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What exactly is going on Washington DC: An explainer of the Capitol riots

by Lauren Heskin
07th Jan 2021

Why and how did Trump-supporting rioters manage to break their way into the US Capitol buildings?

Yesterday, hundreds, if not thousands, of Trump-supporting rioters broke three fences and a large force of Capitol police before smashing through locked doors and into the Capitol itself.

Reporters, in the building to witness the ratification of Biden’s Presidential win, captured the moments before rioters gained access to Capitol, the building that houses the US federal government.


Debates on the ratification in both the House of Representatives and the Senate were paused and politicians and aides evacuated as police retreated in the building. Rioters eventually breached the Senate chamber itself, waving Trump flags and shouting, “Trump won that election.”

The building was vandalised and looted, windows broken and items stolen. It took hours before the building was made secure again, with videos of rioters freely walking around the buildings like wayward tourists.

A woman was also shot by police inside the Capitol and she later died. 52 people were arrested and a number of firearms seized from protesters. Most of the rioters were maskless.  A number of explosive devices were also uncovered.


Electoral Certification

Congress must certify the Presidental election results from every state. Typically this is a ceremonial affair, during which the Vice President opens an envelope from each state alphabetically and reads aloud their electors (Donald J Trump and Mike Pence, or Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, depending on who the state voted for).

However, yesterday’s session had taken on some significance, with a small faction of Republican politicians announcing they would object to the election results of the tightly contested states where Trump lost, specifically places like Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia, which would require a debate by both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Both houses only need a simple majority to overrule the objections so it was never looking like a successful plan, merely a way for some Republicans, many of whom are up for election in two year’s time, to hold onto some Trump supporters.


Trump v Pence

With Senate Majority Leader, Republican Mitch McConnell already urging his colleague to certify the results as all legal challenges to the Presidential election in the battleground states had either been withdrawn or failed, it gave Trump limited options if he wants to stay in power, which it seems he so desperately does.

Prior to these special ratification session, he pressured his vice president to undermine the certification process, though there is no legal path for this kind of disruption. Vice President Pence had been refusing and before the beginning of the session, he released a statement, saying that he did not believe the office of the Vice President had “unilateral authority to decide with election votes should be counted,” effectively refusing to cow to Trump’s demands.


The Protesters

Yesterday morning just before the session began, Trump held a rally in front of the White House, just a few blocks from Capitol Hill. Asserting the same unproven claims that the election was stolen from him, he demanded the Pence send the electoral votes back to the states so they can “recertify”.

In closing, he suggested that his supporters go to the Capitol and give “weak” Republicans “the pride and boldness that they need to take back our country,” and encouraged them to “stop the steal”. He finished by suggesting they all walk down Pennsylvania Avenue towards Capitol buildings.

The large crowd then moved towards the Capitol shouting “Stop the steal” before breaking through police lines and into the buildings of government. Some Trump-supporting Republicans have claimed this is the work of “Antifa”, an “anti-Fascist group” that’s really just a catch-all term for Neo-Nazis, Neo-fascism and white supremacists. However, with the bulk of the mob moving directly from the Trump rally to the Capitol Hill, waving Trump flags as they looted the houses of Congress, either it was Trump supporters or Trump supporters are also Antifa.

There were numerous calls from both sides of the aisle for Trump to speak out against the rioters. When the mob had already violently entered the building, Trump asked that they “remain peaceful”. Later, after much public criticism for his silence, he posted a video asking rioters to go home, but not before reiterating the baseless accusations of voter fraud that sent the rioters to the Capitol in the firdts place, and ended it by telling them he loved them. It has since been removed by Twitter for violating their rules.


The questions around policing

Almost as soon as the mob broke into the building, there were questions about how federal police had let this happen. Videos showed officers retreating into the building with almost no show of force evident.

Capitol Police are a federal force whose sole purpose is to protect Congress and has about 1,800 sworn personnel – certainly ample amount to take on protesters breaking in through a handful of doors. Law enforcement has already admitted that they were unprepared and outnumbered for the encounter, requiring the back up of the Metropolitan police department and the National Guard (incidentally called in by Pence after Trump refused) and more than two hours to secure the building and grounds.

While conspiracy theories swirl that rioters were let in by police (there are videos circulating of uniformed officers taking selfies with rioters inside the building), activists are justifiably outraged at the imbalance of the reaction compared to Black Lives Matter protest during the summer, when over 15,000 thousand people were arrested and many more shoved, hit with rubber bullets, surrounded and injured by violent police action. The majority of BLM were peaceful and lawful.


What happened with the debate?

The joint session of Congress reconvened overnight, with objections against Arizona and Pennsylvania’s Presidential elections resoundingly quashed. Yesterday’s events have undoubtedly truncated proceedings and quietened Republican rebellion.

The fact that the session was paused just after Mitch McConnell gave (for him, at least) a rousing speech against the objections, meant many rebelling members had hours to stew over the condemnation of their Senate leader while the Capitol was under siege by Trump supporters. A number of Republican members who said they would object then rescinded their plans and Congress officially ratified the 2020 Presidential election this morning.

And how does Georgia relate to everything?

You have probably been seeing mentions of the Georgia election peppered through your news and social media feeds about yesterday’s attack. As there was no outright winner in either of Georgia’s US Senate elections back in November, they were rerun yesterday, with control of the Senate hanging in the balance.

With the House of Representatives already confirmed as coming under Democrat control during Biden’s first four-year term, having control of the Senate would also guarantee that the new president would not encounter the infighting and blocking witnessed during Obama’s second term.

As of November, Republicans has secured 50 seats in the Senate and Democrats 48. With Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris to be the tie-breaking vote, Democrats needed to win both seats in order to flip the Senate. it looks like they’ve done that with Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff both projected to win by less than one percentage point.

Featured image: Richard Hall on Twitter

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