“The Air Was Rotten in D.C.” Washington Citizens on the Storming of the Capitol

By Tal Ben Yakir

Collage by Anna Sazonov

On the sixth of January 2021, rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. in an attempt to overturn the outcome of the presidential elections. Since then, news feeds have been flooded with reports on the attack: what the rioters did inside the Capitol, their subsequent trials, the circumstances that lead up to the riot, and speculations on what the future holds. Yet, now that the dust has somewhat settled, it becomes clear that there is a voice missing from the discussion: the voice of the residents of Washington D.C. What did they feel when they saw their city racked by riots, their streets lined with heavily armored vehicles? 

Sinisa Vukovic is a professor of conflict management and global policy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Sciences, and a resident of Washington DC. His office is five blocks away from the Capitol building.

“The air was rotten in D.C..” he explains. “We have been in a lingering state of emergency since the summer, since the first clashes during the Black Lives Matter protests.” He sketches an image of the weeks preceding the storming of the Capitol; deserted streets, shop windows boarded up, wooden barriers in front of restaurant doors. “Living in an unwelcome reality,” he calls it.

“Everyone knew something was coming. Everyone knew Trump would not go down in defeat easily,” Vukovic says. “After the protests in the summer, when the Black Lives Matter sign was paved onto the street, that provoked Trump. It hit him where it hurt, to have the symbol of resistance against him placed right in front of ‘his’ house.” Yet, Vukovic states, it still caught citizens by surprise. He explains that it was unimaginable to the average citizen that the symbol of US democratical consolidation would actually be taken. “We didn’t expect it to go that far. It is a dire warning of the state of democracy.”

Vukovic explains that 92.1% of Washington DC voters did not vote for Trump. So, there was no local base of support for the crowd that had gathered in the streets. “It felt like D.C. was invaded by a mob with a completely different mindset.” He explains that to the residents, the rioters were traitors. The fact that fellow Americans would go that far and undermine the basic democratic values they all share, such as the rule of law and political institutions, was “appallingly shocking”.

Cedar Cox-McAllister, a student at Amsterdam University College, was back home in Washington with her parents when the January riot began. She recalls that during the weeks before the riots, Proud Boys would regularly come into D.C., a couple of hundred at most, to march around and yell. Some of the rioters were staying in hotels close to her house. Cox-McAllister explains: “They also put an eight o’clock curfew, which was really weird. I was thinking it’s so strange I have to be inside before eight because it’s going to be dangerous out there.”

Mark Brass works for the US Coast Guard in an office that handles foreign affairs, international affairs and foreign policy. He lives and works in downtown Washington.. Brass explains that in the weeks leading up to the riot the atmosphere was tense, but that, with everyone working from home and the city being quieter under the pandemic, some of that tension was hidden. Therefore, it took most people by complete surprise. “The citizens of Washington expect that the security forces and the police will be able to manage things like protests, crowds or demonstrations.” 

Cox-McAllister’s jaw dropped when she watched the news on the sixth of January. “As a kid, in high school, you have a bunch of field trips to government buildings, important statues. But the Capitol building, no one can get near it, security there on a regular day is crazy. It seems like this mysterious, untouchable place. So it’s shocking that the mob wasn’t stopped.”

How did the rioters get that far? “Because no one expected them to,” Vukovic explains. “The provisions put in place were inadequate to meet the influx of people. The security forces thought it was another protest where people would shout loudly. Risk assessment of these kinds of gatherings is not based just on the number of people, but on the organizational capabilities behind the movement. This movement was large, but it was highly disorganized and done in an unplanned way. There were no cells to claim organizational capabilities, there were no clear demands, no exit strategy. The rioters just realised that they could go forward and forward and forward. So they did.” 

Amanda Hopkins is a graduate student at the University of Amsterdam, studying conflict resolution and governance. She grew up in Fredericksburg, Virginia, one hour outside of D.C. Due to the Coronavirus, she has been back living with her parents for the past months. She explains how in the following investigations, some off duty police officers were found to be involved in the riot. “So you had security forces, technically, on both sides. Even the guards at the Capitol were surprised,” she says.

After the events had unfolded and people overcame their initial shock, security snapped back into place. Brass says: “I heard police sirens and people shouting in the streets and helicopters flying overhead.” 

Many of the rioters stayed in the town where Hopkins lives. On January seventh, their hotel was swarming with police, she remembers. All the people who had participated were barred from travelling and flying, she explains, and they were recognised fast, because they had been caught on camera without masks.

Vukovic names a list of restrictions that followed the riot: the perimeter around the Capitol was closed, police forces from neighbouring states came in to help, secret service forces were stationed in the city, heavily armored vehicles patrolled the streets, semi-checkpoints were set up around the centre, and limitations on movement had been introduced during the week of the inauguration.

Cox-McAllister explains: “The day after, they brought in I think 800 members of the National Guard, and erected a 25 ft fence around the Capitol. And all I could think was ‘why the day after?’ Where was all of this when they actually stormed the Capitol?”  

Until the inauguration of president Biden, the ambience remained eerie. The days leading up to the 20th of January were especially strict. Security forces were determined not to let anything like the storming of the Capitol happen again. Since then, things have eased up. Yet, no one truly believes the problem is over.

Hopkins says she does not believe that Trump is the root of the problem. Merely that he has normalised these extremists. Brass affirms this assessment, saying that the January eruption merely exposed a serious division in the country. “The 5000 protesters that stormed the Capitol on January 6th is a very small sample of many, many other Americans who feel similarly.” 

However, Hopkins stresses that these events have led to the rioters being seen as a more serious threat. “My friend works for the FBI. Now that they have actually attacked the Capitol, the FBI takes them very seriously. It will be a lot harder for them from now on to engage in this kind of violence.” 

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