It was a visceral cry at the time of greatest danger to American democracy.
An angry mob had invaded the police and was almost at the door of the House of Representatives. Inside the chamber, Republican Paul Gosar was launching a mock challenge to Joe Biden’s election victory in Arizona.
Then, at the back of the gallery on the second floor, Democrat Dean Phillips stood up and screamed at the top of his lungs in Gosar: “This is for you!”
The outburst was unusual for a “nice Minnesota” congressman with a reputation for restraint and hard work across the aisle. But a year later, Phillips remains convinced that it was an urgent and necessary response to the deadly insurrection inspired by then-President Donald Trump.
“It’s not my style to break decorum and yell,” he told The Guardian, “but I have to say that at that moment I felt like tens of millions of Americans did, which is that there were people responsible for what I was about. to happen. It perspires and there are times when you do what you have to do, and I had to do it. I don’t regret it one bit because it’s true. “
Phillips, 52, is coming of a business background. He ran a family distillery, which produced vodka, gin, rum, and other spirits, and an ice cream company. He was elected to Congress in 2018, representing Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District, and is vice chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.
“I never imagined I would be doing this,” he admits. “I woke up the morning after the 2016 elections, I saw the reaction of my daughters, who at that time were 18 and 16 years old – their fear, their tears – and I promised them right then that I would do something, and here I am. “
On January 6, 2021, he was informed that there could be problems, so he told his staff to stay home. He watched his office television “horrified” while Trump gave a speech urging his followers to “fight like hell” to reverse their defeat. He then walked to the House to begin certifying Biden’s electoral victory. But he soon received text messages from anxious family members showing video of the protests that were forming outside.
“I asked my colleague, Tom malinowski from New Jersey, to walk from the House chamber with me to look out the windows and a Capitol police officer literally yelled at us to get away from the windows and back into the House chamber. We asked her if everything was okay and, I’ll never forget, she said, ‘You’re in the United States Capitol. It’s the safest building in the country. ‘
They returned to the House chamber just as Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer were being evacuated. Gosar was at the microphone, leading the effort to subvert his state’s electoral college vote, when the sergeant-at-arms urged members to take cover behind the seats and prepare their smoke bells, causing Phillips to feel “fury.” Y Let them rip the Trump loyalist.
While members of the Chamber floor were able to escape, there was no exit for 20 seated in the gallery due to coronavirus security measures. “I yelled at my colleagues at the time to follow me to the Republican side of the camera because I thought it would be safer,” says Phillips. “I thought the insurgents would come for us.
“First, it was almost impossible to get through these railings; or you had to go under or over. But more than that, I recognized right then and there that many of my colleagues couldn’t mix. I mean the colored ones. It really left an indelible mark on me.
“That whole day changed me, of course, like anyone else, to recognize that privilege and the fragility of democracy and also a significant increase in my empathy for those who have suffered trauma in their lives, which changes their lives ”.
The rioters reached the doors of the Chamber chamber, but found their way blocked by a makeshift barricade and Capitol police with guns in hand. After a test that lasted about 25 minutes, recalls Phillips, a Capitol police officer led the gallery members through a maze of tunnels.
“We ran into Rayburn’s dining room and it was a strange moment because there were people eating lunch at the tables. The sun was shining through the big glass windows and here we are, an officer with a rifle running with us into the dining room and people just stunned, looking at us like, what the hell is going on? Of course, televisions moments later would surely change that. “
The group was then transferred to a committee room where they were finally safe. But their shared ordeal would stay with them. Now they call themselves “The gallery group” and still meet regularly, sometimes with facilitators or therapists. “It has been the most wonderful support group you can imagine because we endured it together,” says Phillips.
On the night of January 6, with the Capitol finally secured, they and other members returned to the House and Senate to finish the job and ratify Biden as president. For a fleeting moment, it seemed that Democrats and Republicans were united to complete the work of democracy and discarding authoritarianism of Trump. But it wasn’t going to last.
In the year since the insurrection, some Republicans have embraced Trump’s “big lie” and his depiction of the mob as patriots driven by a noble cause; others have simply remained silent and did not report it. Phillips, who watches them closely during congressional sessions, believes they are motivated by self-preservation of both position and personal safety.
“That is perhaps the saddest part of all this. Many of my colleagues, especially those who voted for impeachment, those who voted to impale the January 6 commission, those who voted to certify the election, have received horrific threats to their safety and the safety of their loved ones. . It is an unenviable position, but it is also our responsibility and duty. I understand self-preservation, but I wish principles took precedence, ”he says.
It has been difficult for Phillips to witness the denialism of January 6 as Republicans and the right-wing media attempt to rewrite the history of what happened that day, characterizing it in various ways as a “Normal tourist visit” or an FBI “false flag” operation designed to ensnare Trump supporters. The former president himself insisted that his followers were “hugging and kissing” police officers.
The Democrat says: “This is one of those rare times I was there. I was inside. I heard the shot. I saw the remains of the insurrection in the roundabout and went with [Congressman] Andy Kim at midnight that night to help clean it up when I saw him just on his knees. “
“I saw the body armor. I saw the clubs. I saw feces. I saw the speaker’s office ransacked. I saw with my own eyes people detained on the ground. I saw the mob break in. I met with the officers who have been subject to it ever since. I was there to testify to it and hear people say it didn’t happen or it wasn’t a big deal or it’s time to move on, shame. “
Republicans’ denial of reality and continued addiction to Trump have raised fears that January 6 is the beginning, not the end, of the near-death experience of American democracy. The party is imposing sweeping restrictions on voters across the country and seeks to put believers in the “big lie” in charge of future elections. Trump could mount another offer to the White House in 2024 with many checks and balances that no longer exist.
Phillips comments: “We are at the precipice of a very slippery slope and there is a long way up the mountain when a democracy is being built, but it is a rapid descent when it fades. We have to collectively make a choice and a decision here, starting with the simple fact that this is not something that one side or the other can win. “
“If one side overturns democracy and destroys its institutions and does not respect the rule of law, chaos will occur, violence will occur and all that matters to those who propagate this claim – a strong, stable, secure country. and prosperous – will be lost. So I try to be a voice of reason and a bridge builder, not a destroyer. “
Phillips, who describes himself as an eternal optimist, believes that there is still a cohort in the Republican party that may find a way back to the mainstream. He describes Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, Trump critics on the House Select Committee investigating Jan. 6, as “heroic.”
“I know there are more who share that sentiment that just aren’t that public. I am confident that we will see some kind of restoration of principle, assuming that American voters consider it important. “
The congressman’s efforts to lower the political temperature include a number of “common ground” meetings in your home district that foster mutual understanding among constituents from across the ideological spectrum.
He says: “They inspired me and made me more optimistic because I discovered that when, with some intention, you bring together people with disparate political perspectives and break bread, meet and share life stories, there is common ground readily available and easily visible.” .
But in this age of polarization and negative partisanship, must there be some awkward conversations? “We had an experience a few weeks ago where someone pulled into what would be considered a vehicle that a Donald Trump supporter and someone who was on the far left of that person might be driving, at a very awkward moment, but it turned out to be a change. be very productive – you recognized what you felt when you saw the vehicle stop in the parking lot and what you expected from the person driving it.
“It took courage to share that. The driver of the vehicle took courage to listen. At the end of the night, for both of them to acknowledge their shared humanity and their shared interest in a safe and secure country, it was a moment of great tranquility, but one that can only happen if people stop stereotyping and really start breaking bread. together “.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism