How a sparse protest became a Capitol Hill riot

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Hours before a throng of MAGA marchers overran Congress, there was only a sparse crowd outside the building, waving flags and signs, huddled against the cold winter winds and praying that Donald Trump’s fate would change that day.

While most Trump supporters had gathered down by the lawn in front of the White House, where the president was set to speak at 11 a.m., a smaller group had congregated by the Capitol around 9 a.m.

Some were there, they said, to hold the line against Congress certifying Joe Biden’s win that day — even though it wouldn’t work. Some were there to intimidate lawmakers — even though most initially skirted the protesters. Some were there to storm the building — even though rows of fences and guards at first kept them at a distance.

They were there because maybe, just maybe, God would create a miracle that day.

“‘We The People’ need to be in that building,” said Bill Dunphy, a Christian preacher from Ohio, gesturing to the stoic Capitol police standing beyond the metal barricades. He had been leading prayers all morning through a megaphone, telling the crowd to have faith and stay in front of the Capitol and wait for the rest of the pro-Trump movement to show up. Nearby, a man meditated in a cross-legged lotus position, his eyes closed in serenity.


"We patriots ought to be in that building," Dunphy added. "That building belongs to ‘We The People.’ They work for us. And here we are, barred to the point that we can’t even get on the property within 120 yards.”

At around 2 p.m., Dunphy got his wish. The marchers showed up. The barricades broke. The building was stormed. Lawmakers sheltered in place. Armed guards barricaded the House floor and pointed guns at the door.

The crowd, once in the hundreds early in the morning, swelled into the tens of thousands, exhilarating the Capitol protesters. Trump supporters, some armored in ill-fitting Kevlar and waving every brand of flag, grew furious that the police were trying to control the crowd. And circulating through the crowd was an insistence that the Capitol was for them and them alone.

A video circulated on Twitter showing hundreds of Trump supporters breaking down a barricade at the back of the Capitol Building, chanting and marching toward the domed complex. Rumors ripped through the crowd about the breach, and people started suggesting they do the same: “Why should we listen to law enforcement?” one asked

Hundreds of people — and soon thousands — started pressing forward, forward, forward, past the barricade, trampling over the abandoned structure erected for Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20. They broke up and swarmed around the sides, where the Capitol police had been trying to keep out reporters, confronting officers who tried to hold them back. They fantasized about breaking into the building itself.

Soon, they did.

The small contingent of Capitol police — once cheerfully guarding the entrance and politely pointing Trump supporters to the bathrooms — was soon overwhelmed by waves of flag-bearing protesters. Though they’d earlier thanked the officers for their service, the crowd began to turn on the police. Crowds began gathering around officers, demanding that they let them into the streets, up the lawn, onto the balconies.

Angry rumors ripped through the protesters — several of them waving Blue Lives Matter flags — that the police had tear gas, which officers later deployed inside the Capitol rotunda. Outside, one tattooed man ripped his shirt off and told a small group of people that he had been hit in the head. “I don’t care who they were, but they got the badge,” he said resentfully.

Later, upon hearing that one of the rioters inside the building had been shot, a man outside holding three Trump flags on a massive pole paused. “It won’t be the last,” he finally said.

All the overheated military rhetoric that floats through the MAGA movement suddenly felt different.

At the Capitol mere hours before, the idea of such a mob seemed an impossibility.


Scattered Trump supporters — overwhelmingly maskless — dotted the entire Capitol complex, gazing at the marbled dome and booing any black SUV that pulled up in front of the Capitol.

Like their MAGA brethren down at the Ellipse in front of the White House, they had traveled from near and far, disregarding pandemic protocols to make it to the Capitol in time to disrupt certification.

Lisa Hayes, who described herself as a political performance artist and complained about her social media handles being banned, had flown in from Sacramento days before. She showed up in an Instagram-worthy outfit: a white tulle ballgown with ballots labeled “STOLEN” pinned to her skirt, toting a loudspeaker blaring “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

“I’m here because this is where the vote’s gonna take place, and where the support needs to be,” she said behind wraparound sunglasses with “BANNED” bedazzled across the rim. “I really don’t know anybody at the Ellipse. We all need to be here.”

Nick Searcy, an actor from Burbank, Calif., was there for similar reasons.

“It’s a historic day. And I wanted to be here for it,” said Searcy, best known for a recurring role in the FX show “Justified.” “I want to witness what happens, and if this is the last day of the republic, I want to be here to see it.”

Notably, the crowd was split over whether Congress was going to be able to overturn the election — or, as they insisted, stop the election from being stolen. Asked what he hoped to accomplish on Wednesday, Dan Ellison, 53, a roofing salesman who drove in from Charlotte, N.C., was blunt: “Nothing.” He was here to “support my president. That’s it.”

Kelly Wolf, 58, a salesman from northern Minnesota, was still hopeful, but also prescient. “I hope God comes down and switches stuff around. … Something’s gonna happen and it’s gonna be big today.” Wolf claimed Trump “probably” won all 50 states: “I think people are blinded to it. There’s too much corruption.”

A notable number of protesters wore bullet-proof vests and helmets, flashlights attached to their brims, even at 10 a.m. in broad daylight. Some identified themselves as normal citizens nervous about antifa, the loose collective of far-left activists.

“I heard it’s a little crazy, so I wanted to wear” a vest, said Josh Welch, 35, a North Carolina electrician. His armor was emblazoned with “Liberty or Death.”

Some, however, were members of the Proud Boys, a far-right male chauvinist group known for its street brawls. For once, the members were not wearing their normal black and yellow regalia, which they often do while providing security for pro-Trump events.


“We wanted to blend in a little more,” said Asher, a South Floridian resident who declined to give his last name, guarding a Latinos for Trump gathering outside the Senate office complex. He was still clad in black body armor, with a GoPro camera strapped to his chest, and patches — a Blue Lives Matter and a camo-colored Star of David — velcroed to his vest. Other Proud Boys, he said, were wearing normal MAGA clothing.

Asher wasn’t worried that the Proud Boys leader, Enrique Torre, had been arrested and banned from Washington, D.C., the day before — there was a plan in case things went sideways, he said. “I really have to see what the day brings. We’re really a reactionary movement.”

When Trump began speaking, however, the crowd’s mood began to shift. People broadcast it on impromptu projectors. And they listened as the president unspooled furious and false allegations of voter fraud.

“You don’t concede when there’s theft involved,” Trump bellowed. “Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore.”

“We will never give up, we will never concede,” he added.


Then, Trump exhorted the entire crowd to march on the Capitol.

"After this, we’re going to walk down — and I’ll be there with you,” he said, surprising staffers unaware of any plans for the president to join the march. “We’re going to walk down to the Capitol.”

And march they did.

Within about an hour of Trump speaking, the Capitol was being overrun. At the end, the president had encouraged his followers to protest “peacefully and patriotically,” but the urging was immediately discarded. Any fears of antifa violence dissipated into thin air.

“Everyone’s surrounding the Capitol!” one man yelled into his phone to his mother back home, as elation swept through the crowd.

“Everyone’s surrounding the Capitol!”

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