On January 6th, 2021, I woke up and thought, “I need to head into D.C. for the Trump rally.” I don’t know where the desire came from. I even tried to talk myself out of it. And when I broached the topic to Toby he responded with a simple, “You’re an adult. Just be careful. There is talk of a lot of violence. And don’t get COVID.”
My husband has been a vocal dissenter of Trump for years. Picture that person in your life who dislikes President Trump the most and then dial that up to ear-piercing, feedback loop levels and you have Toby. After four years of listening to him hypothesize about Trump and what his supporter base might be up to, I have, admittedly, stopped believing anything would ever actually happen. It’s not that I don’t believe Toby; he is the most trustworthy person I know. It’s that I have grown somewhat cynical. I don’t believe that most people—let alone an entire network of people—are capable enough, creative enough and driven enough to see anything large scale come to fruition. (Except for maybe the Russians. Heh.)
So, I did not believe that there would be any violence that day. I never would have gone had I known things would shakeout the way they did. I feel a little shameful for having been there at all. It’s something I’ve been wrestling with ever since.
In truth, when I left the house that Wednesday morning, I figured I’d end up spending the day surrounded by “crazy” Trump supporters. I figured I’d see some bizarre signage; t-shirts about how guns save lives; slogans stating that the election had been stolen. I figured I’d see MAGA flags and hats, socks and stickers, g-strings—and whatever else a person can slap a slogan onto and sell for profit. I figured I might get a couple of shots of the morbidly fascinating people I’d seen on TV at his rallies. I figured it would be much like every other protest or political rally I’d been to over the years. And, initially, that’s exactly how it was.
Knowing that the District had blocked off most roads to car traffic, I parked about two miles from the Capitol and walked. Since there were so few cars, the city seemed eerily empty. I joked with Toby about the lack of a crowd, knowing Trump loves his crowds. There were Trump supporters here and there, but I saw no crowd.
More people materialized as I reached Pennsylvania Avenue. I learned via text that most of the crowd was still off watching Trump give his “Save America” speech at the White House a few blocks away. I stood in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue and took some pictures.
Unsure of what to do and without a plan, I began walking toward the Capitol.
Toby continued to text me with information about what was happening, information he was learning from the news and not easy for me to learn while actually down there. He let me know when Trump had finished his speech. He would eventually let me know that the electoral voting had begun and how abruptly that would come to an end. Sometimes, the texts were a little ominous. I would read something from him, and then almost immediately see the side effects live and in person. For example, when he texted saying the crowd had just left the White House, I watched the people move in like high tide.
Between 11:30 and 1 PM, I took in a lot of information simply by listening to those around me. Numerous people, of all ages, could be heard saying that the Capitol belonged to them; that their tax dollars meant that they had every right to enter the building. That this was their building. It was alarming how many people used this rhetoric; people who had nothing to do with one another; people spread out all along street corners, in line for the porta johns, and at various points in time.
I wondered where that theme originated. Not that it’s necessarily original, more that the rhetoric was so similar, like rehearsed lines that were being fed to them from some central command center. I laughed at this idea, surely the byproduct from reading way too much science fiction or watching too much Homeland.
There was the near constant murmur of election fraud and how angry people were that the Democrats stole the election. I heard comments about stolen ballots, late mail-in ballots from Pennsylvania that never should have been counted and, in some cases, weren’t even from a living human being. I heard one man mention ballots from predominately pro-Trump military members that never made it into the right hands. This was a common thread and not all that surprising.
As the crowd moved down Constitution Avenue, a man on a bullhorn yelled out that they were there to fight for Trump. He explained that some people might die while doing so, and that that was OK because “when in war, some people must die.” They were all there for a purpose.
Many chanted in unison: “FIGHT FOR TRUMP! FIGHT FOR TRUMP!”
I watched a group of DC Police officers cycle their way down Pennsylvania Avenue, toward the Capitol. These very same officers would later be seen all over the news, grossly outnumbered, some beaten by rioters, all while still wearing their bike helmets. I look at this relatively boring footage now and with the knowledge of how things ended up, it just gives me chills.
I reached the Capitol steps before the bulk of the crowd. Everything was still pretty calm. There was another man on a bullhorn standing right at the gate leading up the steps. His messages varied, but his tone did not change. One announcement would be about leading groups in prayer on the Capitol steps. He would then make a joke about gathering in groups of 300 for a “tour of the interior.” One time he paged a Mike Nolan to come to the front gate as his tour was waiting. He also asked people to continue moving ahead and through the gates to make room because “we’ve got tens of thousands who are going to want to see this.”
This man wore a “STOP THE HATE” hoodie and he just seemed odd to me. I even texted as much to Toby while there. While he never said anything particularly aggressive and kept his tone jovial no matter what the message, he seemed almost too composed, as though he’d been taught to play a very specific and necessary role; holding a delicate balance between important instruction and mundanity. It would be easy to watch footage of him later and say, “See! He’s not saying anything wrong! He’s not inciting violence! He’s just some nobody guy being silly!”
And then there were people like the guy below. He was a lot more pissed off. That’s also right when things began to shift. That’s when the overall mood tilted toward hostile.
“I feel sick to my stomach. Nauseous.” I texted Toby.
I don’t presume to know how an animal feels moments before an earthquake or tsunami, but I think the unease and nausea I started to experience right around 1:10 PM is probably the closest I’ll ever come. Voices became louder. There was more and more military garb, so much so I mistook people for actual marines. Human movements became rushed and jerky, so I was finding it increasingly more difficult to guess how a person might maneuver their body. This is something that likely would have gone unnoticed at any other time in my life, but given we’re in the middle of a pandemic and almost every single person there was without a mask, I was doing my very best to avoid people. And, up until that point, I had been successful in maintaining a safe distance from others. But once that shift took place, I found myself ducking flags and backpacks, dodging arms and legs.
“Gonna leave soon. Shit’s getting a little scary.” I texted Toby.
Now, with the privilege of hindsight, and the luxury of information and overall outcomes, I think my unconscious picked up on how alarming it had been that we were all so easily able to walk right up onto the Capitol steps. Literally, anyone could have waltzed right on up there. There were only small metal barriers and hardly any law enforcement. The police were vastly outnumbered by the crowd. And I don’t think I was alone in that feeling of unease. I even witnessed some Trump supporters leaving, alarmed at how seemingly unmanned the whole situation actually was. I had a conversation with one older man from Baltimore County, Maryland. He’d taken the train in that morning to show his support. But when he saw how things were unfolding, he expressed his wariness. He ended up leaving a few minutes after we spoke.
At 1:24 PM, the loud booms began. I was standing at the base of the steps when they went off. There were two bursts of light and then some smoke. That scared the shit out of me. I had no idea what they were and immediately texted Toby letting him know, hoping he’d have some information. He did not.
“Two big booms from Cap steps. Fuck this.” I texted.
One woman cried out into her phone, “NO! Thank goodness my kids are not with me!” Another guy looked to a friend, and said, “I’m guessing those were NOT planned pyrotechnics?”
“Were those gunshots?” Someone asked.
“Was that a bomb?” Another mused.
No one knew for sure.
Worried, I began to move away from the front of the building, away from the crowd and saw two white buses pull up and a couple dozen riot cops (I think?) tumble out and run around to the east side of the building. Texting was becoming increasingly less reliable but I sent Toby what I could.
I smelled something acidic and wondered if it had been from the bangs. Seconds later I heard a man say, “Smell that?” His friend nodded. “Tear gas.”
I moved up a hill, along the north side of the Capitol just in time to see a group of EMTs rush away from the Capitol steps, pushing a gurney toward an ambulance. I took out my camera and starting taking pictures, not quite sure what it was I was witnessing. There was a shirtless man laid out on the stretcher, as his arms dangled lifelessly alongside his body. None of him was moving.
The EMTs lifted him into the back of the ambulance where one EMT straddle him and began administering chest compressions, slamming down so hard onto his chest.
SLAM! SLAM! SLAM!
[Hold a beat]
SLAM! SLAM! SLAM!
[Hold a beat]
I began to cry.
This went on for an uncomfortably long time, which was likely only a couple of minutes, but when something tragic is happening, the seconds that make up minutes feel hours long.
SLAM! SLAM! SLAM!
And then? Nothing. They just stopped. The doors closed. And the man did not move. There were no more compressions. No lights flickered on. No sirens blared. The EMTs climbed out of the back with no sense of urgency to get him off to a hospital, where he would later call someone and say, “I’m ok! That was scary, but I’m OK!” He would, in fact, never make another phone call again. This human life had just powered down. This man wouldn’t make it home at all.
It all just felt so damn sad.
“I think I just watched a man die. I’m a mess. Leaving.” I texted Toby.
The following day I would learn this man was Kevin Greeson and he died of a heart attack while talking to his wife on the phone right as the initial flash bangs went off. (I would come to learn about flash bangs, too.) I would learn that he’d written hateful things on several rightwing websites, that he was irrationally angry. I don’t condone his actions. But I have been having philosophical debates with myself ever since. And here’s the thing: had I NOT seen him in that state, I imagine it would be easy to read these stories about him and write him off as The Other, vilify him as a total monster. “He asked for it; he had it coming!” It’s so easy to dehumanize a person, especially a person who represents everything I am opposed. I reckon that’s what he did as well; why he became who he was and, also, what had brought him to DC in the first place—to fight all The Others.
But I’m unable to do that. I have been unable to turn him into a monster to make myself feel better about witnessing his death. (Believe me, I have tried!) And even if he was a monster, I can’t overlook the human vulnerability here and the straight up fact that we are all the same as we die—sacks of flesh and blood and organs that eventually fail. In death, we are weak and alone and wholly reliant on the compassion and kindness of others.
Kevin Greeson died alone and likely terrified. And if I’ve learned anything since that Wednesday, it’s that life is tricky and nuanced and things aren’t so easily tucked into neat little categories when it comes to personal beliefs, emotions or actions. I’ve been trying to pause a little more.
But I digress.
As Kevin Greeson died, a woman nearby began to pray. A man said something about a heart attack. I composed myself and turned to leave.
Right then, a group of rioters, dressed head to toe in military garb, ran by me, screaming, “They’re in! They’re in! It’s ON! It’s ON! LET’S GO!” They were all so angry. Faces hot and red with rage, years worth of pent up anger, running past me and down toward the Capitol. I would bet my life these same men ended up inside.
The further I walked, the more texts started to roll in from friends and family who knew I was there. They let me know that rioters had indeed breached the Capitol and that many U.S. representatives were hiding and under lockdown. Texts mentioned things like gas masks and violence and martial law as I listened to more flash bangs and shots of tear gas. Some people ran by me and toward the Capitol while others left just as quickly. The crowd was much larger now and so much more pissed off.
“Doesn’t seem like the cops are even trying.” Toby texted.
“They are totally outnumbered. They never stood a chance.” I replied.
As I walked the two miles back to the car, I watched more and more vehicles carrying military back up speed by me and toward the Capitol, sirens filling the once eerily empty streets. Finally, help was on the way. But it would be too late.
When I got home, and once the initial shock began to wear off, I admitted to Toby that never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that what took place at the Capitol that day could actually happen. I witnessed some of it with my own two eyes and I’m still having trouble believing it actually happened. Like, if you were a screenwriter pitching that plot line—the plot line of a movie called “January 6th, 2021″—to any decent director, said director would respond with a, “Are you joking? Why are you wasting my time? That’s way too farfetched. It’s completely implausible! Got anything else? If not, you’re fired.”
There’s no way all of that happened. There is no way it all took place. There is no way a man claiming to be a patriot beat a cop over the head with an American flag while on the steps of the Capitol. There’s no way some rioters carried Flex Cuffs in hopes of taking hostages. There is no way Marjorie Taylor Greene is a real U.S. Representative. There is no way there is a large group of Americans that believe there are politicians who are Satan-worshipping cannibalistic pedophiles. There is no way rioters broke into the U.S. Capitol and called for the death of the Vice President in the name of the President. There is no way they did all of this while filming themselves for social media. There is no way the same group capable of believing that Bill Gates wants to inject them with microchips failed to turn off their location services.
There is no way a group of self-proclaimed patriots shit and pissed all over the inside of the United States Capitol.
There is no way all of this happened.
I uploaded pictures and videos (including one of myself right after I watched Kevin Greeson die) on Instagram that day and as things were happening. You can watch that by clicking here.)