As It Happens·Q&A

'Dark day in American history': CBC's Katie Simpson on the chaotic scene at U.S. Capitol

On Wednesday, a large mob of Donald Trump supporters stormed the U.S. capitol building as Congress was about to ratify Joe Biden's victory in the presidential election. 

A mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol building in Washington

A man shouts as supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump gather in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Story transcript

Katie Simpson says she "witnessed history firsthand" — and the story is still unfolding.

A large mob of Donald Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol building on Wednesday as Congress was about to ratify Joe Biden's victory in November's presidential election. 

D.C. police said a woman who was shot on the scene had died, and several officers were injured. As of Wednesday evening, the building was on lockdown.

Simpson, CBC's senior Washington correspondent, watched the chaotic scene unfold. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Katie, this was just an extraordinary scene that you were in today.... Can you describe [it]?

Many of the protesters had actually been quite a distance away. They'd been over at the Washington Monument to hear a speech from the president. And then they marched through the streets of Washington to reach the Capitol.

There have been a series of barricades set up that the protesters, they weren't happy about that. They ripped them aside, these large metal barriers, and then they rushed the steps of the Capitol.

Police were easily outnumbered and they didn't have the resources they needed to keep people back. And that's when they had to use those flash bangs. That's when they had to use tear gas. We even saw some police using rubber bullets to try and push people back.

But we all now know that that certainly wasn't enough. 

And then they were on the steps. And then they were in Congress. They were in the rotunda. Then they were in the chambers. Describe what it was like to see that progress.

There was a real sense of anxiety going into this protest to begin with. So to watch the worst-case scenario unfold, it was shocking, but not necessarily surprising.

These people truly believe in their hearts of hearts that this election was stolen and that they're trying to save democracy. They truly believe the president when he says that this election was stolen, and they believe the conspiracy theories and the claims he makes without evidence.

So there was a lot of tension going into this. And then to watch it slowly progress, the actual tension on the Hill and when it went from a protest to a violent sort of storming of the Capitol, it actually happened faster than I thought it would.... [It] escalated much faster than these things typically do.

People first pushed through that first barrier, then took the steps, and then they climbed the scaffolding that's been set up for Joe Biden's inauguration. And then they pushed and pushed and pushed past police. And police, we saw them turn around — the visuals are incredible — they turned around and ran from these protesters. 

And we're calling them protesters. But really, it's a mob, isn't it? And so what was it like when they got into the building? What did they do?

I couldn't physically see them going in because I actually ran back to the station. But our camera crew was there, and they captured these remarkable scenes of people celebrating, standing on the front steps.... There's cellphone footage from people inside the building, and you see these protesters actually breaking the windows to actually get in.

I was physically running the tape back to our office because there's no cellphone signal there. That's how many people were at this protest. So as I'm running down Pennsylvania Avenue, back to our bureau with this tape in my head, you could see the crowd getting bigger and bigger. And that's when you could see plumes of smoke. Tear gas had been set off by police as they tried one last stand to stop this from happening.

U.S. Capitol police officers point their guns at a door that was vandalized in the House Chamber during a joint session of Congress. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Could you ever imagine in all the years that you have covered Washington that you could ever see scenes like this?

The capital is the home of American democracy, and so the storming of the Capitol is incredibly symbolic, and incredibly troubling for people not just here in Washington, but for people across the country and around the world.

There had been so much concern [about] the president's behaviour after the election when he refused to accept the results. There had been sort of an attitude from some Republicans, saying, you know, "What's the harm? Let him have a temper tantrum. Let him have his time. He'll come around. It'll be fine."

And these people didn't necessarily think that things would escalate to this point. As I mentioned, these people, these Trump supporters, truly, truly believe what they watch on Fox News, on OAN [One America News Network], on Newsmax — these right-wing news outlets where they air these conspiracy theories.

People do not trust the mainstream media here, and it's led to a situation where there's not a common set of facts in America right now.

And so it's really a remarkable situation right now. And when Joe Biden eventually does step into the White House, he's taking over at a time when this country is incredibly divided.

Supporters of Trump climb the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. (Jose Luis Magana/The Associated Press)

It's one thing to be standing in a protest making speeches of that nature. Another thing to do what we saw today, isn't it? ... This crossed the line into insurrection.

I've gone to these Trump protests before, and Trump rallies as well. One of the criticisms that they have for Black Lives Matter protesters and other protesters in the United States, they say: "You know what? You look at those protesters and there are rioters in there and they're burning things down. They want to destroy the country. And they're causing vandalism. They're causing damage." And they make the argument that, "We want to build America. We don't want to damage anything. We don't want to cause any harm. We don't want to do that kind of thing. We want to protect the country." And that's an argument you hear over and over and over again when you interview people at these rallies and at these protests.

And today we saw these Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, break into the building. One person has been shot. Police officers have been injured. You know, people broke into the Speaker's office, were in the Chamber. So this ... will be a very dark day in American history — the day that Trump supporters stormed the Capitol.

You have, I know, walked up, probably in more cases than not, ran up those steps of Congress. You've been in those rooms. You know what it feels like.... So just for you personally, what was it like to see this happen in a place that is held with such reverence?

When you watch what's unfolding in real time, you know, really there isn't time to process information. It's: "What's happening next?" And it's such an intense moment that the only thing you're thinking about is: Do we need to get out of here? Is it safe?

And so it says something about the state of American democracy when you have to question your safety at such a symbolic location.

Police officers in riot gear confront protesters. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

It's going to sink in at some point when you stop, when you finish your coverage and you start to ... realize what you were actually watching today in that building.

This is such a remarkable event that just unfolded, and it's not done yet. There's a curfew. The National Guard's coming in. But I don't think this is done yet. I think that this could be going on for quite some time.

So this will be one of those days in your career when you look back on the days that you can't believe you witnessed history firsthand. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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