SOCIETY

Kathimerini interview: ‘I never thought that the Capitol would be breached’

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For the past 19 years, Gus Papathanasiou has been an officer of the United States Capitol Police. He is currently the chairman of the force’s union.

“When you are a police officer, especially in Washington, DC, you go to work every day and you don’t know what to expect,” Papathanasiou told Kathimerini in an interview, switching between English and fluent Greek. But there was no precedent for what happened on Wednesday. “I never thought that the Capitol would be breached,” he says, his voice still echoing the sound of disbelief.

It all began shortly after midday on January 6.

“We’re going to walk down and I’ll be there with you,” a hoarse voice could be heard saying from the podium. “We’re going to walk down to the Capitol,” he told his most ardent supporters, and his words were greeted with loud cheers. Donald Trump was addressing them from behind a wall of glass. “You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” he told them during his speech at the Save America Rally on Wednesday. “You have to show strength and you have to be strong,” he said, while reiterating the false claim that the presidential election was stolen. His speech ended shortly after 1 p.m. – moments earlier, a joint session of Congress had begun to tally the Electoral College votes. Once completed, the election of the next president of the United States would be officially over.

Trump clapped behind his protective glass partition, standing in front of a flurry of US flags, and then left. But his supporters started walking toward the Capitol.

What followed has already become one of the darkest moments in recent American history. Chaos. An angry mob screamed, shouted, hit members of the public and police officers, climbed walls and managed to do the until so recently inconceivable: open the Capitol doors, while desecrating one of the main monuments of the nation and, above all, national values, leaving five people dead in its wake.

“I never thought I would ever experience something like this,” Papathanasiou says.

He argues that the police knew there were going to be a lot of people in Washington that day, and that the rally had been planned in advance. “We just didn’t know they were going to storm the Capitol and come inside during a joint session of Congress,” he states, noting that it was the first time it had happened since the War of 1812. “Our leadership failed us at the top, I think they were ill-prepared for something of this magnitude,” he tells Kathimerini. Before the Capitol was rushed by the rioters, two explosive devices were found in locations a few blocks away, where the Capitol Police officers were dispatched, he says – “everything was done simultaneously, I think it was a plan.” But he believes that even if twice the number of officers were at the Capitol, they would have still been overwhelmed by the size of the mob of Trump supporters on site. He says that the DC National Guard “should have been there with us” earlier on. “The chief, from what I’m hearing, rejected calls from the National Guard,” Papathanasiou notes, adding that not only the leadership, but also the intel department of the Capitol Police “failed us.” What happened was a “wake-up call,” he says.

Once photos and videos of the event started circulating in the media and online, many criticized the police for effectively allowing the mob to get in, while others, including US President-elect Joe Biden, stressed that the Capitol rioters were treated very differently by the police to the Black Lives Matter protesters over the summer. Papathanasiou, who was born in Florina, northwestern Greece, but grew up in New York, disagrees. “I take offense when I hear things like that because our officers did what they could with what they had,” he says. “They were probably overwhelmed. The officers weren’t negligent, they did what they were supposed to do,” he adds, while denying that the rioters had any sort of favorable treatment compared to the BLM protesters. “There’s video of our officers taking knees and putting their fists up in the air with the BLM protesters,” he says. One of the videos that was shared online on Wednesday showed a police officer being forced to retreat up the stairs in the Capitol as a group of rioters advanced toward him. Papathanasiou thinks that he was right in choosing to retreat until backup arrived as “he probably feared for his life,” while he said there is an investigation pending in regard to the 35-year-old woman who was killed after she was shot inside the Capitol.

During Wednesday’s mayhem, Papathanasiou says there was so much going on that he didn’t have time to feel anything about it at the time – “when all this is going down, you don’t think about that, you just want to get through the day,” he adds. But afterward he felt anger – he felt upset and demoralized, he says. “It was something else,” he notes, reiterating that he never thought anything like that would ever happen, especially in DC, “where we have an influx of police agencies, from federal agencies to local agencies, we have the National Guard at our fingertips,” he says. But as to why the National Guard did not provide backup faster, Papathanasiou makes it clear it wasn’t the guard’s intention. “It’s not that they didn’t want to,” he says, “that’s a question you should ask our chief of police.”

Steven Sund, the head of the US Capitol Police, and two other senior officials submitted their resignations on Thursday, but Papathanasiou insists that won’t suffice. “The chiefs who were on duty should resign or be demoted, and whoever was in charge of our intel department that day,” he says. “For us to move forward, we need to work together in Congress to make things better and more secure,” he argues.

One of the five people who lost their lives as a result of the attack was Officer Brian D. Sicknick, “who died from injuries sustained while protecting the US Capitol,” according to a police statement.

Papathanasiou thinks that they were lucky the tragic death toll was not higher, something that could have happened if the mob had firearms or explosives.

“Law enforcement should never be politically involved in any situation, but I’m hoping, on a political level, that Congress can work together to kind of ease a lot of the tension throughout the country,” he says – “to unite the people of this country instead of dividing them.”