What does a mob look like? In today’s America, at least, it looks like the people in your neighborhood. The mom and dad who bring the kids to soccer on Saturdays; the cousin who tinkers with his car on Sunday afternoons. It also looks like the kidnappers and terrorists you see in movies: knives on their belts; a crazed look in their eyes.
The mob looks like America. Because it is America.
That’s what I saw on Jan. 6, when fellow Americans smashed the windows of the Capitol, chanting, “Hang Mike Pence!” and writing, “Murder the media” on a door.
What does a mob look like when it confronts you? It looks like this:
That is 40 seconds of a five-minute litany that erupted after I said I worked with The Post. I look calm in the video, filmed by my colleague Joy Sharon Yi, but I wasn’t. I just kept thinking, “Don’t provoke them. Don’t look weak. Don’t give them a reason to hurt me or Joy.”
Joy and I are heckled at every Trump event we cover. We’re no longer thrown by people screaming “fake news” in our faces. What frightened me at the Capitol was the delusion of those I interviewed. They truly believed the lie — apparently shared by millions — that the media changed the election results by working with Big Tech, judges, state officials, Democrats and now, apparently, the vice president. Some believed that President Trump was ordained by God, and that only “dark forces” could explain his loss.
When a delusion is promoted by the man with the nuclear codes, normalized by Republican leaders and reinforced by armed groups aching for a revolution, it’s not just democracy that’s in danger. We all are. These mobs will turn on anyone who doesn’t support their version of reality. They erected a gallows to hang Vice President Pence, beat at least one policeman to death and screamed at EMTs giving CPR to a protester, saying, “You look like traitors with those masks on.”
Joy and I don’t normally wear bulletproof vests, but we knew anti-government extremists were waiting for the “first shot to be fired,” so we pulled them on before heading out to film. As we walked south of the White House to watch the president’s rallying call, I saw a Trump supporter thank two men in camouflage tactical vests for being there. He pointed to a construction site and said, “See that? There will be bricks and concrete and pipes in there that we can use.” It was 10:30 a.m.
As a joint session of Congress began to certify state election results inside the Capitol, rioters outside were using pipes and bats and pitchforks to smash their way into the building, and scaling the Capitol walls:
Eight thousand individuals became a crowd with no personal responsibility. Rage and excitement passed from one person to the other until they were all feeding off an exhilarated fury.
Not everyone wanted the violence. I overheard a young man say, “This isn’t the way. It makes us look bad.” But in a group that big, there’s no stopping the most extreme.
A flash-bang grenade went off, and I thought it was a bomb. Joy and I looked for a way out so we wouldn’t be trampled. Then we realized the bang was a crowd-control measure, as were the chemical irritants fired soon after. We kept filming, changing positions as smoke bombs landed near us, and tried to weave away from rioters who were asking, “Who do you work for? Are you communists? Are you Chinese?”
We can’t hide that we’re press. Joy carries a video camera. So we, and all the other reporters covering the unrest, became targets. An AP photographer was dragged down the Capitol steps and thrown over a wall. A pen of television reporters was overrun by a mob that slammed and kicked their cameras on the ground, using the media’s tripods to smash them apart. Joy ran forward to film, but I pulled her back, fearing her camera would make her prey. We hid our press badges and stood on the outside of the pen as a rioter told us, “We wouldn’t do this if they were honest people.”
Earlier, when the rioters challenged us, dozens had already breached the Capitol, and one woman had been fatally shot by police. They were looking for someone to blame. The president has said for years that we are the enemy, so the Capitol rioters believed they were patriots and we were traitors. One man said he had grown up in East Germany and compared us to the Communist secret police:
We were not physically harmed at the time, but in the days after, my muscles spasmed, my stomach tightened and I looked over my shoulder for threats. We were lucky there were only 20 or so people nearby when half of them started laying into us. And while some called us “vermin” and “rodents,” others said they didn’t want to hurt anybody — they just wanted us to understand their cause.
How do you relate when you don’t share an objective reality? Fact-checking delusion is not effective when the president is promoting conspiracy theories. After I had been screamed at for five minutes, something strange happened. A young man tried to appeal to me by reminding me who I was — a “middle-aged woman.” And in that moment, I snapped out of the trance and reconnected with myself and my sense of humor. I jokingly responded to him with mock offense, which in turn seemed to break his own trance:
This man, who told me I’m lucky he’s not antifa or else he’d beat me, got nervous that he’d offended me with a reference to my age. He really was the guy next door. But while we share a country, we do not share a reality.
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