As President Trump told a sprawling crowd outside the White House that they should never accept defeat, hundreds of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in what amounted to an attempted coup that they hoped would overturn the election he lost. In the chaos, law enforcement officials said, one woman was shot and killed by Capitol Police.
The violent scene — much of it incited by the president’s incendiary language — was like no other in modern American history, bringing to a sudden halt the congressional certification of Joe Biden’s electoral victory.
With poles bearing blue Trump flags, a mob that would eventually grow into the thousands bashed through Capitol doors and windows, forcing their way past police officers unprepared for the onslaught. Lawmakers were evacuated shortly before an armed standoff at the House chamber’s entrance. The woman who was shot was rushed to an ambulance, police said, and later died. Cannisters of tear gas were fired across the Rotunda’s white marble floor, and on the steps outside the building, rioters flew Confederate flags.
“USA! USA!” chanted the would-be saboteurs of a 244-year-old democracy.
The Senate halted its proceedings, and the House doors were closed. In a notification, U.S. Capitol Police said no one would be allowed to come or go from the building as they struggled to regain control. “Stay away from exterior windows, doors. If outside, seek cover,” police warned.
All 1,100 members of the D.C. National Guard were activated, and Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) imposed a citywide curfew. From 6 p.m. Wednesday to 6 a.m. Thursday, Bowser said, no one other than essential personnel would be allowed outdoors in the city.
The mob had arrived hours earlier, charging past the metal barricades on the property’s outer edge. Hundreds, then thousands followed them. Some scaled the Capitol’s walls to reach entrances; others climbed over one another.
On the building’s east side, police initially pushed the pro-Trump demonstrators back, but soon gave up and fell back to the foot of the main steps. Within a half hour, fights broke out again, and police retreated to the top of the steps as screaming Trump supporters surged closer. After the police perimeters were breached, the elated crowd began to sing the national anthem.
For an hour, they banged on the doors, chanting “Let us in! Let us in!” Police inside fired pepper balls and smoke bombs into the crowd but failed to turn them away. After each volley, the rioters, who were mostly White men, would cluster around the doors again, yelling, arguing, pledging revolution.
Sometime after 2:10 p.m., a man used a clear plastic riot shield to break through the windows on a first floor to the south side of the building, then hopped in with a few others. Once inside, police suspect, rioters opened doors to let in more of their compatriots.
A Capitol Police officer shouted from a higher stairway at the intruders, yelling at them to stop, but when they didn’t, the officer fired at a man coming at him, two law enforcement officials said. Amid shouts and people rushing to get away from the sound of gunfire, protesters saw a woman in their group collapse. Police believe she was unarmed, a law enforcement official said, but the officer who shot her didn’t know that. Capitol Police had already been warned by D.C. Police that many protesters were secretly carrying weapons.
“They shot a girl!” someone yelled as a group of Trump supporters ran out of the southeast entrance.
A team of paramedics with a gurney soon arrived and a Capitol Police officer stepped aside to let them pass. “White female, shot in the shoulder,” the officer said as they hurried past. They emerged minutes later.
On the gurney was a woman in jeans, gazing vacantly to one side, her torso and face covered in blood. As the gurney was loaded into the back of the ambulance, pro-Trump protesters swarmed around it, screaming, “Murderers!”
Capitol Police officers with long guns pushed them back, and the ambulance drove off.
Inside, where the lawmakers had donned gas masks kept under their chairs, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) could only think of his family as he and other lawmakers hid from the mob. Reeling from the loss of his 25-year-old son last week, Raskin had taken one of his daughters and his son-in-law to the Capitol to watch the debates unfold over certification of Biden’s election, he said, “because we wanted to be together.” Raskin was helping lead Democrats’ arguments against Republican objectors.
“I thought I could show them the peaceful transfer of power in the United States of America,” Raskin said. “What was really going through my mind was their safety because they were not with me in the chamber, and I just wanted us all to get back together.”
Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) said members were told that chemical irritants had been released in Statuary Hall and, for a moment, braced for the possibility that they would be exposed to tear gas. Capitol Police barricaded the doors with tables and bookshelves.
Spanberger, a former CIA case officer, said that it was a crisis she would only expect to see unfold in fragile, faraway places.
“This is what we see in failing countries,” she said. “This is what leads to a death of democracy.”
The shooting and the breach triggered an instant call for help across Washington to other law enforcement agencies. At the U.S. Secret Service, headquarters sent out an emergency alert to all gun-carrying Secret Service personnel to report to headquarters in preparation to help secure the Capitol.
Meanwhile, dozens of other rioters streamed into building, where they smashed windows and vandalized offices.
“WE WILL NOT BACK DOWN,” read another left in the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who also refused to back down, later directing her colleagues to return and finish validating Biden’s victory.
Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat from California, shared a photo on Twitter of a long-haired man in a Trump hat carrying a rostrum adorned with gold-colored the seal of the speaker.
“Arrest this man,” she demanded.
At 3:30 p.m., more law enforcement in riot gear arrived at the Capitol.
“Traitors,” Trump supporters shouted. “What’s your oath?”
Biden condemned what he called an “unprecedented assault” on American democracy, “unlike anything we’ve seen in modern times.”
“This is not dissent. It’s disorder. It’s chaos,” he said. “It borders on sedition, and it must end now.”
For hours, Trump made little effort to quell the violence he had helped instigate, finally sharing a video at 4:17 p.m. in which he told people to “go home” — while continuing to promote the lie that he had won the election.
“We love you,” he told them. “You’re very special.”
By 7 p.m., an hour after Bowser’s curfew, hundreds of law enforcement officers outside the Capitol were preparing for lawmakers to return. They’d barely finished clearing the mob and removing the Trump flags that had been left inside the building. Police dogs paced the stairs that hoards of rioters had occupied hours earlier.
D.C. police had arrested 13 people by then, they said, including three in possession of firearms. At about 6 p.m., man was stabbed at 12th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, near Freedom Plaza, though it was unclear whether the attack was related to the demonstrations.
At the Capitol, those who had made it inside took on a celebrity status when they came back out. A woman who said she had footage on her phone of Capitol police pointing guns at rioters was circled by dozens who wanted to see it. People traded what information they had about the woman who was shot inside. Some called her a “martyr.”
After she was taken away, the mood soured, though many remained joyous. “We’re making history,” one woman said as she strolled down Independence Avenue with friends.
Beneath streaming flags, including some that read “F— Biden” and that depicted President Trump as the movie character Rambo, people loudly exhorted Jesus and chanted “USA.”
Many called friends and family and took videos.
“We weren’t violent before, but we are now,” a middle-aged White man said, talking into his cell phone. “There’s no going back.