This Video Journalist Witnessed the Deadly Capitol Riots
Laura Brickman is a freelance video journalist and writer based in Washington, D.C. Through the Storyhunter platform, Laura took on a last-minute Business Insider video assignment alongside field producer Bennett Murray to cover President Trump’s rally on January 6th, 2021. She had no idea the day would culminate in a pro-Trump mob invading the Capitol. The insurrection delayed Congress’ certification of November’s presidential election results and left five people dead, including a police officer. We spoke with Laura about what it was like to be a journalist on the ground that day.
Shivan: How did the day’s events unfold?
Laura: I don’t think we expected things to unfold the way that they did. I was kind of anticipating a really tame eight hours during the day. And then maybe it would devolve a little bit at night as has happened in previous rallies, but this kind of just broke any standard for what to expect at this kind of event. Trump spoke outside of the White House. The crowd was gathered at the Ellipse, which has a big grassy area near the Washington monument. It’s hard to say how many people were there, but I would estimate more than 10,000. The lawn outside of the Washington monument was covered with people. There were so many people that we weren’t even in sight of Trump, but we heard the speech and we were getting crowd reactions. during the speech, he was continuing to de-legitimize the results of the election.
We were standing near a group of men who after the speech started to call on others to start walking towards the Capitol. So, we sort of followed the sea of people as they were going towards the Capitol and along the way we saw other journalists being harassed. There was one moment where there was a crew from Australia that was being literally chased down the street by a group of men who were chanting “fuck CNN” and “fuck Antifa.” They knocked the camera out of the man’s hands. As we were walking, we were shooting interview footage with different people that we saw. When we got closer to the Capitol grounds, there just wasn’t a barrier.
There was almost no police. It was almost as if it was intentional that people were able to just get immediately up to the exterior of the Capitol and surround the building. There was a handful of Capitol police who were shooting tear gas and occasional flash-bang grenades. But the number of protesters compared to the number of police was so just overwhelming and there really wasn’t any real barrier to prevent people from going onto the grounds of the building and then from getting into the building itself. So, we saw people climbing the exterior of the building, and climbing scaffolding that I think was set up for the inauguration in order to get into the building itself. And then they smashed through the glass on the doors at the Capitol and we followed them inside. Seeing men in military fatigues standing in the rotunda like this was some kind of coup or paramilitary was just utterly shocking.
Shivan: Who were the rioters? What happened next?
Laura: It was a fascinating mix of agitators and people that were clearly militarized [in their appearance].. a large swath of the crowd just seemed to be going along with whatever was happening. It was this momentum just driving the crowd towards the Capitol and the most outspoken and extreme voices were giving directions to everyone else.
Shivan: What were you trying to do in terms of your reporting and filmmaking?
Laura: We went in expecting to just film a vox-pop style piece with five or six interviews. Then the police started firing tear gas and it just suddenly became this news story that we were following. I made the decision to go inside the building, which was maybe a personal risk.
I think it was the right decision.
But it was risky. We were one of the few media to be there when we were. After seeing a camera crew being chased on the street, I wondered what’s going to happen to us if they find out who we are. It was scary. And there were a lot of calculations going through my mind about how much risk we should take. I was in the building for about ten minutes. When I got outside, people started talking about someone being shot inside the building. I feel lucky that I wasn’t there when that happened.
Shivan: What were some of the risks that you were weighing on whether to go in or not?
Laura: I don’t think anything like this has happened in the United States. I didn’t feel I was at risk from people in the crowd as much as just getting caught in some kind of police response. If the police had started shooting at the mob, which did happen, the chances of getting caught in that crossfire felt pretty real.
Shivan: What struck you the most about how everything unfolded? About the atmosphere, about people’s temperaments, or even the police response?
Laura: Honestly, just the utter lack of law enforcement. There was a video that was going viral of police moving the barriers aside and letting a mob move past. When we went into the building, we saw lines of officers in the hallway. There wasn’t even an effort to prevent people from coming inside for the most part. They were outnumbered like a thousand to one. How could it not have been an intentional decision to not have anyone standing outside of the building? We learned later that Trump refused to call the National Guard and Pence undermined him and called them in.
Shivan: How long were you inside? What are some of those other moments? And what happened while you were inside?
Laura: Not long. I was in there for maybe 10 minutes. You could taste the tear gas inside of the rotunda. The police, the looks on their faces: It was astonishment and just shock. Their eyes were so wide. It was like they couldn’t believe what was happening either. There was nothing they could do, you know? It was like 10 officers and 10,000 raging Trump supporters.
I just ran in and got some quick shots and ran out. We were standing at the bottom of the steps going up to the Capitol and it sounded like something was happening inside. People came streaming out yelling that a girl had just gotten shot. We started talking to people who had seen it. There was one guy who said he was a priest. He said, “I was standing right next to her and I saw her get shot in the face. And I sat with her while she died.” It’s just chilling.
The other thing I didn’t expect was to feel as much [for the protestors] I don’t know if compassion is the right word, but I felt like I got where these people were coming from in a way. It seemed like they were overwhelmingly rural, people coming from rural communities who felt left behind and felt looked down on and felt like they had no recourse to be seen or to be respected.
People kept saying they’re the real patriots and that they’re protecting liberty, that they’re fighting to preserve American democracy. I think overwhelmingly that was what people believed that they were doing. People really believed the election had been stolen. It was just sad. They’ve been so manipulated. A lot of them didn’t seem radical. They just seemed like regular people. And they were just swept up in this moment. So it feels tragic. There really isn’t anything good that could come out of something like this.
Laura: For some reason, I don’t think anyone thought we were media because I just had a Sony A7. I wasn’t carrying a big, over the shoulder kit that a lot of other people had. There was nothing identifying us as press externally, which I’m really happy about. There was a guy wearing a military vest with the “PRESS” in duct tape on the back of his vest. And he was being antagonized and no one would even talk to him. When they were chasing the Australian crew, they were shouting “CNN, CNN”. It was the ultimate kind of mob mentality. It was not rational. It was not people thinking with their higher selves. When I was inside, I saw there was a photographer and he started shooting a picture and this guy in military fatigue started screaming at him. There were a lot of moments like that.
Shivan: Did you feel okay approaching people and identifying yourself?
Laura: It was interesting. For the amount of aggression against the media that we saw, there were people who didn’t want to talk to us. But there wasn’t a moment where I felt like someone in the crowd was going to come after us. I think we just didn’t look like the media in the way that a lot of other people did. We did identify ourselves but in a low-key way. CNN is the catch-all phrase for corrupt media. It’s just funny to see anyone with a camera being called CNN. But we didn’t really experience that. I think they thought we were one of them.
Shivan: What happened once you left?
Laura: We stayed until around four. We were just looking at the news and the whole world is watching this right now. Which is hard to realize when you’re in the middle of something that’s happening. That this is like the biggest thing happening in the world at the moment.
Shivan: What will you remember about that day? How do you process all this?
Laura: Just the images, it really feels like it will kind of be burned in my brain. Seeing the rage on people’s faces and seeing these men with beards and fatigues with their eyes streaming after being shot with tear gas and seeing the blood on the sidewalk from this woman that had gotten killed. It enters weird ethical territory because you want to get the footage and you want to be covering it and reporting. A part of you is hoping that something extreme happens. It’s an evil impulse to want shit to go down. You’re feeding off of the same adrenaline as the people who are breaking the windows of the Capitol are feeding off of.
Shivan: What are your takeaways from this experience?
Laura: I think to really be prepared for things. To go into an event imagining that anything could happen is always important. When you’re going into a situation that could become chaotic or violent, never go in by yourself. Having someone who’s there with you, and having a plan of what to do if you get separated If things become violent, you know how far you will go. If things do become violent when you’re by yourself, it’s really easy to make decisions without fully thinking them through.
I really think being in the field and shooting is my favorite thing to do as a journalist. Yesterday really showed me why. It just feels significant. It feels like you’re getting the information in the most immediate way possible. And it requires you to be in the middle of it. What journalist or filmmaker doesn’t crave that?
Interviewed by Shivan Sarna, Head of Stories