Whither democracy? Americans weigh in on siege of the Capitol

Why We Wrote This

When the very functioning of the democratic process is disrupted by an unruly mob, it shakes the fabric of a diverse nation. Here’s what we’re hearing from people across America.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
A flag is pictured in a trash can after supporters of President Donald Trump occupied the U.S. Capitol Building, in Washington, on Jan. 7, 2021.

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Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Noel Lipana felt as if he were watching news streaming in from another country, troubled and far away. 

“We talk about being a guiding light and a bastion of democracy, about upholding certain ideals, and it just exploded,” says Colonel Lipana, who served a combat tour of Afghanistan.

In Savannah, Georgia, the Rev. Guillermo Arboleda saw the same images and thought of his Instagram feed of photos of the civil rights era.

“It just [reminded] me that American history is not a history of racial progress, but a history of racial progress that is met almost every single time with racist backlash,” says Mr. Arboleda, an Episcopal missioner of racial justice.

In Independence, Iowa, Cindy Hoffman felt the media were misrepresenting the mob attack as the work of Trump supporters. “Trump people wouldn’t do the stuff that was shown on the TV,” says Ms. Hoffman. 

Opinions about the insurrection seem almost a symbol of the deep political and social divisions that have long existed but perhaps became wider in the four years of President Donald Trump.

Those divisions promise to be among incoming President Joe Biden’s biggest challenges. They underscore a need for a recommitment to democratic principles and an imperative to rebuild and reinvest in political institutions, says Prof. William Howell at the University of Chicago.

Across America on Wednesday the stunning footage of mob violence and destruction in the U.S. Capitol produced in many citizens reactions almost akin to electric shocks.

In Sacramento, California, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Noel Lipana felt as if he were watching news streaming in from another country, troubled and far away. 

“We talk about being a guiding light and a bastion of democracy, about upholding certain ideals, and it just exploded,” says Colonel Lipana, who served a combat tour of Afghanistan in 2008.

In Savannah, Georgia, the Rev. Guillermo Arboleda, the missioner of racial justice at the diocese of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, saw the same images and thought of his Instagram feed, where he’d just seen old black-and-white photos of the civil rights era colorized to put them in contemporary context.

“It just [reminded] me that American history is not a history of racial progress, but a history of racial progress that is met almost every single time with racist backlash,” says Mr. Arboleda.

In Independence, Iowa, small business co-owner Cindy Hoffman felt the media was misrepresenting the mob attack as the work of Trump supporters. She repeated an unsubstantiated story popular on MAGA social media that antifa people started the trouble and were the ones busting the Capitol up.

“Trump people wouldn’t do the stuff that was shown on the TV,” says Ms. Hoffman, despite photographs and other evidence they did just that. 

As Ms. Hoffman’s comments show, opinions about the unprecedented insurrection seem almost a symbol of the deep political and social divisions that have long existed between citizens of the diverse, hyperpolarized country, but perhaps became wider in the four years of President Donald Trump.

Those divisions promise to be among incoming President Joe Biden’s biggest challenges. They underscore a need for a recommitment to democratic principles and an imperative to rebuild and reinvest in political institutions, says William Howell, a professor of American politics at the University of Chicago.

“It also reveals just how challenging the task is going to be,” says Professor Howell. “These divisions really run deep and they aren’t just matters of disagreement about what good policy looks like.” 

A “temple of democracy” that kindles strong emotions

For many Americans, their first reaction to the smashing of historic windows and doors and the incursion into an iconic Washington building was emotional – in some cases, surprisingly so. Taught about in schools, visited on vacations, seen in countless news reports and TV shows and movies, it is a part of millions of American stories.

Courtesy of Rev. Guillermo Arboleda
The Rev. Guillermo Arboleda, missioner of racial justice at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Savannah, Georgia, says Wednesday’s storming of the Capitol shows that “American history is not a history of racial progress, but a history of racial progress that is met almost every single time with racist backlash.”

Take the American story of Helio Fred Garcia. His family emigrated from Brazil in the 1960s. As a New York City debate champion in the 1970s he won a coveted spot as a congressional page during the Watergate summer of 1974.

He had come from a country with a military dictatorship, and when President Richard Nixon resigned, he thought there might be tanks in the streets.

“And it didn’t happen,” he says. 

Six years ago, he attended a reunion of former pages at the U.S. Capitol. He felt a bit overwhelmed.

“When my wife and I were able to walk onto the House floor, tears ran down my cheeks – I’m tearing up a little right now,” says Mr. Garcia, now president of the crisis management firm Logos Consulting Group, and author of “Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It.”

So, unsurprisingly, after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the building on Wednesday his emotions ran especially deep.

“I was heartbroken when I saw my sacred chamber being desecrated and attacked . . . For us, it really is a sacred place. It is a temple of democracy,” he says. 

A new lesson plan Thursday

Sara Zubi, a 10th grade world history teacher in St. Louis, Missouri, on Thursday scrapped most of her plans to launch a unit on the Renaissance. Instead, she allowed the Capitol insurrection to live front and center in her virtual classes at Cleveland NJROTC Academy.

Beyond discussion of the events, her students – most of whom are Black – shared how they felt. The teens had seen a law enforcement crackdown on Black and brown protesters during the summer’s racial justice protests, images they felt contrasted with the security handling of the largely white Capitol mob.

“Students were mostly feeling really frustrated,” Ms. Zubi says.

She says the day’s intellectual grappling was summed up in comments made by two students who said they feared civil war. Though it was hard to respond, Ms. Zubi says, she tried to validate their feelings while also offering hope.

“The fear of violence is real,” she says. “But we also saw that Joe Biden was confirmed, and that democratic processes continue despite this violence.”

Double standards in policing

The conduct of law enforcement in Washington also baffled civil rights activists in Minneapolis, where police officers killed George Floyd last May, touching off massive protests nationwide against police violence and racial injustice.

Nekima Levy Armstrong, former president of the city’s NAACP chapter, contrasted the relatively light police presence at the Capitol with the response to largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protests in cities across the country last spring and summer.

“People faced huge numbers of law enforcement in riot gear who used rubber bullets, tear gas, and sound machines against them just for peacefully marching in the streets to protest George Floyd’s murder,” says Ms. Armstrong, a civil rights lawyer.

Ms. Armstrong says she possesses limited hope that Wednesday’s events will aid the call to reform law enforcement.

“It’s a teachable moment only if people make an effort to learn from it,” she says. “We’ve had so many teachable moments leading up to George Floyd’s death, where we’ve seen evidence of systemic racism, and people say, ‘We didn’t know it was this bad.’”

Sad but not surprised

Terrance Harris is the co-owner of a metal cutting tool distributor north of Houston, Texas. A Black man with a white wife, he has three children.

Mr. Harris says that he honestly was not surprised to see an explosive event like the Capitol violence. He says that he had a feeling something bad would happen ever since Mr. Trump went on television in the early hours of November 4 to claim that he had in fact won the presidential election.

“I thought that was dangerous and would lead to people getting upset,” he says.

Mr. Harris says he’s neither Republican- nor Democratic-leaning. If he had to subscribe to a party, “I’d say I’m a Christian,” he says.

“I think the country needs prayer and a settlement of the heat and division that has taken place. And that’s not on a specific person,” Mr. Harris says.

That doesn’t mean a nation of more than 300 million people will ever be united on everything, he adds.

“There are so many different beliefs and thoughts. I don’t think we’ll ever have an America that’s 100% in tune,” Mr. Harris says.

Bipartisan anguish in the Midwest

Though the mob attack was rooted in bitter partisanship, the Monitor spoke to Republicans as well as Democrats who were aggravated by Wednesday’s events, which temporarily delayed the peaceful transition of power from President Trump to President-elect Joe Biden.

“It was extremely uncalled for, and definitely unnecessary,” says Donald Walker, a Republican who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and works in the medical supply business.

Mr. Trump should have spoken up and tried harder to calm the situation and the police response should have been more forceful, Mr. Walker says.

John Kameen, a Republican and Trump supporter in Forest City, Pennsylvania, thought the Washington gathering of election protesters was, in theory, a good thing.

“However, I was very sad about what happened,” says Mr. Kameen.

Mr. Kameen says he is still behind Mr. Trump because of all the president has accomplished over the past four years. But the Capitol violence will by no means be a good capstone for the Trump years, he adds.

“He is going to be painted with this brush forever,” he says.

That does not mean he trusts how the event has been described and framed in mainstream news reports.

“Unfortunately I don’t think we’re ever going to figure out how this happened because I don’t think the news media will be upfront and honest with us,” he says.

Cindy Hoffman of Independence, Iowa, goes further. Besides saying that antifa was behind the riot – an assertion which gained credence when the Washington Times published a story, later retracted for false claims, that said a face recognition firm had spotted known antifa members in the Capitol crowd – she believes that the election was stolen from President Trump.

“All the good stuff that Trump did will just be reversed,” she says, by President-elect Joe Biden.

Multiple narratives

In the short term, the mob riot and its aftermath will certainly rock President Trump back on his heels, says Professor Howell of the University of Chicago.

Indeed, on Thursday House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House will pursue a second impeachment of the president if he is not removed by Cabinet officers under the terms of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution.

But 74 million people voted for President Trump, and the narrative around the Capitol event remains fluid. There are meanings, plural, about the event, according to Professor Howell.

“Some people are going to recoil in horror from what happened yesterday and there are going to be other groups that see this as not just a righteous moment, but a demonstration of their ability to push back against power,” he says.

Staff writers Harry Bruinius and Sarah Matusek in New York; Henry Gass in Austin, Texas; Nick Roll in Cincinnati, Ohio; and Noah Robertson in Alexandria, Va., also contributed to this report. Mr. Kuz reported from Sacramento, Calif.; Mr. Jonsson from Savannah, Ga.; and Ms. Hinckley from Washington. The story was written by Mr. Grier.

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