WASHINGTON — A few hours before a violent mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, I asked Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz about the state of our nation.
“Does it feel at all surreal?”
At the time, Democrats were celebrating the results of two run-off elections in Georgia that would give them full control of Congress and the White House for the first time since Barack Obama was president.
But they were also about to spend the next several hours staving off what many, including Schatz, described as an attempted coup by pro-Trump Republicans, such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who wanted to protest the results of the 2020 presidential election won by Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
“It is surreal,” Schatz said. “I mean, I’m looking out my window at three or four dozen Capitol Police streaming out of the Capitol Police headquarters armed to the hilt preparing for what we hope will not happen.”
It didn’t take long for those fears to become reality.
Thousands of protesters rallied in Washington, D.C., on the same day Congress was supposed to certify the votes of the Electoral College. They were fueled by lies and conspiracy theories spread by President Donald Trump and his supporters, who falsely claimed the election was somehow rigged and that there was widespread voter fraud.
My initial plan for the day was to interview Schatz and then head to the Capitol to watch what is normally a ceremonious affair. I even had a reserved seat in the press gallery overlooking the House Chamber.
Luckily, I never made it to my seat. Instead, I walked around the Capitol grounds taking photos of gathering protesters.
In many ways it felt like a typical Trump rally — lots of red hats, giant flags and few masks. The Proud Boys were present, including Hawaii Proud Boy leader Nick Ochs, according to his Twitter account.
“Living in America” by James Brown blared out of a stereo.
Some in the crowd were upset about the results of the election, but others were even more incensed by Vice President Mike Pence’s pronouncement earlier in the day that he did not have the power nor political will to reject the votes of the Electoral College.
“I can’t believe that’s how he wants to end his political career,” one woman said.
Loud bangs told me something was amiss. The first one sounded like fireworks. The next ones were the noise of people crashing through the metal barricades meant to keep the protesters at bay.
I had my camera trained on a police officer on the Capitol steps with an assault rifle.
Within minutes he and the others standing guard had retreated and their posts were swallowed up by the growing crowd of revelers, many chanting slogans of “USA! USA! USA!”
Not long after, members of Hawaii’s delegation began to post updates about their own well-being, including freshman Congressman Kai Kahele, who plans to move his family to Washington in the hopes of rebuilding the bridges between parties that have been torn down by partisan politics.
“Just want to let everyone know that I and my family are safe,” Kahele said.
When I reached him later via cell phone, Kahele said he never made it to the Capitol, but that he planned to walk there in sweatpants so that he wouldn’t be mistaken by the crowds for a politician.
“I didn’t want to be a target,” he said.
Kahele, a lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii Air National Guard, described the rioters who raided the Capitol as “borderline domestic terrorists” and said Trump is the one who encouraged them to act as they did.
For that, he said, the president should be impeached.
“The president should be removed from office,” Kahele said. “He is a national disgrace.”
I left the Capitol as many at the edges of the crowd began to disperse. The only threat I received was from a man who mistook me for a HuffPost reporter known for covering far-right extremism and hate.
While I didn’t engage, he left me with an all too familiar refrain that has come to define the past four years — “fake news.”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom that provides free content with no paywall. That means readership growth alone can’t sustain our journalism.
The truth is that less than 1% of our monthly readers are financial supporters. To remain a viable business model for local news, we need a higher percentage of readers-turned-donors.
Will you consider becoming a new donor today?