Monday, March 27

‘We were trapped’: Jan.6 trauma lingers for lawmakers

Long after most of the other legislators had been led to safety, they were on the hard marble floor, ducking for cover.

Caught in the House gallery, occupying balcony seats out of public reach due to COVID-19, approximately three dozen House Democrats were the last to leave the chamber on January 6, testifying as the certification of a presidential election. gave way to a violent insurrection.

As danger approached and rioters tried to break down the doors, they called out to their families. They scrambled to find makeshift weapons and mentally prepared to fight. Many thought they might die.

“When I looked up, I realized we were trapped,” said Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colorado, a former Army ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “They had evacuated the floor of the house first. And they forgot about us. “

United by circumstance, sharing a trauma uniquely their own, lawmakers were witnesses and victims of an unprecedented assault on American democracy. Along with a small number of employees and members of the media, they remained in the chamber as the Capitol Police struggled to contain the crowd of supporters of then-President Donald Trump.

The legislators were finally brought to safety about an hour after the siege began.

Interviewed by The Associated Press ahead of the anniversary of this week’s attack, 10 of the House members in the gallery spoke of being deeply moved by their experience.

They vividly recall the loud, hornet-like buzz of their gas masks. The explosive blast of tear gas in the outer corridors. The shouts of the officers telling them to stay still. The thunderous knock on the doors below. The glass was shattered when rioters hit a window. The doorknobs rattled ominously on the closed doors a few feet behind them.

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More indelible, the loud applause of a shot, reverberating through the cavernous chamber.

“I heard a lot of shots in my day and it was very clear what it was about,” Crow said. “I knew things had escalated badly.”

The shot was fired by Officer Michael Byrd and killed Ashli ​​Babbitt, a Trump supporter who was attempting to crawl through a broken window of a door leading into the House chamber. Both the Justice Department and the Capitol Police investigated the shooting and declined to press charges.

His terror was compounded by the knowledge of what the mob was after: preventing Congress from certifying the Electoral College votes that would make Joe Biden the 46th president. Mike Pence, as is customary for the vice president, had been presiding over the ceremony in the House where lawmakers gathered to hear the results of the certified elections.

Trump had other ideas.

Throwing lies about voter fraud that were disproved by his own Justice Department, Trump pressured Pence to turn down voters, a move that would have contradicted the Constitution and thrown the House, and potentially the country, into chaos. Pence refused to do so, but Trump held a rally in Washington before the vote count began, telling hundreds of supporters in the Ellipse that they had to “fight like hell.”

Representative Val Demings, a Florida Democrat, was among those taking refuge in the gallery. The former Orlando police chief flinched when police said there had been a “breach” of the building.

“I knew that that meant that the police had somehow lost the line. And I also know, having been a former cop, that they would have done everything they could to keep that line to protect us, “he said.

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Demings said she told a colleague who took refuge with her in the gallery: “Just remember, we’re on the right side of the story. If we all die today, another group will come and certify those ballots. “

Congress reconvened that night, certifying Biden’s electoral victory before dawn.

In the days after the attack, many of the lawmakers in the gallery began connecting in a chain of text messages. It quickly turned into therapeutic group sessions and even shared gatherings in which they tried to make sense of it all. They called themselves “the gallery group” and the name stuck.

Many went to seek therapy. Some were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, their struggles exacerbated by tensions on Capitol Hill and a growing number of death threats. Others said they have been more traumatized by the growing trend among Republican lawmakers, and some in the public, to minimize or ignore violence than the attack itself.

Rep. Annie Kuster, who sought treatment for post-traumatic stress, says the gallery group goes online almost daily on the texting chain.

Kuster, DN.H., was one of the first out of the gallery on January 6, escaping through the doors along with three other members just before the remaining lawmakers were locked inside. When Kuster’s group reached the hall, a group of rioters were running towards them.

“We got into the elevator,” Kuster said. “And I said to this amazing cop – I said, oh my gosh, what if the elevator doors open and we get killed? And I will never forget this moment … he said, ‘Ma’am, I’m here to protect you.’ And he was there to protect our democracy. “

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Ultimately, Capitol Police determined that the area above was clear, even as the insurgents kept trying to break through the doors below. Lawmakers and others rushed out of the chamber and down a maze of stairs and hallways. When they left, they could see the police officers holding five or six rioters to the ground, guns pointed at their heads.

The rioters were inches from the gallery doors.

When Kuster returned home two days later, he watched hours of video of the insurrection. It only compounded the trauma.

“I remember my husband came in and he was crying,” Kuster said. “And he was holding me up, saying, ‘I don’t know if this is the best you can see.’

“But we have to – we have to acknowledge the reality of what happened that day. And what challenges us is that we are victims and witnesses of crime in our country ”.

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