The riotous protest Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump that sent lawmakers scrambling for safety and left a woman dead are unlike anything seen before in the nation’s history, said Michael Green, an associate professor of history at UNLV.
The only similar breach of the Capitol came during the War of 1812, when invading British troops set fire to Washington landmarks, including the Capitol and President’s Mansion. But the “Burning of Washington” was a foreign attack — not like Wednesday’s acts of domestic terrorism.
Protesters to the constitutionally mandated process to affirm Joe Biden’s presidential election victory over Trump tore down metal barricades at the bottom of the Capitol’s steps and were met by outnumbered Capitol Police officers in riot gear.
Hundreds of protesters pushed past the officers and made their way into the Capitol, parading and hollering through the halls and popping up at the Senate dais and in the House speaker’s office. Some in the crowd outside were shouting “traitors” as officers tried to keep them back. As the breach was taking place, lawmakers, including Vice President Mike Pence, were escorted out of the congressional chambers to safety.
The skirmishes came just shortly after Trump addressed thousands of his supporters, riling up the crowd with his baseless claims of election fraud at a rally near the White House.
“We will not let them silence your voices,” Trump told the protesters.
There is simply no direct historic parallel to Wednesday’s incidents, Green said.
Green says lawmakers were also herded out of their chambers during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but “when that happened, they looked at each other and said, ‘Wow, we are under attack. We need to come together.’ They did for a while. There was a great sense of unity.”
That won’t be the case in 2021, especially with Republican lawmakers who continue to side with Trump’s unproven claims and court defeats in cases alleging that the election was unfairly won by Biden.
The White House was overrun in 1829 by supporters of President Andrew Jackson, who opened the presidential mansion to the public on his inauguration night, Green said. Jackson had to be escorted to safety.
“But that’s not a good comparison (to Wednesday),” Green said. “It’s not like they wanted to take over the White House and install their own guy. They were celebrating their own guy.”
Green says there also have been a few “lone ranger attacks” on the U.S. Capitol, such as in 1954 when four Puerto Rican nationalists wounded five members of the House of Representatives. The attackers were part of a group calling for Puerto Rico’s independence from the U.S.
More recently, the Weather Underground set off an explosive in 1971 to protest the U.S. bombing of Laos, and the May 19th Communist Movement bombed the Senate in 1983 in response to the invasion of Grenada. Neither caused any deaths or injuries, but both resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage and led to tougher security measures.
The most deadly attack on the Capitol occurred in 1998, when a mentally ill man fired at a checkpoint and killed two Capitol Police officers. One of the dying officers managed to wound the gunman, who was arrested and later institutionalized. A nearby statue of Vice President John C. Calhoun still bears a bullet mark from the incident.
The “Bonus Army” march of about 40,000 World War I veterans and their families in 1932 descended on Washington, with protesters demanding cash payment for service, which wasn’t scheduled to be delivered until 1945 under the World War Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924. Two protesters were fatally wounded when President Herbert Hoover order the U.S. Army to clear the area.
Green also pointed to the 1970s, when Native American activists took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington to protest social issues and standard of living.
Still, there was nothing like Wednesday’s effort — one with the sitting president encouraging the chaos.
Even Republicans are dismayed at the chaotic events.
“January 6, 2021: History made today for all the wrong reasons. Shameful. All our Washington staff are safe,” Rep. Mark Amodei, Nevada’s lone Republican representative in Congress, tweeted.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.