Rarely are we are offered a close-up of what goes on in the Capitol building. Wednesday, in one of the longest days of my life, we saw something no American of my age could have envisioned before Donald Trump. Jan. 6, 2021, will mark the day we saw domestic terrorists, insurgents, thugs breaking into the halls of Congress where they behaved like large, dangerous, out-of-control children. In one particularly heartbreaking video, a lone Capitol Building security officer was videoed backing up a series of marble staircases, as he singularly attempted and gut-wrenchingly failed to stop the mob.
Just five or so hours later, we were again offered a peek into the chambers where earlier we saw images of elected members of our first branch of government ducking for cover and being secreted away, as violent intruders stormed the doors.
This time, as our leaders reconvened to finish what they started – counting the electoral votes that will shortly and legally place our duly elected next president Joe Biden in the White House – we were offered a seldom-appreciated view of our elected officials carrying out their duty to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America.
In the second act of the day, the chambers were as we imagine them to be in our loftiest fantasies – steeped in decorum and resounding mostly with voices of sanity and responsibility.
Both of these scenarios brought home the reality of how Americans, including me at times, have taken for granted our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. The shocking events livestreamed across the globe were like a very short-run, two-act play dramatizing – in a way too frightening to ignore – the fragility of our so-called democracy.
I watched stunned as dungareed hooligans intimidated and wrestled with Capitol police officers and mocked our democracy in the basest of ways, boldly posturing in leather-covered chairs heretofore occupied by vice presidents and democratically elected members of Congress smirking as they snapped selfies.
It is said that as we age, our remote memory becomes more acute. As images of the halls of the Capitol building, filled with vigilantes threatening the shockingly few police officers present with violence, flashed across my screen, I experienced a visceral memory of an awestruck preteen girl scout, enthralled as she reverently tiptoed through those same halls nearly 60 years ago. As I write this, I am momentarily overwhelmed with grief at the loss of the naive trust I had for our system back then. It is not the first time I have experienced that overwhelming sadness.
It can hardly be said that having experienced the assassination of John F. Kennedy on my 14th birthday, Martin Luther King Jr. a few years later and Bobby Kennedy soon after that, I have not previously been stunned and rendered momentarily hopeless by the violence and deadly maneuvering orchestrated by those who would thwart democracy and the will of the people in their gross, criminal and often deadly grasping for power, money and prestige.
My husband was drafted during the Vietnam War – after a long exhausting struggle to prevent him from being ripped from his job and wife (me) pregnant with our first son. It was a pointless, deadly war that I had been actively protesting for many years.
Protest, as a child of the ’60s, is in my DNA. As an American, it is my heritage.
In May 1979, I hopped on a short flight from Rochester, New York, to Washington and marched down that same street to the same steps as part of an anti-nuke protest just weeks after the Three Mile Island nuclear plant meltdown contributed to the ongoing and as-yet unabated poisoning of our planet.
It was a thrilling and powerful experience to be enveloped safely in a crowd of more than 125,000 people coming together to send a message to those occupying that stately domed building looming before us – the lighted tower a beacon of democracy.
Thirty-one years later, I flew to D.C. from St. Thomas with my now-husband and joined by the son I was carrying in 1970 when his father was drafted, we stood with more than a quarter-million people on the Washington Mall being riotously – in a completely different sense – entertained by satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert at the Rally to Restore Sanity.
That was also a heady and wildly hopeful time. Our first Black president was living with his family just a few blocks away in the White House. And while there were huge problems in our country, there was a sense of solidarity that held it all together; an overwhelming feeling that enough of us were on the same page to uphold what hundreds of thousands of Americans died to protect.
Sadly, that thrill of patriotism, like that of so many liberals, came from living in the middle-class bubble of white privilege. But through the shame of my ignorance, there is gratitude that I have held to the ideal of democracy. But it was only an ideal.
Regardless of the moving speeches echoing through those hallowed chambers last night, this is not the America where I was born. It turns out, it never was.
These last four years are hardly the only ones during which Americans have been lied to. They are the logical culmination of all the fairy tale textbooks thrust upon my desks beginning in elementary school.
If the last four dark years – and especially 2020 – have offered any light, it is the burning light of truth that singes the soul, the light that can no longer be extinguished no matter how many lies are told and retold.
It is up to us now to decry and punish the acts of treason we witnessed this week. It is up to us to turn our backs on any and all elected officials who lie to us and use their pulpits for no other purpose than to secure their high-paying jobs and positions of power while supporting the oligarchy.
It is up to us to cherish and carry out our civil obligations to vote, speak out, run for office, serve on juries and restore sanity and respect in our relationships including our relationship with the planet.
There is nothing about what happened in our sacred halls of democracy yesterday that is okay. But there has been nothing acceptable about the vicious dialogue, dishonesty and deliberate divisiveness that has been normalized in my short lifetime either. Yesterday was simply episode 2021 in a series that has been running for way too long. It’s time for the epilogue.