The moment from January 6th, 2021 that will always stay with me came about an hour into the insurrection. I was on the steps on the north terrace of the Capitol with our group of six. Somehow, some in the crowd had figured out that we worked for CNN.
Word spread quickly, it felt like all eyes were on us and instantly, profoundly hostile. Within moments we were being pushed and jostled, while countless others jeered, shouted and swore at us. We knew immediately we had to get out of there and we began to walk through an increasingly agitated tunnel of people as rioters hurled abuse at us.
One man followed alongside, wagging his gloved finger at us. He was probably no more than 30-years-old, tall, wearing a black jacket and a khaki-coloured backpack, with a scarf pulled up over his mouth and nose. “Who are you with?”, he demanded to know. “There’s more of us than you,” he repeated twice. “We could destroy you right now,” he said, coldly. “You’re traitors.”
I had reported on Trump rallies before and witnessed the hostility towards the media that the former President’s rhetoric could whip up. Journalists had been under sustained attack from the administration for four years, and the safety of reporters had become an ever-greater concern, with physical threats increasingly commonplace. The animosity we would see boiling over that day had long been simmering, and the damage to people’s faith in the press had been done.
Much of my career as a journalist has been spent overseas, as a foreign correspondent. I have reported from countless protests, uprisings and conflicts. I am accustomed to the dynamics of angry crowds. I was in Tahrir Square in 2011, in protests in Turkey and the West Bank, in war zones in Syria, Libya and Gaza. This time, it was two miles from my home, walking distance from my own neighbourhood.
My team and I had arrived at the Capitol that day shortly after Trump’s rally at the Ellipse ended. We knew people were moving towards the building itself, but we didn’t have a sense of what that would look like. We were certainly prepared for the possibility that things could get a little out of hand, but there was no real sense of what was to come.
Suddenly, protesters started storming up the west side where Joe Biden was to be inaugurated in just two weeks’ time. Others started scaling the wall in front of us to climb up to the terrace of the Capitol. The insurrection was fully underway.
In the months following that day we learned that intelligence existed showing the potential for things to get out of control and threaten the Capitol and those inside. But it was ignored, and the correct forces were not in place to prevent what happened. On the ground, the size of the crowd compared to the police presence took me by surprise.
A year on, it often feels like the country hardly learnt a thing from that day, and politically the differences have become more entrenched. For Democrats there is little doubt about what happened and that it was fuelled by Donald Trump; for many Republicans it is a day that is ignored at best or completely written off as a hoax at worst. The collective shock that millions of people around the world felt that day watching America’s seat of government get overrun is dismissed by so many in the US, whose own “People’s House” was desecrated.
As we enter a year of critical midterm elections, the "Big Lie" remains alive and well. Polls tell us the majority of Republican voters believe the election of Joe Biden was not legitimate, and those in the GOP who have pushed back on that, or spoken out against the insurrectionists, have been ostracised by the party. In many respects, the divisions revealed last January have only widened.
From a personal point of view, the shock of that day remains. I had never been attacked like that before, and like other journalists there I was simply doing my job. Fellow Americans, self-proclaimed "patriots", chanting "traitor" at us, threatening to "destroy" us; I had never seen animosity like that up close. From a professional point of view, it is disgusting to see some so-called journalists fuelling the divisions and stoking the conspiracy theories that have caused so much destruction in this country.
CNN’s special coverage of the anniversary of the January 6th insurrection on CNN International from 8:45am ET/1:45pm GMT this Thursday