How the capitol riots happened – a reading

By Karen Heilemann | February 7th, 2022

On January 6th, the U.S. capitol was stormed by a mob of thousands of far-right Trump supporters. Breaking into the building and reaching every corner of the Capitol, they aimed at making their outrage over alleged election fraud heard, while trying to stop the certification of the presidential election. The capitol was left in a storm, the certification process was put on halt, hundreds of people were injured and five people died.

January 6th is a lot, to a lot of people. To some, it is a clear attack on democracy, while to others, it is simply a protest that escalated. To some it is a failure of law enforcement, possible through prevalent White Supremacy. To others, it is freedom of speech. To many people, it’s a complex system of events and ideas that came together to build devastation. 

But while we can take more than one stand on it, let us not reiterate claims already made.

Instead, let’s recap the day one by one. 

January 6th was a calendar-marked day. In the timeline of the U.S. presidential election, January 6th is the vital day that finalizes the results of the election. The Senate and the House of Representatives meet in a joint session starting at 13:00 to certify the electoral college votes of each state. As  president of the Senate, the sitting vice president announces the results, declaring the new president and vice president to be inaugurated on January 20th. Although Pence’s job was to “preserve order” over purely “ceremonial” matters, former president Trump made multiple claims over the vice president having the power to change the results of the election.

According to ABC, this was just one of numerous attempts to turn the election in his favor, encouraging the idea of an illegitimate election among some of his supporters since November. On December 19th, Trump tweeted to “Be there, will be wild” referring to his “Save America March” in front of the White house on January 6th. Investigations show there were already comments of people wanting to bring weapons, to overturn the election, or to occupy the Capitol in certain eco chambers.

Then, the morning of January 6th came. At 10:35,a group of “Proud Boys” – an alt-right, all-male organization – are gathered near the Washington Monument. Along with the conspiracy group QAnon, and as described by a rioter, “veterans, truck drivers, soccer moms” they make up the group of thousands of rioters to later storm the Capitol.

Meanwhile, thousands of people start to gather for the “Save America March” at the Ellipse, a park by the White House, 2.4km from the Capitol. Trump starts giving his speech at 12:01, showing various examples of alleged “election fraud” and once again indirectly referring  to Pence and his alleged power to turn the election in Trump’s favor. He calls his audience to action by walking down “Pennsylvania Avenue”, the road to the U.S. Capitol. 

During the Trump rally, protests first escalate at the Capitol. At 12:06, groups of the “Proud Boys” are marching towards the Capitol, reacting to Trump’s push to do so in the speech, slowly gathering thousands of people by 12:30. Over the next hours, rioters grow in numbers, holding up flags and Trump signs, while chanting “1776”. At 12:53, the protest becomes violent, as rioters pick up barriers in the scaffold set up for the inauguration, fight with the Capitol police officers, and try to make their way towards the building. At this time, Congress gets ready to certify the election results, state by state, to be started at 13:00 according to the U.S. constitution. At the White house, Trump ends his speech between 13:11 and 13:13 (deviation is given from different sources).

The attacks on the Capitol take on a more violent toll. Now in even larger numbers following the end of the rally, rioters vastly outnumber the police as they are trying to break the front line to get through to the entrance. At 13.30, the James Madison Memorial and the Cannon House are evacuated and 19 minutes later, the police finally declare the attacks a riot. Overwhelmed by the situation, the Capitol police calls for back-up by Washington DC police at 13:54. Moments later, the first rioters enter the building. 

Getting into the Capitol does not follow a linear line. Video footage shows rioters breaking through police lines and fighting with officers in the scaffolds at the Western side of the Capitol, eventually breaking in through the windows. On the Southeast side of the Capitol, a group of rioters breaks in through the door secured  with mere ten police officers. A total of 2000 people are believed to have broken into the building on January 6th. Moments later, in the Senate chamber, the senators and members of the House of Representatives are told that the mob is inside the capitol. Congress, except for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, proceeds with the certification and a few minutes later, Pence is also evacuated.

At the same time, group of rioters get close to the chamber on various occasions, always a few meters away from senators and representatives. One officer leads a small group of rioters away from the senate chamber doors, when these are not secure yet. Shortly after that, while members of Congress are still in the chambers, a large group of rioters are right in front of the door shouting “Stop the steal” and “We’re coming for you, Pence”. When Pence is evacuated, police urges members of Congress to remain in the chamber and search for their gas masks, until moments later the ground floor of the chamber is evacuated at 14:30. An even closer situation finds an encounter at the senate floor: Around 14:45, the members of Congress still present in the balconies of the chamber are evacuated by police, only separated by a glass door and a few meters from rioters on the other end. As veteran Ashli Babbitt tries to break her way towards the members of Congress, she is shot and dies minutes later of the injuries. Finally, at 15:03, the rioters targeted away from the chamber earlier, find their way into the senate chamber that was the center of the certification process.

De-escalation does not happen until hours later. At 15:13, in a tweet, Trump urges his followers to respect the police and be peaceful. After a speech by president-elect  Biden, and pushes by police to make a call, Trump shares a video urging rioters to “go home now” at 16.17. At 18:00, police eventually manages to get the situation under control after hours of chaos, leading congressional leaders to announce that they would continue counting half an hour later. The certification process is complete by 4:00, January 7th.

The memory of the day is full of inconsistencies, and no matter how much you research, there will always be a blind spot. But when piecing together the pieces of evident truths, we can make calls to judgment.