Jan. 6: A Dark Day in American History

A woman is photographed Jan. 8 outside the US Capitol. Photo: Peter C. McCall

On January 6, just after lunch, my wife Celeste strolled nine blocks from our home to the U.S. Capitol grounds.  It was an historic day: Congress was recertifying the 2020 election results.

Sporting a Biden button and mask, she stood on the fringes of the Capitol’s East Front and chatted with an amiable US Capitol Police officer. He assured her, “It’s going to quiet here today. All the commotion is downtown, on the Mall.” Celeste felt safe, unaware of what was about to unfold.

Within the next few minutes (around 2 p.m.), all hell broke loose. An unruly mob had breached not-so-tight security and gathered on both fronts of the Capitol, screaming “Stop the Steal!”

Celeste, a Capitol Hill journalist, moved closer to photograph the rioters as they climbed the East Front’s center steps leading to the Rotunda. She did not realize then that some of the barbarians had entered and ransacked the hallowed halls of Congress, forcing evacuation and delay of the recertification process.

Meanwhile, at home, I was frantic as I watched TV coverage of the insurrection. Worried about my wife’s safety, I called her iPhone several times, admonishing her: “Come home immediately, the Capitol has been breached.”

Celeste arrived home about a half-hour later, out of breath, but still unaware of the extent of the assault on our democracy. Together, we were shocked, saddened and maddened as we viewed the deplorable vandalism of America’s most venerable landmark on television.

Since moving to DC from Chattanooga in 1971, I’ve resided within 14 blocks of the Capitol. I originally worked on the Hill as a congressional press secretary, and I still experience pangs of patriotism each time I observe the glistening dome, symbol of our freedom. During the ongoing pandemic, Celeste and I often walk to the Capitol or Supreme Court grounds, where we find peace and serenity.

As a licensed DC tour guide for nearly 15 years, I’ve led hundreds of visitors—from Eighth graders to World War II veterans–through the sacred spaces of the citadel of liberty. I’ve enjoyed describing our Capitol’s rich architecture, its history dating to 1793 when George Washington laid the cornerstone, and its significant role–since 1800 when Congress moved here from Philadelphia–in creating laws that govern us.

However, I’ve been disturbed that stringent and harsh security measures create a non-welcoming–even intimidating—ordeal for those entering America’s “cathedral.”  Visitors sometimes need to take off their shoes, belts and even wedding rings to pass though the metal detectors.

Such fortified security seemed absent January 6. Why? Were some Capitol Police officers—or even members of Congress–sympathetic with the rioters who seemed to know their way around when they stormed the Capitol?

Like many guides, I’ve encountered negative experiences with rude Capitol Police officers, especially going through security. Cops sometimes yell at schoolkids as they enter the Capitol Visitor Center.

On one tour, several young girls came to me in tears, complaining: “Why are the police so mean?” I was outraged and complained to the supervising officer on duty in the Capitol Visitors Center. On my next tour, I noticed the Capitol Police seemed more courteous and helpful to our visitors.

Unfortunately, a few officers seemed a little too helpful to rioters last week.

The federal police force’s duty is to protect Congress, not to enable the violent insurrectionists. The rowdy criminals should have been arrested on site and not allowed to waltz out of the building following their rampage.

Thankfully, many Capitol Police officers—reinforced too late by the Metropolitan Police Department and the National Guard–acted heroically and risked their lives seeking to quell the riot. For example, Officer Eugene Goodman strategically lured rioters away from the Senate chamber where lawmakers were taking cover.

Though outnumbered and overwhelmed, brave law enforcement officers engaged in hand-to-hand combat with far-right zealots to prevent more deaths. [A least five deaths resulted from the mob insurrection.] Flagpoles, pipes, stun guns, sledgehammers, bear spray and fire extinguishers were weaponized by the terrorists to maim and even kill as they desecrated hallowed ground.

On January 8, I walked past the now-fortified Capitol and photographed a woman holding a sign: “R.I.P. Police Officer Brian Sicknick murdered by Trump’s thugs.”

After observing the onset of the January 6 assault, Celeste pointed out that many of the pro-Trump supporters at the Capitol did not seem to participate actively in the destructive insurrection. However, the premeditated attack on the seat of American government—spurred by the president’s boisterous rally on the Mall–should never have happened.

How did it happen?  I believe a toxic brew of white supremacists and domestic terrorists were incited by a desperate, delusional despot determined to overturn President Biden’s hard-fought victory.

On January 13, a culpable president was impeached for the second time. Donald J. Trump might be out after January 20, but his dangerous crusade continues to polarize us. I pray that President Joe Biden can help unite and heal a heartbroken nation.

January 6 was the darkest day in American history since 9/11. Images were sickening: A Confederate battle flag was waved inside the inner sanctum of American democracy. Even Rebel General Jubal Early could not penetrate the Capitol when he invaded DC at Fort Stevens in 1864.

If DC had statehood in 2021, Mayor Bowser could have summoned the National Guard immediately, perhaps quelling the deadly invasion much earlier on January 6.

Now, a week later, high fences—some topped with razor wire–have been erected around the Capitol and Supreme Court grounds; downtown streets are blocked, and barricades surround us. Thousands of armed National Guard troops are camped inside the Capitol—just like Union soldiers were during our first Civil War in the 1860s.

Does history repeat itself? In 476 AD, barbarians sacked Rome. In 1814, British troops torched the Capitol and White House. And in 2021, our nation’s capital has been under siege. Our neighborhood is now a war zone.

Peter C. McCall is a former Congressional Staffer, a Capitol tour guide and a resident of Capitol Hill for nearly 50 years. He is married to Celeste McCall, writer of the Hill Rag’s Capitol Cuisine column.