Rep. Cori Bush is no stranger to demonstrations. She spent years protesting in the streets of St. Louis and Ferguson, Missouri, and eventually rose to public office as a result of her advocacy.
But, when the Missouri Democrat gazed out the Capitol window on Jan. 6, 2021 — her third day in Congress — she knew what was about to happen would not be a peaceful protest. The presence of Confederate flags in the crowd, as well as a makeshift noose and gallows built on Capitol grounds, spoke to a more dark reality.
“I’ve attended to hundreds of marches and organized so many protests that I can’t keep up.” “I know what a protest is: this is not that,” Bush, who is Black, recently told The Associated Press.
As rioters forcibly delayed the certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s election victory, the insurgency by pro-Trump supporters and members of far-right groups broke the sense of security that many had long had at the Capitol.
For people of color, including many in Congress, the incident was more than just a violent challenge to a free and fair election; it was an eerily familiar exhibition of white supremacist violence, this time at the heart of American democracy.
“First and foremost, as a Black woman, that is already tough on a different level than what a white person would face,” Bush said of the imagery and speech surrounding the incident, including the Confederate flag carried by a rioter inside the Capitol. “However, because of our past, it is especially different for Black people.” This country’s history has shown that this type of language and imagery is focused directly towards us in a very negative and frequently violent manner.”
While Bush was able to flee the Capitol and barricade herself in her office in a neighbouring building with her staff, hundreds of police officers engaged the violent mob in hours of frantic hand-to-hand warfare. More than 100 officers were injured, some severely.
In July, a number of cops testified before Congress about receiving physical and verbal harassment from supporters of former President Donald Trump. A Black cop, Harry Dunn, reported a conversation he had with protesters who denied that Biden had defeated Trump.
When Dunn stated that he had voted for Biden and that his vote should be counted, a racial insult was hurled at him.
“A woman wearing a pink MAGA (Make America Great Again) shirt exclaimed, ‘You hear that folks, this n—- voted for Joe Biden!'” Dunn, who has worked for the Capitol Police for more than a decade, agreed.
“Then the audience, maybe 20 people, joined in, yelling, ‘Boo! F—-ing n—-!'” he said. He said that no one had ever used the N-word to him while he was in uniform.
Later that night, Dunn said he sobbed in the Capitol Rotunda.
Meanwhile, while the incident unfolded at the Capitol, a few politicians were trapped in the House and Senate galleries with no way out as protesters attempted to break in.
After a gunshot rang out in the House chamber, killing Ashli Babbitt, who was among the rioters attempting to jump through a broken window, Democratic Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado determined the best thing members could do was remove their congressional pins identifying them as politicians.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, was one of the lawmakers of color who did not have the choice of removing the pin.
“I believed there was no chance I’d be able to remove my pin. “Because it was either you get recognized by the insurrectionist or you don’t get recognized by Capitol Police as a brown woman or a Black woman,” Jayapal explained to the Associated Press in December.
“And so many of the members of color I know did not take off their pins,” she continued.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the chairman of the subcommittee examining the incident on Jan. 6 and one of those trapped in the gallery, said that day in particular brought back “unpleasant experiences” from his early days as a Black politician in Mississippi.
“I saw malice in the eyes of those who broke into the Capitol.” “I saw the same type of hatred in folks who tried to prevent people of color from voting for their preferred candidate in Mississippi,” Thompson added.
Crow and other white senators grappled with the experiences of their black colleagues in the aftermath of the attack. Crow informed Rep. Val Demings, a Black former Orlando police chief who was also locked in the gallery, that he didn’t anticipate how difficult it would be for individuals of color to hide themselves from the crowd at the time.
“After all of it, Jason shared with me that as a white male, he could take off his pin, or he could maintain his pin and run over to the other side with the Republicans and stand there and people might not know the difference,” Demings said.
Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., likewise reflected on his improved ability to fit in.
“I tell myself that if I need to, I can untuck my shirt and toss away my jacket.” “I’m a white man,” Himes explained. “There’s a reasonable chance I’ll get through this crowd, right?” “In retrospect, I saw that wasn’t the case for Ilhan Omar,” he remarked, referring to the Black Democrat from Minnesota.
Crow himself referred to the incident as a “learning moment” that day.
“It wasn’t until that day, when I was on the receiving end of white supremacy’s violence in our country, that I understood,” he said.
The attack was eventually put down, and the Capitol was secured. Rioters were permitted to depart the premises quietly, while politicians who remained to complete election certification went home. Images circulated on the internet and on television showing the Capitol’s housekeeping staff, the bulk of whom were people of color, sweeping the broken glass and scrubbing the walls.
Rep. Andy Kim, D-NJ, joined them, going down on his knees to collect water bottles, clothing, Trump flags, and American flags. Kim, the son of Korean immigrants and the first Asian American elected to Congress from New Jersey in 2018, commented at the time on how he, as a person of color, was cleaning up after people who flew white supremacist symbols like the Confederate flag during the melee.
While he hadn’t given race any thought at the time, Kim told the Associated Press immediately after the attack, “It’s so hard because we don’t look at each other and view each other as Americans first.”