An illustration of the texts exchanged between Gwen Casten (11) and her father, Congressman Sean Casten (IL-06) the day of the insurrection. (Olivia Shirk)
An illustration of the texts exchanged between Gwen Casten (11) and her father, Congressman Sean Casten (IL-06) the day of the insurrection.

Olivia Shirk

Two perspectives on the insurrection: A congressman and his daughter

February 8, 2021

This story was written by junior Gwen Casten and her father, U.S. Congressman Sean Casten IL(06). This narrative tells what happened on January 6, 2021 and is told from Gwen’s perspective in Downers Grove while receiving updates during school and Representative Casten’s in Washington D.C. while at the U.S. Capitol.

 

Gwen

The night before: The potential chaos tomorrow is not on my mind. I talk to Dad a little bit and he says that tomorrow is going to be a long and big day. I go to bed.

Morning: I wake up for school excited due to the positive looking election results in Georgia. Warnock has been pronounced the winner and it is looking good for Ossoff. I am feeling some hope for the country, which I have not felt in a while.

12:30 PM: I join my sixth-period class. About 20 minutes after my class starts, I receive a text in our family group chat from Dad of a Capitol alert on his computer. It says that there has been an unknown package left at the Cannon House Office Building and that anyone in or near the area should evacuate, grab escape hoods, and go kits. I start to get nervous and feel confused, as I am completely unaware of what is going on. I wonder if Dad is safe. Lots of thoughts like these are going through my head. I immediately text back asking what is going on and if it is something serious.

1 PM: Dad texts that there are now protestors trying to storm the Capitol while being tear-gassed. He also says that they had just started to certify Arizona’s election results and that McConnell was telling everyone they should certify the vote. Surprising. He says Cruz is telling people to not. Not so surprising. At this point, I am still not aware of Dad’s location or the situation at Cannon. So, in an attempt to figure out what is going on, I look up “package Cannon office building” to find that there was a potential bomb left at Cannon, likely left by one of the rioters. I send this to Dad and he responds by saying that multiple buildings have been given evacuation orders, but that he is currently safe. I feel a bit of relief. Dad then says that his phone has been going off with security alarms. Then Dad says that they have given the all-clear on the bomb situation. But he still doesn’t know much. He gets another alert about people needing to evacuate from Cannon to either Rayburn or Longworth. Dad confirms my question about it being people from the Trump rally. I respond with “That is so messed up”. I begin to start thinking of the worst. What the rioters could do. Where they might go and who might be harmed along the way. 

1:10 PM: Dad sends an email from Capitol Police concerning the suspicious package, explaining that there may be a loud bang but it is not to cause alarm. So I assume that they are diffusing it. Another alert from Dad about a security threat in Cannon, saying no one can enter or exit. Dad then says that he hopes he is not scaring us, he just wants to keep us updated. He says he is fine and that it feels surreal to be watching the debate on the House floor through the TV while seeing videos from outside with constant security alerts. I am still in class at this point. More problematic thoughts enter my head about later in the day. 

1:20 PM: Dad texts another update that the Capitol has been breached. It says to move inside an office or nearest office, take emergency equipment and visitors, close, lock, and stay away from windows and doors, remain quiet, and silence electronics. He sends a tweet of a video of rioters entering the Capitol with guns, harassing an officer who is trying to corral them (I learned that this was Eugene Goodman a couple of days later). I watch as they enter near the House and gallery entrance, I recognize it as I have been there before. More frightening thoughts enter my head. I start sending texts to Dad asking how they got in. I then realize that Dad is updating us as much as he can but has a lot of other things to deal with as well, so I stop texting him.

1:40 PM: Dad sends another tweet of the Capitol doors being broken into and the rioters shattering windows as people were trying to get in. Dad says McGovern called a recess for the House. Dad says he is trying to live-tweet as much as he can. First, I thought it was dangerous to be live-tweeting but realize it is a way to inform the public of your safety. Then, he sends a tweet saying tear gas has been used in the Rotunda and that members are being told to get gas masks and get under their seats. He sends a tweet with a caption that says they are shooting into the House chamber. Dad then sends an alert on his phone that a curfew has been put in place for 6 PM. I ask if everything is still okay. Dad says he is fine but the situation is really scary. I still can’t believe this is happening. Dad reiterates that shots have been fired in the Capitol and that members on the floor have been told to wear gas masks. He again reassures us he is safe. He sends another tweet of the shots fired in the chamber. Then there was nothing for a while. 

2:50 PM: My mom asks about how things are going. Dad says he is still safe and hunkered down. He is doing a lot of TV and media to try to keep people informed. He says it seems like the least he can do but feels very powerless. That is the end of our communication through it. At this point, I was in eighth-period, very distracted, and not at all paying attention to what was going on in class. I was watching CSPAN and NBC on my phone while checking Twitter and my texts frequently. Some teachers and friends started to reach out to make sure Dad was okay and check in on how I was doing. I appreciated that. I ended up canceling my plans to see friends after school as it was simply too much. We ate dinner while watching CNN and then continued to watch for a couple of hours. Dad called us a little later and explained how he was doing and what was going on. He talked about how he had to think about things he never thought he would have to think about. He is in his office and waiting to be called back for votes. He says it is going to be a long night and will see if anything changes with the objections after this. I ask why the police weren’t more prepared, why weren’t they arresting people, why did they fail to protect the Capitol so terribly? He says he doesn’t know and that there will likely be a lot of action on that in the coming days. We say good night. 

 

I felt a lot of emotions in these next few days. I did not think about how this would affect me emotionally and mentally, but it did. The next day, I felt the need to call out how despicable and terrifying this was. On social media and to friends, as an attempt to process everything. However, in the days after that, I started to get anxious every time I would see images from that day. Videos of the riots would overwhelm me and talking about it was unbearable. I had to avoid seeing any reminder of it for some time, as to not get worked up, emotionally. Every time I saw a video or talked about it, I would flashback to that day, and everything I was feeling then would return. This was something that people my age have never experienced, watching our very own Capitol be under siege. On top of that, I was worrying about my father’s safety, and thinking about worst-case scenarios, which was unbearable. I have had some time to adjust to my dad’s job and am incredibly grateful for all the opportunities it has given my family. But this was the first time in the last two years that I truly felt the danger of his job. To know that these rioters were coming after all those who refused to call a fair election faulty, including my Dad, with guns and zip ties, is something I will never be able to process. But, I am optimistic. I am hopeful for the future and am ready to help build this country back to what it is.

 

Sean (The Week of the Insurrection)

Two years ago, at the beginning of the 116th Congress, I had just finished several weeks of freshman orientation.  These events were to help us learn how to be members of Congress, to meet our colleagues and to get to know one another.

COVID changed everything at the start of the 117th Congress.  The new freshman class hasn’t had big social events to mingle.  Friends and family are not in town.  Access to the Capitol complex has been limited to members and staff.  When we vote, we go in small groups and do not linger.  Instead of being sworn in en masse, we come in groups of 10 – 15 at scheduled times, then return to our offices.

There was another, non-COVID difference.  Crowds of people were walking around DC.  They were overwhelmingly white, male and bearded.  Most wore MAGA hats, or carried Trump flags.  They were roaming the Mall in groups without an obvious destination, and were overly friendly to me in the way that groups of young men looking for trouble often are.  As I walked home on January 4, I was sufficiently concerned to call my chief of staff and legislative director to make sure they had a safe way to get home that evening.

I went into the office earlier than usual on January 6.  I skipped my morning run on the Mall because I wasn’t sure it was wise for me to be recognized by the people congregating there.  

At 9 AM, we had a Zoom conference call to explain the constitutional process we were about to engage in, led by Representatives Raskin and Schiff.  We were advised that any member of the House may object to the results of any state’s electoral college count.  If that objection is supported by at least one Senator, the House and Senate have to go into separate sessions to debate for not more than 2 hours, and then vote by simple majority whether to accept or reject the results of the contested state.  We were told to expect objections to Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin. Members from those states were asked to be on the floor for debate when those objections arose.  We were asked otherwise to stay off the House floor to minimize the COVID risk.  Only 44 people would be allowed on the House floor at any given time.  I was not selected to be in the first group.

At 1 PM, I turned on my TV to watch the floor proceedings.  Vice President Pence and Speaker Pelosi were on dais, addressing the 22 Representatives and 22 Senators in that first cohort.

The Alabama results were read and affirmed by Vice President Pence with no objection.  The Alaska results were then read and affirmed.  The Arizona results were then read and Rep. Gosar objected to the results.  I texted a colleague to jokingly ask whether Mr. Gosar – who was just elected from the state of Arizona – was suggesting that his own election was fraudulent.  Senator Cruz from Texas supported the motion and so both chambers were put into separate sessions.

Almost as soon as debate began on Mr. Gosar’s objection we started getting alerts on our secure phones.  Roads were being closed due to suspicious packages.  A building in the Library of Congress complex was evacuated.  

The House debate on the Arizona results continued.

The sequence of what followed is a bit fuzzy.  I had my TV on the house floor and my computer on CNN to monitor what was happening outside the Capitol.  My chief of staff, who was not on the Hill that day, texted me that the Capitol had been breached about 5 minutes before I had confirmation from any other sources. Then Rep. McGovern, who was acting as Speaker Pro Tem gaveled the House into recess.  The video feed to the floor was cut, but the audio stayed on briefly and I heard a voice from the House floor say “Get under your chair.  Remain calm.”

For security reasons, I will not describe where I was over the next 6 hours.  

I would describe that period only as unwanted, first-hand experience with what it feels like to be in a mass shooting.  We had incomplete information, heard sirens without context, and tried to keep in touch with friends and family.  I did a lot of TV, radio and newspaper interviews.  I remembered I had a gas mask in my closet and wondered if I knew how to put it on.  I heard voices outside the door and wondered if I knew how to tell good guys from bad guys.  People all over the country were reaching out for updates and I did my best to respond, if only to let them know I was still OK.  Brief moments of panic interrupted long stretches of boredom.

At some point after the all clear was given I got an email that dinner was available in the basement of the Capitol.  Walking over was surreal.  I stopped every Capitol police officer I saw to thank them, and make sure they were doing OK.  All put on a brave face.  The National Guard was (finally) there.  Every time I saw a fellow member we would ask each other if the other was OK.  We all claimed that we were.  

We then had a call with Speaker Pelosi.  We agreed that we should return to the floor before the night was out, to send a message that our democracy is stronger than those who would attack it.

The Arizona debate resumed sometime around 10 PM.  The effort to block Arizona’s votes from being counted failed overwhelmingly and bipartisanly in the Senate – only 6 Senators voted to sustain the objection. The effort in the House was much closer, with 121 Republicans voting to reject the Arizona results.  All Democrats voted against and Arizona’s 11 electoral votes were added to Biden’s tally.  The vote on the floor was the first chance most Members had to catch up with each other.  We lingered longer than we should have to share stories of the day.  This was our first holistic view of what had happened outside of our individual locations.

We moved onto the remaining states.  Every state we had been expecting to hear objections to was opposed by a member of the House of Representatives.  Rep. Hice (R-GA) objected to the Georgia results.  No Senator signed on, so those electoral votes were added to Biden’s tally.  Michigan and Nevada electoral votes met a similar fate. 

In the early hours of January 7, Rep Perry (R-PA) objected to his state’s results. Senator Hawley signed on, and we went back into separate sessions.  The Senate closed debate immediately, and moved directly to votes.  7 Senators voted to reject the Pennsylvania results.  One more than Arizona, but still a small minority.   The House went through the full two hours of debate and we returned to the floor to vote at roughly 2 AM.  138 House Republicans voted to reject the Pennsylvania results.  Again, no Democrats supported and Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes were added to Biden’s tally.

We were advised that there would be no further objections.  Much as I wanted to stay to see the final certification come in, I was exhausted.  I got a secure transport from the Capitol back to my apartment, answered a text agreeing to be on TV to talk about the results at 7:30 the next morning and by 3:30 was asleep.

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  • T

    Tom & Judy CastenFeb 9, 2021 at 12:46 pm

    We read the words of our grand daughter and son on the day Trump’s second impeachment trial begins. Tom has not felt that much panic about close friends since Vietnam, and neither of us have ever felt this panic about family. It is sad but instructive to join the ever growing group of America’s residents who have feared for their children, family and close friends during a mass shooting or mob action. We were in NYC on 9-11 but did not learn until 9/13 that a dear friend died at Shanksville PA.

    What might mass healing include? Convict Trump and all of those those who broke into the capital to make it clear all in public service take an oath to the country, not to an individual? A constitutional amendment to severely limit rights to possess any deadly weapon? Massively successful defamation lawsuits against persons and organizations that engaged in false claims of voter fraud? More equitable sharing of economic gains across the population? Other?

    Our health (read Covid), or democracy, and the near future of the world (read global warming) all depend on America returning to shared faith in government.

    Reply