Friday, January 22

‘It was a free fight’: my day photographing the attack on the Capitol | Rape of the US Capitol

The morning the United States Capitol was stormed by Trump supporters, I knew it was going to be quite an important day. Agence France-Presse (AFP) had photographers all over the city and my job was to be inside the Capitol, photographing the joint session where the vote count would take place. But he had no idea what was coming.

I have worked in Washington for almost 14 years and this is definitely the craziest day I have ever worked. Not in a million years could you imagine that the United States Capitol would be overrun with protesters. It is a completely unprecedented territory.

I had started the day by photographing the session for 20 minutes and when it was suspended I went back to my laptop in another room. Suddenly, an advertisement warned us of a “security situation” inside the building, urging us to take refuge in the place.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks after the House met again to discuss objections to the electoral college's certification of votes.
The spokeswoman, Nancy Pelosi, speaks after the House of Representatives met after the riots to discuss objections to the electoral college’s certification of votes. Photograph: Saul Loeb / AP

As a photographer, the last place you want to be is trapped inside a room when everything is happening outside. So a group of us descended into the commotion on the second floor, just outside the door of the Senate chamber. It is a very internal part of the Capitol, normally a very safe area, so it is very unusual to see a protester, much less the 12-15 who were there.

That’s when I got my first big shot. Some of the protesters had face and body paint and were wearing costumes. One wore a Viking hat; one group carried Trump flags. Another had a Confederate flag. They were clearly Trump supporters there to disrupt things. They yelled at the police, who did their best to defuse the situation. Approximately 12 officers formed a line to prevent more from entering the building. For the most part, they were trying to interact with them, saying, “How can we solve this peacefully? How can we get you out of the building?

I thought, this is an area of ​​the Capitol that never has protesters. This is going to be a great story of the day. Little did he know that this was just the tip of the iceberg.

Donald Trump supporters enter the United States Capitol as tear gas fills the hallway.
Donald Trump supporters enter the United States Capitol as tear gas fills the hallway. Photograph: Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

Usually in a situation like this, the police act very quickly. They will throw individuals to the ground, handcuff them, and take them out quickly, but that is not what was happening. All of these people had somehow entered, and it was unclear if they had weapons or what their intentions were.

I heard commotion elsewhere and turned to the Rotunda, below the dome. Hundreds of protesters were arriving. It was then that I realized that this was so much bigger than I could have ever imagined. People put Maga hats on the statues and made them hold up their Trump flags, it was almost like a circus atmosphere.

I was afraid the police would clear everyone and stay with them, so I walked down the tunnel into the Senate and saw thick smoke in the air. People were withdrawing. People were running out of coughing and there was widespread insanity.

It was then that we saw people enter Nancy Pelosi’s offices. This is normally a very safe part of the building; she is the Speaker of the House of Representatives, second in line for the presidency; no one can just enter. But there were no staff, no police. It was simply a battle against everyone.

A member of the pro-Trump mafia sits in Nancy Pelosi's office on Capitol Hill.
A member of the pro-Trump mafia sits in Nancy Pelosi’s office on Capitol Hill. Photograph: Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

The protesters were sitting at desks, taking selfies and rummaging through the office. It was just a strange scene. I kept moving around the office and saw a guy with his feet up on the desk, looking at the mail and feeling at home. The staff had left in such a hurry that the computers were still on, with emails on the screens.

I chatted with the guy with his feet up on the desk. I think they were amazed. This is one of the safest buildings in Washington and here it is with protesters who seemed to have full control over the second floor of the United States Capitol. It was just mind blowing.

You always worry that people don’t want to be photographed and you don’t want anyone to become violent with you. But they didn’t realize or didn’t care that I was there. Nobody tried to hide their face, nobody tried to dissuade me from taking photos.

A Trump supporter leaves a note at Nancy Pelosi's office.
A note left by a Trump supporter in Nancy Pelosi’s office. Photograph: Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

Soon the crowd started to get bigger and more volatile, so we went through another narrow hallway, turned a corner and met a team of Swat police who had their rifles as seen in the movies, sweeping the area, going from room to room and immediately. they say, “Hands up! Who are you? “It was definitely surprising. I think it’s the first time a gun has been pointed at me.

They let us pass and told us to seek refuge. Three of us barricaded ourselves in an office on the third floor where I could charge and check my phone. My wife knew I was in the Capitol and was very concerned. At some point he sent a text message saying that shots had been fired inside the building, but that is the only news I received about it. When you are photographing, you are on autopilot and don’t have time to think about what is really happening.

A United States Capitol police officer wears a gas mask.
A United States Capitol police officer wears a gas mask. Photograph: Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

I don’t know how what happened was made possible. During political conventions, openings, including the State of the Union, put up huge metal fences around the building. During the Black Lives Matter protests, they installed it around the White House for maybe up to a month. But that just wasn’t there that morning.

During an event like this, it is human nature to run away from it. But for better or for worse, we have to run to him. There will be no photographs of the interior of a closed office.

At 8 pm, we learned that the Senate and the House would meet again to count the electoral votes.

Sure, the windows were still broken, the floors were still slippery from the tear gas, and there were broken things everywhere: doors, windows, and desks in disarray. But Congress was getting back to business. Even then, just five hours after the building was cleared, things were back to normal. I think that’s what the members of Congress wanted to show: that the government’s work will continue.

– As he told Poppy Noor

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