“Democracy is in a very shaky place.” Maryland congressmen reflect on January 6.
Thursday marks one year since a mob supporting then-President Donald Trump breached the U.S. Capitol as Congress was certifying the election of Joe Biden.
Baltimore area congressmen who barricaded themselves and their staff in their offices to keep safe, are both optimistic and uncertain what the legacy of that day holds for the future of the republic.
Seventh District Democratic Congressman Kweisi Mfume said he hasn’t talked much at length publicly about what occurred on January 6, 2021.
“Some things you just don’t want to dredge up and yet we all know, meaning those of us that were there that day, that this day was coming again where we would kind of have to relive and go back through what was going through our minds and our spirits and the visions that we saw,” he said.
On January 6, Mfume was making his way from the House Gallery to his office. Inside the Capitol, he passed by people milling around, yelling and waving flags.
“They were angry,” he said. “Many of them were shouting. And they went past me.”
Rather than stepping outside, Mfume used the tunnels that connect the Capitol to his office building. He heard sirens. Mfume said he had never heard them in the tunnels before.
“I had officers running past me in the other direction, which is when I knew then that it was probably a breach,” Mfume said. “It was more than a demonstration.”
Mfume got to his office, deadbolted the door, tried to calm his staff and turned on the TV. He said what he saw going on made his heart sink.
Mfume said he saw angry people hell bent on destroying something. It reminded him of Ku Klux Klan rallies he had seen in the 1950s.
“People who were members of the Klan in broad daylight with that anger in their eyes, calling racial epithets out of their mouths, ready to hurt anybody that didn’t agree with them,” Mfume said. “It was that same kind of anger that I saw in these people.”
The mob had left a rally where President Trump laid out false claims that the election had been stolen. They marched to the Capitol where Joe Biden’s win was being certified. They clashed with police, overwhelming them, smashing windows, breaching the Capitol, and disrupting the certification.
Third District Democratic Congressman John Sarbanes said he got instructions to hunker down in his office with his staff.
“Stay away from the windows. Get down on the floor. Lock the doors. Don’t let anyone in.”
Second District Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat, said members of his staff started putting furniture against the door for a barricade, but there was a problem with that.
“I said, ‘by the way folks, the doors open out, so those tables and chairs that you are putting at the door aren’t going to work,’” Ruppersberger said. “Looking back, that was kind of funny.”
Once the Capitol was secured, the Congress certified Biden’s election in the early morning hours of January 7. The toll of that day includes five people who lost their lives, 140 police officers assaulted and an estimated $1.5 million dollars in damage to the Capitol.
Maryland’s lone Republican congressman, Andy Harris, declined to comment for this story. Harris, an ardent Trump supporter, voted in favor of two objections to Biden’s victory during the certification. In June, Harris, who represents the first district, joined 20 fellow Republicans in voting against a resolution honoring the police officers who protected the Capitol on January 6. In a statement to the Star-Democrat, an Eastern Shore newspaper, he said he objected to the resolution because it referred to the attack as an insurrection.
Congressman Ruppersberger said he hasn’t spoken to Harris about January 6.
“He’s been elected by his constituents,” Ruppersberger said. “He states his point of view. Hopefully we’ll be able to show the facts and his point of view is not where we are as a country.”
In July, the select committee investigating the January 6 attack held its first public meeting. The committee chairman, Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson, laid out what was already known.
“We know that the insurrection on January 6 was a violent attack that involved a vicious attack on law enforcement,” Thompson said. “We know there’s evidence in a coordinated, planned attack. We know that men and women who stormed the capitol wanted to derail the peaceful transfer of power in this country.”
Many Republicans in Congress dismiss the panel’s work for being partisan although two Republicans sit on the committee.
The select committee plans to hold public hearings. Congressman Ruppersberger believes that will be persuasive because the committee will lay out the facts.
“The same thing happened in Watergate,” Ruppersberger said. “The Watergate hearings were open and public, and I think that really showed the public that we’re going to follow the law and you’re going to be held accountable.”
Congressman Mfume said in the aftermath of January 6, the efforts to weaken elections boards in key states isn’t as violent but is just as vicious.
“Someone can win just by suggesting that the election was a fraud and having people at different boards throughout the states in this country decertify or refuse to certify election results when they know they’re correct,” Mfume said.
Federal voting rights legislation has been blocked by Republicans in the Senate. On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, of New York, said the chamber will vote by January 17 on changing the rules so a vote can be taken on the legislation.
Congressman Sarbanes for years has been at the forefront of voting rights legislation. He believes passing legislation that brings back people’s trust in free and fair elections, combined with holding those accountable for January 6 through the work of the select committee, will help restore confidence in our democracy.
“I think that helps frankly over time promote more civil discourse out there in the political environment and that’s good for our country ultimately as well.”
A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll released over the weekend shows the country remains divided over January 6. 78% of Democrats surveyed describe the protesters that day as being mostly violent, compared to 26% of Republicans.
Mfume said he has never seen this country so divided.
“I think the jury is still out as to whether or not we have learned from this situation, that we are prepared to move beyond it, and that we are solemnly pledged to never let it happen again,” Mfume said. “I don’t know that that’s the case.”
Sarbanes said what gives him hope is that in 2020, in the middle of a pandemic, more than 150,000,000 people voted. He believes that happened because they cherish democracy and wanted to pull it back from the brink. Now he said it’s up to Congress to do its part.
Sarbanes said there is too much at stake.
“Right now, there’s a perception, and I think it’s the reality that our Democracy is in a very shaky place.”