The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

One year later, the trauma of the Jan. 6 insurrection haunts federal employees

U.S. Capitol workers and other federal employees are dealing with trauma a year after the insurrection. (John Minchillo/AP)
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A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Bertha Alisia Guerrero worked in the Cannon House Office Building. She worked in the Longworth House Office Building.

More than a year later, Bertha Alisia Guerrero’s psychological pain remains raw.

When the Capitol Hill staffer recalls the Jan. 6 insurrection, the distress in her voice and the tears in her eyes expose a deep emotional injury that hasn’t healed.

“Part of me feels wounded. I’m sad,” she said Thursday, her voice breaking, on the first anniversary of the U.S. Capitol attack by rioters who refused to accept that Donald Trump is a loser.

But while they did not stop congressional certification of the former president’s election defeat, their attack on democracy eroded a sense of safety and security on the Hill, especially among Black employees. A number of staffers have resigned because of insurrection-related stress.

Capitol workers quit jobs that once made them proud after attack

To support workers on the Hill, two dozen civic organizations formed Capitol Strong, a coalition designed to support Congress and its people, the week after the riot. “We understand that for many the attack felt deeply personal, particularly for staffers of color,” says a coalition statement. The coalition includes the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, which is conducting an oral history project about Jan. 6 with Hill employees so their stories will not be lost.

“I know for me and for many of my colleagues, the trauma of that day still lingers,” said Guerrero, chief of staff to Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.). “The trauma comes at you like waves. It’s not always present. But I’ve seen little things just kind of trigger strong feelings and emotions.”

With the rest of the staff teleworking because of the coronavirus pandemic, Guerrero was the only one in Gomez’s Longworth House Office Building suite, just across the street from the Capitol, during the attack. She locked the doors and turned off the lights to make it appear that the office was empty. Then she got a pair of scissors in case she needed to fight for her life.

“I felt very alone and very scared,” she said.

She is not alone in suffering from chronic trauma. It’s a trauma that a clinical psychologist, who also is a former member of Congress, said is “far worse” than the lingering emotions generated by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Brian Baird, a Washington state Democrat who served in the House from 1999 to 2011, said he could see the Pentagon explode that day from his congressional office. He held workshops for staffers after the terrorist attacks and following the insurrection.

After 9/11, “everybody pulled together. The threat was external. The response was unity,” he said. “All of that flipped on Jan. 6.”

Jan. 6 certainly was not worse than 9/11 in terms of lives and property lost, but it was more difficult emotionally, according to Baird: “The threat was internal … you were being attacked by your fellow Americans. And the leaders of the threat were the president of the United States of America and members of the United States Congress … the terrorists and … their leadership were domestic.”

Then, adding to the psychological distress, congressional staffers continue to work with and be respectful to Republican lawmakers who, Baird said, “may have egged on people who threatened your life or that of your peers.”

Trumpism and Jan. 6 apologists remain strong. For Hill staffers and other feds, the feeling of being under attack began under Trump well before Jan. 6, and continues.

“The threats against Congress have grown exponentially over the last five years,” U.S. Capitol Police Chief Thomas Manger told my Washington Post colleague Tom Jackman this month.

All this has eroded the sense of security on the generally well-protected Hill.

The domestic attackers also fed on racism, as demonstrated by the Confederate flags carried and the n-word slung at an African American police officer as the mob overran the Capitol.

“As a Black woman who survived the insurrection, I feel an even heavier burden in the healing process because of the racial undertones that exacerbated the traumas of that day,” Kwentoria Williams, who formerly worked in the Rayburn House Office Building, said in an email. “Things I once ignored and wrote off as ignorance now trigger me. Rebel flags, swastikas, MAGA paraphernalia.”

A few weeks after the attack on the Capitol, “I had a meltdown at a clothing store because there was a power outage and I felt trapped,” recalled Williams. “Palms sweaty and tears starting to well in my eyes, I started to hyperventilate. The fear that any unexpected change in my environment is a sign of imminent danger started on the 6th. I underestimated how bad that day would be. I couldn’t make that mistake again.”

She explained her decision to resign her congressional gig in a September blog post: “I just couldn’t shake the trauma of January 6th, and I needed … an environment that wasn’t a constant reminder of that day.”

More than 100 Capitol Police officers also are among the Hill workers who have left their jobs since the insurrection, The Post reported this month.

Unlike elected lawmakers or even the Capitol Police, most Hill staffers “don’t get much attention or support,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, one of the organizations in the Capitol Strong coalition. “And I don’t think we’ve adequately recognized the harm that was done to them, that their very core notions of safety, both physical and psychological, were upended.”

It’s not just Hill employees like Guerrero and Williams who are dealing with lingering trauma. Federal agency employees took Trump’s 2016 campaign pledge to “drain the swamp” personally, and that feeds their apprehension about what his followers could still do.

Marlo Bryant-Cunningham, president of the American Federation of Government Employees unit at the Office of Personnel Management, said most of her members “are people of color, and they are very afraid” that an attack could happen again. “We basically feel like we have a target on our back.”

Since the attack on the Capitol last year, she has received a record number of requests for counseling through the Employee Assistance Program, she said, “specifically because of the insurrection.”

And it is not just federal employees who feel under siege. Local public health officials have been run out of office over pandemic restrictions. School board members have been threatened over nonexistent critical race theory curriculums.

“This is about collective paranoid madness,” Baird said. “And it is dangerous, profoundly dangerous.”