Winston Pingeon ’12: A Witness to History

Winston Pingeon ’12 divides his career as a U.S. Capitol Police officer—and indeed his life—into two parts: Before January 6, 2021, and after. Pingeon was on duty that day, when unprecedented violence broke out at the Capitol. He returned to Rivers recently to share his story at an Upper School assembly.
Pingeon was introduced by seniors Aaron Weiner and Cristina Gomez, this year’s civic leadership interns (a program of the CCCE), who told the audience that after graduating from Rivers, Pingeon had gone on to American University, where he majored in justice and law, with a criminology focus. 

“I knew I wanted to work in criminal justice,” he said when he took the stage, “but I needed to figure out what was a fit.”

He found that fit attending the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. “It was the challenge I was looking for,” said Pingeon, “I learned how to be a leader there.” He joined the Capitol Police, serving mainly on uniformed patrol. As an officer, he had the opportunity to, among other things, join the elite Ceremonial Unit, serving at the presidential inaugurations in 2016 and 2021 as well as several lying-in-state ceremonies, including the funeral of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  

“It was a lot of responsibility,” he said, recalling the first time he made an arrest. “But I loved the job; it was my childhood dream.”

Speaking quietly at the podium in Kraft Dining Hall, Pingeon said, “Then things changed.” When he showed up for work on January 6, he and his colleagues were asked to don full riot gear and march to the Capitol to try to keep order among those who had gathered to protest the outcome of the presidential election. 

“The crowd was large and increasingly hostile,” Pingeon told the rapt audience of students. “They were saying things like, ‘We don’t want to hurt you, but we will.’ No one imagined they would break into the Capitol.” But they did; Pingeon described a scene of “complete chaos” on the building’s upper west terrace. “I was punched in the face and pepper-sprayed, and I thought, ‘This is where my life might end.’” The only reason he survived, he said, was that a door was breached elsewhere on the terrace, distracting the rioters. 

He ended up in a tunnel where the worst of the violence unfolded. “It was a war zone, and we were in hand-to-hand combat, which we are not trained for,” said Pingeon. Five people died, and hundreds of officers were injured. But when the chaos had finally been quelled, Pingeon sent a text to his family, telling them, “We succeeded. No congress people were hurt and the election was certified.”

While the violence and bloodshed had ended, the aftermath was far from over for Pingeon and his colleagues. Work became stressful and demanding, with a seemingly never-ending string of 12-hour days and few breaks. “I felt lost and alone, and no one except my fellow officers could understand. I started to experience symptoms of PTSD. It was a dark time, not only for me, but for the country,” said Pingeon. 

By March 2021—more than a year later—things had started to return to normal, he recounted, with shorter shifts and regular days off. But by then, Pingeon had also revisited an interest, first cultivated at Rivers, that got him through the challenging times. “I turned to art, as I always had,” he told the students. “Art can be so healing.”

Pingeon’s artwork focuses on watercolors and drawing. At the assembly, he shared a pointillist self-portrait and a drawing of the Statue of Freedom, at the Capitol, juxtaposed with the razor wire fencing that went up after January 6. 

His art has help him move past the trauma of that day; getting “in the flow” while drawing or painting makes him better able to process the events. He no longer works as a police officer, but he’s proud of his service, and he urged the students to “pursue Excellence with Humanity and see where your passions lead.” For his part, he says, he emerged from Rivers certain of two things, and that certainty remains: “I was certain about art, and about optimism regarding the future.”

 
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