Rep. Grace Meng on Barricading in the Capitol, Tensions Between Lawmakers, and Unease About Inauguration
"I was scared for my life."
At 9:00 a.m. on January 6, Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) walked into the Capitol and began preparing for the afternoon's joint session of Congress, where lawmakers were to count the electoral votes that would cement Joe Biden's win in the 2020 presidential election.
Four hours later, Trump supporters busted down barricades outside the Capitol, broke down doors and windows with poles bearing "Trump 2020" flags, and flooded the halls of the building. Shortly after Meng received alerts of the lockdown and hunkered in an office, she heard chanting outside its door.
After five long hours and several "I love you, pray for me" texts to friends and family later, she was able to remove the furniture barricade she had set against the door, and return, along with other members of Congress, to complete their task.
One week later, she was a member of the bipartisan majority that voted to impeach President Trump for inciting the violence that took place that day.
We spoke with Meng about her experience during the insurrection, the "palpable" tension between lawmakers on the Hill, and why many of her peers are still undecided about whether or not they'll attend the inauguration on Jan. 21.
InStyle: Can you walk us through what it was like for you on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6?
Rep. Grace Meng: It started out really calm. I went in around nine o'clock to avoid any crowds. The proceedings weren't going to start until 1 p.m., so I thought I was being very smart and going in early. [I began working] out of a shared office that people use. The office is in the Capitol, maybe like 20 feet from the House Chamber where everything happened. It was quiet all morning.
Around 1:30, two o'clock, I started getting alerts. Throughout the complex, they send alerts sometimes. Anything from like a suspicious package found to high winds. So that's something common, but the alert was saying that they just evacuated one of the House Office Buildings.
I thought that was really strange because we all knew that that day, and even in recent weeks, the public wasn't allowed to be in the House Office Building, that it was only for members and staff. Soon after, I got another alert saying that we should stay away from windows and doors. And then within minutes after that, there was another alert saying the whole complex is on lockdown; no one is to come in or come out. Now, those are alerts I've never seen before. I started getting really nervous. Maybe 15, 20 minutes later, I started to hear a lot of commotion outside of the room where I was, and a lot of stomping and chanting.
What were they chanting?
I couldn't hear a lot of it, but what I could hear was 'USA, USA.' I don't know what else they were saying, but it was really loud.
Then I did what I probably shouldn't have done, which is to turn on the TV. When I saw the images, I realized that they were right outside my door, which really scared me. And so I turned off the lights, I put the TV on mute, I put my cell phone on silent, and then I started moving whatever furniture I could against the door. It was a small room.
Well, there are actually two rooms in there. One of them was a larger room, but it had multiple doors and I didn't think I could protect myself as well in there. So I went into the smaller room where I could move enough furniture to completely block the door from opening.
What was going through your head when you realized they were so close? Were you panicking?
Yeah. I think in retrospect, watching the TV actually made me a lot more scared because I realized they were right outside, how many there were, and how the Capitol police had lost control and were overwhelmed.
Originally I thought I would be OK because I assumed the Capitol police would just come and get me and extract me. But I was watching all this on TV and realized that there was no one coming to get me, and that's when I started to put up the barricade.
Did you hear anybody trying to get in that door?
I did not, luckily.
I could see that they were about five, 10 feet from the door, so that's why I was nervous. But no one actually, I don't think, touched the door.
Were you by yourself?
I was with another colleague.
Were you guys plotting to escape? What was the next step running through your mind for all of this?
I kept texting my staff. I was trying not to talk out loud. I kept texting my staff, asking them to call the Capitol Police. They did. They said that the National Guard was being called. And so I was just waiting and hoping for either the Capitol Police or the National Guard to come get me. I knew I couldn't escape because I knew [the rioters] were right outside. And I knew they were all over the Capitol where I was, so there really wasn't anywhere that I could escape to.
Did you hear the gunshots?
No, I did not. The area where the gunshot was was probably about 100 feet, 200 feet away around the corner on the opposite end of the building. And I realized this all after the fact.
I was reading recently that AOC had said that she was scared for her life. Were you at any point feeling the same way?
Yeah. I was scared for my life for the first two hours. The remaining three, I heard very little noise, so I assumed that it was OK, but not OK to leave yet, but that I was safe again. I couldn't talk on the phone so I texted my family and some close friends and I was like," I love you guys. Pray for me."
After you got out, Congress reconvened. Can you tell me anything about the vibe from all of the legislators that were still there?
I think that amongst legislators, but also staff members, reporters, and the many employees who work in the Capitol, and even the rank and file Capitol Police — if I had to pick one word, I would say that we felt betrayed. We've all been there for past large gatherings of any scale, of any topic. And we've seen how prepared law enforcement personnel gets and the barricades that they will put up to prevent people from getting too close to the building. And when I went in that morning, I didn't see any of that, but I also assumed that they were in the midst of setting it up since it was still hours away.
I did not know that there were no National Guard personnel until later in the evening. And we just felt like this didn't have to happen. Had the Capitol Police leadership — I don't want to blame the rank and file — had the leadership and the Sergeant of Arms, all of whom have resigned by the way, had they been prepared, this might not have happened to this scale. So we feel really betrayed. And then what actually makes me feel worse is that in the days since Jan. 6, from the next day, the seventh, until yesterday when we all left, there were so many National Guardsmen around. They immediately put up fences all around and we just thought, why didn't you guys do this before Jan. 6?
Someone mentioned when Bill Nye the Science Guy came, that there were more barricades and law enforcement around. If we were to take a look at almost any past protest or gathering in front of the Capitol, you would have seen a lot more reinforcements than you saw that day. Police officers mostly were left to fend for themselves.
Obviously, people are upset with the president, but there's also the Republican lawmakers who said that they wouldn't vote for his impeachment. Is there any kind of internal animosity? Can you see or feel that tension?
Oh, it is very palpable. I do want to reiterate that the impeachment vote has bipartisan support.
There have been Republican members who have spoken up very strongly against the president and against the actions that he incited and encouraged. So I do want to make note of that. I will say that, in general, it's very tense in the Capitol, and it's not just because of what happened on Jan.6, it's also because the members who were on the floor together, on the floor of the House, they were all locked down in one room for hours, for the same amount of time as me, and there were multiple members not wearing masks and refusing to wear masks.
And now five members who were in that room have gotten COVID. And so that is what is contributing to the tension on Capitol Hill.
Another part is metal detectors were installed on the outside of the chambers. There were some Republican members that just refused to walk through them or they just walked through them while beeping or walked right around them. Just a few Republicans were so rude to the Capitol Police officers who literally have been protecting us and haven't taken a day off since Wednesday. So that has contributed to the tension and anger on Capitol Hill.
Are you and your colleagues planning to attend inauguration?
We're still trying to figure out. We're still getting briefings on security measures being taken and I think people are still trying to decide.
Is there anyone who's just flat out said, 'this doesn't feel safe, I'm not going to do it.'?
I don't want to reveal them, but there are some members who have said that they're not going. They don't feel safe.
There have been reports that there's going to be more violence, more riots taking place in states across the country on Inauguration Day. How does that make you feel?
I'm very nervous. We've all been in touch with our local law enforcement and the Capitol police. There obviously are threats and more measures have been taken. I've been in touch with my state legislative leaders as well for New York and they're taking appropriate measures. But yeah, I'm still nervous.
Is there anything you wanted to add?
I do want to say thank you to the members of the public that have been weighing in, to colleagues and people who work in the Capitol Hill on campus. People have been so encouraging and have offered words of comfort and it has been tremendously helpful for all of us.