Before the Insurrection

Things Absurd and Sinister

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Photo: Liz O'Gorek

On a corner of the east lawn of the Capitol Grounds Wednesday morning, a woman sang on a small stage, leaping about as she did so. A crowd stood on the grates to stay warm, eerily wrapped in the steam.

Some people wore costumes, enhancing the carnival atmosphere, including a woman in a white ball gown. She wore a sash labelled ‘election’ and had fake ballots stamped “STOLEN” in red pinned to her skirts. Another woman was dressed as the Statue of Liberty.

Things can be both absurd and sinister.

The crowd turned suddenly and viciously. On Wednesday at around 3 p.m., a group of insurrectionists supporting President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims of electoral fraud smashed their way into Capitol Hill. Four died and 26 were arrested in the building and on its grounds.

The people lingering on the grounds Wednesday morning were among the hundreds who arrived hours earlier for the “Wild Protest,” answering the call put out by Trump Dec. 19 on Twitter.

As I headed from the Hill to the Capitol at around 11 a.m. Wednesday, the pedestrians around me gradually transformed. I watched one man, who had shared sidewalks with me since the 300 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE, arrive at the Capitol Grounds. He reached into his backpack and changed from a khaki bomber jacket one emblazoned “TRUMP” in red white and blue. He was unwilling to announce his support in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, but he pulled it out on the grounds of Capitol Hill.

Many of those early arrivals said they were surprised at the numbers that had turned out for events on the Ellipse and the Mall. They told me they were sure the numbers at the Capitol would swell once Trump stopped speaking to the crowd.

Almost none were masked.

Foster, a bearded man fighting to keep a grip on his sign in the wind, told me he had come from Connecticut on the train to “sit in McConnell’s office and drink coffee.” His aspiration, he told me, was to become a comedian on a cruise ship.

Gesturing at my mask, Foster told me that he believed COVID was created by the Democrats. He said he was surprised that the Trump crowd was permitted to gather. “I thought there’d be poison gas, or an oil tanker would blow up or something,” he told me.

Many others I spoke to expressed their conviction that the election had been stolen, and said they were on a mission to ‘save America’. One man held a pole bearing the U.S. flag, with two more, ‘Trump 2020″ and “Georgia for Trump” waving above it.

“Do you believe in America? Do you want to save America for your children and your grandchildren?” he asked the crowd, to nods. “That is why we are here!”

Some told me they believed Trump would ‘save’ the nation, and were specific about their meaning. One woman wearing a Trump flag as a cape said she had driven from New Jersey early that morning. She said she believed that Trump would guide the country away from sin, citing in particular his stance against abortion.

When I pointed out that Trump was accused of assaulting women and cheating on his wives, she dismissed me. “Show me a politician who is fully honest,” she said. “We want someone who makes the moral choices for the country, someone who can save it.”

“Because it’s going the wrong way.”

At almost noon exactly, a crowd dressed in dark clothing filled the roadway on the Unit block of First Street NE. At the front of the crowd, young white men in black jackets marched west, past the Russell Senate Building. “We the people will never accept Joe Biden!” one shouted through a bullhorn, some flashing signs of white supremacy as another called, “God Bless the USA!”

The men took nearly a full minute to pass, headed towards the National Mall.

At around 2 p.m., the crowds of Trump supporters headed from the Mall and Ellipse back towards the Capitol. “There was a discernable change in their demeanor as they proceeded east along Pennsylvania Avenue,” Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Chief Robert J. Contee said at a press conference later that afternoon.

As the crowds swelled, exactly as the early arrivals had predicted, they began smashing through the lines of the Capitol Police, then through the windows in the doors to the building, then into the Capitol Building itself.

When I left the crowd at the Capitol, the woman from New Jersey had wished me well. “May God be with you,” she said.

I went back home. The crowd went the wrong way.