The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Do not go in to DC’: After a mom’s warning on Jan. 6 came a haunting choice blocks from the Capitol

Cristy Hanes, who lives in Alexandria, was in D.C. on Wednesday getting an ID for a job she had started that day. (Family photo)
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By the time Cristy Hanes saw the text message from her mom, it was too late.

“do not go in to DC,” it read, “I repeat DO NOT Go IN To DC.”

“Oh mamma I’m in DC now,” Hanes typed back.

“Down the street from the capital”

“I had to come in”

At that moment, two things were happening in the country:

An emboldened mob of mostly White men and women were storming through the U.S. Capitol, terrorizing the lawmakers, staff members and journalists in it.

And a Black mom who resides about 1,000 miles away from the nation’s capital was worried about her Black daughter who lives in Virginia and works in D.C.

Decades from now people will still be talking about Jan. 6, 2021. They’ll be asking those who lived in and around the District at that time about their experiences. Where were they on that day? Where was the country on that day?

There will be lawmakers whose answers will contain dramatic details of what it felt like to hide from their fellow Americans, knowing the president had fueled their destructive delusions.

There will be journalists who will describe setting out that morning to cover others and ending up part of the story. “Murder the media,” someone scrawled on a Capitol door.

Rhonda Colvin and Lindsey Sitz were reporting live from the Capitol when a pro-Trump mob stormed the building. This is their account of what happened next. (Video: The Washington Post)

There will be a D.C. police officer who will be able to point to what he posted on his Instagram page afterward: We “were met with hatred, ignorance, savagery, and evil. . . . Punches, objects, bear spray, poles couldn’t stop [us] from reaching our goal of reclaiming the Capitol. . . . I can’t lie there were so many moments I feared for my life but it was worth it.”

The answers Hanes will give won’t be nearly as dramatic. But what they will show is this: How the destruction caused by those Confederate flag-wielding, noose-displaying rioters spilled beyond the Capitol’s grounds and those hours it was under siege.

The 32-year-old mother of a ­2-year-old remains haunted by the “shame” she felt following an incident that happened moments after she got that text from her mom.

That morning, Hanes woke up early in her Alexandria home, excited for her first day of a new job as a contractor for a government agency. She got her daughter dressed, fed her and took her to school at about 7:30 a.m. Back home, she had about 11 conference calls scheduled back-to-back with her new colleagues.

Normally, she wouldn’t have considered driving into D.C. that day. But she was a new employee and she needed an identification card. She had an appointment set for 3 p.m. at a building a short walk from the White House.

It was her first time going there, so she missed the street and ended up parking a block and a half away. No problem, she thought. It’s a short walk.

As she approached the building, she recalls seeing a group of homeless people across the street. She regretted not having any bills to give them. She went to her appointment. She was wrapping up when her phone started beeping, telling her that the mayor had enacted a D.C. curfew. It beeped again, and she learned one also was in place for Alexandria.

Another beep: I repeat DO NOT Go IN To DC.

“I kind of just thought my mom was overreacting,” Hanes recalls. “I didn’t think anything of it.”

Then, as she tells it, she noticed a group of men standing outside, not wearing masks and carrying backpacks that held walkie-talkies. She saw a Confederate flag and a Trump one. She decided to start walking to her car.

“Initially, I was not afraid,” she says. “Not until I heard a woman’s voice say, ‘You just love being target practice for the police, don’t you?’ ”

Hanes says she turned to see three Trump supporters, two men and a woman, surrounding an older Black homeless man who had been holding a cardboard sign. The men were telling him something but she couldn’t make out the words. A man then stepped in front of her, so closely that she had to take a step back, and he looked her up and down.

“You know that drop you hear in music sometimes when the beat gets really quiet and then it starts up again? That’s what I heard in my head,” she recalls.

Run, her instincts told her.

“God, please just protect him,” she recalls thinking about the older Black man, as she took off, sprinting faster than her asthma comfortably allowed.

When she got to her car, she put it in drive and called her daughter’s school to let administrators know she was coming early.

In Alexandria, she says, she saw more protesters and didn’t want her daughter’s teacher, an older Black woman, riding the Metro with them. She insisted on taking her home. It meant spending a few more hours in the car, but Hanes says she felt she had to do something. In retrospect, she realizes that she was already beating herself up for doing nothing.

On the drive home, she cried quietly, so her daughter wouldn’t notice.

“I realized I chose to leave a man who needed help because I was afraid,” she says. “I felt shame. I felt I had to choose between, ‘Do I stay and help him and potentially never get to my daughter, or do I run and get to her?’ And I ran. I ran away from the possibility of being a hashtag.”

Hanes didn’t plan on publicly sharing what happened to her. But after she got home, she started looking through Facebook posts and saw some from people who didn’t understand how more than just the Capitol had come under attack — who didn’t see in those flags and nooses a threat to Black Americans.

When she read a post for parents in Northern Virginia, asking how people were holding up, she started typing bits of her story.

In the comments, she thanked other parents for giving her that chance, saying she didn’t realize how scared she had been feeling until she wrote it out.

Mental health experts warn that after traumatic events, it can take hours or days for the shock to wear off and other feelings, such as sadness, anger or guilt, to settle in. That has been happening in the days since the chaos at the Capitol. Following that public struggle have come private ones.

It is difficult to show how the nation is feeling from one day to the next, but Mental Health America has found that its online screening tool offers a real-time reflection. People usually come to the free online questionnaire when they start to wonder whether they might need mental health help.

Both Wednesday and Thursday saw more than 11,700 people turn to the mental health screening tool, but there were some notable differences between the two days, says Paul Gionfriddo, who is the president of the Alexandria-based organization. The day after the siege, more people cited “current events” as one of the top reasons for their mental health distress. More people also picked “racism” as a top reason.

Gionfriddo says he is not surprised by those increases and believes Wednesday’s events will have mental health repercussions that go far beyond that day: “This is the kind of thing that will stay with us.”

On the day Congress was set to confirm that President-elect Joe Biden won the election, a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol building. Here's how it happened. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Evelyn Hockstein/The Washington Post)

It is easy to look at what happened to Hanes as insignificant compared with other incidents that day, or to pick apart her actions from a safe place. Some people might question why she didn’t call the police, but we have seen what can happen when the cops are called on a Black person.

Hanes had no good choices that day. She describes feeling shame about her actions. But we collectively created a society that allowed professed racists to feel so empowered they took over one of our most sacred spaces and caused a Black woman to feel so little power she didn’t even consider calling for help when she felt forced to choose between saving herself or someone else. That’s the shameful part.

That night, after Hanes got home, she and her 2-year-old went through their normal nighttime routine. They brushed their teeth, put on pajamas and said their prayers together. Her daughter can’t quite say “protester,” but she tried because she heard her mom pray for them.

Hanes then let her daughter do something unusual. She allowed the toddler to sleep with her, knowing it would mean a restless night. For a long while, she watched her sleep, and thought about her future.

Her daughter wasn’t 1,000 miles away. She was right next to her, but still, she felt worried.

Read more from Theresa Vargas:

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