The protesters had traveled from all over the country to support a defeated president’s fever dream that it was he who had won the 2020 election. Early in the day, at the “Save America Rally” at the White House, Trump himself encouraged his supporters to march on the Capitol. They did, hoisting as they went a large assortment of flags: American flags, Confederate flags, and Trump 2020 flags; the Christian flag, QAnon flags, and Don’t Tread on Me flags. They carried signs—fuck your feelings; god, guns & trump; stop the steal—and some carried weapons.
Here is what I saw Wednesday as I walked from where I live in Northwest Washington, D.C., to the United States Capitol Building, starting around 3 pm.
Heading south on 14th Street, a commercial corridor full-to-bursting with shops and restaurants, Trump protesters were at first hard to pick out from city residents rushing around before the 6 pm citywide curfew. Then there came a smattering of people with rolled-up flags—a MAGA beanie here, a blood-red Keep America Great hat there. It was just south of Thomas Circle that DC became Trump country. Outside a luxury hotel, a white woman in a bejeweled Trump hat and yoga pants inquired of a Black hotel employee where she might catch a cab. “I don’t think you’re going to have any luck with that right now, ma’am,” she was told.
For some protesters, the mood was tense. “That’s wrong, no, no, no!” a man wearing all black shouted into a phone. “I’m not trying to destroy the country, I’m trying to save the future!” On the news, anchors and experts were warning that people involved in the assault on the Capitol were guilty of a federal crime and could be investigated by police or the FBI. And so, some were eager to avoid trouble. “Okay, I think we’ve come far enough,” a young man said to his companions, scanning the mostly empty streets. “We’ll be safe up here.”
For other Trump supporters on 14th Street, it was time to party.
“I’m ready for a daiquiri!” a woman in Trump gear who looked to be in her 40s said. A pack of girlfriends cheered in agreement.
Outside a liquor store, MAGA-clad protesters formed an orderly line. Inside, shoppers struggled to manage both their flags and selected libations. “Gosh, if we kill a fifth of bourbon tonight,” said a man in a Thin Blue Line baseball cap, “it’s gonna be a rough ride home tomorrow.”
A block further south, at Freedom Plaza, the crowd ballooned, and the anger became more palpable. “Who here thinks the DC police will actually enforce the curfew tonight?” one protester called into a megaphone. He was answered by loud booing. “They’re not real police,” the man continued. “They’re security guards for Washington!”
Around the plaza, there were tables hawking all manner of Trump and MAGA regalia. T-shirts, $15. Hats, $15. I asked if those were clearance prices; not yet.
It was more than an hour still before police would attempt to disperse protesters at the Capitol, but already Pennsylvania Avenue was a sea of Trump supporters trudging away. Some chanted, tiredly, “USA-USA.” They jeered at police in SUVs: “Fucking traitors!” And they posed for photos with Lady MAGA USA, a makeup-caked drag artist in a white ballgown and blond wig, the very image of a Southern debutante. It smelled like cigarettes. Across from DC’s majestic Old Post Office building, which Trump leased to set up one of his eponymous hotels, a parade float blasted “Respect” by Aretha Franklin. “That’s right,” the emcee cut in on the mic. “Everyone needs to show some respect for President Trump! Let me hear you, people!”
At the Capitol proper, protesters covered the West Entrance like ants. If much of the departing crowd had been hoodies and athleisure, here were men donning helmets, flak jackets, and military surplus gear. They held makeshift shields and had ripped flags from dowel rods to form batons. One man wore a chain-mail tunic. Another wore, literally, a tinfoil hat. Masks were few and far between.
For all the violence in the air, the mood was less coup and more college football tailgate. Pop songs blared from speakers. Somewhere, snare drums went rat-a-tat-tat. And the chants were so loud they rumbled in your chest. Among several common refrains: “Fight For Trump.” “Fuck Mike Pence.” “Biden con-cede.” When the roars dissipated, individuals cried out to fill the silence. “Democrats are a cult!” “Long live the Republic!”
It was 4 pm, and the ground by this point was muddy and covered in detritus: used water bottles, abandoned gloves, a can of bear spray, and a shredded book with the Capitol dome on its cover, enigmatically titled The Great Controversy. A long-haired protester stood at the base of the Capitol steps and urinated right onto the marble. Amid all of this, protesters smiled and greeted each other as friends: “So, where’re y’all from?” “Oh, we’re from Nebraska, howboutcherselves?”
Spanning the West Entrance stood a large temporary balcony and adjacent bleachers erected for Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20. Many had climbed the scaffolding. At ground level, a door leading to a narrow stairway to the balcony was smeared with blood. A gentleman with a beard looked at the blood and then at me, right in the eyes. “This is what it’s going to take, brother,” he said to me, pointing to the blood. “This right here.”
An explosion ripped through the air: tear gas. Others followed—bang!—but in onesie-twosie fashion; the gas was carried too quickly by wind to be effective.
“Hey, police officers,” a man yelled into a bullhorn. “You don’t want to be on the wrong side of history. Stop standing behind this communist bullshit!” Never mind the Blue Lives Matter paraphernalia, anti-police sentiment was commonplace. “The state troopers where I live are assholes,” I’d heard someone complain earlier. “They’re totally fucking our state.”
Around 4:30, an unmistakable voice began emanating from phones in the crowd. “I know your pain. I know your hurt. But you have to go home now,” the president said in a video posted to Twitter that was later removed for violations of the company’s policy. “We have to have peace,” Trump continued. “We have to have law and order.” His words carried only so far from the phone speakers, though, and all around men were psyching each other up, banging sticks on the ground, and stomping in step to violent chants. “It’s going down tonight, motherfuckers!” one man cried, to loud agreement. “We’re gonna get some tonight, let’s fucking go!”
Above, in the bleachers, clashes with police were escalating. Word spread that, inside, a woman had been shot and killed. And then it became a mob set against itself. As some continued to agitate for violence—they also called for military tribunals for Democratic lawmakers—others made futile bids to disband. “Trump says to go home in peace!” a man wearing an American flag bandana screamed. “He’s the commander in chief. He’s telling us to go home!”
“I can’t go home, I drove all the way from Arizona!” a woman chirped in response.
Then it was 5 pm and the explosions began in earnest, not one but many and in rapid succession. Tear gas was everywhere. Bottlenecked by the narrow stairways, protesters were stuck descending from the balcony in single file, hacking and rubbing their eyes. A man in a grey North Face jacket collapsed at the bottom of the steps and puked.
Thirty minutes to curfew, riot police moved to push the crowd back. There were altercations—protesters shoved and hit police, their faces all sweaty rage—but most, it seemed, didn’t want to be gassed again. As they fell back, people took parting shots: “Pigs!” “Is this what we get for backing the Blue?!” “You just lost the only people in this country who stand behind you!” “You serve Satan!”
It was growing dark. Park lights along the Mall had switched on, illuminating the monuments. On the ground, in the hands of so many retreating protesters, American flags beat in the wind. Atop the Capitol building, now aglow under low-hanging clouds, the same flag flew.
“This is not America,” a woman said to a small group, her voice shaking. She was crying, hysterical. “They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots.”
A man, possibly her husband, comforted her: “Don’t worry, honey. We showed them today. We showed them what we’re all about.”