Looking at both sides now
In the days following the January 6th riot at the Capitol — something predicted, but somehow not prepared for, and not prevented — I learned about the damage done from news reports and podcasts I listened to as I puttered around the house. I was struck by the contrast between the descriptions of that crowd of (mostly male) Donald Trump supporters, attempting to disrupt the count of the Electoral College votes by Congress that would formalize his loss of the election, and my memories of the crowd I was part of on another January day four years ago, a crowd of (mostly female) protesters demonstrating in response to Trump’s winning the election against Hillary Clinton, who we’d hoped would be our first woman president.
The Women’s March was scheduled to take place the day after Trump’s inauguration. It wasn’t planned in secret. Women formed groups and spread the word on social media. They organized locally, planning “sister marches” to occur in cities all over the country simultaneously with the march in Washington, D.C. They created logos, hashtags, graphics and scripts for media campaigns. In the weeks between the election and the inauguration of the new president, a movement was founded.
On January 21, 2017, the Women’s Marches held in Washington, D.C., towns and cities across the US and countries around the globe, combined to create the largest mass protest demonstration in history. It was a day as remarkable for what didn’t happen, as for what did. There was no violence, no bloodshed, no loss of life. It was a celebration as much as a protest, a demonstration of joy.
On January 6, 2021, I distracted myself and tried to avoid the news. Trump spent the lame duck phase of his term in office sewing seeds of suspicion among his followers, filing frivolous lawsuits, spinning fictitious tales of fraud and claiming the election was stolen. He’d lost the election but his presidency wasn’t yet over and like many, I felt held in a state of suspense. Today was the day of the Joint Session of Congress to count the electoral votes and officially confirm the election of Joe Biden as our next president, which promised some relief. I knew the supporters of the outgoing president, angered by his loss, were hoping for this event to be disrupted. I knew they were relying on Republican legislators to challenge the proceedings, and they were hoping Vice President Pence would assist in this effort, and somehow change the outcome.
What I didn’t know — but have learned was known to journalists and should have been known by the authorities — was that an insurrection was being planned in the weeks between Election Day and the day of the Joint Session. Plans were made openly on social media — on Twitter and Facebook — to commit sedition. Paramilitary groups, white supremacists, and everyday MAGA loyalists plotted to converge on the Capitol, bearing arms, and raid it.
I spent the day as usual, or what passes for usual during this pandemic. For me, that means existing in a state of low level anxiety, worrying about my kids as we move into the eleventh month of the way we live now, isolated in our household bubble. It means doing chores, fixing meals, streaming escapist dramas on my laptop, and occasionally checking the news. It started out as an ordinary day, but my glimpses of the news showed me that an extraordinary situation was developing.
Trump has spoken to a crowd of his followers, repeating the lie that the election was fraudulent, and urging them to walk to the Capitol to show their strength…
Thousands of demonstrators, some in costume, some in combat gear, who-knows-how-many armed with weapons, have surrounded the Capitol…
Rioters have broken through the barriers and are fighting with police, who are outnumbered and overwhelmed…
Lawmakers were told tear gas has been deployed, and cautioned to ready their gas masks…
Gunfire is reported in the Capitol complex…
Legislators are being evacuated to safety…
Like a kid watching a horror flick at the movie theater, hands splayed over her face, peeking through the cracks between her fingers to see if it’s safe to look, if the scary part is over, I saw the riot progress in fragments, in snatched glimpses.
A dozen police officers in retreat, scrambling backwards up a marble staircase toward the Capitol entrance.
A shouting mob, nobody wearing a face mask and half of them holding their phones up to take videos.
Men wielding baseball bats, pipes, hockey sticks, Trump signs, American flags.
A man picking up a section of fencing and tossing it onto a pile of abandoned audio/visual equipment. Another man following him to the pile, wielding a bat that he uses to club the gadgets to pieces, bringing the bat down again, and again.
A man waving a Confederate flag, head high, face unmasked, striding through the Capitol Rotunda.
What is happening? I wonder. Why is this being allowed? How will this end?
The mob rampages through marble hallways, breaking glass, beating police officers, shouting, “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”
I think back to that other January day, and the way we responded to the loss of that election, and our dream of a woman president. We gathered by the thousands, by the tens of thousands. Mostly women but men and kids, too. Dogs, even. Strollers. Wheelchairs. Wagons. Hugs and laughter. Hats! Pink hats — pussy hats — knitted and crocheted and handed out to friends and strangers. Nasty Woman tee shirts. Suffragist costumes. Tutus. Sparkles and rainbows. Mardi Gras beads and feather boas. Dancing. Singing. Chanting. Celebrating. When I stood with my sister as the people in San Jose, California, assembled in front of City Hall, the crowd was so big I couldn’t see the edge. I marveled at the vibe, at the feeling of patience and togetherness. Never had I been surrounded by so many people and felt so safe — no tension or fear, only goodwill and peace.
Maybe I felt safe that day because, while we were all unhappy that Trump had been elected, we had yet to see how frightening his administration would be, how much damage he would do with the authority of his office, and how much havoc his followers would wreak. We would grow weary, over the next four years, with arguments of “both-siderism.” Clinton volunteers who ventured to tell about our encounters with belligerent Trump supporters during the campaign, were assured by our friends who voted for Trump they’d had experiences with Clinton supporters who were “just as bad.” When white supremacists held a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and one of them deliberately drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one, Trump remarked afterwards that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the incident.
The divide in America between left and right, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans seemed to grow deeper and wider each year of Trump’s presidency, evidenced by the divergent stories told by media outlets. Fox and the like told their audiences that Antifa and Black Lives Matter were violent anarchist groups occupying cities, burning businesses, and attacking police departments. Liberal media outlets highlighted the thuggish behavior of Trump’s supporters at his MAGA rallies. At the upcoming second impeachment trial of our last, disgraced president we’re sure to hear more details about the January 6th riot at the Capitol. Let’s hope this will lay to rest any notion that the American people exercising their rights under the First Amendment these past four years — their right to assemble, to speak freely, and to petition their government for change — are all the same. Let’s hope we can finally agree that among the many lies told in the Trump era is that people behaved equally badly on both sides.