Concerns about COVID-19’s delta variant led to a late change to the format for Netroots Nation, the annual gathering of progressive leaders that NPI participates in every year. Rather than being held in a hybrid format as originally planned, with an in-person component in Washington D.C., the conference is taking place exclusively online, with attendees gathering virtually via Socio and Zoom.
One of the initial sessions at this year’s conference was a featured panel moderated by Melissa Ryan that examined the lasting attacks of the January 6th attack on the United States Capitol by a terrorist mob incited by Donald Trump.
Ten months have passed since that awful day, and it remains traumatic for many people who only viewed it from a distance on television or social networks.
But there are those for whom the impacts reverberate even stronger, for whom it isn’t an event they can push aside — and that is the thousands of people, from service workers to members of Congress, who work on the Hill every day.
The panel, gathering to discuss these effects and how our nation can move forward from this attack, consisted of Sarah Groh, Chief of Staff for Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley; Ted Lieu, U.S. Representative for California’s 33rd District; Sarah Iddrissu, Chief of Staff to Congressman Jamaal Bowman: and Matthew Fuller, Senior Politics Editor at the Daily Beast.
All four panelists were present on the Hill when a violent mob, incited by former President Donald Trump, laid siege on our nation’s Capitol.
“I want to make plain,” said Groh, “that these threats are persistent.”
The discussion started with each panelist recounting their experiences before, during, and after the event.
“I was enraged that there was no transportation plan,” said Iddrissu, describing a moment following the attack with a woman who had no means to go home aside from taking the bus, despite the vulnerability the attack posed on staff members. “The lack of protection that our staff and service workers felt reverberates.”
Those vulnerabilities were seconded by Fuller, who was one of the last people to be evacuated. While the stories of members of Congress have been widely reported, the lack of support and protection was keenly felt by the custodians, food workers, and service workers on the Hill, who, in his words: “don’t have the perch or privilege to make their stories known.”
Fuller gives tours of the Capitol, and talked about how jarring it was to come to work every day with glass still shattered, and blood still on the floor for weeks following the attack. It was “like living and working in a crime scene,” he said.
Lieu, who was in Cannon House when the attack occurred, described the moment he realized the nature of the attack.
“Not only was this mob attacking Capitol Hill, they were incited to do so by the then-President of the United States,” he said.
It was then he and his colleagues started drafting the articles of impeachment.
“The then-President was still going to be in office until January 20th. We [didn’t] know what other crazy things he was going to do.”
In addition to the trauma of working in this environment, security on the Hill has been upgraded too. Members of Congress like Lieu are now given 24⁄7 security by Capitol Police, measures that weren’t seen as necessary before.
While all panelists expressed a persistent feeling of a lack of safety on the grounds, they stressed that this threat was doubly so for people of color on the Hill.
“It was white supremacy and tribalism that attacked our identities, not just the Capitol,” Iddrissu said.
Ryan then asked the panelists how they approach what their staff needs in terms of support.
Iddrissu said that normalizing mental health was necessary in continuing to work in a site of ongoing trauma. “We need to be normalizing therapy in our workspaces.”
Groh added that accountability was “critical” following these attacks.
Though many, including Pressley, drew comparisons to the attacks to September 11th, 2001, Groh expressed concern that the public narrative wasn’t addressing the issue with the gravity it deserved. She noted that for her and other members of Pressley’s staff, these sorts of threats were not new.
Ryan then asked Fuller how realistic it was to expect reporters to remain objective. Fuller described a shift in the landscape of journalism following the attacks–where before, there seemed to be an expectation for reporters to practice neutrality and objectivity, that pressure has shifted.
“You won’t see people quoting [people like] Josh Hawley without acknowledging their role,” he said. For him, part of the work of accountability was this sea change in the work of the press to be honest, and acknowledge the damages caused by these events.
The panel then moved onto what accountability should look like in Congress.
Lieu emphasized historic accountability — this was one of the reasons he and his colleagues drafted articles of impeachment. In addition to being “the right thing to do,” this action gives permanent record that a former President of the United States incited an insurrection on the Nation’s most hallowed grounds.
He also stressed political accountability through the ballot box, making sure that Democrats win midterms. And finally, he said there must be accountability through some of the committees that have been set up.
At the time of the recording, the January 6th Committee is continuing to investigate the insurrection, calling witnesses, to eventually present a “fuller presentation to the American people to make sure this never happens again.”
Ryan then asked the panelists about staff members working alongside members who were part of the efforts to incite the attack.
“Those who had a role [in the attack] do not have an interest in governing,” said Groh. “They don’t spend their days in committees or introducing bills.”
Iddrissu added that the actions of Republican members of Congress beyond the insurrection continue to contribute to a hostile work environment.
“Little things like not wearing a mask, or pretending to cough as a joke […] that make it impossible to work with people who don’t care for the wellness of our country,” she said.
Both Lieu and Iddrissu acknowledged that Republican members of Congress seemed to be existing in a different reality altogether, one where the events on January 6th isn’t a big deal. Lieu said this sort of incompatibility didn’t exist during his nine years in the California State Legislature prior to his tenure in Congress, and it’s only in the last four years that this style of Republicanism has emerged.
“We would work with the same set of facts,” he said. “But when someone tells you an apple is actually a banana, you can’t work with that person.”
But despite the dour depiction of the dynamics inside the Capitol, the panelists expressed optimism and hope for the future.
Ryan noted more and more officials holding white supremacist, patriarchal, and xenophobic views are filling legislative seats in states across America, before asking: “Can democracy survive if the things that are happening in the halls of Congress are also happening in state halls across country?”
The answer across the board was a resounding yes.
Lieu acknowledged the importance of drafting congressional maps, and cited numerous instances where measures of accountability have held strong or been successful, such as the Mueller report.
These, he said, are proof that our democracy may still hold.
Groh said that it was important that we acknowledge the facts of the event — that we continue to call the insurrection exactly what it was: “an infiltration by organized and violent white supremacists.”
Iddrissu agreed that this attack was not new — indeed, events in our history, from slavery to Tulsa, to the ongoing threats of police brutality against Black people, Latine people, Native people, and Asian Americans are part of our nation’s story.
Throughout the discussion, panelists mentioned an accumulation of aggressions, from the paintings depicting violence against Indigenous people in the halls of Congress, to the white supremacist rhetoric present online, that suggest and undercurrent of the sentiments that motivated the attacks. But by acknowledging this, the panelists seemed to say, we can continue to hold our nation accountable.
Fuller, who works as a journalist, added that his profession needs to provide ongoing scrutiny of Republican candidates going forward.
“If you’re a Republican,” he asks, “what’s motivating you to run for office? Are you trying to fix things, or are you going along with the Trump narrative?”
The panelists rounded off its discussion by emphasizing the need to elevate service workers and vulnerable people who make up the Capitol staff.
While there is a lot of uncertainty, and everyone is till recovering from a trauma that will clearly take time to heal, the message is clear that as long as there are members of Congress and journalistic integrity to combat this white supremacist violence, there is optimism for the future.
“I look forward to the day when I can look at the E front door and say “that’s the East front door — that’s where the President walks through,” said Fuller.