“In doing so, they not only further harm those who were there that day and provide cover for those responsible, but they also send a tremendously damaging message to survivors of trauma all across this country that the way to deal with trauma, violence and targeting is to paper it over, minimize it and move on,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Twenty-nine days ago, our nation’s capital was attacked. That is the big story. And in that big story reside thousands of individual accounts just as valid and important as the other.”
For an hour, she and others shared powerful memories of what they had endured that day, when an angry pro-Trump mob overran the Capitol grounds in a violent insurrection that left five people dead. One of those killed, Capitol Police Officer Brian D. Sicknick, was laid to rest earlier Thursday at Arlington National Cemetery after lying in honor in the Capitol Rotunda Wednesday night.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) recalled another time she had to flee the Capitol: on Sept. 11, 2001. Then, she could see smoke from the plane that hit the Pentagon. This time, Lee said, she could hear shooting and the attack coming from the Senate side.
When she paid respects to Sicknick the night before, Lee said she thought of how many other police officers are still in hospitals or still suffering from defending the Capitol that day.
“We must get to the bottom of this. We cannot let white supremacy … dominate the goodness of what this democracy and this Constitution stands for,” she said. “I’m here on the floor to say that we shall not be denied. We are never going to give up our love for democracy, nor its vitality, nor are we going to let this country be dominated by the insurrectionists who came to this place to do nothing but act in a bloodthirsty manner. We are not afraid of you.”
Rep. Dean Phillips (Minn.) described how he screamed to his Democratic colleagues to gather on the GOP side of the chamber and “blend in,” believing that their lives might be spared if the rioters thought they were Republicans. But then, he said he realized that his colleagues of color couldn’t simply blend in on the Republican side of the room like he could as a White man.
“I’m here tonight to say to my brothers and sisters in Congress and all around our country, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, for I had never understood — really understood — what privilege really means,” Phillips said. “It took a violent mob of insurrectionists and a lightning bolt moment in this very room. But now I know, believe me, I really know.”
Some of the lawmakers said they were speaking out for those who did not have a voice in the chamber, such as the hundreds of staff members and building workers who were also there that day and feared for their lives.
“When you run for office, you are confronted with the reality that you may be putting yourself in harm’s way,” said Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.). “Staff didn’t ask for this. ... They shouldn’t have had to have dealt with an attack like this. They were just doing their jobs. And those who lived through that dangerous day or watched as the Capitol was attacked from home are also experiencing pain and trauma. To them, I say what you’re feeling is valid and we’re here to support you. And don’t let anybody gaslight or diminish or belittle what happened on January 6th.”
Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (Pa.) read part of a letter signed by nearly 400 congressional staffers to their senators decrying the attack on their workplace.
“Many of us attended school in the post-Columbine area, and we’re trained to respond to active shooter situations in our classroom,” Scanlon said, reading from the letter that cited the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado. “As the mobs smashed through Capitol police barricades, broke doors and windows and charged into the Capitol with body armor and weapons, many of us hid behind chairs and under desks or barricaded ourselves in offices. Others watched on TV and frantically tried to reach our bosses and colleagues as they fled for their lives.”
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) broke down crying describing the death threats she has received since first coming to Congress, ones that targeted her son by name and that she said left her emotionally paralyzed. Tlaib also said she fears for the safety of her diverse staff.
“I never thought that they would feel unsafe here,” she said through sobs, prompting Ocasio-Cortez to come up to comfort her briefly. “I ask my colleagues, please try not to dehumanize what’s happening. This is real.”
Rep. Adriano Espaillat (N.Y.) passionately called for a “deep investigation” of what had happened and whether any members of Congress had helped insurrectionists.
“We must find out if there were members of this body who aided and abetted that angry mob, who instructed them of the whereabouts of [House] Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi,” Espaillat said forcefully, turning to face both sides of the chamber. “Ultimately, we need to have the truth. And if we want unity in this body, we need the truth. If we want unity in America, we need the truth. That is what will unite us.”
The hour of testimony on the House floor, which also included accounts from Reps. Peter Welch (Vt.) and Cori Bush (Mo.), was in a sense a more formal extension of an Instagram Live session that Ocasio-Cortez did Tuesday, in which she took to the platform to share just how the events of Jan. 6 had shaken her and compounded other traumas.
Pelosi has encouraged lawmakers to write personal essays and to take advantage of post-traumatic counseling sessions to process what they endured on Jan. 6.
“I was thinking, the human person is built for survival,” Pelosi told The Washington Post’s Paul Kane of one of the sessions made available to lawmakers. “You know, we just are. But how do we come back? Not to ignore the seriousness of the situation, but to recognize that, to heal, you have to have some justice. You just really have to have justice. You cannot heal without it.”