“Kill him with his own gun!”
On January 6, photographer Mel D. Cole watched in horror as a police officer attempting to reach the entrance of the Capitol building was dragged down the steps by a mob of rioters. Though he was shocked, Cole didn’t put his camera down; instead, he exhibited the resolve to photograph the cop being beaten, robbed of his badge, and nearly killed with his own weapon.
The result was an image that halts breathing. To witness it is to feel a sense of suffocation.
It was only one of the dozens of pictures and videos Cole captured within the chaos at the Capitol — images that would go viral on his Instagram account the following day. On his feed are stunning shots and short visuals of rioters in various emotional states, from enraged (waving an American flag and yelling to rally rioters) to pained (crying while desperately pouring water or milk into gas-stung eyes). His following spiked from 74,000 to over 124,000; CNN and the New York Times came calling. January 6 stands now as the most disruptive day of the photographer’s life and potentially the most definitive of his career.
Cole didn’t just stumble upon the insanity at the Capitol. The Syracuse-raised 44-year-old drove from his Jersey City apartment, which he shares with his Australian wife and two-year-old son, expressly looking for trouble in D.C. “I thought that some shit would happen, but I didn’t think it would be what it turned out to be,” he says via a phone call. “I thought it’d be some yelling and shoving, maybe some pepper spray, but nothing like what we saw.”
Cole described swirling inside the crux of the insurrection to “being in the middle of a movie that you can’t stop or press fast-forward.” The experience terrified him as much as it educated him about his fellow citizens. “What fucked me up was this older lady literally looked me in the face and said, ‘I’m ready to die for my grandkids and take back this country,’” Cole recalls. “This was after two women already had gotten killed.”
The lensman being in a position to document such history didn’t come without pain, both physical and psychological. He first thought he might die when he couldn’t breathe past the tear gas. Being a Black man surrounded by mobs of angry White people kept a prayer scrolling in his head. Nonetheless, on that day outside the Capitol, it was the police that Cole feared more than any protester. “I’ve been at protests in the city where a Black man will get sprayed right in the face even though there’s a sea of White folks around,” he says.
Last spring, torn between quarantine-induced cabin fever and leeriness of human contact, Cole grabbed his camera and began documenting the new normal of Covid-19 from his car. Then George Floyd was killed, and the people took to the streets. The photographer followed and snapped away. 2020 saw him get harassed by cops, falsely arrested, forced to sleep overnight in jail, and yet never once brought up on charges. “Just guilty of being Black and taking photos,” he says.
While Cole’s vision is his strongest muscle, a commitment to capturing the moment is where his heart beats. The night of the insurrection, he cried on Instagram Live, vulnerably raw while reliving the reality and fear behind his fresh treasure of footage. Yet, less than two weeks later, he was back in a lion’s den. January 18 was Lobby Day in Richmond, Virginia — a gun-rights rally where Proud Boys and Boogaloo Bois alike would be present. So would the Black Lives Matter 757 chapter and the Fred Hampton Gun Club. All in an open-carry state, both sides strapped with semiautomatic firearms.
“I’m fascinated with guns and people who are all about the Second Amendment,” says Cole. “Plus I heard NFA — the Not Fuckin’ Around Coalition — was gonna be there. I hadn’t documented any Black militant groups with guns out, so that was motivation.”
While Cole captured great shots of Black Panthers and right-wing militia members, his catch of the day was an impromptu video interview with one of the Proud Boys’ leaders. “Fuck it,” he thought. “I’m gonna go hard with the question that everyone wants to know.” So he asked the guy straight-up: Are you a white supremacist organization? And what he got back was something he calls “the best sound bite ever.”
“Not at all,” answered the White man while clutching his Proud Boys flag. “I’m a nonracist, in fact. I’m a hip-hop junkie.”
Ironically, Cole credits hip-hop for allowing him to find his purpose in photography. In 2002, Cole headed to legendary New York club S.O.B.’s to watch Common spit his new album Electric Circus. He’d brought a disposable camera simply for personal memories; when he developed the film later, he realized he had a serious eye. So he purchased a digital camera, followed the music, and began shooting concerts and events. Eventually, he landed backstage at a few Roots concerts and befriended the band’s afro-famous percussionist. “If it wasn’t for Questlove,” he says, “my career wouldn’t be where it is today.”
It was 2009, and Cole was shooting at Q-Tip’s birthday party. When he attempted to enter a VIP section to get shots of Jay-Z and Sean Combs, the Bad Boy founder got the photographer kicked out of the section. Cole tweeted about the situation; Questlove swung into action.