“An Incredible Breach of Planning and Response”: Feminists Discuss the Insurrection at the Capitol

On The Issues: Feminists Discuss the Insurrection at the Capitol
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Last week, many around the world watched, slack-jawed, as the U.S. Capitol—seemingly one of those most impenetrable buildings in the country—was overtaken by an insurrection, waged at the behest of the president, with the goal of overthrowing the will of U.S. voters. The scene has left many of us reeling.

As we struggle to make sense of how and why this could have happened and we watch Congress take swift action to condemn these acts, the “On the Issues” team has been fielding questions from listeners.

What does the Jan. 6 riot and insurrection at the U.S. Capitol signify for our nation?

How and why could this have happened?

Will the president be impeached? 

How are feminists and frontline activists supposed to process all this?

To begin to answer these questions and make sense of these unprecedented times, Dr. Michele Goodwin led listeners this week in a frank, honest conversation, where she laid out the facts against the president and the domestic terrorism performed in his name.

Then, she sat down with Jennifer Steinhauer, a New York Times journalist for more than 30 years, as well as Dr. Patricia Jones Blessman, a distinguished psychologist and mental health advocate.

Listen to the conversation here:

Or read it below.

Michele Goodwin:

On January 2, 2021, during an hour-long conference call, U.S. President Donald Trump pressured the Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to overturn the state’s election results in the 2020 presidential election, claiming miscounts, fraud, broken machines and more.

Donald Trump:

“Fellas, I need 11,000 votes. Give me a break.” 

Michele Goodwin:

Now this is after the president made 18 attempts to speak with Raffensperger after the November election. 

Donald Trump:

“I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have, because we won the state.”

Michele Goodwin:

Despite the president’s hour-long attempt urging Raffensperger, a Republican, to toss valid votes, the Georgia secretary of state did not cave. He refused to buckle to the president’s urgings. Instead, Raffensperger taped the call. 

Brad Raffensperger:

“I just prefer not to talk to someone when we’re in litigation. We let the lawyers handle it. The data that he has is just plain wrong.”

Michele Goodwin:

You know, that’s not all. By January 6, all eyes were not only on Georgia, which had just elected its first Black senator to Congress, Raphael Warnock. Dr. Warnock, the pastor of the church where Dr. King presided, and who counted the late Representative John Lewis amongst his congregants, made history. 

Raphael Warnock. (Raphael Warnock / Flickr)

Raphael Warnock:

“82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls, and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator.”

Michele Goodwin:

As well, Georgia also elected one of the youngest persons to ever serve the Senate, Jon Ossoff. Ossoff is also Jewish, and this has significance in Georgia.

Udi Ofer, the deputy national political director and director of the ACLU’s Justice Division tweeted this out. He stated:

“So much symbolism in both Warnock’s election and Ossoff’s election as the first Jewish senator from Georgia, the same state that in 1915, lynched Leo Frank. Frank was heavily involved in Jewish life in Georgia, and he was murdered by an antisemitic mob.” 

Of course, Ofer is also referencing the mob of pro-Trump insurrectionists that stormed the nation’s Capitol brandishing Confederate flags, anti-Semitic sweatshirts and hats, hats emblazoned with the word “Trump” or “Make America Great Again.” There was violence and total chaos.

At one point, chilling audio we hear officers being penned in and one being crushed.

In real time, people around the world heard all of that. Americans watched as the president urged an eager and hyped up crowd that they have to be strong, just before the riot. Take a listen. 

Donald Trump:

We’re gonna walk down to the Capitol. And we’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women. And we’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them. Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong. 

Michele Goodwin:

The world watched as an insurrection took place at the nation’s capital. Insurrectionists stormed the Capitol and rioted. They interrupted the Electoral College vote.

One woman, Elizabeth, said that she was from Tennessee and that she was there to participate in the revolution.

Reporter (Hunter Walker):

What happened to you?

Elizabeth, Rioter:

I got maced.


And what happened? You were trying to go inside the Capitol?

Elizabeth, Rioter:

Yeah, I made it like a foot inside and they pushed me and they maced me.


What’s your name? Where you from?

Elizabeth, Rioter:

My name is Elizabeth. I’m from Knoxville, Tennessee. 


Why did you want to go in?

Elizabeth, Rioter:

We’re storming the Capitol; it’s a revolution.


Thank you. 

Michele Goodwin:

Another woman, Texas real estate broker Jenna Ryan, posed next to a smashed, broken-out window at the Capitol and tweeted: “We just stormed the Capitol. It was one of the best days of my life.”

She told the New York Post, “This is a prelude to going to war.” She flew to Washington D.C. on a private jet. On livestream she said, “God wanted us here today. Trump is my president.” 

Jenna Ryan is right. Donald Trump is not only her president. He’s the president of United States. And this has many people around the world worried—and people throughout the United States. Members of his Cabinet have left, distancing themselves from the president in the wake of the riots, including close allies like Matthew Pottinger, Trump’s national security adviser; and Mick Mulvaney, Mr. Trump’s former acting chief of staff. He resigned as special envoy to Northern Ireland, noting he couldn’t stay in the administration, that has actually only days left, after watching the president provoke a mob that overtook the Capitol complex. 

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a billionaire Republican donor, wrote in her resignation letter, “There is no mistaking the impact your rhetoric had on the situation. And it is the inflection point for me.”

Elaine Chao, the Department of Transportation secretary announced her resignation on Twitter. She became the first Cabinet member to do so, she wrote that the riots deeply troubled her, and that she could not set it aside. So, she was the first amongst the Cabinet members to flee—and the list is growing

But who could actually set any of this aside, when the rioters made clear what their aims were? Here’s Jenny Cudd who describes what she and others did to Speaker Pelosi’s office. 

Jenny Cudd:

Vandalize anything. That we did. We did, as I say that. We did break down Nancy Pelosi’s office door and somebody stole her gavel and took a picture sitting in the chair flipping off the camera and that was on Fox News. Patriots got down on the floor. And were sitting in the House members’ and the senators’ chairs.

Michele Goodwin:

Now, at least five people are dead, linked to the attack on the United States government.

The first person to die: a woman who was shot in the abdomen and later died as a result of this insurrection. In the day before leading to the insurrection, a Twitter account bearing her name warned, “Nothing will stop us. They can try and try and try but the storm is here and it’s descending upon D.C. in less than 24 hours. Dark to light!”

Insurrectionists scaled walls, broke into and vandalized offices, ransacked the halls. There was an armed standoff. Not since August 4, 1812, a battle with the British, has the United States Capitol been breached.

Members of Congress desperately scrambled for cover. They barred doors, they took cover under tables and desks, wherever they could find places to hide from the raging mob that had already smashed and climbed through windows. Chilling images of security, pointing guns at the doors in the halls of Congress, fearing perhaps for their lives and the people that they were protecting, will forever be reflected about this time in our history. 

One person stole the podium used by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House; he smiled for a photo. He’s since been identified by the Bradenton Herald as 36-year-old Adam Johnson, a father of five. He’s been arrested—but not on the day of the riot, which raises other important issues about race and policing, and a tale, in some ways, of two very different cities, countries. Tale of two different Washington D.C.s, compared to the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of Breonna Taylor’s murder and that of George Floyd, compared to white supremacists storming the Capitol. 

So we wanted to know how Americans were processing the horrors of the insurrection, including acknowledging that double standard that we saw unfold in terms of policing in the United States.

What were Black people thinking about that? What were we all thinking about that? So we called up a friend of our show, Dr. Patricia Jones Blessman—she’s a noted psychologist who’s worked on high-profile cases. 

Patricia Jones Blessman:

Hello, Michele.

Michele Goodwin:

Hello there. So I’m calling—you know that I have a show, “On the Issues.” And you’ve been a guest on the show. And I’m calling you because of the events of this week, the riots, the insurrection. As one of the leading psychologists who’s focused on issues of trauma, how are you processing this? And how do you think that people should be processing where we are right now?

Patricia Jones Blessman:

Girl, this was cray-cray.

Michele Goodwin:

This is exactly what we’ve seen, being delivered in video footage that has been filmed by the people themselves, who ride in and stormed the Capitol. But really, what does this mean—people came into 2021, thinking about hope. There was the Georgia election and on the very day of the Georgia election, there were people who are breaking the windows of the Capitol building. This is a building that has been safe since 1812.

Patricia Jones Blessman:

We should not have been surprised on some level, because it was the end. They have been broadcasting their intent for weeks before months before this even occurred.

Michele Goodwin:

I’m wondering what your sense is of the Capitol Police, who you know, there’s video of Capitol Police being barricaded and an officer being crushed. And then there’s also footage of officers taking selfies, opening up the barricades and not resisting, not arresting the people who came through.

Thinking about race and what that means in terms of mental health, how do you think that Black people are processing that?

Patricia Jones Blessman:

I know that it is difficult and challenging, because I know some I have a lot of friends who are activists, frontline activists around social justice. And in fact, who had been in D.C.

One of my dearest friends was in D.C., got arrested, she talked about being called thugs, being called the n-word, shoved to the ground, she’s a woman. Shoved to the ground, that kind of thing, by the same police—arrested, fined, the whole nine yards, and then to watch. And they were peacefully protesting. 

And so it is a particularly bitter pill for the activists, and those in the Black community to watch another group with fair complexions get invited to protest, to tear up.

And that’s, you know, it’s very disheartening to be in a country where it was very clear that you don’t, you don’t get the same, you don’t get any respect. The ability to share your voice is not even recognized, and in fact, will be violently snuffed out, if they can, by the authorities to be.

But it also says too that white supremacy on some level is backed up and supported by police departments. 

Michele Goodwin;

All the while, the rioters took photos, selfies with Capitol Police, and video recorded themselves. But there are very few arrests on the day of the actual riots, certainly compared to the number of people who were riding in on cameras storming the Capitol.

So why were they at the Capitol? Who were they?

A lawyer amongst a group, Paul Davis, a former associate general counsel and director of human resources at Goosehead Insurance—he’s since been fired—explained in a video why he participated.

Paul Davis:

The fact that they will not let us inspect any of the ballots or the machines should tell you something and we’re all trying to get into the Capitol to stop this. And this is what’s happening. 

Michele Goodwin: 

So what does this insurrection mean for the United States? Will there be an impeachment? What message will it send? Here’s what Jennifer Steinhauer, a New York Times journalist, shared with me on this point. 

She spent more than 25 years covering Congress, and is the author of the book, The Firsts: the Inside Story of the Women Reshaping Congress. Really happy to have her on the show today.

Given the events that unfolded on January the sixth, what many are calling not only mob rioting at the nation’s capital, but direct actions of sedition and insurrection and attempted coup—what are your thoughts about that?

Jennifer Steinhauer:

Well, for me, as a reporter who has been covering Washington since 2010, I started covering Congress right when the Tea Party wave was going on. And the first class that was kind of a result of that were the Republicans’ 87 freshmen who took over the House, who helped Republicans take over the House in 2011. And that was, you know, as I said, that was a result of the Tea Party movement. 

And since that time period, we have seen the populist, and quite frankly, nationalist and more racist elements of the party instincts and its base grow and become more vocal. And the party moved from this sort of Tea Party fiscal movement, and morphing into eventually what will become Trumpism. And so while I was, as someone who’s covered the Capitol, shocked to see it desecrated like that. It’s a place that’s extremely secure. As a reporter, I’ve been detained for having expired press pass for an hour. I was amazed to see that security breach; I’m still baffled as to how it happened. 

But I’m not surprised by the supporters of President Trump, who he basically egged on to do that. I was shocked at the outcome. I wasn’t surprised by that provocation. And I wasn’t surprised by their move to do so. 

Michele Goodwin:

So let’s unpack that a little bit with the first part that you speak to, which is that you’ve been detained. We know in 2017, there were more than 40 individuals with disabilities that were arrested and even dragged out of the very buildings that were being photographed yesterday, and those were individuals who were at the nation’s capitol advocating peacefully for greater expansion of Medicaid and health services for individuals with disabilities. And yet they were forcefully removed. And yesterday, we didn’t see that.

So tell us about why you think that was. What’s behind that? 

Jennifer Steinhauer:

I mean, I’m telling you in honesty that it’s so hard for me to fathom, because as I said, I walk into the Capitol every day for years. And I still go there quite frequently. And I have a pair of boots with the buckles that sets off the metal detector, you know, I have to stop and be annoyed. That’s just part of the process. 

If you look at the video, what you see is that the Capitol Police were clearly overwhelmed. You see long videos of them arguing with protesters, with these people who were starting to take off their jackets and push through the barricades. But you know, what’s interesting to me is they were not in riot gear, they had no backup, which suggests lack of planning. And they certainly didn’t use any of the non lethal force that they’ve used on, for example, Black Lives Matter protesters, not the Capitol Police, but other law enforcement officials. No pepper spray, none of that kind of deterrence that you might see when a mob is coming up to to essentially take over the United States Capitol. So it was an incredible breach of planning and response. 

And then I’m going to add a little another element there, which is that lawmakers and the mayor of D.C. Muriel Bowser really wanted National Guard backup quickly and called for that. But the Pentagon was loath to respond immediately because they did not want a repeat of what happened in Lafayette Square over the summer when you know, protesters, as I just mentioned, were pepper sprayed and worse to make way for President Trump to make his way through the crowd to go to that church. 

Michele Goodwin:

But two very different things, though, right? Between what the the people who are responding to the murder of George Floyd, that very brutal murder, which some people are calling a lynching on the streets of Minneapolis and people being pepper sprayed in Washington, D.C., because the president wanted a photo opportunity versus what it was that we saw yesterday.

What do you see as the difference there? Are those rationales alike, do they both hold up? 

Jennifer Steinhauer:

Well, that rationale holds up in the sense that there was so much criticism and I do believe members of the military, particularly General Mark Milley, were very chastened by that. He actually had to apologize for walking through Lafayette Square with the president.

So I think they didn’t want to create the impression of some military takeover, especially since everyone’s been very concerned that Trump was going to try to leverage the military somehow, in refusing to leave office and so forth. So the sensitivities were very heightened. And I do understand that. 

Having said that, that still does not answer the question that you, me, everyone has which is: Why weren’t there better law enforcement tactics? Why weren’t they employed, the second that those barricades went down, and it was clear that they had every intention of coming into the Capitol illegally, and to cause destruction?

And I think that I think it was impossible to imagine, as you and I are sitting here talking, that people aren’t being fired or preparing to be fired over this. 

Michele Goodwin:

That would certainly seem to be the case. As video footage wrapped up the evening, as legislators came back to Congress, one couldn’t help but think that it was such a poignant and somewhat disturbing symbolic image of the United States, and that there were Black workers who were sweeping up the aftermath, and cleaning the halls of our nation’s government, after many white supremacists had destroyed—and they perhaps were not all white supremacists who were there—but we certainly did see the Confederate flag waving forcefully through the halls of America’s government. 

Jennifer Steinhauer:

Yes, mean, that was a shocking sight. And by the way, some people have suggested the Confederate flag has never hung in a Capitol. That’s not accurate, because obviously, the Confederate flag has been part of state flags, which have hung in the Capitol at certain times. And there’s been a great move over the last few years by Nancy Pelosi and others to remove Confederate symbols from the Capitol.

But having said that, having said that, of course, to have an individual striding through the the rotunda carrying a Confederate flag is a haunting image that I don’t think anyone will soon forget. And certainly, Black workers in the Capitol, Black members of Congress, Black staff members, a shocking thing to see. 

I think what is interesting is there was talk of continuing the people’s business, which as you recall, was actually the ratification of President Biden and Kamala Harris’s election results, which was being protested by various members of Congress—Republicans, mostly in the House, some in the Senate.

There was talk of trying to continue that off-site somehow. I think, actually, it was Vice President Pence who thought it was very important to return to the Capitol, and show that the government would not be intimidated and would not fall apart and would not unravel in the face of all this insurgency and to go ahead and continue that business, where it was meant to be conducted. 

Michele Goodwin:

Well, it’s interesting to see how vulnerable that process became, and many were reporting yesterday afternoon, thank goodness, of the quick thinking of the person who secured the Electoral College votes. I don’t know exactly where she took them. But there were photographs, thank goodness.

Jennifer Steinhauer:

And to a secure location and those kind of old fashioned wooden boxes, which to me when I saw those images as well, and the fact that women were carrying them, somehow evoked this whole sort of historical significance of that moment in the context of Congress, the role of women in Congress and so forth. And just the fact that they were these old fashioned—they almost look like sewing boxes.

It really just reminds you of both the historic nature of that building, that institution, its role, obviously, in our government, the actual material culture of that building. There’s even like little dial-up phones in the elevators still. And yet conflicting with this, in some ways, historically resonant but completely contemporary, political, shameful movement that had occurred all around it. It was really a striking image. I agree.

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Roxanne Szal (or Roxy) is the managing digital editor at Ms. and a producer on the Ms. podcast On the Issues With Michele Goodwin. She is also a mentor editor for The OpEd Project. Before becoming a journalist, she was a Texas public school English teacher. She is based in Austin, Texas. Find her on Twitter @roxyszal.