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“A Day Unlike Any Other”: Two First-Person Accounts of the Capitol Riot

May 7, 2021
by Rep. Linda Sánchez and Rep. Colin Allred, as told to Katherine Blesie and Leah Worthington

Two U.S. Representatives recount the harrowing events of Jan. 6.

REP. LINDA SÁNCHEZ (D-CALIF.): The night before [the Electoral College vote count], I called my husband and said, “In case anything happens to me, I want you to know where my will is.” He tried to reassure me, but I couldn’t shake my growing sense of unease.

The members of Congress who would be there on January 6 had been briefed about security protocol and told that the Capitol Police would have everything under control, but nothing I was told felt very convincing. The Capitol Police wouldn’t give out specific details about their security plan because they said they didn’t want the information to be leaked. That kind of stuck in the back of my mind. I had been seeing all of these stories about how people were being encouraged to show up with guns—that really made me uneasy.

When I got to the Capitol, I didn’t notice a big police presence. It looked like a normal day. During the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, the police looked like stormtroopers. They had on bulletproof vests and shin guards and helmets. I didn’t see any of that on the 6th.

REP. COLIN ALLRED (D-TEX.): I woke up early. My family was with me in D.C.—they’re not always there, but they were this time. I said goodbye. I drove into the Capitol and prepared for a long day—we’d been told that it might run all night.

I knew I was going to be on the floor during the joint session of Congress. We didn’t have a huge number of people on the Democratic side, and everyone was socially distancing for COVID. The Republicans, on the other hand, were sitting close together and, I think, excited about having the chance to overturn the election results. I remember the vice president, the Senate pages with the Electoral College results, and then the members of the Senate filing in. They started the process, which begins with Alabama—no challenge there. Alaska, no challenge there. And then Arizona. Ted Cruz [R-Tex.] stood up and said that he, along with the members of the House, were challenging the results. We recessed, split into our two different bodies, and began debating.

That was when we started getting notifications.

Rioters clash with police outside an entrance to the Capitol building. // Brent Stirton/Getty Images

SÁNCHEZ: I was on the House floor with some of my colleagues when I got a phone alert saying that the Madison Building—one of the buildings in the Library of Congress—was being evacuated. I wasn’t too worried because the Madison Building actually gets evacuated periodically for things like if somebody leaves a backpack unattended, and they think it’s a bomb. It’s also not as close to the Capitol Building as, say, the House office buildings.

But then about 10 minutes later, I got a second update from the Capitol Police that they were evacuating the Cannon House Office Building. That’s a building that has members’ offices in it. That’s when something triggered in me. I just got this intuition that said, “You need to leave the Capitol and go back to your office.” I got up from the gallery and got into the elevators that take me back through the tunnels to my office.

ALLRED: My office is in the Cannon Building, and we got a notification that they were evacuating because of a potential bomb threat. My wife, who was seven months pregnant and at home with our 23-month-old, was texting me and saying that it looked really bad outside of the Capitol. A few minutes into the debate, security detail swooped into the chamber and took the speaker, the majority leader, and the majority whip out pretty aggressively. I remember thinking that was very strange. Jim McGovern [D-Mass.] took over and tried to continue, but the Capitol Police came in saying the building was under attack, that we were to shelter in place.

We were just sitting and waiting.

Then the order came for us to pull out the gas masks beneath our chairs—they call them “hoods”—because they had deployed tear gas in the rotunda. The rotunda’s only a few feet away from the House floor, and I just couldn’t believe that this was happening. Ruben Gallego, who’s a Democratic congressman from Arizona and a former Marine, was standing up on one of the chairs and yelling to breathe slowly when you put the gas mask on so you don’t hyperventilate. At this point, I’m texting my wife, and she’s asking where I am. I said, “I’m on the House floor,” the assumption being that, if you’re on the floor, you’re basically in one of the most protected spaces in the country. And I sent her a text that I never thought I’d have to send in this line of work saying, “Whatever happens, I love you.” She just wrote back, “I love you too.”

Congress members wear gas mask “hoods” as they evacuate the House floor. // AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

SÁNCHEZ: I was walking toward the elevator when I heard a boom in the distance. I didn’t know what it was, so I took the elevator back to my office, where I got an order to shelter in place that said to stay away from the windows, turn off the lights, and silence our electronic devices.

My chief of staff was in my office with me. She and I barricaded the door. We grabbed the baseball bats from my closet that I once used in a congressional baseball game and hunkered down. We kept the TV on, without sound, because we wanted to know what was going on. What we saw on the TV was violent—glass was shattering and the Capitol Police were being overrun and people were using flags to beat the doors down and get in.

Then they said that the Capitol had been breached. I just sat there thinking, “Oh, my god, they’ve breached the Capitol.” I couldn’t wrap my head around it. How long before they get into my building? Into my office? I was terrified. Given the security response so far, I had no idea what was going to happen.

I kept thinking over and over again, “I have an 11-year-old son. I want to live to see him grow up.”

ALLRED: I took off my jacket and stood up—I’m a pretty big guy, you know. I played NFL. I took a stanchion, unscrewed it, and had it in my hand like a club. I figured if this was the last stand, I was going to arm myself. We could see that the Capitol Police on the House floor—who wear suits and normally look just like anyone else—had their guns drawn. They barricaded the doors with furniture. They’re not security doors; they’re very old, they’re supposed to be decorative. As we were trying to evacuate, I could see the glass being broken on the doors, like they were trying to break through. It was surreal.

Rioters in a Capitol hallway // AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

SÁNCHEZ: We were in my office maybe half an hour when we heard the heavy footsteps in the hallway. It sounded like more than one person. Then we heard pounding on our door. My chief and I looked at each other, and in that moment our hearts kind of stopped. Then the people identified themselves as Capitol Police.

They took us to a secure location in the Longworth Building. I was there for maybe eight minutes with my colleagues who had been trapped up in the gallery. Everybody was in shock.

ALLRED: We were evacuated through a series of tunnels and taken to a secure location. We were there for four hours, maybe longer. It was tense in that room, in part because some of the biggest proponents of the rally, the ones most fired up about challenging the results, were also in the safe room. There’s a certain irony in that. But the biggest divide in our politics isn’t really between Democrats and Republicans; it’s between those who believe in democracy and those who don’t. And unfortunately, we have members of Congress who showed that they don’t really believe in democracy.

SÁNCHEZ: I looked up at one point, and in one corner of the room there were maybe 25 Republican members of Congress without their masks, just on their phones and chatting with each other. I went over to the Capitol Police, and I said, “Can you enforce that?” They said no, and I said, “OK, I’m going back. I’d rather take my chances in my office.” They wouldn’t let me walk back by myself, so a few minutes later a police captain escorted me there, and my chief and I shoved the desks in front of the doors again.

We sat like that for hours until they were able to clear the Capitol.

ALLRED: A lot of pictures I was seeing online seemed like it was like a LARP [live action role playing game]. Having been there and heard the shouts and the banging, I knew that it was much, much worse and that we’d come very close to a mass casualty event. Of course, it turned out later that there were a lot of folks who were there to try and kidnap or detain—or execute—members of Congress and the vice president.

Because I’d been on the floor, I hadn’t seen Trump’s speech. But I knew that he’d called this rally, that he told people to come on January 6. He told them it was going to be wild. He said the vice president could choose to ignore the results and overturn the election. He fed these people all these lies and, in the words of Liz Cheney [R-Wyo.], “He assembled the mob, and he lit the flame that led to the attack.” It dawned on all of us, certainly me, that this is the worst attack on American democracy since the Civil War. This is the second time in our history that there’s been an enemy force that has entered the United States Capitol. There had to be consequences.

Capitol Police aim their guns through a barricaded door at rioters attempting to break into the House chamber // AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

SÁNCHEZ: It’s shocking to me that people were allowed to come in and trash the Capitol, that it was so easily breached. Not only did they break glass and doors and furniture, what’s really sick to me is that they shat and peed in the Capitol, like animals. They desecrated the seat of our democracy. I just can’t imagine somebody doing that and thinking that they were a patriot.

These were people who thought that the election had been stolen. They were fed a continuous loop of lies that was encouraged by the president, repeated by his advisers, and fortified by members of Congress.

It’s like facts don’t exist for these people. We’ve got to do a better job of fighting misinformation. People everywhere need to stand up and defend our democracy against people who repeat lies for political gain. We can’t begin to heal as a nation until there is accountability, and it’s up to the public to hold these people accountable.

ALLRED: I wanted to get back as soon as we could. I thought it was very important that we go back to the House floor, that we not let these insurrectionists win. Even after all that, the Republicans still challenged the Pennsylvania results. That was one of the most disappointing things of the entire day. But the most important thing was that we came back and affirmed the results.

We didn’t end up casting the final votes to certify the Pennsylvania results until 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning. Finally the gavel came down, and we went home.

I’m not sure that any of us feel safe anymore. Even driving home, you don’t know—you assume that many of the folks inside the Capitol are still in Washington. But I was glad just to pull into my garage and put the day behind me.

SÁNCHEZ: It was a day unlike any other—I can’t forget it. I just want to cry for our democracy.

There are still members of Congress today that will say the election was stolen and that advocate violence against members of Congress. I don’t feel safe going back to the Capitol to work with members that are carrying guns and not obeying the protocols of going through metal detectors.

If these insurgents had reached the floor, there’s a good chance that many of my colleagues would not be here today. Once the adrenaline rush was gone, I started to feel anxiety and panic. I went to the airport to fly home, and in my boarding area were all these MAGA people without masks on boasting and bragging and gleeful about what they had done. It was like being re-traumatized all over again.

I almost couldn’t make it on the plane. My heart was racing. I was hyperventilating. But I wanted to get home to something that was familiar and comforting. I wanted to see my family, who, at certain points in that day, I wasn’t sure I was ever going to see again.

So I put my headphones in and got on the plane.

From the Spring 2021 issue of California.

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