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What the Storming of the Capitol Means to Americans

By Abby Naumann

Note from the author: This article has been published in response to the storming of the U.S. Capitol Building on the afternoon of 6 January 2021 by pro-Trump rioters.

“Stay down, stay down, stay down!” a Congresswoman shouts to her fellow members of the House, crouching down in the balcony of the U.S. Capitol Building where moments before, members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate were in the process of fulfilling their constitutional duty to ceremoniously count the votes for the incoming President of the United States. The Congressmen and women are wearing gas hoods, waiting for the Capitol police to find and direct them to a secure location.

“Oh my god, they’re firing on them,” she says. 

There is chanting and the clammer of boots outside the chamber as hundreds of pro-Trump supporters rush the Capitol Police and breach the Capitol Building. “Free-dom! Free-dom!” they chant. 

They carry these chants from the National Mall, where in the preceding hours Trump lawyer Rudy Guiliani and the President himself incited the violence, telling the crowd to “fight” and that he would meet them at the Capitol to make their voices heard. Later, before Twitter and Facebook suspended his accounts on their platforms, the president would call these rioters “very special,” “patriots,” and, while calling for “law and order,” also claim that this is what happens when an election is stolen from his supporters.

Pro-Trump rioters storm the Capitol on January 6th 2021

Tellingly, there are more “Trump 2020” flags than American flags waving in the sea of camouflage, blue jeans, and – we cannot forget – predominantly white faces. Other flags wave, too. The flags of U.S. states, the “don’t tread on me” yellow banner, and perhaps the most ironic: the rebel flag. The rebel flag, also known as the Dixie flag, Southern Cross, or incorrectly as the ‘stars and bars,’ belonged first to the Army of Northern Virginia and has since come to represent Southern heritage to some and white supremacy to most. It was the flag of a group of men who rebelled against the United States, fought, died, and lost in the preservation of slavery in America, an institution which was certainly in defiance of “free-dom.” 

Yesterday, on January 6th 2021, it was flown in the U.S. Capitol Building.

The Aftermath

When police finally secured the Capitol Building around 5:00pm Eastern Time, four people were dead and an uncounted number of both police and rioters were wounded. The rioters shattered windows of the Capitol and trashed the labyrinth of congressional offices within, notably the office of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who had the threatening message “we will not back down” scribbled on her desk (read more about who broke into the Capitol here). 

As of Thursday morning, the perimeter of the Capitol had been fenced off by the Washington D.C. National Guard. Laptops were stolen. Two bombs were safely detonated by police. A bomb threat was cleared at the Democratic National Committee. A truck armed with a rifle and ten Molotov cocktails was seized. Photos of the rioters were posted for identification (identify persons and vehicles wanted by the D.C. police here). Approximately fifty were arrested in total in connection to the Capitol (read Justice Department report here) or breaking of curfew, well below the number of people seen in the mob which held the Capitol hostage on Wednesday afternoon (read more here). 

A Racial Statement

We as Americans have many questions – for example, where were the Capitol Police, Secret Service, and National Guard while armed insurrectionists strolled the halls of Our House, the People’s House, in a vain attempt to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power?

Example of outrage circulating social media

Representative Cori Bush of St. Louis, Missouri, a black woman and Black Lives Matter activist, spoke at length to reporters live, noting with intensity the glaring double standard set by Capitol Police on Wednesday. Bush railed against the disparity in the comparatively ‘gentle’ treatment by Capitol Police of the largely white pro-Trump mob, as compared to Bush’s own experiences as a BLM protestor in D.C. Scenes of Capitol police taking selfies and escorting rioters politely down the steps of the federal building they had just sieged rocked social media overnight (video here). Likewise, CNN’s Van Jones noted the “unbelievable statement about race made in this country” when tens of thousands of protesters went to jail for acts related to civil disobedience during the George Floyd protests, with more than 500 arrests made in Washington D.C. alone; only thirteen people who stormed the Capitol went to jail overnight (see Van Jones speak here; view the arrest rates of George Floyd protestors here ). President-Elect Joe Biden and former first couple Barack and Michelle Obama shared similar sentiments (read here) . 

A Heartbreaking Sacrifice 

Another question many of us Americans have – how could our fellow Americans do this to Our Capitol? Do they not remember what the Capitol symbolizes, what it means, to all Americans? What it meant to the bravest Americans?

Photo of the Flight 93 Memorial and wall of names at the crash site in Pennsylvania

On September 11, 2001 at 9:28am, perhaps the bravest Americans who ever lived gave their lives to save this very building. The two pilots, five crew members, and thirty-three passengers aboard Flight 93 had been forced to the back of their plane from Newark to San Francisco by four Al-Qaeda hijackers wielding knives who claimed to have a bomb. One passenger was stabbed and killed in front of them, another two – assumed to be the pilots – lay on the floor, either injured or dead. Several passengers began making calls from the Airfone to their loved ones on the ground, discovering that two planes had already hit the World Trade Center in New York City, and that their plane was likely headed for the White House or the Capitol Building. 

This is when the passengers, a group of civilians, decided to stage a revolt on the hijackers. They burst into the cockpit as a unified front, leading the hijackers to force the plane down over Shanksville, Pennsylvania – a mere thirty minutes after the hijacking began and twenty minutes before the plane would reach Washington D.C. The plane and its contents were obliterated on impact. If you have the heart, you can read transcripts of the calls the passengers made here.  

The investigations following 9/11 revealed that although the White House was the preferred target of Osama Bin Laden, its low profile made it a less attractive target to the pilots (read more here and here). This and the fact that the day of the attack coincided with the return of US lawmakers to the Capitol led investigators to believe that the most likely target of Flight 93 was the U.S. Capitol. 

This was the building stormed by pro-Trump rioters on Thursday. 

The Landmark

The Architect of the Capitol calls this building “a monument to the ingenuity, determination and skill of the American people”.  Commissioned by our first president, George Washington, and charged to French engineer Pierre L’Enfant in 1791, the Capitol houses the House and Senate chambers where U.S. lawmakers write the law of the land. It was burnt by the British in 1814 during the War of 1812 and rebuilt. It lies at the head of the National Mall, at home with the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Smithsonian museums, National Archives, Library of Congress, memorials including those to the soldiers who fought in World War II, Vietnam, and Korea and to Martin Luther King, Jr., and – further away – the White House. It is a rare green space where Americans and visitors gather for cultural festivals, school field trips, afternoon sunbathing, and presidential inaugurations

A family enjoys a picnic outside the Capitol with their dog in 2019, photo by the author

Watching the chaos at the Capitol from my television screen on Wednesday, I recalled my own pilgrimage to Washington D.C., shortly before I came to Geneva. The Capitol was the building I was most excited, and weirdly nervous, to see. It felt like a kind of sacred homecoming. All American school children know what the Capitol looks like. Somehow, it had been a part of my life forever, though I had never seen it in person. I was worried it would be less impressive, less emotional of a moment seeing it in real life. It wasn’t.

Photo from my visit to the Capitol in 2019

The irreverence and arrogance it takes to put your boots on the desk of a lawmaker in the Capitol is something I cannot understand, or must simply chalk up to mob mentality. Investigations, resignations, and key decisions for the final two weeks of the Trump presidency will follow this historic attack committed by a mob which many have called domestic terrorists. 

But it does not end there. 

The Enduring Symbol

The coming of the Biden presidency and Democratic majority in the House and parity in the Senate may bring hope to 81 million Americans, but we cannot forget that change will bring anger and mistrust to 74 million of our brothers and sisters. The lasting damage of the Trump presidency will not only be in the natural and sacred land violated for the construction of his wall, the gutting of our country’s bureaucracy, destruction of the U.S.’s global image and engagement, or the deaths of 361,000 people due to an unchecked pandemic. Ultimately, this presidency was an assault on American culture and community that has been severed into two warring halves that cannot even reconcile their realities. 

The attack on the Capitol, after four years of division, will be this presidency’s most enduring symbol.

Abby Naumann is a masters candidate in International Affairs at the Graduate Institute and native of St. Louis, Missouri, USA. 

Featured photo by Abby Naumann.

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