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Capitol siege: An eyewitness account from inside the House chamber

Jamie Stiehm is a US political columnist who was in the Capitol building in Washington DC when it was stormed by pro-Trump rioters. Here’s what she saw from the press gallery in the House of Representatives.

I had told my sister earlier: “Something bad is going to happen today. I don’t know what, but something bad will happen.”

Outside the Capitol, I encountered a group of very boisterous supporters of President Donald Trump, all waving flags and pledging their allegiance to him. There was a sense that trouble was brewing.

I went inside to the House of Representatives and up into the press gallery, where we were assigned seats, looking down at the rather somber gathering. Speaker Nancy Pelosi was holding the gavel, and keeping people to their five-minute statements.

As we went into the second hour, all of a sudden we heard breaking glass. The air began getting fogged. An announcement from the Capitol Police said, “An individual has breached the building”. So everyone looked around and then it was business as usual. But after that, the announcements kept coming. And they were getting more and more urgent.

They announced that the intruders had breached the rotunda, which is under the famed marble dome. The sacred house of democracy was under fire.

Many of us are hardened journalists – I’ve seen my share of violence covering homicides in Baltimore – but this was very unpredictable. The police didn’t seem to know what was happening. They weren’t coordinated. They locked the chamber doors but at the same time, they told us we would have to evacuate. So there was a sense of panic.

I was afraid. I’ll tell you that. And I’ve spoken to other journalists who said they were a little ashamed of themselves for feeling afraid.

There was a sense of “nobody’s in charge here, the Capitol Police have lost control of the building, anything can happen”.

If you think back to the September 11 attacks in 2001, there was one plane that went down and didn’t hit its target. That target was the Capitol. There were echoes of that. I made a call to my family, just to let them know that I was here and it was a dangerous situation.

Armed guards

There was a shot. We could see there was a standoff in our chamber. Five men were holding guns at the door. It was a frightening sight. Men were looking through a broken glass window and looked like they could shoot at any second.

Thankfully there was no gunfire inside the chamber. But for a while there, it felt like it would be a real possibility. Because things were going downhill very fast.

We had to crawl under railings to get out of the way. I was not dressed to do that. A lot of women were dressed up, wearing heels, because they had come for a formal ritual.

Nancy Pelosi after the house was reconvened

I sheltered in the House cafeteria alongside others. I’m still shaking now.

I have seen a lot as a journalist, but this was something more. This was the collective public sphere being undermined, assaulted, degraded. And I think this was why the Speaker wanted to return and hold the gavel again and go on.

Afterward, I had to decide whether I was going to go back to the chamber too. I decided l probably would because the message that is sending is: “You can incite a mob, but we’re going to go on”. I think that is a very important political message.

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