As I headed to the “people’s house” on Capitol Hill, I passed a man in a Trump hat carrying a sign that read, “Big Tech Censorship Killed Democracy.”
A pair of young men, dressed in black military-style garb hurried past me on the sidewalk, heading away from the building. “Let’s get out of here before any of these cops start asking us questions,” I heard one say to the other.
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The worst of the US Capitol riot was already over. I did not yet know that violence had turned deadly. Out of my view, on the West side of the massive building, a large and aggressive crowd was still battling with police.
A man bumped into me. His body felt hard, and heavy. I turned to see he was wearing a bulletproof vest. He apologised. I asked if he would speak to a journalist. “No,” he said brusquely and hurried off.
A few moments later, on the steps of the US House of Representatives, I approached two men waving a large Trump flag and an American flag, respectively, I asked if they would talk to me, identifying myself as a reporter with Al Jazeera.
The man with the Trump flag immediately started shouting. “You’re fake media! Why don’t you print the truth for once? They stole this election,” he yelled, waving his flag pole close to my head.
The other man with a flag pole joined in, while a third man – dressed in black and carrying a small video camera on a selfie stick and a Capitol Police riot shield – came up behind me
I put my notepad back in my pocket, tucked my press credentials into my jacket and politely backed away. Judging it was unsafe to try to conduct interviews, I decided to mingle with the crowd to observe.
Walking to the centre of the Capitol plaza directly in front of the dome, I came upon a large group of Trump protesters who had occupied the steps and pedestals of the building. A police helicopter hovered to the north, its rotors chopping the air with a constant thwack-thwack-thwack.
A group of protesters with bullhorns stood on top of a police crowd-control vehicle. They were spouting a stream of conspiracy theories. The election had been stolen through an elite conspiracy against Trump and they had come to take back “the people’s house” as their own, they said.
Two men standing next to the police vehicle were dressed in military-style garb. They had Thin Blue Line, Israeli flag and “Don’t Tread on Me” patches affixed to their bulletproof vests and wore combat tactical gloves.
With protective eye goggles dangling around their necks, they were speaking into radios It appeared they were in contact with people inside the building. These were not Make America Great Again tourists. They appeared to be militia.
A large group of police in riot gear suddenly formed a phalanx by the House steps. From the crowd of Trump supporters who had stormed, the building came anxious shouts of, “Here they come!” and “Lock and load!” But police held their position.
About 100 feet away, bashing sounds and shouts could be heard as Trump supporters attacked and demolished television equipment in an area where members of the media had been working.
From inside the building, a line of about 16 police officers emerged to gradually push the Trump crowd off the balcony and down the steps. A woman started shouting. “You killed her. She was innocent,” she said, referring, I would later learn, to Ashli Babbit, a reported believer in the QAnon conspiracy theory who had been killed inside.
Further north on the Senate side of the east plaza, a group of about 50 police officers with riot shields and gas masks had formed a protective formation in front of the entrance to the Senate routinely used by staff and senators.
Trump supporters carrying a flag with the outline of an AR-15 assault rifle and the words, “Come and Take It” taunted them with slogans and insults. The police did not move.
Traces of pepper spray came on a cold wind blasting across the plaza. People started coughing and moving away. The sun had set and most of the people were dispersing.
A warning played through loudspeakers: the city’s 6 pm (23:00 GMT) curfew was taking effect in 10 minutes and anyone still in the area would be subject to arrest.
But by then, most of the mob had drifted away.