Jan. 6 at 11 a.m. Journalist George Cahlink arrived at Capitol Hill to report on the Georgia runoff elections, the results of which flipped the U.S. Senate from Republican to Democrat overnight.
“I thought that was going to be the story of the day and the certification of Electoral College votes would be an afterthought,” Cahlink said. “I thought it was going to be an interesting day but not for the reasons it turned out to be.”
Cahlink’s normal workday consists of making his way around Capitol Hill trying to find lawmakers to comment on energy and the environment for E&E news.
At 1 p.m. Cahlink headed to the certification where the House and Senate met. Then he headed to the Senate where there was anticipation whether majority leader Mitch McConnell and other GOP senators were going to support President Donald Trump by rejecting the Electoral College votes for President-elect Biden.
At 1:30 p.m. Cahlink stepped off the Senate floor briefly and into the Press Gallery.
“Within minutes of stepping out there, an announcement came over the loudspeaker that said stay away from any windows and doors that are in the Capitol,” Cahlink said.
Cahlink said he and his colleagues chuckled, not realizing the violence to come. Protestors are common in The Capitol and warning announcements are made once or twice a week with regular occurrence.
Aside from this announcement, journalists didn’t receive an official statement from the Capitol on the increasing danger of protests outside during this time and were forced to rely on social media to determine what was going on around them.
He said representatives were given email emergency notices, but the press was left in the dark. Cahlink continued to check his social media and continued to report on the protestors throughout the day.
Cahlink said that in addition, he heard some representatives were forwarding official Capitol emergency notices to the press to accurately know what was going on. All representatives receive official statements from the Capitol.
“I knew earlier in the day there were protestors hanging out there but not huge crowds,” Cahlink said. “I thought if anything, that it would be going on at the east front.”
Cahlink made his way to a men’s bathroom window where he took photos on the third floor facing the east front steps of the Capitol.
“Crowds were running up the steps and were coming and coming and coming and I could hear breaking glass, chanting USA, cheering, yelling, booing,” Cahlink said. “And then I realized they were trying to break in the front door.”
That was when Cahlink said he knew things were getting out of hand. He tried to go to the House chamber to see if the protestors would head there. Cahlink said people were running around saying “we’re on .”
“At that point, Capitol Police said ‘No, you can’t go any further,’ and they sent me to the press office,” Cahlink said. “Shortly after I came in, the press office staff came in and locked the door saying we couldn’t go anywhere.”
Cahlink and his colleagues were scared as they began to put chairs up against the doors, fully expecting the protestors to break in. He and his colleagues started making contingency plans if they should stay in the press area, barricade as many objects as possible behind the doors, or make a run for it.
“A big target was the media and of course there’s a big sign on the door that says ‘press only,’ so we were a little bit worried the sign would attract them,” Cahlink said.
The back entrance of the press area overlooks Statuary Hall where Cahlink watched the protestors walking and running through the front doors.
“They were all taking selfies and pictures as they went along, yelling, screaming, calling the media a bunch of pussies,” Cahlink said.
From Cahlink’s picture, two policemen can be seen chatting while protestors pass them by within the Statuary Hall ropes.
“What was so extraordinary was there was no Capitol Police around to stop them,” Cahlink said. “It was me and a handful of other reporters watching this.”
Cahlink was still in the midst of figuring out what was going on and what he could do as a journalist. Meanwhile, his wife, Mary Jalonick, a reporter for the Associated Press, had to duck and cover in the House chamber.
A police officer got to the dais and said, “Everyone remain calm, the Capitol has been breached, we’re going to stay here and there’s no threat to the chamber right now and we’re going to recess,” Jalonick said.
Then Congress abruptly went back into session when police came back up to the dais again and said tear gas had been dispersed in the rotunda and that members needed to reach for their gas masks located under their desks.
“Our gallery staff comes running down and throwing gas masks at us… We’re all trying to figure out how to open them,” Jalonick said.
Jalonick said that, suddenly, press gallery staff said that everyone needed to get out. They started moving the press to a different gallery across the room with direct access to the stairs.
“They kept saying, ‘You need to get behind the seats,’” Jalonick said.
She said ducking behind the seats was hard because they didn’t provide appropriate protection from view. She said she then found her way to near the front as she tried hard not to look at what was happening below on the House floor. Capitol Police barricaded the doors to the chamber shut with two wooden benches and guns drawn while shouting at the protestors.
Around 3 p.m. The House chamber was evacuated through the underground tunnels and taken to a nearby House office building, including Jalonick.
She did interviews while evacuating and said the members were shell shocked and sad that this could actually be happening at The Capitol.
“Everyone I was with were Democrats because I must have been in a democratic section,” Jalonick said. “They’re like I can’t believe this is happening...and blaming Trump and Republicans who perpetuated baseless claims about the election.”
Cahlink and his colleagues stayed in the press area for two hours before being escorted out of The Capitol by National Guard and Capitol Police, joining the rest of the representatives. Jalonick waited in a cafeteria with members of the press, capitol workers and representatives.
At 7:30 p.m. Congress reconvened and said reporters were allowed back to cover the Electoral College votes. Cahlink went home at 3 a.m., shortly before the House finished counting votes.
The next day
Cahlink said Wednesday was a complete failure by Capitol Police because once protestors breached the metal perimeter set up by Capitol Police, there was no going back.
Capitol Police’s response has raised questions from many on how protestors were able to walk into the Capitol building without immediately being stopped by police.
A new video has come to light in recent days of Capitol Police waving protestors in through the metal barrier but has yet to be verified.
Cahlink said to enter the Capitol, he has to wear his photo identification at all times, have a background check and must go through a metal detector for every visit.
George’s daughter, Molly Cahlink, has been to the Capitol several times.
“Their jobs are safe I feel, especially since they work in the Capitol,” Molly said. “I’ve always thought they were safe.”
She’s said she’s never had to worry about her parents’ safety or them being in danger.
“How this could have happened is beyond me,” Molly said.
Increased security around the capital will continue through President-elect Biden’s inauguration, according to The Guardian.
In addition, George said the role of journalists and the media is crucial for a free press and continues to be a valuable asset to our democracy.
“The press isn’t pro-Trump, against-Trump, Republican or Democrat,” George said. “We’re watchdogs and guardians in democracy.”
George also explained that journalists shed light on places where there are problems and things that need to be improved and investigated.
“When you take away the free press, what you’re saying is you’re taking away the ability of the American people to understand how the government operates,” George said.
George said even though protesters stormed the Capitol, this isn’t a reason to be scared or intimidated.
“We [journalists] were there to do our jobs, report the story, and I’m not going to be deterred from doing my job by what these people tried to do,” George said. “Our job is to report things as we see them in this country.”
Contact Lorena Best at email@example.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.