“Execute the traitors. I wanna see executions!”
That’s a quote from an unidentified participant in Wednesday’s storming of Congress at the nation’s Capitol building, captured by Burlington native Elaine Godfrey – a staff writer at The Atlantic news magazine.
It was one of the many moments in time the 27-year-old Iowa State graduate caught in several hours of the coverage Wednesday – a relatively brief glimpse into the unknown level of societal tumbling in which we find ourselves as a nation.
A day filled with chaos, fear, courage, vigilance, and tragedy. A day, that most hope, is the bottom of what will be a turnaround in American history – what was most assuredly another ‘it-will-get-worse-before-it-gets-better’ scenario for Americans already looking for an end to a crippling virus.
Godfrey grew up in Burlington and secured an internship-turned-full-time gig with The Atlantic covering Washington D.C. She’s been there since President Trump was elected in 2016.
The 27-year-old gave me 20 minutes on Saturday morning after we shuffled schedules for the past three days trying to hook up. She said she’s looking forward to being able to unplug for a bit.
Godfrey was covering Trump’s remarks on the ellipse, a 50-acre park south of the White House, just prior to the siege.
She carried a gas mask in her backpack.
We talked for 20 minutes and then I asked her a question usually reserved for highfalutin national talking heads.
“Tell us what we don’t know,” I asked.
“Tell us what a Burlington native saw on the Capitol grounds that we just don’t have a sense for here.”
Her answer – raw and poignant.
She saw for the first time real rage.
“The pure anger and desire to see violence was so shocking to me – the people who were running at the police with no fear. That they wanted to get in and didn’t care what they had to do to get in – was terrifying.”
Five people have died as a result of the incident. One was shot by Capitol Police, four others from medical conditions exasperated by the melee.
But she said there were others who were appalled at the escalation.
“I think it’s important to point out that this was a surprise to a lot of people,” Godfrey said.
“I think a lot of demonstrators – when they realized what was happening – a lot of them went in and did some damage. But a lot of others were just shocked and didn’t know what to do. Some immediately left.
“I heard one guy tell his wife or whoever he was with, ‘I just wanted to protest, I didn’t want it to get this far.’ There’s definitely an element here of people who were not OK with this.”
State Rep. Joe Mitchell, a Republican from Wayland, and the youngest serving Iowa legislator, was struck hard by Wednesday’s events.
“I don’t know what to say. It’s very upsetting. It makes everyone that supports Trump look really horrible. A good portion of the narrative is that we’re the party of law and order, and we don’t riot and throw tantrums when we don’t get our way,” Mitchell said, while the event was unfolding Wednesday.
“It’s a sad day.”
Fort Madison’s Martin Graber, newly elected State Representative, picked up his phone when I called looking for comment and said, “If it’s a peaceful protest they have the right to do that. If it’s violent there’s no room for that.”
Jeff Reichman didn’t return texts or phone calls to localize the national event.
Godfrey said she started her day covering Trump’s speech and said at no point did the president tell the group to take the Capitol or anything incendiary, but did encourage the group to march to Congress.
“I didn’t anticipate anything getting crazy. I thought there might be some scuffles,” Godfrey said.
“I started the day at the ellipse, the area behind the White House near the monument and hung out with people for about three hours. Everybody had a Trump flag, or American Flag, or Don’t Tread on Me flag.”
She said she asked dozens of people why they were there and most said they either wanted an audit of all election results, wanted the results thrown out due to lack of faith in the system, or just wanted the election overturned.
Godfrey then saw the energy move toward the Capitol.
“By the time I got to the Capitol, I realized they had already breached the walls and were filling up the lawn. There was nothing violent at that point. I was hearing things like they wanted to get as close as they can so they could hear them through the walls,” she said.
“But as I got closer people were running at it and getting up the steps and there was not enough police at all. They were easily getting past them.”
Godfrey said every five minutes or so a pepper spray cannon would go off bewildering many. Others pulled out masks from their own backpacks. She didn’t get to her gas mask and coughed and choked on several occasions.
“It just got very intense from there and after about five minutes of that a huge line of police showed up armed with tactical gear. It got very real all at once.”
Godfrey said she had an instinct to try and get into the Capitol for additional coverage, but police were not in the mood to distinguish journalists from protestors and let no one by.
She stuck around talking with a few more people before leaving the grounds to file her story.
She could only compare the day’s events with a Unite the Right sequel rally where protestors mobbed white nationalists.
“That was scary. But this was the most violent thing I’ve been a part of,” she said.
“I can’t stress enough how many people there were sprinting at the Capitol. Those police were vastly outnumbered.”
She said looking back that it appeared there were two groups of people. One group that wanted to get inside, take some pictures and steal stuff. And a different mobilized group.
“There was another group that seemed to have something on their minds,” Godfrey said. “Tactical gear, hard to identify faces, and they seemed to know their way around and were prepared for weapons.”
There was footage released after the event of protestors jumping up and down on Associated Press equipment – stories of journalists being knocked to the ground and mugged of their tools.
This young girl braving the conditions of a full-on siege and experiencing a once in a lifetime news event certainly isn’t Beside the Point.
It is the point.
I told her that watching the event unfold made me envious of those in that place, at that time, to chronicle the fear and rage – a sense of pride and embarrassment that somehow managed to exist at same time.
We are where we are and the only remedy is a true leader that probably hasn’t emerged yet. The one thing that is clear, as paradoxical as it is, is that nothing is clear.
Unplug young lady.
To read more about Godfrey’s coverage, including her post this morning entitled “It Was Supposed to Be So Much Worse just click here: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2021/01/trump-rioters-wanted-more-violence-worse/617614/
Chuck Vandenberg is editor and co-founder of Pen City Current and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.