Inside the Capitol riot: What more than 500 Parler videos reveal
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The man's smartphone camera pans the crowd on the east side of the U.S. Capitol. It's smaller than what had amassed on the west side, but still an impressive sight. As he pans from atop the steps, he gives a front-line dispatch at 2:10 p.m., an hour after President Donald Trump had finished his remarks goading on the thousands of supporters who had come to Washington to protest the official certification of his electoral defeat.
“The cops were shooting us for a while, then they stopped," the man says, referring to an earlier series of flash-bang grenades. “We're up on the Capitol. I think they're going to breach the doors. It's getting serious. Someone's going to die today. It's not good at all."
He was right. Someone did die during the assault on the Capitol — not just one but five people, not counting the Capitol Police officer who took his own life three days later. And no, it was not good at all. It was an ignominious catastrophe the likes of which the country had never seen before.
But there was something else that set the attack apart: Not only had we not seen something like this, but we had never been able to see any major civil clash in the way we did this one, thanks to a seemingly limitless trove of video documentation. The internet has been awash with viral clips taken by participants and members of the news media — of one police officer being brutally beaten in the crush of a mob, of another officer leading attackers away from the Senate chamber, of outlandishly dressed invaders in the Capitol.
In fact, there is vastly more video to examine because of the circumstances of this protest-turned-invasion. Not only were a great number of the participants using their smartphones to document themselves and their compatriots as they launched the attack, but many of them in turn shared the footage on Parler. That social media service had of late become the right's chosen alternative to “Fascist-book," as one participant at the Capitol referred to Facebook. Parler's failure to “effectively identify and remove content that encourages or incites violence against others" led Amazon to expel the site from its cloud-hosting servers.
Some people managed to grab the material before Parler went down, and one of them shared a trove of videos with ProPublica. We culled the collection to some 500 videos uploaded to Parler by people in the vicinity of the White House and Capitol on Jan. 6, and sorted them by time and location, thus giving the public an immersive experience that would previously have been impossible to achieve without being there amid the clouds of tear gas and pepper spray and the crush of bodies pressing toward their goal.
The videos are certainly not the last word on the subject, but taken together they do help us answer two key questions about the mob: Who were they and what were their motivations? In a decade, historians will still be writing doctoral dissertations about these questions, just as they did about the crowd that stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789 or the mob in Adolf Hitler's beer hall putsch. But these Parler videos deepen our understanding and take us beyond the glimpses visible so far from the relatively small number of people who have been charged with crimes.
To watch most of these videos, as I sought to do in recent days, and see the seat of our representative government turned into the object of a violent attack by fellow Americans is overwhelming. And what struck me most about them is just how much this assemblage of people assaulting the Capitol reminded me of people I had seen and spoken with over the years at regular Republican campaign events, going all the way back to Sarah Palin's electric appearances in 2008. At my first Trump rally in 2016, at an airplane hangar outside Dayton, Ohio, I had been amazed by the cross section on display: There were husbands in golf caps with well-manicured wives, frat boys, fathers with sons. All of them, all that year, had thrilled to Trump's toxic rambles about heroin-toting Mexicans, Democratic voter fraud (a theme he had picked up from plenty of more conventional Republican politicians) and “the swamp" in Congress. Never mind that the Republican Party controlled the lower chamber of the legislature for eight years of the decade and the upper chamber for six.
And now here were many of the same people, or at least, the ones with the means and will to make the trip, a sort of travel-team self-selection of the usual crowds, combined with ranks of the white-supremacist warriors who had descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. As at all those rallies, there were the rootless young men spoiling for a fight, and there was also a huge range of more bourgeois sorts — from people who presented as suburban dads to one real estate agent who flew in by private plane, announcing her plans to “storm the capitol" on Facebook — eager for a spectacle, or something more. And they were saying the same things I'd been hearing from them for years.
Except there was one difference: They were actually there, in Washington, at the Capitol — the very targets of their rhetorical fury all those years. And one way of looking at the videos is that they are the story of thousands of people discovering the connection between the rhetoric and the fact of their presence there, at the actual building. Some are so stunned by the connection that they don't really know what to do about it and mostly hang back. Many others respond to the sudden proximity as if a forgotten, dust-covered cord had been plugged into a power source. They feel the inexorable surge, and they advance.
Another man is panning with his camera from atop the inaugural stands on the east side of the Capitol. “They're firing their tear gas at us, the flash-bang grenades, but there's nothing they can do," he says. “And we said, screw it, you've only got so much tear gas. They shot it all and now look, we took it over. This is our house. This is not their house. Our tax money pays for their salaries, our tax money pays for everything. It pays for their freaking $40,000 furniture allotment for their offices while we have families starving in the street."
Our house. It is the most dominant phrase of any of the chants shouted by the mob as it presses into the Capitol. It is an expression of entitlement — white nativist entitlement, as many have noted: This is our house, our country. It's the entitlement that leads one invader to pick up a phone in a Capitol corridor in one video and say: “Can I speak with Pelosi? Yeah, we're coming for you, bitch. Mike Pence? We're coming for you too, fucking traitor."
What is striking about the videos, though, is how often this entitlement is laced with insecurity. The attackers profess ownership of this house, but so much of their commentary betrays discomfort and alienation within it, bordering on a sort of provincial awe. “This is the state Capitol," a man says to his young female companion inside the visitor center, his struggle to grasp the grandeur of the place encapsulated in his incorrect terminology. “It's amazing," she says, as a man dressed as a Roman centurion, complete with sandals, wanders by.
Upstairs, an invader rushes into the Capitol Rotunda with the mob, but then he can't help himself. He turns astonished tourist, as his camera sweeps up to the dome. Outside, a young man in the crowd pressing past the inaugural stands' scaffolding shouts out to no one in particular: “All these fucking years I couldn't see in here. I'm going to see it today!" Nothing, in fact, had ever kept him from seeing this public building. But in his mind, he had been barred.
The uncertainty of the claim to possession of the house manifests itself in the mob's ambivalence about whether to trash it. Again and again, various people in the crowd decry those who are actually trying to do the violent work of breaching the building that the mob is pushing to enter. When a pudgy-cheeked young man jumps up onto the sill of a large window on the east face and smashes in four panes with his fists and feet and several cops rush over to tackle him, an onlooker shouts out: “The police are just doing their job. He's breaking the law!" When a middle-aged man climbs up to one of the arched windows over the West Terrace doors that would become the site of the most violent clashes and starts trying to smash it in with a heavy tool, many in the crowd lash out at him as others pull him down. “Oh God no, stop! Stop!" “What the fuck is wrong with him?" “He's Antifa!"
And when two men who have, to great applause, climbed up onto a painter's rig dangling in front of the building start trying to break the windows, the crowd turns on them. “Don't break my house!" someone shouts. “No, no, no." It's not hard to imagine the perplexity on the part of those attempting the violent break-in: Are you all trying to invade this building, or aren't you?
The shakiness of the claim of ownership is also apparent in the now-famous moment of Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman shrewdly leading the invaders up the stairs and away from the Senate chamber, which one of the Parler videos shows from the perspective of the mob. They might as well be Visigoths sacking Rome, so out of place are the trespassers here. (Driving home the barbarian comparison is the cry of another attacker: “Where are the fucking traitors? Drag them out by their fucking hair.") The invaders' disorientation is plain as they follow Goodman up the stairs, haplessly dependent on his guidance even as they threaten him. “Where's the meeting at?" one calls out. “Where do they count the fucking votes?"
Soon afterward, some marauders do reach the Senate, but it is by this time emptied of senators. They stand aimlessly in the balcony. “Where did you go?" one of them calls out. Another shouts, to no one in particular, “This is our house." But there is less conviction than ever behind the declaration. If it was indeed their house, would they have been stood up like this?
The flash-bang grenades sail into the crowd on the west side of the Capitol. “Fuck you, fucking traitors," shouts someone as they explode. “Fuck you!"
The traitors are, in this instance, the police. If the mob's bewilderment over the great building before them is one dominant feature of the day — whether to trash it or venerate it — its bewilderment over the police is even greater. Watching hundreds of Parler videos shows that the disturbing ones that first surfaced publicly, of officers taking selfies with protesters and otherwise laying down for the attackers, offered a picture that was far from complete.
The police visible in the videos fought tenaciously, and the resulting sense of betrayal in the crowd is palpable. All summer, as the police had battled with Black Lives Matter protesters and rioters, the American right had defended them as guardians of law and order. And this, the Capitol protesters seemed to be saying, is how we're rewarded — with billowing tear gas and blows from batons? “You motherfuckers," shouts a middle-aged woman in a wool pullover and a “Spread Love" cap as another tear-gas canister whistles down.
Also on the west side of the building, another woman shouts: “We're done with the police. You're going to have Antifa, Black Lives Matter and the Republicans all hating you guys!" Nearby, a man joins in: “You're on the wrong side of history, guys."
The cries echo for hours:
“Oath over your paychecks! Fuck you, guys. You can't even call yourselves Americans. You broke your fucking oath today. 1776, bitch."
“You should be ashamed, fucking pansies."
“They'll play like your friend, then stab you in the back."
“They're gonna fire on Americans, these bastards. You treat us like China. This isn't China."
Here and there, there are glimpses of invaders still assuming the police must be on their side, such as the man who, describing the fatal police shooting of Ashli Babbitt inside the Capitol minutes earlier to people on the outside, says that two other cops at the scene were opposed to the shooting. “I feel sorry for these two guys, because they were just like, 'Why did you do that?'" As reinforcements file into the Capitol, one of the invaders shouts out: “Back the blue. We love you!" as if the cops were there for some reason other than her and her mates.
And here and there, there are glimpses of people trying to restrain others. “Do not throw shit at the police," a man says through a bullhorn on the west side. “Do not engage with the police." “Do not hurt the cops!" shouts another. But this does nothing to prevent the coming clashes, including the extraordinary melee after the mob breaks across the terrace on the west side and one man lurches forward with a nasty blind-side body-blow against an officer, toppling him over a barrier, and another man rushes forward to hurl a fire extinguisher, hitting an officer in the head. (This was separate from the attack in which a fire extinguisher was used to strike Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, in another of the day's fatalities.)
It is hard not to notice that the tension appears especially intense in the crowd's encounters with Washington's municipal police, which include a visibly higher share of Black officers than the Capitol Police, as in one moment where the cops strain especially hard to hold their line outside the Capitol, or when some new reinforcements march in on the periphery. “Trick or treat, trick or treat! What is this, fucking Halloween?" shouts one man, mocking their riot gear, before pivoting to mocking some of them for being out of shape: “1-800-Jenny Craig! Call Jenny Craig. She can help you assholes."
More representative, though, for its sheer contradiction is the scene as another group of cops arrives near the Senate office buildings along Delaware Avenue.
A woman walking in the opposite direction, with her camera out, tells them: “God Bless. Thank you."
A man walking with her tells the cops: “Don't kill no more of our patriots. You guys won't kill Black Lives Matter, but you'll shoot us."
“God Bless," she tells them.
“Remember your oath," he tells them.
“Stay safe," she tells them.
Inside the Capitol, in a stately, high-ceilinged office suite, marauders mill around, grabbing things off the desks, knocking things over. “Don't break stuff!" a young woman hollers at them. “Stop! That's not why we're here."
But why are they there? The more videos one watches, the more overwhelmed one is by the variety of motivations and profiles. Seen one way, this is one of the most homogenous large crowds one could ever find in America 2021, so heavily white is it. Seen another way, it is a hodgepodge, a cross section of America that includes hardcore white supremacists and people you might run into at a mall or a country club.
It is mostly men, but there are also many women. There are young women who look like they could have come straight from a college campus, in puffy jackets and pompom hats. One, watching the invaders scale the lower Capitol walls on the west side, tells her friends: “They are climbing the walls! I mean, I wish I could, but I didn't bring the shoes for it."
There are many middle-aged and older women, too. Some keep warm by wrapping themselves in the Stars and Stripes, like marathon runners with their tinfoil sheets. Others are draped in wool scarves and nice blankets, presenting a far more conventional and even upper-class vibe than the viral images of young men costumed with animal horns and pelts. Some of these women even enter the building.
There are so many older men. Some of them are walking with canes or in wheelchairs or scooters. And some of them are at the front lines. Here, two sixtyish men bashing in an ornamental wooden window box, one using a flagpole. There, a white-haired man, easily 70, engaged in some of the most violent brawling at one of the east-side entrances.
There are men, older and younger, who slide gleefully into war-reenactor mode, tossing off battle lingo as if they are at Antietam or the Ardennes. “OK, what's happening is at the front, we're pushing forward as hard as we can," one paunchy man with a white beard and white MAGA hat . “While we're pushing forward, they're shooting us with percussion grenades. They're also pepper-spraying us. They're bull-spraying us." He takes his cap off to show off the brown pepper-spray stain on the back. “We're not going to stop. We're going to push forward." One young man, barely out of boyhood, clambers up the inaugural scaffolding wearing a full GI Joe getup of fatigues and vintage-style M1 helmet.
And here and there are glimpses of the men who fancy themselves closer to actual warriors, like the twentysomething ones furtively removing their black tactical gear under the cover of a tree outside the Capitol as the action is subsiding and pulling on red MAGA sweatshirts to pass as mere Trump supporters. But there are actually few such ominous glimpses in all these videos — perhaps because these men are too discreet to be caught on camera, or possibly because there were actually relatively few such organized elements in the mix. If the latter, it would help explain why there was not more violence done within the Capitol itself, or why there was such chaos on display that at one point, a man was left hollering hopelessly at a motley crew of invaders inside a Capitol corridor, like a nursery school teacher before naptime: “Quiet! Quiet! Calmly and quietly sit down in this room."
More typical in the videos than the furtive crew under the tree are characters like the young bearded man who speaks to the phone he is holding just outside the building while brandishing a Capitol Police shield. “All right guys, we are at the Capitol right now. We are going to go back in," he says, and then comes the deadpan boast. “I'm the only one with a shield. I don't know why no one else brought a shield, but I brought one just in case they start shooting. Make sure, if you ever take over the Capitol or take over any other big place, you bring a shield." He pauses for comic effect. “You can't get one any place except out of a cop's hands." He grins. “OK, guys, thanks for watching."
There are so many flags — mostly American, but also Confederate, Gadsden, Canadian, Israeli, Romanian. One young woman accidentally whacks a young man with her flag and apologizes profusely. “Oh, my goodness, you're fine," he responds, smiling. “What better flag to be hit with?"
There are many such snatches of fellowship in the videos: strangers advising each other on how to get the pepper spray out of their eyes, or sharing news updates from the Electoral College proceedings inside the Senate, before the senators fled to safety. Watching these moments of cooperation and social warmth, the same thought crossed my mind as did in watching last year's mass protests over the police killing of George Floyd: that these events were grounded in political anger but intensified by the social dislocation of a pandemic and its associated lockdowns, which had left so many hungering for human contact and stimulation more than they themselves probably even realized.
As the assault is winding down, an older man stands on the west side of the Capitol recording people as they walk away from the building. “Good job, patriots. Whoo! Good job, man. Real Americans, right here. Americans! Women. Look at the women. Went up there. Good-looking guys. Nobody feared."
An older woman walking by stops and interrupts his encomiums. “You know they shot and killed a girl up there, don't you?"
She tells him about the fatal shooting of Ashli Babbitt. At that moment, a young man marches up to the older man. He is wearing an expensive-looking winter coat and a MAGA cap clipped to his backpack, and he is full of bravado over his hijinks during the Capitol takeover. He wants to share them with a random stranger.
“I got pepper-sprayed," he tells the man, proudly. “Not me, but the people in front of me in the crowd, and the wind came and hit me. Dude, you got to check out this video I got." He reaches around to his back pocket for his phone, but the older man breaks in.
“They said a girl got killed in the House," he says, somberly.
“How?" asks the young man.
“In the House. She went in the House and they told her to stop three times and they shot her in the neck."
The news of this death doesn't faze the young man at all. Still smiling coolly, he wants to pick right back up with the story of his adventure storming the Capitol. “See, I went all the way up there underneath the scaffolding. … I climbed up it. … Everyone was like push-push-push and the cops started pepper-spraying. … You got to look at this — "
“They killed an American girl," the older man says, trying to get him to focus on that fact. But it's no use. The young man keeps trying to show him his video clip of the pepper spray.
At almost exactly the same time, a man standing outside near the northwest corner of the Capitol — middle-aged, professorial-looking with glasses and a face mask dangling below his chin — speaks into his camera for a sober-minded report on the day. “Well, we were here," he says. “Until they can run free and fair elections in this country and make people believe it, we're going to have problems. They just have to figure out how to get these elections to work properly so there aren't all these irregularities and things that appear to be cheating, even if they're not. They just got to figure it out."
The man goes on. “I'm usually a pretty even-keeled, level-headed kind of guy, but all you've got to do is look at some of the videos to realize there was some shit that was really fucked up about the election." He pauses. “Clearly, there's millions of people in town today. There's people packed like sardines from the White House to the Washington Monument today. For the first time as far I'm aware in history, they broke the perimeters at the Capitol. I mean, they're pissed. I'm not keen on violence and breaking doors. But outside of that, there seemed to be no violence, and after hearing all summer long about city after city getting burned down, this was a mostly peaceful protest. This was what a mostly peaceful protest looks like."
He didn't appear to know about the deaths and extent of the violence. He had only his vantage point. But we now have many more vantages. And they give us the picture of what happens when something that was gathering across the land for years, and recklessly and cynically fomented by those who knew better, reached a culmination. There undoubtedly were some dangerous organized elements within the mob that attacked the Capitol. But what is scariest about these videos is that they show the damage that can be done by a crowd of unorganized Americans goaded and abetted by the leaders of an organized political party. The radical fringe is a cause for concern. The thousands of regular people whipped into a murderous rage is the real nightmare.
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