WASHINGTON — Wayne K. Williams, a senior adviser to Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the No. 5 House Democrat, was the only staff member in his office on Jan. 6, barricaded in a room in the middle of the Capitol as the deadliest attack on the building in two centuries unfolded.
Pandemic precautions and concerns about protests had kept other members of Mr. Jeffries’s staff home that day. Mr. Jeffries, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, was in the chamber. That left Mr. Williams, a 44-year-old native New Yorker, alone in an unmarked office on the first floor of the building, near an area directly under the Rotunda known as the Capitol Crypt.
He would emerge many hours later, as the House prepared to reconvene to certify President Biden’s electoral victory.
Mr. Williams recently spoke to The New York Times about his experience. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Things didn’t get started until 1 p.m. in the House chamber. At what point did you grow aware of what was going on outside?
Chairman Jeffries goes up to start discussion, I hang back in the Capitol office. I was just gazing at ESPN for a little while and, again, not thinking anything exciting is going to happen.
I recall getting a phone call from my daughter. My daughters don’t call me in the middle of the day. And so she calls me and she’s like “Papi, where are you at?” She’s kind of concerned: “You see what’s happening?”
I’m a little perplexed. I’m like, “I’m good. I’m fine.” I did also receive a text message from my younger daughter as well, asking me the same question. The buildup that they were seeing, I hadn’t felt at the moment.
I go to the restroom. Upon exiting the restroom, I remember seeing like an immediate doubling of Capitol Police presence in the hallway, and several of the officers had this really large weaponry.
I heard this commotion, like this noise and yelling, banging. I just walked back into the office, and things of course, immediately, quickly, take a turn.
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Do you think, “I’m just going stay in here?” Or for you has it not really sunk in yet what’s going on outside?
Yes, I’m in the office. The tension, I can feel it through the window, you can hear the chants, you can hear yelling.
I walked to the front door. I still feel secured by this door because it has a pretty prominent lock. I can hear them — maybe it was unwise for me, in hindsight, to stand by the door.
You can hear planning, you can hear them chanting stuff like, “They stole the election. This is my America, this is my America, we’re going to save our country.”
You could also hear folks who were closer to the door, planning about where they were going to go. You can hear them urinating outside the door.
At the moment I’m standing there and I can hear what sounds like a gun, you hear the chamber sort of pull back. It sounded like that, that’s when I backed away from the door.
I was still calm. I also reached out to the director of the House Caucus and told him directly that we are to not share the code for the entrance with anyone.
I just didn’t trust what was happening or understand, rather, what was really happening on the other side of that door. So yeah, I just stayed put.
Did anyone try to get in through the door?
Oh, no, they absolutely tried. Absolutely, they tried. The door knob would be fidgeted with and turned.
I’m looking out the window and I’m seeing a lot of activity that is troubling. It’s troubling to see the bottles being thrown at the Capitol Police officers. It was troubling to see the flag is being thrown at the Capitol Police officers, it’s troubling to see the sort of anger that was pointed and directed to the Capitol Police officers.
What are you feeling when you see those things?
I’m a first-generation American — my mother came over to this country from Trinidad in the ’70s. There’s this toughness that she has always possessed and how she’s raised us.
Being calm didn’t mean that I was not angry, or becoming more and more angry at seeing what was happening, and then also the thought of what was potentially happening.
My primary thought and concern was the members, and it was the chairman, but it was also the other members.
Yeah, this was real. In addition to understanding the importance of remaining calm, I felt angry, and it was a growing anger.
I was convinced that this was brought on by the four years of having Donald Trump as the president. And so that’s where I moved from being confused, concerned — and to being convinced.
When you did finally leave the office, and what was that like?
It was a little after eight o’clock. I was very skeptical, still, of going outside.
I remember walking and looking out to the hallway. It was disheartening, to say the least. It just sort of made you very, very, very, very sad and shocked.
The thing that stood out the most that I think about to this day — the John Lewis memorial poster board that was positioned outside of [the office of Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland].
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I recall coming out and seeing that ripped up in the hallway and feeling, again, angry — and then also feeling disappointed.
You know, it angered me that they would just sort of disrespect Capitol grounds that individuals like John Lewis had walked and worked in for so many years.
There was feces and there was urine. It was just litter and trash. It was just a very, very disheartening image.
Now I was looking at the Capitol building space disrespected in a manner that I still think is surreal, right? That’s probably the part of the entire day for me that I still try to grasp its reality.
As a Black man in this institution, how did that play into your experience?
It was a tough season, we were coming off George Floyd’s murder. The initial thoughts were, if the rioters were of a different ethnicity, or different race, what would have the response potentially have been? What would the coverage have suggested?
In those moments, all of your alerts are heightened. And so, you know, your safety is taken into priority, and you write a quick list down in your mind about potential what-ifs.
That day, I was viewing the breach as an American. Yes, I’m an African American male, but I’m an American, and the breach was in many ways against all Americans.
What is it like for you now, walking past Republicans, working in the same space as people who have denied the facts of what happened?
The work is nonstop. We’ve all come out of Jan. 6 with different emotions, different sentiments about the day.
I don’t think it would be to my advantage, to continue to carry a sentiment that is unproductive. I’m trusting the process that is in place to hold folks accountable for Jan. 6. There’s so many other things that we have to be abreast of.
There’s a respect factor of the institution that I think we all will continue to carry. And we will allow the accountability process to move forward.
What does accountability look like to you?
All participants who breached the Capitol on Jan. 6 should be held accountable, certainly, to the rule of law. And then, that process plays out the way it will play out.
I truly believe that there is an important component about accountability that is often overlooked, and that part about healing and moving forward.
How are you thinking about the anniversary?
I’m looking forward to a different consecutive set of Wednesdays. We started with, of course, the insurrection; and then the 13th, we had the impeachment; on the 20th, we had the inauguration. January 2021, was, to put it quite simply, was a busy month.
I hope that it’s not a day we remember as the day that separated us or divided us, but a day that moving forward brings us closer together.
That’s a pretty optimistic view considering everything that’s happened in the last year.
I know, but you often need a benchmark to look forward to with the hope that you can do something different at that moment.
There have been moments — a glimmer of hope — where I’ve seen and observed Democrats and Republicans engaging in very cordial conversations. Gives me hope that, you know, as we go forward with these Jan. 6 benchmark moments that it would bring us closer together rather than divide us further apart.