Times Reporters Discuss Their Experiences Outside the Capitol

A New York Times team was out on Jan. 6, 2021, to cover what was expected to be a modest “Stop the Steal” rally on the Ellipse.,

A team was deployed on Jan. 6, 2021, to cover what was thought to be a modest “Stop the Steal” rally on the Ellipse.

Jonathan Weisman headshot

Jonathan Weisman

Hey everyone, welcome back a year later. This is about half The New York Times team that was deployed on Jan. 6, 2021, to cover what we thought was going to be a modest “Stop the Steal” rally on the Ellipse, featuring the outgoing president bellowing his outrage, and a protest to follow. Word on the street that morning was actually that Donald Trump and family were disappointed at the turnout and were not expecting much. There had been a bellicose rally the night before featuring folks like the InfoWars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, but attendance was thin. What do you remember?

Zolan Kanno-Youngs headshot

Zolan Kanno-Youngs

I remember heading to the Ellipse in the morning expecting maybe a couple of scuffles but mostly a raucous Trump rally. Jonathan, you were my editor at the time, and I actually remember telling you that morning that I would spend most of my time talking to Trump supporters at the Ellipse for a story that raised the question of whether they would be loyal to the Republican party after the Electoral College vote. I thought the day story would be a political analysis – not one of the worst attacks on the Capitol since 1812.

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Jonathan Weisman headshot

Jonathan Weisman

Not one of the worst – THE WORST, since 1814, but yeah, that’s how I remember the day starting, too.

Matthew Rosenberg headshot

Matthew Rosenberg

I remember going to the rally that previous night and feeling the anger. The rally was not huge – maybe one or two thousand people, tops. But they were spoiling for a fight. There were many ordinary civilians. But there were a few dozen men from the Three Percenters, an anti-government militia, and a couple of Proud Boys. They were wearing tactical vests and helmets, and they were all talking about how they were ready to fight Antifa just like they did at previous pro-Trump rallies in November and December.

Jonathan Weisman headshot

Jonathan Weisman

I remember you at that rally. Did you have a bad feeling about what might unfold the next day?

Matthew Rosenberg headshot

Matthew Rosenberg

Absolutely. The rhetoric from the speakers was bellicose. One of the speakers said “Today, we don’t fight lions and bears. We fight liberals and RINOS.” She then added: “It is time for war,” and declared, “Let’s stop the steal.”

I ended up leaving shortly before the rally ended, after I interviewed a few of the Three Percenters and one of them, who had clearly had enough of my questions, told me “we know what to do with people like you.” He was holding a club. I figured it was best to make my exit.

Adam Goldman headshot

Adam Goldman

Hi. The first thing I remember is watching someone die. I had just made my way on my bike to the Capitol and positioned myself on the west side of the rotunda. There were loud bangs and plumes of smoke (presumably tear gas) when I noticed someone fall to the ground just a few feet in front of me. I quickly noticed it was a man. He had collapsed. Paramedics quickly descended on the scene to help him, but he was clearly turning blue. I watched as they tried to revive him with no success. A woman standing next to me had the man’s phone and wallet. So I asked to see his wallet so I could get his name and address. I wanted to call the family at some point and let them know what happened. I ended up writing a short piece about the man, who was from Alabama and had died of a heart attack. I ended up speaking with the man’s wife, who asked me if her husband had suffered. I said I didn’t think so. It all happened very quickly.

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Jonathan Weisman headshot

Jonathan Weisman

We had a WhatsApp channel for communication, and that was the first big shock, a message coming over from Adam saying, I think someone just died next to me. It was surreal.

What triggered you guys to move from the Ellipse to the Capitol? Were you just following the crowd?

Zolan Kanno-Youngs headshot

Zolan Kanno-Youngs

Matt, your reflection on the night before reminds me of an interview that still sticks with me. I was interviewing a married couple from Abilene, Texas, at the Ellipse. I’m not sure if they participated in the attack on the Capitol later. They were adamant that Trump’s false statements about the election being rigged were true. But they also said, “We’re not going to tear down, burn up, hurt people” if the electoral vote was finalized, but they would “fight again.” When I asked them to elaborate, another man jumped in to say, “We’re 30 seconds away at any time in this country at any time from a revolution. We’re waiting, and we’re ready.” He turned before he could give me his name, but that gave me a sense that the tension at this rally was maybe higher than I had witnessed all year.

Jonathan Weisman headshot

Jonathan Weisman

Zolan, I remember you being maybe the first reporter to be filing from the West Front of the Capitol. You said you were hearing big bangs, which you thought were flash bang grenades. When did you realize a protest was turning into a riot?

Zolan Kanno-Youngs headshot

Zolan Kanno-Youngs

Funny you should ask, Jonathan. I remember calling you, shortly before Trump encouraged his supporters to walk down to the Capitol, and telling you I was ready to go back to the newsroom and write that political analysis. I believe you said something like, “Let’s just wait a bit to see if there’s any violence.” Trump then made his statement and off I went.

Adam Goldman headshot

Adam Goldman

One of the best decisions I made that day was riding my bike to the Capitol to cover the protests-turned-riot. I was able to maneuver around the area easily. The bike came in handy when a colleague told me to head toward two spots where authorities had defused a pair of deadly pipe bombs near the Republican and Democratic committee headquarters. The pipe bombs were yet another sign this was not some peaceful protest.

Jonathan Weisman headshot

Jonathan Weisman

Our colleague, Sabrina Tavernise, continued to file from the Ellipse, recounting what Trump was saying. He did tend to go on and on. Finally, I said, “Sabrina, I can watch Trump. Please get to the Capitol!”

Adam Goldman headshot

Adam Goldman

I watched the police lines collapse on the north side of the Capitol. At the time, I kept wondering why there weren’t more police to contain the rioters. It was shocking. The rioters then just made their way up the steps to the Capitol as a dozen or so police tried to stop them. I kept thinking they were gonna go inside the Capitol. And they did.

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Zolan Kanno-Youngs headshot

Zolan Kanno-Youngs

When I’m in a big crowd during a protest or riot, I usually try to stand in a place where I can have an easy exit. One of the first signs to me when I got to the Capitol that this was going to be different was how quickly the crowd enveloped you. It was tough to move. Another sign came when I looked up and saw some in the mob had climbed the structure set up, I would think, for cameras for the inauguration. Looking back at my notes, at 1:21 p.m., I messaged you that I heard what sounded like flashbangs going off. But then my phone connection shut off! (This would prove to be a big challenge during the day).

Jonathan Weisman headshot

Jonathan Weisman

In retrospect we were all able to see the videos from the protesters, from body camera footage, and saw the violence aimed at the police, but were you aware of that from your vantage points?

Matthew Rosenberg headshot

Matthew Rosenberg

No. It was chaos.

Adam Goldman headshot

Adam Goldman

I followed some rioters as they broke inside the Capitol on the north side. There was tear gas and pandemonium as the police tried to repel the attack, unsuccessfully. One guy was in the middle of the melee with his dog. I decided to stay outside the Capitol and watch as the madness unfolded.

Matthew Rosenberg headshot

Matthew Rosenberg

We could see snippets. I managed to interview on video a guy named Bigo Barnett who was bragging about breaking into Nancy Pelosi’s office. I basically stumbled upon him on the west steps of the Capitol, probably 20 yards from where some of the worst violence was unfolding. He had just come out of the building and his shirt was torn open leaving him bare chested in the frigid weather. Only hours later did I learn that a photographer had actually gotten a picture of him sitting at a desk in Pelosi’s office.

Jonathan Weisman headshot

Jonathan Weisman

Yeah, I remember. Didn’t he have a souvenir, like part of her name plaque, Matt?

Matthew Rosenberg headshot

Matthew Rosenberg

He had a letter. He was bragging about how he stole it off of Pelosi’s desk.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs headshot

Zolan Kanno-Youngs

I think if I had to pick a moment, it was when phone reception was restored and I called you, Jonathan, to dictate the first paragraph that we would publish that day on the attack. As we were speaking, folks were starting to run past what you could already notice seemed to be an outnumbered police line. After dictating that paragraph, I think I said something like, “This is actually happening. This is really happening.” Just to make the point.

Jonathan Weisman headshot

Jonathan Weisman

Everyone’s vantage point was in some ways subjective. Sabrina couldn’t join us today, but she entered the Capitol with the rioters from the East Front and remembered it being strangely calm, rioters and Trump supporters just milling around the Crypt below the Rotunda, really not knowing what to do.

I’ll never forget at the end of the day watching footage of a stream of rioters leaving the Capitol finally, and Sabrina casually leaving with them, notebook in hand. She is an experienced war correspondent – totally unfazed.

Adam Goldman headshot

Adam Goldman

I have a regret that day: My phone died quickly after taking a lot of video. I had brought a small portable charger, which only bought me a little more time to take videos. I had to leave for 30 minutes or to grab a bigger charger. One thing I don’t regret: Wearing a new N95 mask. I thought for sure I was gonna catch Covid, as very few people were wearing masks. But I didn’t get Covid. The mask worked.

Matthew Rosenberg headshot

Matthew Rosenberg

It was amazing that day how you could walk mere feet and go from witnessing intense violence as protesters fought police on the steps of the Capitol to hanging out with a group of school teachers who had come up from North Carolina to see Trump speak and then made their way to the Capitol with the crowd.

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Zolan Kanno-Youngs headshot

Zolan Kanno-Youngs

A year later, I think that’s one of the more jarring aspects of the attack, Matt. Sure we now know there were extremist and militia groups present that day. But there were also couples, teachers and others that just seemed to join in on the mob attack as it escalated.

Matthew Rosenberg headshot

Matthew Rosenberg

I mean, only a tiny percentage of those arrested for what they did that day are part of any organized group or militia. Most are what many people would describe as ordinary.
The most ordinary people were often the most violent. That’s what scared me.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs headshot

Zolan Kanno-Youngs

Good point. It’s probably a bit easier for the public to process that someone in an extremist group would take part in the attack. It gets a little bit more difficult and complicated when you start to wonder if a member of your community, maybe that you have had interactions with, could have joined in.

Adam Goldman headshot

Adam Goldman

Looking back on the day, I continue to ask questions about why the FBI wasn’t more prepared. Prosecutors have charged extremists as part of conspiracies. The FBI’s job is to prevent domestic and international terrorism attacks. Why didn’t the FBI thwart these conspiracies?

Jonathan Weisman headshot

Jonathan Weisman

Amazingly, a year on, they still haven’t caught the pipe bomber.

Adam, do you think the FBI’s failings had anything to do with the chaos at the agency wrought by Trump’s attacks on it?

Adam Goldman headshot

Adam Goldman

It remains unclear. FBI analysts never published an intel product about the looming threats that day. Why? Were people concerned it would anger the White House? I don’t know. I’ve spoken to plenty of people at the bureau who defend it and also say it should have done more to make sure everyone knew about the extreme dangers the Capitol was facing that day.

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Zolan Kanno-Youngs headshot

Zolan Kanno-Youngs

Speaking of the hazard, I feel like I should add there were some brief moments where I was worried for my safety. For one, I’m a Black reporter who was wearing a peacoat and wool 80’s sweater, so I stood out a bit. There was only one racist comment made against me while working. But there were other hateful comments centered on an assumption I was a reporter – a correct assumption! Again, it did not happen throughout the day, but they were still enough to make you even more aware of your surroundings.

Matthew Rosenberg headshot

Matthew Rosenberg

I spent 15 years overseas in some fairly violent places – Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia. At moments, Jan. 6 was intense. Not the entire day, and certainly not everyone who was there. But there were folks in the crowd who were ready to fight. One guy threw an elbow at me, hard, when he saw me interviewing another protester. He stumbled, though, and barely connected, thankfully.

Jonathan Weisman headshot

Jonathan Weisman

Ouch, I didn’t know that, Matt, and Zolan, one of the things we learned fairly quickly was that rioters were throwing racial epithets at Black cops pretty much all day long. It was ugly.

Adam Goldman headshot

Adam Goldman

I never really felt in harm’s way mainly because I was in the middle of the mob. I wasn’t facing the mob. I was moving with the mob. It was an odd feeling to be sure. But I remember thinking the folks inside the Capitol must have been terrified because they had no idea what the mob was going to do.

Jonathan Weisman headshot

Jonathan Weisman

Did you hear those chants? Where’s Nancy? Hang Pence?

Adam Goldman headshot

Adam Goldman

Almost immediately after the killing of Ashli Babbit, rumors started circulating among the mob. People said that the ATF (not true) had killed Ashli Babbit. They started yelling at the police, saying they had been betrayed by law enforcement. They claimed they supported law enforcement, and how could the police kill one of their supporters. It was surreal. People breaking laws while saying they supported the police, meaning the rule of law.

Jonathan Weisman headshot

Jonathan Weisman

So how did it end? I remember telling Zolan, you have to go write this story. Pull back and find a place to take out your computer and start writing. We had a front page story to put out. But what did you guys see bringing the mayhem to an end?

Zolan Kanno-Youngs headshot

Zolan Kanno-Youngs

The exact quote, Jonathan, was “Zolan, are you able to break away and write a story? It’s on A1 and currently doesn’t exist.”

Adam Goldman headshot

Adam Goldman

I wasn’t surprised to see QAnon folks in the crowd, right Matt?

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Matthew Rosenberg headshot

Matthew Rosenberg

Not at all. But it was remarkable how many other people in the crowd who would say they did not buy into QAnon repeated many of the conspiracy theory’s main ideas about powerful pedophiles and vaccines filled with nanobots and all kinds of other nonsense.

Joanthan, I think what brought it to an end was nightfall, and the temperature dropping.

Jonathan Weisman headshot

Jonathan Weisman

So not the National Guard’s arrival?

Matthew Rosenberg headshot

Matthew Rosenberg

People started to wander back to wherever they were staying, and the police by then were gaining control of the fighting.
The reinforcements certainly helped contain the fighting. But there were thousands of people who had to be cleared from the Capitol’s grounds. Dark and cold did as much to get them to go away as law enforcement.

Jonathan Weisman headshot

Jonathan Weisman

When did you guys really understand the importance of what you had witnessed?

Matthew Rosenberg headshot

Matthew Rosenberg

Once I saw the fighting at the Capitol it was clear that something had gone very wrong in American democracy.

I’ve lived in countries with political violence. It was deeply troubling to see it at the very steps of Congress.

It usually signifies far deeper problems and divisions, which I think have become fairly clear over the past couple of years.

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Zolan Kanno-Youngs headshot

Zolan Kanno-Youngs

There is an image stuck in my head of men in body gear using American flags to break the windows and beat the doors of the East Front. I think that’s really emblematic of the threat to democracy that day.

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