'Next Time We're Bringing Guns': A Newscaster's Terrifying Experience Inside the Capitol Riot
Yasmin Vossoughian is an anchor for MSNBC Live. She reported from the ground in Washington D.C. on Wednesday as insurrectionists stormed the Capitol Building.
Going into this situation, we knew that there were threats against the media as there have been throughout Donald Trump's presidency. We were aware, as MSNBC, that we had to be very cautious in the way in which we went about telling the story. Not only are we dealing with a group of people that don't necessarily like us, that think that we are "fake news," but we're also in the midst of a pandemic in which a lot of these folks are COVID-deniers or they think that wearing a mask is an infringement on their rights.
We had a couple of "threats" against us, we anticipated something like that. We didn't necessarily know what to expect for the day in general. There was Donald Trump's "Save America" rally that I believe had a permit for 10,000 people initially, that went up to 30,000 people. Then there were the people beyond that. I would say there were upwards of a 100,000 people, at least, in the area. Some of those folks were on my train on the way down from New York, and I could tell they were amped up. They felt that this was going to be a historic day.
I didn't necessarily understand or know what they meant by it being historic, personally. They felt this election had been stolen from them, in their words. They had this real and true belief that they could feasibly overturn the election
For me, it was just another day of reporting. I've reported in the Middle East, I've been all around the world, for me, this has always been the safest place, despite all that we've experienced — between terror attacks and everything, at the end of the day, it's still the United States, right?
I didn't anticipate something happening to the extent to which it did, but I know that there are going to be outliers, and there had been a threat. So we started near the White House, because we knew that they were going to be marching up Constitution Avenue to The Capitol after the president delivered his speech. Talking to people, there were three questions I kept asking, "Why are you out here? What do you want to see happen today?" And, "Why aren't you wearing a mask?"
People at the beginning were really respectful of me. A lot of people stopped to talk to me. Some people gave me the finger. Some people said F you. That happens, a lot. But then there were also a lot of people that spoke to me, and there were a lot of people that talked about their religion in relation to their support for the president: there seemed to be a lot of Evangelical Christianity. A lot of people talked about the fact that they felt the election had been stolen and that Mike Pence needed to step up as the vice president to overturn it.
I said to them, "At this point, the vice president had issued a statement saying it was not in his jurisdiction under the constitution to be able to do that. He couldn't physically do that." Then they didn't really believe me. And they felt, "Well, if he can't do that, then we don't support him anymore."
Throughout the day, as I was talking to folks, even after the president had made his speech, it seemed like it was just a Trump rally — a Trump rally heading towards The Capitol with a lot of fricking people. None of them, none of them, were from the District of Columbia. I mean, I did not speak to one person that was from the District. They were all from outside.
Until I got to The Capitol, I felt very, for the most part, comfortable. I recognize when there's a hostile person ... I recognize when there's hostility towards me. I look for people to interview that I think seem to be more friendly than others. I've learned in my years, the way you go about who you're going to interview and who you don't, who you approach, and who you don't approach. There were definitely some people I felt were geared up and looking for trouble. But for the most part, as I was walking up Constitution Avenue with my team, we were able to go about what we were doing.
Everybody asked me who I work for, and the second they learned, they'd say, "Well, why do you think we don't like you? Why do you lie?" I'm not one to shy away from a conversation like that, but I kind of try and read the room; I'd say, "Well, I don't lie. I deliver the facts. that's my job as a journalist, and you don't know me, and you don't know my work."
I try and keep a calm demeanor. I don't use my hands very much. I don't cross my arms.
It's a certain kind of body language that I have also. And when I assess hostility, it's in their body language. It is their demeanor. It's face paint. What is the paint? What's painted on their bodies? You assess whether or not someone's approachable, and what it seems they're looking for.
One woman was walking with her male partner. She said, "F you." And she gave me the finger and kept walking, but he talked to me and was really nice and civil, and we did a great interview. So, it is kind of a crap shoot a little bit.
Military fatigues [alerted me to the idea that this wasn't just another rally]. QAnon supporters wear certain things. I knew that Proud Boys could be recognized wearing certain things, certain hats, and that they were there.
The fatigues was a big thing; a bunch of different people identified themselves to me as part of militias. So these are folks that consider themselves constitutionalists, originalists. And they feel as if they should be able to bear arms because the government might come after them. And it's in their rights to have a militia to defend themselves.
I've covered inaugurations before, but I don't really cover the Capitol, per se. Years and years ago, I was an intern on Capitol Hill when I was a teenager. I know the hall well, and — first of all, I have to say, I was so surprised at how close we were able to get, and how close the rioters were able to get. I kept asking, "How could we have been so ill prepared?"
I actually have pictures of the stairs empty when I arrived. And then, as they started to get up the stairs, I was like, "Oh, S-H-I-T." This is bad. And all there was, was Capitol police on the top of the steps in their neon yellow jackets. That's it. There was nothing else. There were no barricades. No National Guard. There was Capitol police in yellow jackets. And then, there were the snipers on the top of the Capitol who are always there. There seemed to be no extra reinforcement. And that's when I knew: this is bad.
And then, of course, I start seeing people hanging from the Archway. The most astounding thing to me was it's the archway the President-elect is going to be walking out of in two weeks.
George Bush and former presidents are going to be walking out of [that Archway], former secretaries of state. Risers that are set up for people attending an inauguration in literally two weeks were filled to the brim with these rioters. It was complete and utter mayhem, like anarchy.
Having covered things overseas so often, I was in a state of shock for a moment where I was like, "This is the United States of America."
[I was] listening to the program in between [hits] because you're trying to pick up on stuff. And I remember Katy [Tur] saying something like, "Imagine if you're another country watching this thinking, 'Wow, that's the United States of America?' What are you even thinking watching this happen, rioters taking over the Capitol?"
There's always been a sentiment, especially in the Middle East, like, "Why does the United States feel like they're the police of the world? Why do they feel as if they're better than us?" They're now looking at The United States thinking, "See, you're just like us."
Seeing this happen in this country was a full circle moment.
We heard gunshots. But they were hard to decipher. We had security with us, which I was so thankful for. NBC has been amazing in that they always send us out with security since COVID started.
A lot of [the security guards] are former law enforcement. They have connections with folks in the National Guard and law enforcement and everything. And they can sometimes decipher things better than we can.
So I was like, "What was that?" Because I heard the pot pot. He was like, "That was a gunshot."
And then there was pepper ball spray [a projectile containing chemicals that irritate the eyes and nose in a way similar to pepper spray] that was [being shot] as well. They helped us decipher between the pepper ball [shots and the gunshots]. And then finally, they released the tear gas — that's what really started to push everyone out. The protestors were not retreating when the pepper ball was coming out. But once the tear gas started coming, that's really what did it. And we were on the edge of the steps of the Capitol.
At first, you're like, "Wait, what is that?" And I was on air with Nicole [Wallace] and Brian [Williams]. She'd just asked me, "Do we know who's releasing the gaseous material?" We hadn't necessarily identified what it was yet.
And I didn't know the answer to that. I said, "I don't know. We're trying to figure that out." And then I remember seeing the next amount of gaseous spray come out. And I thought, "That's tear gas."
We get amazing training from NBC on how to move and how to react to stuff like that. So we started to retreat to the side because that's when folks start stampeding and running. The security guard says to me, "I'm starting to feel it in my throat."
We all had COVID masks on. So you've maybe got an extra second to get your gas mask on before when the tear gas was coming up. Because I could start to feel the tickle, so I took my mask off and put my gas mask on, and they're helping me pull it tight. And we all have gear. I have a huge backpack with stuff in it. My sound guy has his whole sound pack. We're all pulling our gas masks on and then we just are waiting there. And I can hear Brian and Nicole still trying to talk to me. It was also, by the way, really cold.
My producer put her snowcap back on, on top of her gas mask.
So we were in our masks for about 30 minutes or so, and we kept getting pushed back [by police] and then they came back to us and then I was back and forth between NBC specials and MSNBC, toggling both, which is what we have to do where we're just rolling coverage.
So at this point, the National Guard had not yet arrived. There were Capitol Hill police, and then it was DC Metro police. And they had enough people there that they had created a police line.
This is something that we've all seen. In any news coverage you watch of these protests, riots, whatever, when they start trying to enforce curfew or they try to start trying to make people retreat, they create these barriers, these police lines. They push people back to retreat and they do it every 90 seconds. And it's really intimidating. And they push. If you're in the way, you better get out of their way. And so we were going further and further to the side to get out of the way. And then they seemed to settle. They were trying to get people pushed all the way off the Capitol Hill lawn, and then they settled into that formation, and then we saw the National Guard come in, who then reinforced the police line. And then they had their riot gear on at that point.
If you had asked me at 4:00 if literally all these people that I had seen were going to be able to retreat by 6:00, by the time the mayor's curfew was in place, I wouldn't have believed you. But by 6:00 PM, it was like hangers-on at that point. There were 100 people and then it kept getting less and less.
When I was doing my reporting, what stands out was the conversations that I was having with people. And when I'm in those situations, I want to talk to you about like, was it worth it? Is it worth it to do this and see what's happening? At this point we had learned someone had died. And a lot of people said to me that it was worth it, that they felt as if their voices had not been heard. And this was the only way to get heard. And I was shocked.
I remember talking to a militia guy who had come from the state of Florida and he identified himself as John. He had broken into the Capitol. He was in the hall. And I first saw him because he was pouring water on someone who had been tear gassed, so he was trying to get the tear gas out of this guy's eyes. I started talking to him and his partner. And he said he was so angry, but he wasn't angry with me. I didn't feel threatened by him. I never felt threatened by him at all. But he said, "I'm part of a militia." He was a former law enforcement actually. He said to me, "It's over." I said, "What do you mean it's over?"
He said, "It's over, we're done." I'm like, "So it's over, like you're leaving? It's over? You're going to accept Joe Biden as the president? Because he's going to get inaugurated." He said, "We're done. Next time we come back, we're bringing guns."
I've covered a lot of protests and [the number of arrests] was shocking to me, that this had been a situation where people breached Capitol grounds, put the lives of lawmakers at risk. A life was lost and people weren't coming out with handcuffs. And just the paradox of what we've seen so often in protests around this country, especially over the last six, seven months, protests after George Floyd died. I think it's another part of the conversation and something that we're going to have to recognize.
Our security guards were shocked. They were shocked that people were able to breach the grounds of the Capitol the way that they were. I was like, "How are there not steel doors?" It's shocking. It really is. It's the Capitol building. It was like watching a movie.
I'm also super worried about COVID because the other creepy thing is, while all this was happening, 4,000 people died in one day. That's, again, we can't let that pass us by. That's a shocking number. And nobody in the crowd was wearing a mask, nobody.
Some of [the rioters] were on my flight home, and I had two masks on, a face shield, and I tried not to breathe the entire time. I didn't eat, I didn't drink. I just sat there with my mouth closed and my eyes closed and didn't touch a thing.
I'm really worried also about what this is all going to do to our healthcare system now. And when all these people go back to Florida, Wisconsin, Arizona, and California and wherever they came from, and their healthcare systems that are already overwhelmed. I think California's hospitals are at capacity. At this point, EMT's are rationing care, and now more people are going to get sick.
Overall, I feel like maybe I wasn't scared. When you're in the moment, you just ... it's more that you think about it afterwards. In my hotel that night, I was like, "Wow, that was a lot." But I felt for the most part, like, I'm going to be fine. Like, my team's going to be fine. It's adrenaline.
It's a historic day. It's an incredible story that you want to tell. You want to make sure you're getting all the facts, you want to make sure you're seeing everything.
And now it's just kind of like this weird [adrenaline] hangover and I'm not really sleeping well.
Of everything I saw Wednesday, seeing people hanging from the archway [was one of the most shocking images]. I couldn't get it out of my head. That's where the inauguration is happening in two weeks. And as I saw the protestors, these rioters, insurrectionists, hanging from the moldings of that archway. It was like a scene from a different country. The images, that image, is seared into my brain.
My family is from Iran. I was born here in the United States. It's like looking back on the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Like, I look back on photos from 1979 of things that were happening there. And it's as if I'm looking back on this image, but it's in this country, and it happened Wednesday.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.