The nature of my work has brought me to many dangerous places. I do not say this as a boast, nor do I think of myself as particularly courageous. I have witnessed levels of courage in others that leave me in awe. I’ve seen obvious courage from soldiers and first responders, but also the quiet courage of single mothers working two jobs to provide a better life for their children. I wish only to state that I have witnessed danger firsthand, many times.
Often the danger is so apparent all you have to do is open your eyes (or ears, or nose —danger often strikes many of the senses). War zones are obvious for their danger. The jungle patrols of Vietnam, the mountain outposts of Afghanistan, the whizzing bullets of Sarajevo, and Iraq’s “Triangle of Death.” Sometimes danger comes in the form of Mother Nature, the roaring winds of a hurricane, the rising floodwaters of a river quickly escaping its banks. Our minds can also sometimes trick us into thinking there is danger when there isn’t. Our prejudices and biases make us see people and places as threats, when they aren’t.
But sometimes danger surprises you, because it explodes in a place you think is safe. One of the most disconcerting elements of covering the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s, was that danger could burst forth suddenly in a place that, to my mind at that time at least, seemed like it would be perfectly safe. I would cover the towns and the cities of the deep South, and they often looked like idyllic slices of Americana: churches, manicured town squares, courthouses, five and dime shops, schools, movie theaters, a sleepy Main Street. People would tip their hat with a sir, or a ma’am. And yet, when they found out who we were —reporters from CBS News (often referred to then as the Colored Broadcasting Service, on account of covering civil rights), this false tranquility could explode into menacing violence. We were chased and our crew beaten with cue sticks and fists. There was always the threat that it could have been even worse.
To be sure, there were many times in the Civil Rights Movement when a violence, or the threat thereof, was out in the open.
I covered some Klan rallies at night, complete with the burning cross, and I can still feel the hair on the back of my neck rise at the thought. It was terrifying, and meant to be so. Then there were the showdowns, the threat and actions of force sanctioned by the state —fire hoses in Birmingham, troopers on the other side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But whether facing an ambush on the battlefield or racists lying in wait on a quiet afternoon, I have often found the threat you cannot see the most terrifying. It’s sort of like a camera shot in a horror movie from the point of view of the killer stalking the victim.
Now to relate all of this is to hopefully recognize my own privilege in these situations. Spending a lot of time in the deep South in those days, and later reporting trips all around the country, I have heard time and again from Black Americans about a sense that danger is always ever present, as if an undercurrent to life, ready to boil up and burn you without warning. This is especially true with interactions with law enforcement. For those who occupy majority demographics, encounters with law enforcement are expected to go smoothly —the promise upheld that police are there to “serve and protect.” For people of color, particularly Black Americans, that expectation far too often proves to be an exception to the rule. An encounter with law enforcement carries with it the possibility of death. If you feel this is hyperbole, the long stretch of history, recent as well as from the past, will prove otherwise.
These thoughts welled up within me when I witnessed the assault on the Capitol.
As I saw hordes of angry white faces, I thought of snapshots from the past.
I had seen these faces before, if not the exact same people. In the howls of white supremacist fury, I could see the clenched jaws, the Confederate flags, the eyes piercing with hate that I saw more than a half century earlier confront the prospects of school integration and equal voting rights. Now it was to nullify a national election.
How many times have I walked through the Capitol over the years? I cannot tell you. It is one of my favorite places on Earth. I know it has been filled with imperfect women and men, and it has legislated cruelty as well as hope. But there’s a reason why that shining dome draws school children, immigrants, tourists, and Americans from all across the nation. It is a beacon for what we can be as a nation.
It is not a place where I ever felt violence could coalesce with such murderous fury. If ever I thought there was a place where you could feel safe, it was in the heart of Washington and the marbled dome to our democracy. I remember taking my children there, and countless guests from out of town. I remember visiting lawmakers and sources. I remember watching the pageantry of State of the Union addresses, and somber moments of national crisis. I never could have imagined what we witnessed on January 6.
I reflected on some of this in my first Sunday essay on Substack just a few weeks ago. And here I am returning to it again. I promise we will talk about many other things. But I just can’t let this go. And the more people, including many Republicans in Congress who were there that day, who were under attack, argue that we need to “unify” and move beyond it, well the more hopping mad I get.
This last week Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Katie Porter relayed their harrowing hours huddled together. Even for those who may differ with their politics, how can one not be moved by their humanity? Surely we need a pause to collectively recognize how close to the brink we got. But predictably the reactionary forces who either actively abetted the assault or stood by in acquiescing silence have leveled their attacks on Ocasio-Cortez, a favorite target. That she is a woman of color isn’t just an added detail. I suspect for many it is a key component of their racist wrath. Perhaps a better way to capture the complexity and terror of the day is to listen to this reflection from Representative Dean Phillips, from Minnesota who noted the unequal terror felt that day: “I’m here tonight to say to my brothers and sisters in Congress and all around our country, I’m sorry. For I’ve never understood, really understood, what privilege really means. It took a violent mob of insurrectionists and lightning-bolt moment in this very room.” (The speech is worth watching in full).
I have seen the tragic cost of violence, of white supremacy, of autocracy, of anger, and of hatred. It allows violence to coalesce and strike, seemingly without warning, although when you look back you can often see warning signs abounded. And that was the case with January 6. We are living in a country where our fellow citizens are willing to vote for, fight for, riot for, and even die for white supremacy. There is no way to move beyond this until it is confronted. We have members of Congress literally helping write the playbook for hate and division. They must be defeated, not normalized or even ignored. And what happened on January 6 must be confronted, with an unblinking determination to get to the truth, no matter where, or to whom, it may lead.
Those who have suffered the greatest burdens of the injustices of our society know that the fight for racial justice and equity is not new. In some ways it has been part of most of the domestic stories I have covered throughout my lifetime, whether it is around education, economic opportunity, housing, or even sports and music. We have been a country long divided, no matter how we have tried to ignore, paper over, or explain away that reality.
But we are also a country that has found unity and courage. We saw it in the actions of US Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman, an African American military veteran who led the mob away from further violence. We can see it in all those who are toiling to keep this country going in the midst of a deadly pandemic. We can see it in the surging work of our democracy.
There is a danger that as the horror of January 6 recedes in time, as other serious crises crowd out the news cycle, we may treat it as “old news.” Even as I sat down to write this essay, I asked myself if you needed to read about this again. The answer I have come to is yes, a resounding yes. And I will not apologize for it. I think if the truth prevails, if we can have an honest reckoning, we will find that this ransacking at the Capitol will be seen in the same vein as those segregationist mobs of the 1960s —a national shame that can inspire a better, more just, and more inclusive, future. January 6 is not what America is, unless we allow it to be what America becomes.
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