Riot at Capitol raises health and safety questions

Commentators and officials have spoken up about security threats, intelligence breaches and COVID-19 risks

Riot at Capitol raises health and safety questions
Scenes of violence yesterday sent shockwaves around the world.

On Wednesday, US Congress gathered in the Capitol building to certify the results of the November 2020 presidential election ahead of President-elect Biden’s inauguration on Jan 20. The results of the 2020 election have been disputed by some – including President Trump – as “rigged” despite overwhelming evidence that the elections were, in fact, free and fair.

Perhaps the culmination of his refusal to accept the results of the electoral college vote, President Trump held a rally outside the White House yesterday and encouraged his supporters to march to protest Congress’ proceedings, according to multiple media reports. Shocking scenes emerged as the protest rapidly descended into a riot and what some commentators and politicians are calling “sedition”, “insurrection” and even an “attempted coup”.

Capitol police were rapidly overwhelmed by the rioters, who gained access to the Capitol building, breaking windows and doors to do so.

The highly symbolic nature of the attack on the Capitol building has been condemned worldwide as an attack on US democracy and American freedoms.

Safety threats

Washington police announced that one woman was shot by the US Capitol police during the riot, and later died of her injuries. Three others have also died in “medical emergencies”. According to a report on The Independent, police have arrested 52 people as of this morning. They have also recovered two pipe bombs as well as a cooler full of Molotov cocktails.

During the riot, staffers and elected representatives were forced to barricade in offices, shelter in place and hide under their desks as rioters and looters broke into the Capitol building. Employees including janitors and cleaners who may have been in the building, as well as journalists and other media staff, were also at risk.

In some photos taken during the breach, members of congress can be seen hiding under desks whilst law enforcement attempts to secure entrances and exits, with doors being barricaded by desks and chairs. Recounting the events on Politico, journalists recalled members who were holding hands, praying and “calling their loved ones”. Aside from the obvious physical danger, those who ended up being sequestered in the building may potentially develop lasting mental health issues, notably PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Where was law enforcement?

A recent report from The Globe and Mail says that the police response is being questioned after the Trump mob stormed the Capitol building. In shocking videos filmed during the riot, viewers can see Capitol police rapidly being overwhelmed by the rioters. Furthermore, once inside the building, the rioters were able to access – and loot – rooms and offices usually off-bounds.

Many critics have been comparing and contrasting the police response to the civil rights protests which occurred last summer following the unlawful killing of George Floyd. Some have noted that the National Guard was seemingly called in later than during the civil rights protests, despite the more alarming nature of the riot which unfolded.

Writing for The Guardian, journalist Julian Borger said: “The contrast between the law enforcement reaction to the storming of the Capitol on Wednesday and the suppression of peaceful protests in the summer is not just stark – it is black and white.”

Security breach

A report from NBC News highlights the concerns from a senior law enforcement official who raised concerns over security breaches of senior congressional leaders’ offices.

Indeed, in one instance rioters can be seen in congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s office and even left a message on a manila folder on her desk stating, “we will not back down”. As house speaker and a representative hailing from the Democratic party, Pelosi is a frequent target of Trump’s supporters.

“The official wondered what documents were exposed, what computers were unlocked and what phone numbers were out in the open when rioters entered the offices,” says NBC News. “The official was also concerned that foreign intelligence officers could have been mixed in with the crowd.”

COVID-19 risk?

Aside from the long-term political fallout and the potential threat of more mob violence, the riot yesterday has also sparked huge concerns about it likely being a “super spreader” event. Pictures and videos show protestors and rioters in close quarters, often without a mask. Law enforcement officers, members of congress, staffers and journalists are also at risk as mask wearing and physical distancing took a backseat to immediate safety threats.

The pandemic has gotten more and more deadly in the US. On Tuesday this week, the US reported its highest daily COVID-19 death count ever: 3,770 American deaths. Numbers are climbing despite the glimmers of hope offered by the rollout of the first vaccine doses.