‘I don’t think I’m OK’ — Montclair State student’s story, photos of the Jan. 6 riot
The following piece and photos are by Drew Mumich, a Montclair State University student from Lambertville. He wrote the piece on his train ride back to New Jersey from Washington, D.C., one day after the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol, when supporters of then-President Donald Trump stormed the building with claims the election of now-President Joe Biden was illegitimate.
Montclair Local first published this account on Jan. 6, 2022, and is highlighting it again amid the ongoing Congressional hearings about the riot.
The piece has been edited by Montclair Local for style and clarity, but the characterizations and descriptions of events are Mumich's own.
The morning was peaceful. Well, as peaceful as one might get after, the leader of the free world invited over thousands of people to his front lawn to rebuke a transparent election and said people showed up with a grudge, in body armor, looking to fight.
The president's supporters packed in like sardines in front of the Washington Monument to deny the Senate confirming the next president, Joe Biden. There I was, a student journalist with a two-year-old press pass from my community college days, wondering why everyone wasn't wearing a mask and working my way through jeers, snide comments and growls. Though at this point, I was under the assumption the soon-to-be violent mob's bark was worse than its bite.
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The rally on the morning of Jan. 6 included leaders speaking to the crowd at this point, and I was trying to find an excellent place to get my camera into position. This would never happen. For most of the morning, I would wade through non-masked, definitely-not-socially-distanced downriver current. Like any good swimmer, I decided not to fight it.
Instead, I rode the current and headed to the back of the MAGA Million crowd near the Washington Monument to take photos from there. I think it turned out for the better anyway.
The first name I caught on the echoing loudspeakers was Eric Trump's. He spoke to the crowd about how this was his birthday; as a birthday present, Congress should re-elect Donald J Trump.
Then, for the first astonishing moment of that day, the crowd of gun-touting, join-us-or-die Trump supporters, encouraged by Erik Trump's wife, sang happy birthday to the president's 40-something son. That should have been my first clue that herd mentality would be a problem.
Then, the president spoke. It was surreal. The crowd cheered at everything. At one point, President Donald Trump decided to go on one of his enemies-of-the-people rants about the press. ... I was genuinely unnerved. This was the first time I felt everyone looking at me as a journalist. It dawned on me what I had gotten myself into. I was in the middle of a Trump crowd with the president of the United States telling everyone that I was the enemy of the people and should be treated as such. This was the second time I should have realized that it would be a rough day.
The president hyped this crowd up and then sent them marching down Constitution Avenue, beginning what is now the infamous march of Trump supporters to the Capitol.
Now, two things: I was not there at the beginning, neither was I there at the end. I did not see what started the charge into the Capitol building, and I wasn't planning on waiting around to be arrested for "storming the Capitol building." I didn't know how far the “I'm a student journalist” spiel would go.
At the beginning of the siege part of the day, I thought I had a front-row seat to the storming of the U.S. Department of Justice Building. A guy dressed in a Revolutionary War uniform was standing on a large platform, screaming at a DOJ officer about how they didn't do their jobs during the election and how they should be ashamed of themselves. Until my phone buzzed, and I saw my friend sent me a text saying: "Holy s--t, they are storming the Capitol building, you aren't there, right?" To which I replied: "Not yet …"
I broke into a full sprint down Constitution Avenue to find a sea of people down the Capitol's steps, trying to push their way up. I made my way through this crowd, pushing people left and right, saying, "Excuse me, pardon me, just want to see what's happening."
For a group about to defile one of the most secure and sacred places in the nation, they were very polite for letting me go through.
Anyway, I get to my destination, the top of the Capitol building steps, where the most influential people in the world, elected by the citizens, meet to democratically create the free world we know and love. This building, where in this post-9/11 world you can't bring a water bottle of more than 8 ounces, where you have to have every ounce of your body checked, where you give up all and any rights of privacy as soon as you enter, was under siege by Bill, Karen and their cousins Bobby, Johnny and Joe. The scary part was that Bill, Karen, Bobby, Johnny, and Joe were winning. I mean, not close winning. These people were actively pushing the police back!
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Now, I get up there through the crowd, passing a man who was carried by two of his fellow rioters bleeding from the forehead saying, "You gotta get up there, there are men bleeding up there," to anyone he passed.
I followed that gap through all of the protestors to what I would later recognize as the back of the Capitol building. At this point, I was cut off from all cellular data and had no idea what was happening in other parts of D.C. For all I knew, this was nationwide. It was pure chaos. The smell of pepper spray, mixed with sweat, overpowered me through my two masks; behind me, flash-bangs went off, flanking me on either side, and in front of me were barricades and police squaring against the Blue Lives Matter gang.
I was cursing myself as I watched one guy get down on his knees to put on a full-on gas mask before storming into the fray. At every other protest I have reported on, I would pack ski goggles to protect my eyes just in case, but I always forget one thing before going on overnight trips. These were that one thing.
My camera was up to my eye immediately. I turned on the Canon 80D's sports mode and I just started shooting. One eye was on the photos, the other eye was checking my surroundings. At first, it wasn't bad. The police were doing a decent job at fending off the sieging force. The Trump supporters pushed, and the police pushed back the typical semi-violent protest. After getting hit with a baton or sprayed with pepper spray, people backed off, but not for very long.
I got to the front of the crowd, right in between the rioters and the police. Right where all of my friends and family begged me not to be, but exactly where I needed to be. I heard a few pops go off. A defining bang, and all of a sudden, I couldn't see anything. White smoke surrounded me as tears were swelling up in my eyes; the sides of my eyes were beginning to burn. It was on a delay, steadily getting hotter in a matter of seconds, and I keeled over coughing until I make my way out of the smoke. That would be tear gas, and man, goggles would have been a great addition to my toolkit that day, but no. They decided that they preferred to stay home in the front seat of my car.
Pro-tip: Clean the viewfinder of your camera after getting doused in pepper spray and tear gas before putting it back up to your eye to avoid feeling that burning sensation all over again.
Though not all was bad, the pepper spray and tear gas sucked. The fact that I was in the middle of a literal coup sucked even more, but I managed to find a group of reporters to stick by. Four reporters, fully fitted with helmets, goggles, scarfs, press badges, definitely not wearing any Trump merch, huddled together taking photos and video.
We frequently checked on each other. I don't even know their names, but man, was I happy to be with them. I felt safe for a fleeting moment.
Now, as these patriots wearing Blue Lives Matter bandannas, holding American flags, claiming they are doing this in the name of the people, had found a way through the scaffolding on my left. They started to climb through that structure and up those stairs, completely flanking law enforcement and our merry gang of reporters.
Rounds of pepper spray were being flung down the steps inside the scaffolding. They just continued up. They climbed to the top of the scaffolding, hanging an American flag over to the cheers of the rioters.
This was bad for the merry gang of reporters I was with, because that wall of white fabric was the only thing keeping us safe from being flanked on every side, but we stayed there because it was at this point still the safest place to be. It was an open area. There were a couple of us, and the police weren't targeting us (directly).
I was grooving at this point. The objective was clear: Photograph, and document as much as possible, don't worry about composition as much as quantity. I don't know if this was the wrong way of thinking, but it worked.
Something metal hit my right arm, square in my shoulder.
Pain shot through my body.
I woke up on the ground. My right side was screaming, "God almighty, what just happened?" My eyes were asking, "What do you mean, everything is blurry?" My ears were going, "Huh? We can't hear you over this dial tone."
I honestly don't know what hit me, and I suspect it was a flash-bang since it went "flash bang." The next thing to happen was that I was picked up by one of the nearby journalists who checked in with me, giving me a thumbs-up. I shook my head in a yes-nodding motion. They pointed at my camera, and I quickly checked to make sure the tool I have spent over $2,000 on was OK before I went back to documenting the siege.
I decided to get out of the middle of the crowd and find higher ground, not wanting to be hit by a shell again. I climbed up on the scaffolding to get my bearings. I saw something that truly disgusted me.
In response to the police having the audacity to rain down hellfire on the rampaging crowd of rioters, these patriots brought up huge American flags to protect themselves against the police. Yup. Read that last sentence again. Then let your mind drift off to a distant memory of 2016, where Colin Kaepernick was chastised by this same demographic for disrespecting the flag, the troops and them as an Americans.
These last-minute militiamen used Old Glory as a shield against the police to storm the Capitol building! There were cheers from under the star and stripes, daring law enforcement, saying they wouldn't shoot through the flag. Then, the rioters passed the flag up to protect the group on the scaffolding stairs, which led the charge into the back door, and I can't emphasize this enough ... of The U.S. Capitol building.
At this point, I had been separated from the journalist squad, and the only one by my side was someone who looked to be the same age as me. We swapped Instagram accounts taking notes on our phones due to not having service, and connected later. He got out OK, thank God. What? Just because a coup is going on is no reason not to network!
Someone had a snare drum cadence sound on a loop in a speaker like they were marching into war. A bugler played different Suza pieces to the cadence's tempo, and the crowd went with it. The police had retreated into the state capitol with riot gear fending off those at the door.
The current of the crowd was way too strong. I moved with the crowd until I got to the top. The view was astonishing, almost beautiful if it wasn't for the herd of rioters pushing steadily into the building that fundamentally defines our democracy.
I was scared. I was terrified. I was awestruck.
The snare drum had stopped, and as I looked out into a sea of flags, red hats, and camo gear, I heard this: "And the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air." The crowd of patriots was singing the national anthem. I swear, I saw hats being removed. "Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there, Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave?"
A trumpet player joined in, the chorus grew more assertive, making the floor shake as the crescendo picked up for the last verses. "O'er the land of the free." None of them hit the note. "And the home of the brave!"
They cheered like it was a baseball game, and went on to continue their bombardment on the United States of America Capitol Building.
I almost cried. I was disheartened. I was horrified. I realized I was alone.
Then my phone finally connected to service. It exploded with a slew of text messages from friends and family who know me way too well, asking if I was safe and telling me to get the heck out of D.C., a curfew was being put in place.
I looked to my right and noticed this older gentleman hobbling down the steps. He wore a Vietnam hat and his Army jacket, and looked like a grandfather. The crowd parted for him as he walked down, and I got right behind him.
He didn't notice me until we were down on the steps, off the Capitol building, and asked if I was following him. I made a small joke said, "Only to the end of the steps, sir." I must have looked scared out of my mind cause he turned to me and said, "OK, follow me, and I'll get you home."
He did. He parted a crowd that would not have budged for me, and I will always be grateful for that.
We chatted for a little bit as we walked toward the same subway line, and he said that the crowd had taken it too far. Protesting was one thing, but actively damaging the Capitol building's windows, attacking the Capitol police, destroying the property was crossing the line.
I wonder what he thought of everything on the news that night.
Anyway, I think I got one of the last subway lines out of DC back to my friend's apartment, where I would spend the rest of my night putting together photos to create a story. At 11 that night, I submitted my photos for review to a publication named Peterson Breaking News of Trenton, an independent journalism outlet in Trenton. They published my images the following day.
Then, I shut my laptop down, and a switch turned off. The journalist persona that has been with me on 60-minute deadlines, through tough interviews, that keeps me going through thick and thin, decided it was time to rest. My job was done.
I shut down and felt the weight of the day.
My friend Jane, who let me stay the night at her place, was doing dishes and stress-baking the most delicious chocolate chip cookies I have ever tasted, when I turned to her and whispered, "I don't think I'm OK" before breaking down and crying into her shoulder as she comforted me for the rest of the night.
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