Why Was the U.S. Capitol So Easy to Breach?

Supporters of President Donald Trump climb on the walls at the U.S. Capitol during a protest against the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results by the U.S. Congress, in Washington, D.C.
Up and over the walls. Photo: Jim Urquhart/REUTERS

On Wednesday, violent supporters of the outgoing President Donald Trump clashed with Capitol Police, breached the barricades, and stormed the historic U.S. Capitol Building. The intruders — mostly white men in Trump regalia — scaled the walls, broke windows, and marched across the ornate halls brandishing Confederate flags. The mayhem reached the House and Senate floor, where lawmakers were debating the certification of the 2020 Electoral College votes. Members of Congress and the press took cover. Staff shut themselves into safe rooms. As they evacuated, images emerged from the chaos: Inside, men smiled gleefully and waved at the camera, carrying off House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s lectern.

Why was it so easy to storm this federal building?

If you’ve ever walked or jogged near the Capitol, you’d know that the security starts blocks away, as certain streets are sealed off with barricades and checkpoints. The building itself is located at the center of a sprawling 58-acre park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, with wide thoroughfares sectioning off each building on Capitol Hill — each of the lanes functioning as a sort of border vacuum designed to cut off movement and activity. U.S. Capitol Police guard the entrances for lawmakers and staff on each façade of the building, standing by with their vehicles, weapons ready, while others patrol its boundaries on bikes.

As with many buildings on the campus grounds, the U.S. Capitol is raised on a platform of wide ivory steps, giving security personnel at its many entrances a good view of who is walking up. The building itself has five levels, and parts of it are open to the public, as is the tradition of many federal buildings in Washington, D.C.

When I reported there last year, I often ran into gaggles of tourists in the rotunda under the dome, enraptured by the fresco on the ceiling, half-listening to the docent in a red blazer relaying its history. They would have come in through the visitor center on the eastern front, the only entrance open to the public, after passing through the same rigorous security line that everyone who enters the building (usually) does — scanned by a magnetometer, their items screened by X-ray, and prohibited from bringing in water, much less weaponry of any kind.

Most visitors will find that many of the building’s halls are closed to the public. You need special clearances to access them. Security personnel are sprinkled around the hallways of the building, usually in pairs.

In other words, while the Capitol is accessible, in the way federal buildings should be in a democracy, it is not easy to breach. It is built like a labyrinth, the product of many iterations of rebuilding since the 18th century — a swirl of passages and hallways that revolve around the chambers where policy is hammered out and votes are cast. At a subterranean level, the building is connected by tunnels to the nearby House and Senate buildings where hearings are hosted and committees convene. If you haven’t worked on the Hill for long, it is easy to get lost there.

Since the 1970s, the building has undergone waves of modernization, fortification, and restoration — its walls have been strengthened, more electronic surveillance has been added, its dome restored. In 2002, a year after 9/11, security was boosted throughout the building. In 2017, officials announced security upgrades to the underground alarm system to “to help detect after-hours threats and stop people from trespassing on restricted spaces,” according to the DCist. Last December, a Capitol Police spokesperson told Roll Call that security would be bolstered yet again ahead of the joint session this week.

On Wednesday, the MAGA rioters not only made it through these layers of security, pushing through the barriers at multiple entrances, but they also scaled the ornamental features as if it was all just a giant Lego set: The striated sandstone walls served as ladders, the balustrades on the balconies required just one more heave-ho. It is not easy to access the balconies on the third floor or to parade through the cordoned-off hallways, but today it appeared that once you’re past the barricades and through the heavy front doors, once you’ve overpowered the smattering of security personnel ordinarily stationed at those entrances, you can go forth. Until now, no one has.

There have been rare incidents over the years — a shooting in 1998, another in 2016 — but the assailants didn’t get very far inside. Countless protests have been staged in and around the building in recent years, most of them peaceful. However, activists have been swiftly escorted out of these demonstrations — sometimes, they have argued, too swiftly and with too much force.

The response to Wednesday’s chaos stood in sharp contrast. For one, Capitol Police were not armed in riot gear to begin with, as law enforcement on crowd control duty have been at almost every large protest against police brutality in D.C. in recent months. When the mob breached the guardrails, the building was locked down, yes. Tear-gas canisters were shot, and yes, some police inside the chambers drew their guns. But others tried to “let them do their thing,” according to the New York Times. Videos also emerged of some police personnel opening up the barricades and taking selfies with the intruders once they were inside the building.

The National Guard, which had been on standby for days, was absent toward the beginning. The FBI’s SWAT team took some time to get there. The Department of Homeland Security, which had been on a crusade to protect federal buildings during the George Floyd protests, had a similarly delayed, meek reaction.

Political reporters and protest organizers have remarked at this lack of preparedness and intervention — and what it signifies.

But it was not about a lack of barricades or of boots on the ground. None of this will go away if more public spaces are further fenced off and boarded up. As long as disproportionate force is used against the people who want to declare their humanity, and those who want to deny that humanity are escorted gently out the doors they have just destroyed, the fundamental institutions of American society will continue to replicate the violent myth that only certain lives matter.

Why Was the U.S. Capitol So Easy to Breach?