A divided anniversary: Jan. 6 in the eyes of those who were there

Julio Cortez/AP/File
Violent Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. The storming of the Capitol, to many, marked a 200-year nadir of American democracy, an unthinkable act fomented by a presidential lie of a “rigged” election that came dangerously close to overriding the checks and balances that have safeguarded the United States for centuries.
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A year after the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, those who were there that day are still grappling with what exactly happened, how, and why – and what it all says about the state of the republic.

The storming of the Capitol, to many, marked a low point of American democracy, an unthinkable act fomented by a presidential lie that came dangerously close to overriding the checks and balances that have safeguarded the United States for centuries. 

Why We Wrote This

The Monitor interviewed nearly two dozen people who were at the Capitol on Jan. 6, examining the breadth of perspectives on what happened, why, and what it says about where America is headed.

For Trump supporters, however, the American citadel of democracy had been breached well before Jan. 6. They see the events of that day as a reaction to a yearslong effort by an elitist press corps and entrenched bureaucracy to undermine the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s presidency – an effort they see as continuing even now. 

Understanding these views is key not only to putting together a fuller picture of that day, but also to discerning where America may be heading. In that sense, Jan. 6, 2022, is not just an anniversary but a flashing red marker on the path of a country that’s increasingly divided about how to move forward. 

On the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, after pipe bombs were found on the outskirts of the U.S. Capitol complex, congressional staffer Anthony DeAngelo got word that a nearby office building had been evacuated and the building right next door was being evacuated, too. From a fourth-floor window, he could see police barricading the roads nearby. 

He turned to his boss, Rep. Andy Kim of New Jersey. Did he want to make a run for it?

“No, I came here to vote today,” said Representative Kim, a Democrat who, along with the rest of Congress, was meeting that day to certify the states’ electoral votes.

Why We Wrote This

The Monitor interviewed nearly two dozen people who were at the Capitol on Jan. 6, examining the breadth of perspectives on what happened, why, and what it says about where America is headed.

Outside, Virginia state Rep. Dave LaRock was navigating through the throngs of Trump supporters who had come to hear the president speak at a Save America rally and then trekked up to the Capitol to register their deep distrust of the election results. 

“I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard,” President Donald Trump had told the crowd, in a speech that also emphasized the importance of “fighting” for political victories and against a “corrupt” election. “We fight like hell – and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” he said. 

As Mr. LaRock walked around the Capitol, he began hearing that something had gone “very, very wrong.” People had broken into the Capitol. Someone had been shot. He saw smoke wafting through the air – probably tear gas, he surmised, but he didn’t stick around long enough to find out.

Inside the House chamber, Rep. Bennie Thompson’s phone rang. It was his wife. “What’s going on?” she asked. “What do you mean?” asked the Mississippi Democrat, who had entered the Capitol through underground tunnels and hadn’t seen the huge crowds amassing outside. 

“They have broken into the Capitol!” she told him. 

As hundreds of protesters poured into the building through shattered windows and doors, rioters – some in military-style goggles and vests – assaulted Capitol Police, beating them with flagpoles and their own riot shields. Others stood on the steps of the Capitol chanting “hang Mike Pence,” who as vice president had been overseeing the vote certification before being whisked off the Senate floor. 

On the House side, lawmakers donned escape respirators stored under the seats, removed the lapel pins identifying them as members of Congress, and prepared to evacuate. As protesters smashed the glass of one of the chamber doors, they came face to face with guns drawn by two protective officers. In a side corridor outside the chamber, Capitol Police officer Michael Byrd fatally shot unarmed Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt as she tried to climb through a smashed glass door panel. 

Sgt. Aquilino Gonell, a veteran and a Capitol Police officer, would testify months later that he was more afraid that day than he was patrolling IED-infested roads in Iraq. Rioters called him a traitor and shouted that he should be executed. 

Andrew Harnik/AP/File
U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell (left) and U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Harry Dunn stand after a House select committee hearing on the Jan. 6 attack, on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 27, 2021. Sergeant Gonell, one of more than 150 Capitol Police officers injured that day, is still recovering.

“All of them were telling us, ‘Trump sent us,’” said Sergeant Gonnell. 

An hour after the initial breach, GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher took to Twitter with a video shot in his office. “Mr. President, you have got to stop this,” said Representative Gallagher, a former Marine officer who twice deployed to Iraq. “This is bigger than you; it’s bigger than any member of Congress. ... It’s about the United States of America.”

Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar took it a step further. 

“I am drawing up Articles of Impeachment,” she tweeted. “It’s a matter of preserving our Republic.” 

One year on, former President Trump is living in Florida, hundreds of rioters are facing prosecution, and a congressional committee is uncovering critical information about the events of that day. But many who were at the Capitol on Jan. 6 are still grappling with what exactly happened, how, and why – and what it all says about the state of the republic.

The storming of the Capitol, to many, marked a low point of American democracy, an unthinkable act fomented by a presidential lie of a “rigged” election that came dangerously close to overriding the checks and balances that have safeguarded the United States for centuries. 

In the eyes of many Trump supporters, however, the citadel of democracy had been breached before Jan. 6. They see the events of that day as an inevitable reaction to a yearslong effort by an elitist press corps and entrenched bureaucracy to undermine the legitimacy of Mr. Trump’s presidency – an effort they see as continuing even now. 

Understanding these views is key not only to putting together a fuller picture of that day, but also to discerning where America may be heading. In that sense, Jan. 6, 2022, is not just an anniversary but a flashing red marker on the path of a country that’s increasingly divided about how to move forward. 

Ms. Omar got her articles of impeachment, but she’s impatient for the instigators to be held accountable. Sergeant Gonell, one of more than 145 Capitol Police officers injured that day, is still recovering. 

Republicans who spoke out against Mr. Trump have mostly kept quiet since – or, if not, faced his wrath. Representative Gallagher voted to certify President Joe Biden’s win, but did not support Mr. Trump’s impeachment and voted against a bipartisan bill to establish a national commission to investigate Jan. 6.

Mr. Thompson is chairing a Jan. 6 select committee made up of Democrats and two GOP critics of Mr. Trump, which has so far interviewed 300 people and collected 30,000 records. Mr. LaRock won reelection to the Virginia statehouse by his largest margin yet. 

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Chairman Bennie Thompson, Democrat from Mississippi, and Vice Chair Liz Cheney, Republican from Wyoming, of the House panel investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection, testify before the House Rules Committee at the Capitol in Washington, Dec. 14, 2021. The panel was seeking contempt of Congress charges against former President Donald Trump's White House chief of staff Mark Meadows for not complying with a subpoena. The House later voted to hold Mr. Meadows in contempt, referring the charges to the Justice Department.

And Mr. DeAngelo – whose boss was seen quietly sweeping up debris in the riot’s aftermath, an image that immediately went viral – quit his job and went to work with the National Democratic Institute. He now runs a program that pairs members of Congress with lawmakers in emerging democracies. 

“When you see aspiring democracies around the world face challenges with disinformation and rising extremism within their own populations, you see that this truly isn’t just an American struggle right now,” says Mr. DeAngelo. “It’s something that a lot of governments, a lot of democratic institutions are facing – that loss of faith in those institutions, attacks on the basic functionalities of those institutions, and a drop in trust and faith in institutions that carried those democratic ideals.”

“Those old demons of bigotry”

Raphael Warnock was not in the Capitol on Jan. 6. It was only in the wee hours of the morning that he learned that he, a kid from public housing in Georgia, had become the first Black U.S. senator elected from the former Confederate state. Later that day, protesters launched a violent assault and strode through the halls of Congress carrying the Confederate flag in what he saw as an effort to disenfranchise voters of color, who disproportionately voted for Mr. Biden.

“Jan. 5 represents what’s possible in this country,” says Senator Warnock, a senior pastor at the Atlanta church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached. “Jan. 6 [brought out] folks driven by the mythologies of hate and division. In a real sense, that’s where we live – between the ideals, our highest ideals, and those old demons of bigotry.”

Indeed, many on the left see that day as a rebellion of mainly white men, fueled by resentment of their own declining status amid the country’s rapidly changing demographics. One University of Chicago study last spring found that of the people arrested so far in connection with the riot, 95% were white, 85% were male, and they hailed disproportionately from counties with the greatest decline in white population.  

Those who showed up at the Capitol were also driven by a conviction that democracy had already been subverted. And with Mr. Trump still refusing to accept electoral defeat, Democrats say the GOP has abetted and exploited that false claim of a stolen election, passing a raft of laws that will restrict voting access for people of color and lower socioeconomic status. 

“The big lie that motivated that attack is being repeated in state legislatures around the country,” says Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who was on the 2016 Democratic ticket as Hillary Rodham Clinton’s VP pick when Mr. Trump won. “The best response to that is to put up a vigorous protection of people’s rights to vote and to disable schemes and power grabs that undermine election integrity.” 

Senate Democrats have tried to pass sweeping voting rights legislation several times over the past year, but they have been blocked by Republicans under current filibuster rules.

Representative Gallagher, the Wisconsin Republican who urged Mr. Trump to call off the rioters on Jan. 6, says if the federal government gets more involved in managing elections, the nation may become more susceptible to a power grab. 

“There’s a good reason why elections are run by not just states but really localities – it creates a natural defense in depth against anyone who would try to meddle in our elections or commit fraud,” says Mr. Gallagher.

Andrew Harnik/AP/File
People prepare to evacuate from the House gallery as rioters try to break into the chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. Many lawmakers donned escape respirators, similar to gas masks, that were stored under the seats.

He argues that one reason America’s elections have become so existential, and the battles over election reform so toxic, is because the federal government has already become too powerful.

“Every four years we await the coming of some messianic presidential figure to do everything through executive fiat,” he says. “And that, in turn, exacerbates the dysfunction in [Congress]. And members then get disillusioned, because they’re sitting here in a feckless institution.”

An insurrection? Or something else?

There is still disagreement about what, exactly, Jan. 6 was. A coup? An insurrection? An angry mob that surprised not only the world but also many of its own participants by breaking into America’s premier symbol of democracy?

So far, of the more than 725 individuals arrested, none have been charged with insurrection, though more indictments may be coming. 

One thing that’s clear is that the sentiments that precipitated the violence have not dissipated – if anything, they seem deeper and more widespread. According to a Yahoo News survey from last month, 74% of Republicans agree with the statement, “The election was rigged and stolen from Trump.” Moreover, 64% said they disapprove of the congressional committee investigating Jan. 6, and 54% said they thought the courts were treating those who attacked the Capitol “unfairly.”

Paula Bronstein/AP/File
Supporters of President Donald Trump hold signs as they attend a "Stop The Steal" rally, protesting the outcome of the presidential election, at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, Ore. Nov. 14, 2020 . After a 2020 election cycle dominated by conspiracy theories and false claims about voting, top election officials across the country are looking ahead to future elections and grappling with how they can counter a wave of misinformation that led to violent threats against them and ultimately a deadly riot at the Capitol.

In the weeks following the 2020 election, the Trump campaign challenged the results in dozens of court cases but failed to prove anything approaching the widespread fraud the president alleged. Then-Attorney General William Barr, appointed by Mr. Trump, said in December 2020 that the Department of Justice had not uncovered such evidence either. An Associated Press review published last month, which contacted hundreds of election offices in five battleground states, turned up only 475 instances of fraud – equivalent to 0.5% of Mr. Biden’s margin of victory. 

Still, many Trump supporters remain unconvinced that Mr. Biden could have legitimately beaten their preferred candidate, when Mr. Trump got 11.2 million more votes than in 2016 – more than any presidential candidate in history, except his opponent. They argue that the rapid expansion of mail-in voting, which contributed to nearly 20 million more people voting than ever before in a presidential election, violated some states’ laws and that other pandemic-related changes loosened or eliminated procedures meant to ensure election integrity. 

Mr. LaRock says it was distrust of the election results that brought him to the Capitol on Jan. 6. He points to a case brought by the Texas attorney general questioning the constitutionality of changes to voting practices in four key swing states. The suit argued, for example, that Pennsylvania usurped its own legislature’s authority when it eliminated a signature requirement for absentee ballots, while Wisconsin contravened its own state law by allowing drop boxes. The Supreme Court declined to examine the merits of the case, ruling that Texas didn’t have the legal standing to bring it. 

Democrats, journalists, and election officials from both parties have pointed out the multitude of systems in place to guard against voter fraud. But many Trump supporters have little faith in those assurances, after what they see as years of biased media coverage and partisan efforts to undermine the former president.

GOP Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin says frustration over the “Russia hoax” and unfair media treatment “tormenting Trump and his supporters” for four years helped precipitate Jan. 6. The infamous dossier that helped spur the Russian collusion investigation into the Trump campaign, for example, turned out to be not only largely false but also funded by the Clinton campaign.

“It just kind of finally erupted,” says Senator Johnson, who has also faulted journalists for not acknowledging that the majority of protesters never entered the Capitol building and most committed no crimes. “How Jan. 6 has been covered by the mainstream media just completely reveals their grotesque bias. And truthfully, I would argue, their complicity in exacerbating the divide in this country.”

“The worst I’ve ever seen”

Democrats have sharply criticized Senator Johnson and other Republicans for trying to “whitewash” the Capitol attack in the weeks and months that followed, making it sound more like a peaceful gathering than an assault on democracy.

Some Trump supporters have even suggested that the unlawful behavior was perpetrated by leftist instigators, though FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to Congress that there was no evidence of that.

“When you see people wearing brand-new Trump hats, not talking to anybody, it really stands out,” explains Suzzanne Monk, a District of Columbia resident and Trump supporter who was at that Capitol that day. She claims that another Trump rally she attended, in Chicago, was turned into a “riot” by antifa, a movement of far-left-leaning militant groups. “This is not the first time that we in the Trump movement are infiltrated by people who are not on our side and trying to cause conflict.”

This effort to recast the day’s events as more benign has been especially difficult for police officers like Sergeant Gonell and Officer Harry Dunn, who was called a racial slur by a woman in a pink MAGA shirt who had broken into the Capitol.

“Jan. 6 was bad enough. The worst I’ve ever seen,” Officer Dunn told the Monitor, as he and Sergeant Gonell wound their way through one of the Capitol complex’s basement hallways after attending a Jan. 6 committee hearing in street clothes last month. “But the response is equally disheartening.”

Although many Republican lawmakers called on the rioters to stop the violence that afternoon and criticized Mr. Trump for egging them on, most have since softened their tone or gone silent. 

“From Jan. 6 to now, they’re walking it back to saying, ‘Oh, they were just blowing off steam,’ or ‘Oh, it was just the equivalent of a Capitol tour,’” says Officer Dunn. “That’s not the case. What the world saw with their own eyes actually occurred.”

Four people died in the chaos of that day, though two of those deaths were officially ruled to be from natural causes and one from an overdose. Five police officers died in the days and weeks that followed, four of them by suicide.

Chairman Thompson, Mississippi’s longest-serving Black elected official, says he wasn’t afraid for his own safety that day, but was concerned that one of the bedrocks of the American system – the peaceful transfer of power – was being threatened. This was not the America he had been raised to believe in, or the America he took an oath as a member of Congress to defend. 

“A lot of the people who took that same oath to defend the Constitution are now defending the people who broke into this institution, which is bizarre,” he says. 

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who on Jan. 6 contested the election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania, has called what happened that day “a violent terrorist attack on the Capitol.” But he accuses Democrats of a double standard – harshly condemning the Jan. 6 riot while ignoring the “violent terrorist attacks from left-wing activists” that occurred at some Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020. A report from one police group found that 7% of those protests involved violence, with more than 2,000 officers sustaining injuries. The first two weeks alone resulted in an estimated $1 billion to $2 billion in property damage – the costliest civil disorder tab in America’s history.

Democrats counter that there’s no moral equivalence between the motivations of the social justice protests and Jan. 6. 

“In Minneapolis, folks were protesting a police officer putting his knee on a Black man’s neck and literally killing him,” says Democratic Rep. Angie Craig of Minnesota. “Here, people were literally trying to overturn the results of a United States election.”

The People’s House

​​Marie March, a small-business owner from Christiansburg, Virginia, went to Mr. Trump’s Stop the Steal rally on Jan. 6 – her birthday – with her husband and father. None of them had ever attended a Trump rally in person before. “My husband was like, ‘Well, Marie’s birthday is Jan. 6, and we live three to four hours away from D.C.,’ so we hopped in a car a few days after Christmas,” she recalls. 

They left early, she says, because it was freezing. They didn’t even know people had headed to the Capitol until they stopped at a Cracker Barrel on the way home and friends started texting, “The Capitol is getting overrun, are you there?”

In the aftermath, however, people back home started calling her an “insurrectionist.” She says it affected business at one of her family’s restaurants, Due South BBQ. Then, left-wing activists showed up at their other restaurant, Fatback Soul Shack, and cut down the American flag. The reaction prompted Ms. March to run for the statehouse this fall. She won by a margin of nearly 2 to 1. 

But many Trump supporters may be too disillusioned to work within a system they see as corrupt. According to a November survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, nearly 1 in 5 Americans (18%) agreed with the statement, “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” Among those who believed the 2020 election was stolen, support for political violence doubled to 39%. 

Much more than a lone wolf threat, a significant swath of Americans now appears to have lost trust in its country’s fundamental institutions – and may be prepared to act on that disillusionment. The deep divisions exposed and exacerbated by Jan. 6 will clearly require more than time or a single committee’s work to heal.

Andrew Harnik/AP/File
Democratic Rep. Andy Kim of New Jersey cleans up debris strewn across the floor of the Rotunda in the early morning hours of Jan. 7, 2021 – an image that immediately went viral – after rioters stormed the Capitol in Washington.

One modest way Congress can take a step toward rebuilding trust, some say, is by reopening to the public. Allowing citizens to see the inner workings of government for themselves – visiting lawmakers’ offices, or watching proceedings in the House and Senate chambers – can help them realize that they can participate in that system. But so far, the Capitol complex remains closed. 

Before the pandemic, staffers used to bemoan the tourists forming long lines in the cafeteria, says Mr. DeAngelo, the former deputy chief of staff for Representative Kim. “But I always loved it because it meant that people were flying in from around the world, to come to where we work, to understand what we do, to see democracy in action,” he says. 

Opening the Capitol’s doors to the public once more would be a good symbolic gesture toward restoring what was figuratively shattered on Jan. 6, he adds, just as his boss picking up the pieces of broken glass and trash on the night of Jan. 6 gave hope to those shaken by the physical breach. 

“I really hope that people get a chance to come and see that this wasn’t just a building where an attack took place, but it’s a building where progress can be made, where we can still do big and good things,” says Mr. DeAngelo. “And I hope that’s part of the healing process. Not just for people at the Capitol, but for the country as well.”

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