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Illustration by Security Management

Fallout from Riot at the Capitol Building

Thousands of U.S. President Donald Trump’s supporters first began demonstrating on Wednesday afternoon—protesting Congress’s anticipated majority approval of the Electoral College vote—along the National Mall and throughout Washington, D.C. But then hundreds of them violently entered the Capitol buildings, pulling down barriers and smashing windows to get in.

The violent and forceful entry of rioters prompted authorities to order and escort lawmakers, staff, and reporters to shelter in the building until they were escorted to a safer location.

Prior to the break-in, Trump and other public figures—including members of the Trump family, Roger Stone, and Rudy Giuliani—spoke encouragingly to the demonstrators. Notably, Trump called for Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser said the city was prepared for protests. Prior to 6 January, DC Metropolitan Police posted reminders about a ban on firearms within 100 feet of First Amendment events.

According to Martin Herman, president and CEO of Special Response Corporation, the Capitol Police, which has jurisdiction over the U.S. Capitol grounds, had the resources and manpower to deal with the protesters prior to the break in. They also regularly network and coordinate with local metropolitan police and the U.S. National Guard.

“They should have been able to deal with this, but I think it boils down to ‘Fail to plan, plan to fail,’” Herman says. So instead, “Somebody let their guard down.”

According to CNN, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had not found any “active threats” tied to the protest, which had been planned for weeks.

However, according to The New York Times, “Calls for violence against members of Congress and for pro-Trump movements to retake the Capitol building have been circulating online for months.” Rioters were able to organize through social media websites popular with the far-right, including Gab and Parler. Comments on these sites indicated how to avoid authorities stationed on certain streets and which tools would help force open doors. “At least a dozen people posted about carrying guns into the halls of Congress,” the article said.

Site users also documented going into specific offices within the buildings and searching for Pence, a recent target in Trump’s speeches.

Social media sites Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook locked Trump’s accounts after rioters broke into the Capitol.

“Disinformation and extremism researchers have for years pointed to broader network-based exploitation of these platforms,” U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) said in a 7 January statement. “…these platforms have served as core organizing infrastructure for violent, far-right groups and militia movements for several years now—helping them to recruit, organize, coordinate, and in many cases (particularly with respect to YouTube) generate profits from their violent, extremist content.”

Trump supporters demonstrated in other parts of the United States, including at statehouses in Kansas, Ohio, Michigan, Utah, California, and Colorado.

In Olympia, Washington, a group forced its way past an iron security gate and onto Governor Jay Inslee’s mansion property. State patrol reportedly made no arrests, asserting that Islee was in no danger and an arrest would likely further agitate protesters.

Back in D.C., Capitol Police were also attempting to de-escalate the crowds prior to and during the break-in; however, they were ultimately ill-prepared.

“If you look back at Ferguson, if you look back at Baltimore in 2016, it was all about the lack of response,” Herman says. He adds that protests in these cities were allowed to grow into violence when authorities thought that it would be better for actors to vent out frustrations.  “That’s the big failure. The cities that did take positive action regarding civil unrest were able to keep things down to a minimum.”

Herman noted that cities that took an early and more proactive response within the past five years, although expensive, were able to better protect people and infrastructure.

During the riot, one woman—whose identity remains unknown to the public—was shot inside the Capitol and was later reported to have died from the gunshot. According to Metropolitan Police Department Chief Robert Contee, her identity will remain withheld at least until her next of kin is notified. According to Contee, her death, cause by gunfire from a Capitol Police officer, is being investigated. Three other deaths were confirmed, the causes linked to medical emergencies during the riot, including at least one heart attack.

According to the Washington, D.C. Mayor’s office, authorities arrested 68 individuals related to the incidents at the Capitol. During a Wednesday evening news conference, Contee announced that of the arrests 47 were due to violations of the city’s 6:00 p.m. curfew (initiated after the riot began), and five were related to carrying either a firearm without a license or a banned weapon.

“Crowd dynamics are unique and complicated. They are unlike other forms of violence and some of the response strategies are counterintuitive,” Steve Crimando, principal of Behavioral Science Applications, adds. “Leaders should not leave it to employees, students, and others they protect to navigate a potentially dangerous crowd using their own wits. Just as most people would not necessarily know how to respond to a shooter, most would not know how to effectively respond to a violent mob without instruction and support from their security partners.”

According to Reuters, authorities also recovered two pipe bombs, which had been placed in the headquarters of the Republican and Democratic national committees, and a cooler holding Molotov cocktails, which was found in a vehicle on the grounds.

“Security professionals across every sector must always be in a state of readiness for such situations, since an event occurring anywhere in the country, even overseas, can by a trigger for crowds to take to the streets to express their rage,” Crimando says. “The collective violence of mobs should be addressed in planning and training, including training for employees. Just as active assailant training is routinely provided in businesses and schools, it is important to raise awareness of the potential of collective violence and to provide practical training on action steps for safety and survival.”

Reactions from some world leaders expressed dismay while the riot continued in the Capitol and after the crowds were pushed back from the buildings.

According to Deutsche Welle, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was also upset over the riot, and that inciting doubts over the legitimacy of the U.S. election and Trump’s persistent public refusal to accept his loss led to the demonstrations and violence at the Capitol.

CNN noted that other officials used the incident to further denigrate the United States. “Konstantin Kosachev, the chairman of the Russian upper house foreign affairs committee, said the storming signaled the derailment of American democracy,” CNN said.

Once U.S. lawmakers reentered the building, they resumed the process of counting Electoral College votes on Wednesday evening with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence presiding. Early Thursday morning, Pence announced that both houses certified Joe Biden’s victory of the 2020 presidential election.