When one of the sergeant-at-arms staffers on the floor of the House of Representatives said that people were starting to move toward the Capitol, we didn’t think much of it. We’ve had plenty of protests. But then you started seeing more worry. You could feel the energy. It wasn’t the tone, it was the face. Next they said, “They’ve breached a wall, but everything’s fine.” Then there was another breach over here, a breach over there. It just kept cascading. That was when we started hearing, “Do we have to bring the Speaker down from the rostrum?”

I’m the floor director for Speaker Nancy Pelosi. My job is to make sure that the House floor runs properly. Any legislative procedure that comes into the chamber falls under my staff’s purview. I came to D.C. after college, in the nineties, and started waiting tables at California Pizza Kitchen while I figured out how to get a job. I remember, when I first started working on the Hill, someone said, “You’ll know when it’s time to leave when you don’t have that tingle when you see the Capitol.” Now I live a mile away, and when I walk to work the sun is behind me, shining on the Capitol, and when I walk out, if I turn around, I see the sun setting over the Capitol. It’s special.

Originally, we’d been planning on spending more than twenty-four hours in the chamber. When the Arizona challenge happened, the Senate paraded out. They took the certified ballots with them in these big, fancy brown boxes that have been used for years.

As the notices came in, I found my old boss, Congressman Jim McGovern, from Massachusetts. I said, “Hey, we might need you up in the chair, just hold tight.” He’s the chairman of the Rules Committee. He knows that sometimes the Speaker just needs a break.

All of a sudden, it hit. They say, “We need to bring the Speaker down.” I asked to not do this so fast that it’s chaotic. Let’s make it look normal. She was not expecting to come down. I said, “Ma’am, we’ve got to go.” We put Mr. McGovern up, she went out the doors, and she was out of my sight. The Majority Leader, the Majority Whip, and the Minority Whip, they were pulled out, too. That was when it really hit people.

It was a weird vibe. Some were calm, some getting agitated, and then you had a machismo from some people. The noise in the chamber picked up. People were really loud, really not listening. I went into the center of the chamber and just yelled, “Everyone sit down, stay calm, let’s get some information!”

“It’s 2021, but I’m still writing ‘yearlong fever dream of chaos and despair’ on my checks.”
Cartoon by Joe Dator

Capitol police said, “They’re coming. They’re inside the building.” They told us to pull out escape hoods—the gas masks. They started pointing: “Lock that door, lock that door!” We helped the police move a couple of old, credenza-type bookshelves into place in front of the doors. We become a hermetically sealed room. You’re not supposed to be able to get in. Well, at some point you start hearing: Bang! A couple of members were there. They were going to protect our colleagues, protect our friends, and protect the chamber.

Capitol police decided we’re evacuating. They opened one of the doors into the Speaker’s lobby and started pushing people out. But up in the gallery there’s no easy way out. It’s literally like an obstacle course. I’m pointing and yelling, “Go, go, go! That way! Get through!” The banging on the front door is intensifying. It sounded violent. All of a sudden you hear a crack. It sounded like a gunshot. The police had their guns out. And I just sprinted out of the chamber.

We ran down some stairs, underground into these old, old spaces. Some older folks can’t move all that quickly. It took us a while, but we finally got to, essentially, a holding area.

We looked around the room. We didn’t know what was happening, but we knew the Capitol had been overrun. Someone would say, “We’re missing someone!” The Capitol police would try to find them. And then you have this din, the mechanical filter of a hundred and fifty gas masks—this high-pitched whirring. It sounded like a hundred and fifty kazoos.

It was a weird mix. Remember, this was everyone who’d been on the floor. In one corner, you had all the Republicans who think we stole the election. You can see people looking, thinking, The people outside are here because of what you’re doing. We were also concerned about the fact that many of them don’t wear masks. Some of them were saying they were glad the “protesters” were there. Everybody else, including many Republicans, was figuring out what’s happening, what’s going on with our institution, with our society, with our democracy. And how do we get back? We knew we had to finish that night. It was never a question of if—it was how. That’s part of my job. I can’t really get into this, but we have alternatives to the House chamber, if we need them.

Someone said, “Where are the boxes? Do we still have them?” One of the parliamentarians came over to me and said, “The ballot boxes are safe.” If they’d been stolen or destroyed, to be honest, I don’t know what happens.

We started to go back around seven. There was this powder everywhere, a film everywhere. Broken glass. The same doors that the President comes through for the State of the Union—when they say, “Madam Speaker, the President of the United States!”—you could see the holes where they’d broken through.

The workers did the best they could to clean up. Who knows where they went, and how they came back? They’re scared, too. They brought in one of those industrial cleaners you see at the mall at, like, five in the morning. One congressman, Andy Kim, a real nice, soft-spoken man from New Jersey, was helping.

The fact that the Capitol was invaded did not defuse tensions. When the Vice-President announced that Joe Biden is now the President-elect, people cheered. There was relief that we got this done. But it wasn’t joyousness. There was a profound sadness afterward, and exhaustion, on the faces of my co-workers. All the trauma hit. This is the people’s building. Every time a security threat makes it harder for someone to get in and see how our democracy works is just sad. But the fact that they’d attack democracy—physically and literally attack it? I never thought it would happen.

When I headed home, it was about four. The sun was still down. ♦



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