Black Lives Matter Plaza was closed off with police tape Wednesday morning, but because this is DC, a guy with a microphone somehow managed to remain in business inside it. He spewed a hard-to-follow stream of invective as tunes blared on a portable PA; it wasn’t totally clear what side of America’s great divide he was on even as YG and Nipsey Hussle’s “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)” played.
Outside the cordon, though, things were a lot clearer. President Trump’s fans trundled down Eye Street, Northwest, trying to figure out how to get to the Ellipse. Some wore camo or sloppy military-style garb. Many carried flags. A few got in arguments with a young woman who stood on a concrete barrier. “Get a job!” a guy in a cartoonish cowboy hat that read “Team Trump”—he was also not at work on a Wednesday—shouted at her.
I met up with a reporter friend, and we walked down 17th Street toward the Ellipse, where a Trump was set to address a large rally. The anti-climb fencing that sprouted around the White House complex during the RNC and on election night was absent; Trump’s admonition for his supporters to come to DC for a “wild” time didn’t apparently occasion it.
We passed tables selling Trump gear, including a shirt that read “Defund the Media”—oh my, do I have news for you, pal—and saw more flags: One design nightmare read “2nd Amendment: TRUMP: Law and Order: The Right to Keep and Bear Arms.” MAGAs streamed down the street.
As we turned onto Constitution Avenue, the scope of the rally came into view. There were people on top of the portapotties, Preakness-style. People in the trees on the Washington Monument side of the street. People as far up toward the monument as I could see. I bid my friend good luck and tried to make my way to 15th Street.
The further I got into the crowd, the more the openings on either side of me closed. Trump started speaking. It became pretty clear that the usual rules of getting through crowds that I learned at countless concerts—”pardon me, so sorry, just need to get past”—weren’t going to work here. The MAGAs, waving flags, wearing stars-and-stripes hats, holding their phones aloft, wouldn’t let me or others who made the same dumb error get through.
Almost none of them wore a mask. Well, you finally found a surefire way to get Covid, you idiot, I thought to myself. In a spectacularly worthless gesture, I snapped on a second mask I found crumpled in my jacket pocket.
Trump yelled that the media wouldn’t show the crowd. He called the media—not the pandemic that has killed more people than the population of Lexington, Kentucky—the nation’s most pressing threat. He made fun of Mitt Romney’s flight to DC. He said experts had told him, Sir, it was impossible for him to lose if he increased his vote total by a certain number and he did that and so how is it possible that he could have lost? He said it was all “bullshit” and the crowd shouted “bullshit! bullshit!” (One popular flag read “Trump: No More Bullshit.”) He asked them to fight for him and said he hoped Mike Pence would do the right thing.
I saw some guys heading back toward 17th Street with a little head of steam and got behind them, finally extricating myself from the crowd. People often describe Trump’s fans as angry, but I’ve found that they’re usually in a pretty great mood when they get together. (My experience probably relies a lot on the fact that I have a big beard and light skin.) As I headed back up 17th Street I heard them chatting about where they were from and how nice it was to be among other people who feel the same that they do.
I rented a scooter and drove up to the Capitol, where people were reporting on social media that a mob had busted through. I couldn’t get anywhere near the building and walked along First Street, through a massive crowd growing more elated with reports that “we got the Capitol,” as one guy said. A woman with a bullhorn and a complex sign led a QAnon chant: “Where we go one!” she cried. “We go all!” dozens replied. I saw a flag that read “Deus Vult”—a motto from the Crusades that was picked up by the alt-right before even their Charlottesville rally. People mobbed the Peace monument, one wearing a minuteman costume.
By the time I got to 3rd Street and Constitution, the MAGAs were angry at the police. “Oooh look, it’s a paraaaade!” one man squealed as DC police in riot gear ran toward the Capitol. People lay down in front of cop cars so they couldn’t pass and cheered when they sped up 3rd Street instead. Along Constitution, many of them stopped to get themselves ice cream. When a group of camera operators passed, one guy shouted “Fuck Fox News!”
My phone battery was giving out, and I’d stupidly forgotten my charger at the office, so I found another scooter and rode back to warm up and charge up. There, I watched cable news footage of MAGAs rampaging through the Capitol and answered texts from friends and family before heading back for one last look. I oppose credentials for journalists but took my boss up on his offer to write a letter that I could maybe use to convince a cop that I had the right to be out after curfew.
Wasn’t necessary. I was able to walk right up to the Capitol, which was now locked down by cops. An announcement rang out over some PA that police were getting ready to arrest people who were out after 6. One guy walked from cop to cop, yelling at them about what their oaths really meant and encouraging them to quit. The ironic parallels between the racial-reckoning protests last summer only increased—a group of men bantered loudly about how upset they were that cops, in their view, shot “an innocent woman tonight.”
Making my way around to the Mall side of the Capitol, I saw what looked like thousands yet milling around the building, before I realized that cops, some of them thumping their shields, were pushing them back. I began to doubt the utility of my letter and, unable to find Washingtonian photographer Evy Mages—who is just fine, by the way—decided to call it a night. “Hey! President Trump invited us here,” a member of a group tailgating in the the middle of Constitution Avenue yelled to his colleagues. “And they killed a girl.”
After I found a scooter in Penn Quarter, I passed hotel after hotel where MAGAs were unwinding, drinking in lobbies or smoking outside. It was just like a party.