Freshman Rep. Ritchie Torres woke before sunrise Wednesday, anticipating a day to celebrate democracy when he would get to participate in the Congressional approval of the election of Joe Biden as the nation’s 46th president.
The South Bronx Democrat did not count on being thrust into Insurrection Day.
“I expected protest and I expected aggressive protest,” Torres told THE CITY during a phone interview from an undisclosed location as anarchy exploded through Capitol Hill. “I never in my wildest dreams thought there would be a violent mob storming the Capitol. It’s not something one would expect.”
Torres and the other members of New York City’s House delegation — 11 Democrats and one Republican — found themselves ordered first out of their offices and then the Capitol as rage-filled rioters stormed the Hill in the name of President Donald Trump, a son of Queens.
Before the brazen attack on democracy, House members had approached the vote to approve Biden as president — under normal circumstances a routine affair — expecting some Republicans to contest the tabulated Electoral College votes of a handful of states.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the reps could not vote all at once, but would shuttle into the chamber in small groups in alphabetical order to get the job done. Torres, down in the lower quarter of the alphabet, would have to wait a while.
He was watching the debate unfold on TV from his office in the Cannon Building next to the Capitol when, around 1:30 p.m., everything changed.
“The Capitol Police stormed into my office and directed my staff and me to immediately evacuate,” Torres said. Law enforcement said later this was a precautionary response to a threat of a pipe bomb being planted in the building.
Reps in the Cannon Building moved to a House cafeteria, where members continued to listen to the debate.
Then the TV images suddenly switched to large groups of unmasked Trump supporters storming the Capitol, forcing their way past the police and roaming the marble hallways at will.
‘Commotion, Chanting, Shouting’
Rep. Grace Meng (D-Queens) recalled getting an alert warning members to stay away from windows.
Then she got a text stating that Cannon had been evacuated. She was inside a room within the Capitol watching the proceedings on TV. She and another member barricaded the door with furniture and switched off the lights, as well as their cell phone and iPad ringers. She later tweeted photos of her ad hoc barricade.
“I just heard so much commotion, chanting, shouting outside,” she told THE CITY.
On TV, she could see the mob roving through the Capitol past the room she was in: “I was watching the marches on MSNBC, that scene with all the statues in a circular room. They probably didn’t know that I was in there. I was scared they would try to open every single door … scared to call anyone and talk out loud myself.”
Rep. Nydia Velazquez was in the House chambers when word came that the Capitol had been breached. The Capitol Police ordered the House and Senate chambers vacated, and all congressional members were told to find a safe place to shelter.
She described the scene as “sheer insanity,” hearing explosions that she later learned were suspicious packages found around the Capitol being detonated by authorities.
“I saw the crowd of people going through the barricades,” Velazquez, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. “I saw people running, coming near the lawn of the Capitol. And so I immediately came back to my office, because at that moment we were getting notifications from the police to shelter.”
From their safe spaces, House and Senate members watched the violence unfold on TV a few blocks away: the rioters smashing their way into the Capitol, the insurrectionists traipsing about the hallowed halls carrying Confederate and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags.
Tweets Amid the Storm
On Twitter, some New York reps laid the blame for the unprecedented rioting on the president’s doorstep.
Rep. Jerold Nadler (D-Manhattan) wrote that “Trump and his enablers are directly responsible for this violence.”
“Blood will be on the hands of those perpetrating the big lie that Trump won,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn) tweeted.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez offered a one-word tweet: “Impeach.”
Hours later, Torres still reeled in disbelief.
“It came as a shock to me that the presidential vote count had to be suspended temporarily,” Torres told THE CITY. “This is unprecedented. I’m in a state of shock. Never in the history of the United States has a president instigated an insurrection.”
“This is dangerous uncharted territory,” he added.
For newly elected U.S. Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, the only Republican member of the New York City delegation, the question of how to respond proved more complicated.
After her election, the Staten Island and southern Brooklyn rep supported Trump’s false claims of voter fraud — the same bogus narrative that inspired his supporters to try to take control of the Capitol.
Malliotakis, who did not respond to THE CITY’s requests for an interview, tweeted that she’d been relocated to a safe spot by Capitol Police at the height of the crisis, adding: “Everyone who is responsible for this violence and lawlessness must stop. This is absolutely unacceptable and un-American.”
But Max Rose, the Democrat she defeated to win her seat, contended Malliotakis was partly responsible for the mayhem, noting her intent to contest the Electoral College results.
“She needs to openly acknowledge the fact that she has helped enable this through her intent to take a vote against certifying these election results, too,” he told THE CITY.
Glass Doors Chained Shut
Around 3 p.m., Torres retweeted a video posted by Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) showing insurrectionists climbing the pink marble stairs in the Capitol.
He wrote, “The media often portrays activists on the left as violent agitators. When was the last time a cabal of left-wing activists stormed into the Capitol in a violent attempt to disrupt a presidential vote count in real time. Enough with the moral equivalence.”
Velazquez, who was able to return to her office, said the heavy glass doors that lead to a tunnel to the Capitol were locked with chains. “They have been chained by the police to prevent the protesters from coming into our buildings,” she said.
Around 4 p.m., House members hunkering down in their safe spaces were told that leadership was committed to completing the official vote to certify Biden as the winner of the 2020 election as soon as it was safe to do so.
Hours later, that return to relative normalcy began with Congress reconvening to resume the vote.
“Much has been said about the paranoid style of American politics. We’re living in an age where Americans listen to conspiracy theories,” Torres said. “It sends a message that we cannot just assume a peaceful transference of power.”
Meng said she’s seen multiple protests in her career — but nothing like the invasion that Sen. Chuck Schumer, New Yorker’s senior senator, blamed on “domestic terrorists” Wednesday night.
“I’ve never felt unsafe on issues (from) both sides of the aisle, including the Black Lives Matter protests,” she said. “Today I literally felt scared. I felt like there would be no one there for me if I needed help.”
Velazquez tried to look to America’s better angels.
“We recognize the right of people to protest and demonstrate, and to do it in peace,” she said. “And to send the message that in America, you know, there is a tradition for a peaceful transition of power, and that we need to accept the results of the election.
“And we have to show the president of the United States and the Republican leadership, that we are better than what we saw today.”