A 19-year-old chamber assistant has shared the backstory of a viral photo showing her carrying a leather box of electoral votes ahead of the U.S. Capitol being overrun by a violent mob.
The picture was hailed as an example of the small acts of heroism by congressional staff to protect the votes before members of Congress and their staffs fled to safety, but assistant Virginia Brown has clarified that the photo was actually taken hours before the siege by pro-Trump supporters.
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Brown, who is a sophomore at Atlanta's Emory University, spoke to The Washingtonian about Wednesday's frightening ordeal. She was in the middle of her workday as a chamber assistant for the Democratic Cloakroom when rioters forced the Senate to adjourn.
The photo of her and another assistant carrying the leather box went viral after being shared on Instagram by best-selling author Glennon Doyle.
"Here are the women — Senate aides — who had the presence of mind and courage to protect, keep safe, and transport the electoral votes before fleeing the Senate — which was under siege by domestic terrorists," Doyle wrote. "There will always be villains. There will always be heroes."
Brown's mother also commented on Doyle's post, writing, "This is my daughter - she is a fierce defender of democracy and of wild women everywhere. So proud."
But Brown clarified that the photo was actually taken hours earlier, around 1 p.m., and not while members of Congress and staff were being moved to a safe location as rioters stormed the building.
"People got confused with the photos of us carrying the boxes earlier in the day, they kind of put those two together, but it was the Senate parliamentarian staff (that rescued the electoral college votes)," she told The Washingtonian. "It definitely would’ve destroyed a lot of the ability to continue on afterwards if (the votes) had been left in the chamber, because they have to physically look through the boxes and count."
When the mob advanced on the building, Brown said those inside could hear barricades coming down before they were told by Capitol Police to rush down the stairs and into the basement. They were eventually sheltered in an office building.
"We were definitely anticipating (the crowd) getting a lot bigger, but we didn’t see any of the violence or destruction coming — I don’t think anyone was expecting it to go that far," she said.
Brown said that staffers were warned by supervisors ahead of Wednesday to take precautions while entering and exiting the building and to be ready to spend the night if objections by Republican members of Congress to Joe Biden's victory ran long.
"I knew we were protected by the security officers but even with that level of security there’s still that (thought) in your mind that something might happen, and I think that’s been drilled into kids (during school shooter drills) for so many years that’s kind of what your mind automatically jumps to," she said. "Thankfully we were able to get out safely.
"You don’t know if you’re gonna turn around a corner and there’s gonna be someone there with an assault rifle or a weapon."
The speed at which the riot escalated left those inside stunned.
"Within a matter of minutes, they had broken down the barricades, they were inside, they were in the chamber," Brown said. "Even just going to work, I have to open my trunk and they look through my car every day, I go through a metal detector, I have to have my ID on me at all times, and the fact that these people were able to run in, it was kind of astonishing."
The staffers were able to contact their families from a secure location to let them know they were safe as they passed tense hours while the mob overtook the chambers.
The Senate went back in session at 8 p.m. and continued into the early hours of Thursday as members of Congress and staffers surveyed the damage.
"It was surreal," Brown said. "We were passing through the Rotunda bringing the electoral votes back and forth (and) you could see all the residue on the floors."
Staffers did their best to return the chamber to its regular appearance as Congress ultimately affirmed Biden's electoral victory early Thursday morning.
"I think it was better that we went back to normalcy instead of letting these people intimidate us out of doing it," Brown said. "The decision by the leadership to resume the electoral process was the best thing we could’ve done. I think if we had stopped, it would have sent the wrong message to the people who had protested and came into the Capitol."