in my hometown of El Paso, just after an armed self-proclaimed white supremacist opened fire at a Walmart “to kill Mexicans,” taking the lives of 23 people.
And it was the one that swept us through underground tunnels, alongside staffers and senators like Mitch McConnell, who struggled to keep the pace while holding on to the arm of a security officer.
I cannot forget how scared McConnell looked. I cannot forget because I was scared too.
I am still on edge, because none of this is really over.