The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

People are sending thank you cards to the Capitol’s cleaning crew. They deserve our gratitude. And more.

These cards were made for the staff that cleaned up the U.S. Capitol by 6-year-old twins Colin and Liam. (Courtney Wilhelm)

When I was about 6, my grandma decided to take my older sister, several of my cousins and me to work with her.

For other kids, that might have meant heading into some office building. For us, it meant spending the night in a house bigger than any of us had ever stepped inside before.

To this day, I vividly remember aspects of that house: rooms decorated with museum-worthy paintings, a patio crowded with more toys than anyone I knew owned, and so many bathrooms it seemed no one would ever have to knock on a door and plead with the person on the other side to hurry up.

My Mexican American grandma, who worked as a housekeeper there for decades, was responsible for cleaning all of that: the floors of those art-adorned rooms, the sliding glass doors leading to that patio, those many toilets.

I have no idea, and she is no longer alive for me to ask, whether she took us on that overnight trip just to keep her company while her employer was away or for some larger purpose, but it was a pivotal moment in my life. It was the first time I realized that a divide existed between the wealthy and the working-hard-to-get-by.

I also knew — at some level then, and at a deeper level in college, when I threw myself into studying the cycle of poverty — that the reasons for that went beyond individual capabilities and work ethic.

My grandma was brilliant. She surrounded herself with books and newspapers and could speak with authority in two languages about history and current events. But she was forced to drop out of school in eighth grade by her family’s financial circumstances. Because of that, she started working at an early age and continued to do so long after her hair turned white and her posture grew bent.

On Jan. 6, I found myself thinking a lot about her for two reasons: What would have been her 100th birthday was days away, and as soon as I saw those rabid rioters storm through the U.S. Capitol, I knew who was going to have to clean up their mess.

We all knew.

The photos taken of the custodial staff in the hours after the Capitol came under siege are some of the most powerful images from that day. They show people carting away trash, sweeping floors and mopping who-knows-what from stairways, so that lawmakers could get back to work and affirm President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.

But even before those pictures were published, and people started sharing them widely across social media, we all knew the trash, blood and feces left behind by that mostly White mob of Trump supporters would fall to Brown and Black workers to clear away.

Photos: Scenes of the aftermath at the U.S. Capitol

We knew because they are the people who disproportionately fill those types of jobs in this country.

Right now, the people who cleaned the Capitol that night are getting a lot of attention — and rightfully so.

A woman who used to teach in Montgomery County and now has a huge Instagram following as “America’s Government Teacher” recently asked people to send thank-you notes to the custodial staff.

“In order to resume our democracy after death, after bloodshed, after destruction and tears. . . . The Capitol building first needed to be cleaned,” Sharon McMahon posted on her page. “It needed to be cleaned by the brave men and women who did the work no one should have to do. They did it despite having just lived through a workplace shooting. They did it without recognition. As a government teacher, this stirred my heart. As an American, it brought tears to my eyes. Democracy was undeterred, thanks in part to the service and sacrifice of the people who cleaned the United States Capitol.”

She told people where they could send notes — to either the Architect of the Capitol, which employs the workers, or to the AFSCME Local 626 union, which represents them — and encouraged them to share photos using the hashtag #CapitolCleanupCrew.

A look at some that have been posted so far shows handmade cards colored by children and thoughtful words penned by adults.

They are poignant and powerful.

“No one should have to do the work you did — but in doing so you allowed us to all pick up the pieces and move forward,” reads one. “For that, I offer my deepest gratitude. We are all so thankful.”

“I wanted to send a thank you note to let you know — you are seen — you are appreciated — you are celebrated,” reads another.

One that features a drawing of the sun shining over the Capitol and a smiling figure in the corner reads: “I’m sorry you had to clean it when you did not make the mess. My name is Charlotte. I’m almost 8. I’m going to be 8 on the 20th, the day of inauguration.”

People in a usually thankless job are getting thanked — and that is an especially bright ray of light to come from that dark day.

We could accept that as enough, do nothing more, and turn away feeling good.

We could leave the race and ethnicity of the people on the receiving end of that gratitude completely out of the conversation.

It is tempting to do so, if only because we could all use some goodness to hold onto right now.

But from the moment people started sharing those photos, race and ethnicity entered the conversation. In one social media post after another, people noted the contrast between who had forced their way into the building and who restored it.

We also know that among those who breached the Capitol were white nationalists and white supremacists who believe they are better, and deserve better, than the people of color around them.

We can’t change what happened that day, but going forward, we have a choice: We can denounce what they believe with words or with concrete actions that push against the societal, financial and educational inequities that keep the disparities they embrace in place.

Issues that affect those custodial staff members and their families come before the public and lawmakers all the time. They come in calls for better wages, pushes for judicial reform, pleas for resources aimed at keeping children from low-income neighborhoods from falling behind and out of school. They come in public health experts warning about the disproportionate number of Latinos and Black people who have been dying from covid-19.

There is no shame in cleaning for a living. My grandma’s job kept her table topped with enough food to feed generations of my family. But there is shame in knowing before we see the photos what the cleaning crew will look like and feeling okay with keeping it that way.

When we talk about racial and ethnic representation and gaps, we often look at high-paying jobs and start counting. Those are important figures. It matters how many Black doctors work in hospitals. It matters how many Latino judges serve in court systems. But it also matters who is clustered in low-wage jobs and how far those figures stray from the general population.

The workers at the Capitol cleaned up a disgraceful mess that day. They deserve our thanks. They also deserve for us to not look away from the messes that remain.

Read more from Theresa Vargas:

‘Do not go in to DC’: After a mom’s warning on Jan. 6 came a haunting choice blocks from the Capitol

The riot is over, but fear remains in the nation’s capital

Stark, devastating pleas show child poverty and covid colliding to create ‘an unimaginable time’ for country’s youngest