Berkeley, CA, January 11, 2021 — By now, you’ve probably seen the footage many times. Unless you’ve had the discipline and good sense to keep out of your life that which the unavoidable image merchants are selling.
A Capitol police officer is racing up flights of stairs, turning and pausing occasionally to confront a man, eventually joined by others, as they attempt to go by him. The officer waves something — a club or baton — at the intruders. He could easily hit one or more, but doesn’t. Instead he turns and sprints up another flight. Eventually, he comes to a wider landing, and is suddenly joined by more police, who form a line, and start chasing the mob back downstairs.
The first time I saw was a rush of memory. I knew exactly where the scene was unfolding. I had gone up and down those same stairs dozens of time during my two decades of working in D.C, as National Affairs Correspondent for the now disappeared Pacifica Radio Network.
I knew immediately that if that officer had let the crowd pass him, they could turn right at the last landing and be a few feet from the doors that lead to the visitors’ gallery above the Senate floor. People were huddled on the floor or rushing to doors on the sides or back of the room. I knew those doors, too. Some lead to closets, some to bathrooms, some to offices and meeting rooms.
From the gallery — which others in the mob seized a few minutes later — it’s a drop of maybe 20 feet to the floor. Navigable, as we soon saw, by any agile person, even one carrying a stuffed backpack.
Thousands of tourists have been swarming around those corridors far back into the 19th Century. Even before the era of metal detectors and searches, there was scrutiny at the Capitol entrances. But one’s overwhelming sensation was that the Capitol was as sacred as secular buildings get. People felt and feel the same as they do when visiting a Cathedral. Powerful people have trod there. And they have left their spirits behind them.
My (very) insignificant and (very) temporary presence on Capitol Hill came rushing back as the messy January 6 insurrection continued all day, and into the night.
To me, there were some very odd elements unfolding.
The police seemed to be using noise-making, non-lethal flash bang pepper spray and tear gas. Although all had sidearms and some had assault weapons, none were shooting at the mob. Their putative leader, the now forever disgraced President, had told them the latest in his thousands of lies a few minutes beforehand. While urging the rush on the Capitol, he promised “I’ll be with you!” But he wasn’t.
If you turn left at that landing, you are at unsecured doors to the Senate Press Gallery, where I once had a small space and a shared telephone (cell phones didn’t exist yet).
Down the hall, to the right from where the lone officer made his stand are the marked doors to those media spaces. Complete with metal detectors and at least two guards. Few or us credentialed media folks used the marked, guarded doors. Instead we went through the nearby unmarked ones, into a jungle of wires, cables, power cords, large film/video cameras, and about 40 chairs, a mad scramble for which took place when a significant Senator was about to appear.
Some Senators were known to appear as often as possible. Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, and Orrin Hatch were the lead singers in my years there. (“The most dangerous place to be on Capitol Hill is between Chuck Schumer and a TV camera,” went the tired old saw.) Others rarely appeared. The ones who stayed away mostly tended to come from states where they never had to run against anything like a plausible opponent, in either a primary or a contested general election.
Inside the Capitol, one thinks one is safe. Safer than anyplace on earth, those who live and work in the Capitol building like to think. At least a quarter of a million people are employed in “security” and “intelligence” in Washington, led by the alphabet agencies – CIA, FBI, NSA, NRO, DHS. Every department — even the Labor Department, The Department of Health and Human Services, and the Agriculture Department — has its uniformed and plainclothes personnel, armed and unarmed, trained and untrained. And then there’s the ever-proliferating Washington based private semi-military forces, who operate in even greater secrecy than the government’s numerous branches. And the police and sheriffs in dozens of communities in nearby states. And the National Guard.
So it was logical for those of us watching on TV or livestream to ask: where the hell are the cops? How can a few hundred, at most, people break into a heavily guarded and alarmed building, climb its facades, and smash and break through its doors and windows?
It would have been one thing if security forces had been outnumbered. It anything like the “three million of us” that Ashli Bobbitt, who would shortly be shot and killed as she tried to crawl through a window she had helped break, told her twitter acolytes were there. But truth in such numbers had long since ceased to be a useful commodity — remember the ridiculous claim that a million and a half people had come to Washington to celebrate Trump’s inauguration? Remember Trump’s claim that a million people would come to a Tulsa rally to kick off his re-election campaign?
A thorough tick-tock (journalism’s shorthand for time sequenced stories) in the 1/11/202l NY Times shows that the protestors didn’t overwhelm the Capitol’s defenses. The defenses overwhelmed themselves, with inadequate communication, absent leadership, failure to understand what was about to happen and then was happening.
Now there’s talk of a “Million Martyr March” the day before President Biden takes the oath. Is it possible that what happened on January 6 will help bring out even more backers who believe it’s time to make a violent statement?
“Threat Assessment” is the official term for trying to estimate what might happen in such circumstances. Professionals can and do get their estimates wrong. But mostly they get scenarios right enough to prepare sufficiently to stop very bad things from happening.
“A Flood of Failures Let Mob Rampage Through Capitol” is how the Times headlined its tick-tock. Other media, seeking context, were quick to assure us that nothing like this had ever happened in Washington before. Yet there have in fact been out of control events, not on this year’s scale, but enough to be consistent with the United States’ worldwide reputation as a violent nation. The event I remember best took place a couple of weeks before my high school graduation in May 1954 when armed Puerto Rican nationalists took over the floor of the House of Representatives. They opened fire on House members, wounding five (all of whom survived).
One of the major takeaways from our current political process is that planning for anything like the January 6 mob action doesn’t take months or years. It can now take place instantly, through the infamously ill-regulated and ill-administered internet. Dozens and dozens of tips are coming in to law enforcement — mostly the FBI — about people like Cleveland Meredith who came to Washington with “a Glock handgun, a Tavor X-95 assault rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.”
“Social” media spread anti-social views, allegations, threats, and lies freely. As you read this, they’re doing so pointing to January 20. Sheer luck and some heroism — who was officer who ran up those stairs, preventing access to the Senate chambers? — prevented greater loss of life this time. The President is as dangerous a head of state as the world has ever known, more emotionally and psychologically disturbed, better weaponized, less subject to advice or contrary influences. Yes, Hitler, Mao, and Stalin were massively evil. So were dictators in places like Indonesia and throughout Africa. Their evil deeds wound their nations’ survivors down to today.
There are plenty of things wrong, and plenty of things undemocratic, about this country’s electoral system. Without, as Trump has done, making up things that are demonstrably untrue.
With the disgraceful support of more than a hundred Republicans on Capitol Hill, he failed to convince Congress that he was right and state officials were wrong in certifying his loss on November 3.
There’s now less than two weeks left until he and his frighteningly out of control regime is gone. In that interval, another “flood of failures” can be pretty easily avoided.
That, potentially, is the good news. The bad is now all too easy to imagine.
(Larry Bensky can be reached at LBensky@igc.org)