When I was little, the only capital city I was in was on Austin on school trips. The one in which the legislators of our nation lived was an icon that I saw only in the photos. I remember the story in Austin American statesman proudly claiming that the Texas State Capitol is taller than the one in Washington, DC It was a series of comparisons between the two buildings – almost suggesting to readers, language on our lips that our Capitol could stand next to the American if it separated from the Union.
On January 6, 2021, I found myself not only in the US Capitol for the first time, but I was fleeing from angry insurgents who had just broken through windows and doors to try to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election.
For most of the previous year, I covered a wave of anger, violence and conspiracy theories from the base of former President Donald Trump. The New York Times and TIME magazine. What once looked like fringe groups – the Proud Boys, Q-Anon and right-wing militias – became more mainstream as it approached election day. Days later, I photographed federal, state, and local Republican politicians as they lined up with dangerous conspiracy theorists from Dallas and armed militias in Houston.
When January came, I waited patiently for my editors TIME to check their emails after the New Year’s Eve celebrations and draft a report on the “Stop The Steal” rally in Washington, DC, I described it as a chance to see what would happen to Trump’s most ardent supporters at the end of his reign. Eventually, I photographed one of the darkest days in American history.
According to Justice Department trackers, Texas was just behind Florida in rioting for the Capitol uprising. Texans came from all over the state to condemn what they thought was a rigged election. I saw many waving “Texans for Trump” flags around town, along with Gadsden flags (the ones that say, “Don’t step on me”). There seemed to be a black and white license plate of our state on every other car parked in front of the hotels.
As the rally began on Ellips’ lawn south of the White House, I was amazed at how large the crowds were – a sea of red hats, each representing a person who had bought a lie, that the election had been stolen from their president. Before Trump’s speech was half-finished, I began to notice the streams of people heading for the Capitol. I walked along Constitution Avenue and found myself among the crowds of protesters who were getting angrier every second. I texted my colleagues furiously, “NOW to the Capitol.”
I’m not sure how many times I’ve been shot with rubber bullets or disoriented by lightning. I coughed with tear gas and felt the center of gravity of the crowd shift behind the line of officers toward the windows and doors of the building. I watched a group of men – one of them with a Capitol police riot shield with a radio receiver – at the nearest set of shattered windows. U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Kelly later described the moment as “a spearhead that pierced the United States Capitol.” I took a deep breath as I photographed the angry rioters crawling through the broken glass. I followed them through the corridors and finally came across one of the most striking scenes of the uprising: a group of men I was chasing, standing against Officer Eugene Goodman in the corridors before leading them heroically out of the Senate. A group of five or six men accused me of not being one of them because I was wearing a “real mask” designed to block COVID-19 particles. They pressed me against the wall and tore off a mask in one of the meeting rooms in the Capitol. A few days later, I had a positive test for COVID-19 and monitored the inauguration from isolation.
I had a hard time coming to terms with what had happened. During my years as a photojournalist, I became acquainted with the trauma of political violence because I saw the horrors of war and poverty in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. But this was different. I had the honor of leaving foreign war zones whenever I found it too dangerous or stressful. I had the honor of being an American and of participating in a largely stable democratic government. I had the honor of not being surrounded by people who wished to hurt me just because I was.
When I returned to Texas, I noticed a house proudly hoisted by Trump flags behind the door along the two roads that lead to my neighborhood. I couldn’t shake the thought that the man with the MAGA hat waiting behind the cash register at HEB wished me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that at any time, from each of the men who pinned me to the wall and ripped off my mask, a neighbor waved at me every morning when I went out for coffee. It took me the rest of 2021 to work through these many feelings. It was the first time I was in therapy.
In the morning, after the world watched the fragile foundations of American democracy shake up on live television, my photographer and I went to a coffee shop in a store near a hotel near the Capitol. Outside were a number of trucks and minivans packed by people in MAGA hats and shirts. Before I entered the building, I heard someone say, “We have to go. It’s a long way back to Texas! ”