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'They were crushing police:' Photographer speaks of experience documenting Capitol attack

Diego Montoya had his camera in Washington, D.C. witnessing and documenting the deadly Capitol insurrection.

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Born and raised in New Mexico, photographer Diego Montoya has traveled the world with his camera.

On Jan. 6, 2021, Montoya had his camera in Washington, D.C., witnessing and documenting the deadly Capitol insurrection.

jan. 6 capitol riot
Diego Montoya

While working as a freelance photographer in Ukraine in 2019 and 2020, Montoya says he took a lot of photos of far-right groups there and started noticing similarities with groups of similar ideology in the United States.

jan. 6 capitol riot
Diego Montoya

He says when he came to D.C. and started attending election-related protests and events, what he saw in the Proud Boys "reminded him of the far-right in Europe."

On Dec. 12, 2020, Montoya took photos at the "Stop the Steal" rally.

"It turned into a shocking day and a night of violence I had never seen in the U.S.," Montoya said. "Dec. 12 is what led me to Jan. 6."

"When I arrived, they were already attacking the building and there were people fighting everywhere. A man not too far from me collapsed and died. That was the moment I knew there would be more violence than I thought."

jan. 6 capitol riot
Diego Montoya

Montoya also spoke of hearing explosions, saying they were likely percussion grenades or fireworks from rioters.

"If you are not scared in those kinds of situations, it means that you are either arrogant or naive, and both can be really dangerous. Fear can help you be alert and to stay safe," he said.

Get the Facts: A timeline of events from Jan. 6

Montoya said all morning people had been asking him what network he worked for, he said he believed people were looking for those they associated with "liberal media."

jan. 6 capitol riot
Diego Montoya

"I just told them the truth, which is that I just take photographs, upload them to a website that all news organizations have access to, and hope any of the outlets buy my photos. Most were satisfied with that answer and left me alone," Montoya said.

But then Montoya said a woman started screaming at him during what he remembered as the worst of the attack up front.

"She was screaming at me and telling everyone I was from the media. I could see that the people around were angry and they needed someone to pay. I left that area fast," Montoya said.

Montoya said once he learned of attacks on journalists from the AP and CNN, he decided it was time to leave the protest altogether.

"Another reporter came up to me as I was leaving and told me to cover the large 'Press' patch I had on to identify myself," Montoya said. "He said they were looking for journalists to attack."

jan. 6 capitol riot
Diego Montoya

Although before he left, Montoya remembers the people at the front of the group yelling, "we need to push" to the thousands of people in the back of the crowd.

"They started doing a chant-like medieval war, 'Push! Push! Push!' in unison, while shoving forward chest to back," Montoya said. "I knew that it had to be crushing police and people in the front. They didn't care. That was their goal."

Montoya said after the group had broken into the Capitol and the sun was starting to go down, much of the group had left.

jan. 6 capitol riot
Diego Montoya

He said a fresh wave of Capitol police officers had started to arrive to relieve others, but the rioters were still there wandering and regrouping.

"I'll never forget. A man was angrily pacing back and forth in front of the Capitol and he screamed, 'We are coming back with guns and we are going to turn this place into a national (expletive) cemetery!'" Montoya said.

"I wish I knew how to get everyone to understand that what happened that day should not be dismissed as trivial, and I am not talking just about the violence and the assault on the Capitol. I mean the entirety of the act and everything that entails."

When sister station KOAT asked Montoya about what story, years from now, he might tell his grandchildren about that day, Montoya focused on how America still won.

"I will tell them that despite a crowd of angry and violent extremists attacking the U.S. Capitol, at the end of the day American institutions won. The institutions we have built and improved since the founding of our country have protected us from attempts to subvert democracy like this. The U.S. has no national language, no national religion, no single culture," Montoya said. "What we have in common is our faith in our country's institutions. Though they are not without their flaws, our institutions were built on good principles with the aim of equality and fairness, and they are worth protecting."