Jan. 6 Is Not What My Democracy Looks Like

As the hearings draw to a close, we see the foundation of who we are as Americans is stronger stuff than any Jan. 6 could ever be.

Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Roberto Schmidt / AFP via Getty Images)

The last time I looked over the House floor, I was there to say goodbye to a friend. In her last week of work in Congress, we’d gone up to the public gallery to marvel not just at the floor—the silver-haired folks huddling heads, the staffers like us moving rapidly, all efficiency and determination in dark suits and sharp shoes—the ever-present thrum of the people’s business. No, we’d come to marvel at our chance to be there at all. 

What were the odds that two young brown women, one an immigrant and the other the child of immigrants, from families who’d made their own way, would’ve actually gotten to sit on that floor as two counsels of the U.S. House of Representatives? To help write the laws of the nation, envisioning a democracy with space for each of us? 

We’d come to the floor to look once more at our American dream.

And it turns out that that dream, our dream of an America where there was space for all of us, was a nightmare for people who, like my friend and me, also made history on that floor. Where we had helped develop H.R. 1, the most sweeping democracy reform bill since Watergate—passed on that very floor—they made history by walking the Confederate flag through the halls of the U.S. Capitol, for the first time ever. For using our stars and stripes to smash in the building’s beautiful glass windowpanes. 

(Elizabeth Hira)

These historic Jan. 6 hearings have given us the details of the riot, the crush of white supremacists and armed paramilitary, the hypocrisy of some members, and the sheer, snarling hatred of some citizens on display. I’m grateful for all the work the hearings have done, and the justice they may yet bring.

But as I watched this violence unfurl, unfathomable, from the safety of my living room TV on Jan. 6, I was looking at my workplace. Imagine yourself witnessing your office, your everyday halls, become a site of domestic terror.

So here are details you may not have heard in these proceedings, about the human impact. If today’s hearing may be the committee’s last, as some suspect it will be, these are the added details I wish were in the public record:

That the Capitol Police those people sought to hurt were the same men and women who would greet me, every morning, on my walk through the security gates. When I hear the tape of their voices, sounding stricken under fire, I think on how my favorite officer would tease me for always causing him trouble, bringing in my fresh flowers to pretty up my desk even as they shed petals all over his metal detectors. That a dear friend, one of the strongest men I know, was on the floor that day, and in a quiet moment told me he still flinches, physically, at loud sounds.    

For me, the terror of that afternoon was logistical. Knowing I had friends with babies at the House daycare, praying they could get them out safely and in time before God knows what might happen next. Watching in awe as my mother, who lived through civil unrest in our own little Caribbean nation, went effortlessly into administrative mode: Text our address to these friends to start driving to our house in suburban Maryland to shelter in place if needed. That we had room at home for dozens. That we could rig up a crib, no problem, for that staffer friend with his toddling new son. Because no one knew how long this would go on. If our country would survive it. 

Like many, we struggled to make sense in the immediate aftermath. One of the most striking images that night was a photo of Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.), kneeling on the floor with a trash bag, in his suit, sweeping up the shards of that day. Because that is what people like Andy’s family and my family and so many families all across America do after crisis moments like this. We pick up the pieces. We help rebuild.

And I felt a moment of resonance, thinking back to the first time I ever laid eyes on Andy Kim in person. As an elections counsel, the morning after Election Day, with votes still being counted, my trusted Republican counterpart and I were sent up by the U.S. House to a tiny town in New Jersey, just to go keep an eye on the final election results in Kim’s New Jersey district. The results were razor-close because so many showed up to exercise that sacred obligation and privilege we have—to vote. 

And, still in Jersey, I remember the night Kim’s victory was announced. After a quiet day spent observing the tireless election workers at their tables, I headed over to victory headquarters. There were so many people who came to that otherwise unremarkable ground floor office space that you couldn’t even see everybody. The room was packed to overflow, and people were lining the halls, all waving these tiny American flags. Simply elated.

Of course, I hadn’t voted for Andy Kim. I’m not a New Jersey voter, and I didn’t know him. But for me, as an attorney of the United States government, the triumph of that night wasn’t for a candidate; it was watching families bring their kids, it was watching people who showed up because they knew in their bones this was their democracy. In this tiny New Jersey town, like in so many small towns and big cities all across America, what was being celebrated was that when we participate it matters. And we show up, together, because the country we all believe in matters. 

I wish I could hold them by the hand and look them in the eye, just to explain to them that my America is their America too, and it has space to embrace all of us.

So, I guess, like Andy Kim, today I’m still in some version of picking up the pieces. I watched the hearings not necessarily because I’m looking for accountability, or a governmental sanction against the people, big and small, who facilitated this horrible moment. Of course those matter.

But I watched simply because I would like to have it acknowledged, witnessed, that Jan. 6 is not what my democracy looks like. Jan. 6 was a day for people who fundamentally do not believe in the American dream. And I do not have it in my heart to hate those people. Instead, I wish I could hold them by the hand and look them in the eye, just to explain to them that my America is their America too, and it has space to embrace all of us.

The irony of the whole thing is that, for all their faults as slaveholders, the America I think the founding fathers truly envisioned made way for a miracle: Today, right now, we, side by side, white and Black and Latino and Asian and Native alike, men and women and nonbinary alike, straight and queer alike, able and differently abled alike … we have the privilege of getting to build that America together. That is our American inheritance. And that foundation of who we are, truly, as Americans, is stronger stuff than any Jan. 6 could ever be.

So, I hope, if anything, those of us watching today’s proceedings, whether or not they are the last, will wave our flags a little higher. That we will hug our friends and babies a little tighter. But that we will also rest even stronger in our conviction that the America we fight for is real and belongs to everyone. More important than the vitriol and violence of that day is the truth that our America is resilient—still promised to us, if only we’ll come together to achieve it.  

I am eternally grateful for all of those who do the work to protect us from the ugliest of our impulses, and to drive us forward, always, instead, toward the better angels of our nature. And because of them, on this final day of witnessing, I look forward to tomorrow for America. 

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Elizabeth Hira is a social justice attorney and social entrepreneur pursuing large-scale democracy reform that centers equity. Most recently, Hira was a senior policy counsel and Spitzer fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and lead author of the report "Equity for the People: S.1/H.R. 1 and the Fight for an Inclusive Democracy." Previously, Hira served as a lawyer on the Hill, first on then-Senator Kamala Harris’s legislative team, then on the U.S. Committee on House Administration, where she helped to craft the original iteration of H.R. 1 for passage in the 116th Congress.. Hira has consulted for the Center for Reproductive Rights, served on the board of the New York Abortion Access Fund, and wrote and performed a one-woman show, Pursuing Guerrilla Equality: Modern Misadventures of Gender and the Law. Find her on Twitter: @ElizabethHira.