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Black photographer reflects a year later on capturing the Jan. 6 attack

Mel D. Cole said he remembers feeling panic set in as the rioters made their way to the Capitol.
Rioters outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. From “American Protest: Photographs 2020-2021.”
Rioters outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. From “American Protest: Photographs 2020-2021.”Mel D. Cole

Last Jan. 6, photographer Mel D. Cole had only recently turned his lens from musical events to political ones. That day, he simply planned to capture President Donald Trump’s rally near the White House. He had no idea how the day would unfold.

His compelling images show rioters struggling with police, tending to their pepper-sprayed eyes, forcing their way into the Capitol and dragging an officer down the building’s steps. 

“In no way, shape or fashion did I expect people to do what they did that day,” he said. “Some people got in [to the Capitol], there were fights, there was craziness. It was the craziest day of my entire life.

Cole remembers feeling panic set in as the rioters made their way to the Capitol after Trump’s speech at the rally. 

“Walking down to the Capitol building,” he said, “that’s when I started to fear for my life.”

The pro-Trump mob descended on the Capitol that day, many with weapons and Confederate flags, emboldened by Trump’s instruction to flock to the building just moments before. Cole, 45, said he was among about five photographers there, and one of a handful of Black people — though the others were likely Trump supporters, he said. After taking photos of the rioters swarming the Capitol, Cole said he knew he had to leave when he saw police working to control the situation with flash-bang grenades, tear gas and more pepper spray. 

Photographer Mel D. Cole.Courtesy Mel D. Cole

Before the rally, Cole had spent 2020 documenting Black Lives Matter protests where, he said, he’d been punched in the face, arrested and beaten by police. But nothing could compare to the “traumatic” riot at the Capitol, he said. Cole went home that day and shared his experience on Instagram, shedding tears and dancing. Anything, he said, to lift his spirits. 

“It wasn’t therapy in the sense of what therapy is. But, for me, it was therapeutic hearing people tell me I’m loved and that what I’m doing is amazing,” Cole said. “It kept me motivated.”

The rioters marched to the Capitol, and broke through police barricades to storm and vandalize the building in an effort to stop Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s electoral victory. The fallout of that attack has lasted an entire year and is far from over. More than 700 people have been charged with federal crimes related to the riot, with 165 pleading guilty, mainly to misdemeanor offenses. Trump has been at odds with federal courts since then. Last month, he asked the Supreme Court to block the National Archives from turning over records from his time in the White House to the House select committee investigating the attack. A study from the University of Chicago found that 93 percent of the Capitol riot participants were white, with a majority being members of pro-Trump far-right and white supremacist groups.

As for Cole, his photos of the Capitol riot and other events are featured in his recent book, “American Protest: Photographs 2020–2021.” One photo shows a Black Trump supporter after being pepper-sprayed; Cole described the shot as a “beautiful, antagonizing” image. Other photos showed rioters, police and counter-protesters clashing. The collection also includes images from Cole’s year capturing Black Lives Matter protests, Trump rallies and other demonstrations. 

A Black Trump supporter after having been pepper-sprayed at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Mel D. Cole

“To put out this body of work, it was emotional to relive all of the stuff I had been through, trying to pick out the best of some crazy stuff,” Cole said. “It was difficult at times to look back. For me, to get those photos out there, it’s history. It’s something I want to be around forever to be studied. It’s an important part of history.”

Before he began shooting protests and riots, Cole spent decades as a music photographer, capturing images of hip-hop and R&B stars, including Kid Cudi, Snoop Dogg, SZA and Kanye West. Cole compiled some of his favorite images in “GREAT: Photographs of Hip Hop in 2020,” and has developed relationships with legendary stars like The Roots drummer Questlove, who praised Cole in a foreword for the book, writing, “Photographers are correspondents in this war documenting every battle. ... Run DMC & The Beastie Boys had Ricky Powell and the Roots had Mel D. Cole — or should I say Mel D. Cole had us?”

Cole decided to shift his focus away from music and to Black Lives Matter protests across the country following George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020. Music events were canceled because of the pandemic and Cole hit the New York City streets to capture the social unrest following Floyd’s death. 

“It changed my life,” Cole said of making the switch. “I kept saying to myself, ‘If not me, who? Who is going to see these things and document them?” He said he photographed largely in black-and-white, an homage to one of his favorite photographers and filmmakers, Gordon Parks. It was “different,” Cole said, to go from music events to political ones, but it wasn’t a challenge.

“There’s nothing that can match up to telling the stories of why Black folks are protesting,” Cole said. “There’s nothing I’ve done that can compare to that. But the similarities are that they’re so action-packed; you never know what’s going to happen for the most part. I want to always seek out the stories that are going to inspire people, whether to change or be better. Whatever it is, I want to be there to help.”

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