On Wednesday, Jan. 6, Congressman James Comer (KY-1) was on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, participating in the Electoral College vote count that would make Democrat Joe Biden the next president of the United States.
Like many of his colleagues, he was unaware of the storm brewing outside the Capitol, as thousands of protestors started to force their way into the building. Comer says he thought nothing of it when security whisked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from the chamber. But when capitol police rushed in and removed other House leadership, he realized something was very wrong.
Soon security barricaded the chamber doors, then evacuated the other members from the floor and got them to a secured location as protesters flooded into the Capitol, ransacked lawmakers’ offices, and rummaged through desks and posed for pictures in the Senate chamber.
“It was surreal, but I never thought I was in danger,” says the Republican.
Congressman John Yarmuth (KY-3) was in the Cannon House Office Building when he and his staff had to evacuate as the siege unfolded. Two weeks later, the Democrat says he is still trying to make sense of that day and the “heartbreaking” way he says American citizens turned on each other.
“Why would so many seemingly normal people come to the Capitol and basically risk their own lives on a futile mission?” says Yarmuth. “Did they actually think they were going to storm the Capitol and stop the counting of electoral votes with a violent act? That’s why it’s so hard to process.”
Yarmuth blames the siege on President Donald Trump, who he says has divided the nation for the last four years and encouraged supporters who had gathered that day rally in Washington for a so-called Stop the Steal to march on Congress.
“I don’t know how you can blame anybody else,” says Yarmuth. “He didn’t say, ‘Go and protest the counting of the electoral votes.’ He just said, ‘We’re going to go to the Capitol and we’re going to fight.’”
But Comer says Trump isn’t responsible. He contends many politicians as well as athletic coaches frequently use aggressive language to fire up supporters or players, but not as a call to specific actions.
“I don’t think anything Donald Trump said that day he meant literally, so it was a very unfortunate situation,” says Comer. “Both parties have extremists on both sides and I feel like what we need to do as leaders in America is try to tone the rhetoric down, turn the volume down, and the temperature down.”
Placing the Capitol Siege into a Greater Context
In the wake of the insurrection, many people have struggled to process the event, the causes, and who should be held responsible for such an attack on the heart of American democracy.
For University of Kentucky history professor Gerald Smith, the insurrection was no surprise given the violence and divisions that have plagued the nation since its founding. He says the country was built on untruths of equality and inclusivity, when in fact American democracy excluded Blacks, Native Americans, and women at the beginning. Smith says he especially noted the connections between past and present as he watched rioters parade a Confederate flag through the Capitol halls.
“It was as if the Confederate statutes had come alive and were now giving us a 21st century observation of what took place during the Civil War,” says Smith. “We understand the mindset, the mission, the hatred that was in the hearts of those who served in the Confederacy in the 1860s.”
Former Congressman Ben Chandler, a Democrat who represented central Kentucky from 2004 to 2013, agrees that the insurrection had historical roots, but he contends President Trump and other more recent factors inflamed the situation. He says Americans have long been skeptical about their government, but those concerns are now wrapped in anger over economic inequality and rapid social and demographic changes. He says people are also on edge over the rise of technology and the lingering COVID-19 pandemic.
“All of these things, I think, play a role in unsettling people, and then comes a demagogue,” says Chandler, who is now president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. “When you prey on that kind of insecurity amongst the general public as a demagogue, nothing good can come from it.”
Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, adds one additional factor to the mix: How Americans interact with one another.
“It is time for us to hold our president, our party, ourselves to account for the incendiary language, for the reckless way that we talk to each other,” says Harris.
Harris credits President Trump for many good accomplishments during his tenure, including signing into law a criminal justice reform package she championed. But at the same time, she says the president has spoken and behaved in a way that has led the country to a dangerous place.
“We’ve all explained away and justified a lot of the things that he’s done and said by saying, ‘Well, he’s not a politician, or he’s just from New York, or its just locker-room talk,’” says Harris. “We’re holding our president to a lower standard than I hold my nine-year old son.”
Without directly calling President Trump to blame for the insurrection, outgoing U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Kentucky Russell Coleman says leaders are responsible for what happens on their watch. For Coleman that includes the chief of the U.S. Capitol Police and the sergeants at arms for the House and Senate for potential security lapses.
While the U.S. Constitution allows for peaceful protests, the law does not permit violent attacks on life and property. When that occurs, Coleman says police and prosecutors must confront those perpetrators equally, whether those at the Capitol or those who looted property and carried firearms during last summer’s marches against police brutality.
“Anyone responsible for treating those individuals differently should... no longer be in law enforcement,” says Coleman. “When conduct crosses that bright line and becomes violence, that’s when the First Amendment protections no longer apply.”
Coleman says he prosecuted Black Lives Matter protestors who engaged in criminal activity in Louisville and that he would prosecute Kentuckians who broke the law in Washington. (Five days after the Capitol riot, Coleman submitted his resignation as U.S. Attorney, a common procedure during a change in presidential administrations.)
But a double standard does exist when it comes to policing white and Black Americans, according to Smith. He notes that even when white rioters at the Capitol tried to crush a policeman with a door, none of the other offices pulled their guns on the offenders. He says Blacks across the nation are not so fortunate in their interactions with law enforcement.
“There are number of African Americans who were killed who are unarmed,” says Smith. “Jacob Blake [who was shot by a Wisconsin police officer last August], shot seven times in the back, and of course he wasn’t trying to storm the capitol.”
How Can the Nation Move Forward?
Just a week after the siege of the Capitol, the U.S. House of Representatives impeached President Trump for “incitement of insurrection.” All Democratic House members and 10 Republican representatives joined the vote to impeach the president for a second time.
“In my opinion what President Trump did was the most heinous act ever performed by a president of the United States,” says Yarmuth. “If we don’t impeach him for this, even though it’s not going to get him out of office any earlier, then we have rendered the impeachment clause in the constitution meaningless.”
Comer contends it was a mistake to impeach the president just days before his term was set to expire. Comer says House Speaker Pelosi, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, and President-Elect Joe Biden missed an opportunity to try to unite Americans.
“All that they’ve done by doing that is made people on the right even more upset,” says Comer. “They distrust their government even more, they think that Donald Trump is a victim.”
While he says both parties will always have their extreme members, Comer believes most Americans prefer the political middle ground. As such, he says that it is critical for leaders in Washington to try to unite Americans. As for the outgoing president, Comer says he won’t say anything negative about him because the Republican carried his district by almost 50 points. He says Donald Trump will be a “major part” of the GOP for years to come.
Healing the nation’s wounds now becomes the job of Joe Biden, who Yarmuth describes as an American “everyman” that represents the best values of the nation. He says he hopes that can make a difference for the country going forward.
To make Biden’s task easier, Chandler says President Trump and Republicans who challenged the election results should acknowledge the falsehoods they have peddled for months.
“The first thing that needs to happen is certain people in this country need to admit that Joe Biden is a legitimate president,” says Chandler. “The divisions in this country will not be healed until we all commit to... telling the truth.”
That includes the media, according to Chandler, who he contends have been financially rewarded for allowing politicians to spread lies. He says for citizens to make wise choices about policy and about their elected officials, they must have accurate information. He also recommends that people focus less on individual liberties and more on fostering stronger, healthier communities.
Smith says “America still has a lot of repenting to do” for slavery and other national failures. To restore confidence in the government and democracy, Smith calls on political leaders to pursue accountability and transparency as well as truth and reconciliation. But the work doesn’t stop there. He says all citizens need to do some homework.
“It is also going to require learning about our history so that we might eventually reconcile with our own past in order for us to go forward in the future,” says Smith.
Coleman and Harris suggest Americans commit to having more face-to-face conversations with each other.
“We will say things about people online that we would never do standing in front of them,” says Coleman. “It’s a coward’s way to articulate a viewpoint, and that is our way of communicating now.”
Harris suggests connecting with someone you disagree with politically and spend 20 minutes just listening to what they have to say. From there, she says you will likely find something you have in common with that person, which can serve as the foundation for a deeper, more respectful, and more productive relationship going forward.
“We have real challenges in this country, and we need to work together to solve them,” says Harris. “It has nothing to do with being a Republican or a Democrat, it has to do with being an American… and I believe that America is resilient and we’ll get back to a place where we can talk to each other again.”