America’s Painful Imperfection and its Inspiring Potential

Why the attack on the Capitol made me angry, but reminded me of our nation’s great hope.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Washington DC is a particularly cynical place and I’ve become numb to four-plus years of the Trump regime’s theatrics and tantrums. So my visceral reaction to images of Trump cultists mobbing the United States Capitol caught me off-guard last week. While watching such familiar corridors ransacked by group of delusional white nationalists, I was filled with anger and sadness. A week or so later, I am reminded of hope.

For more than two years, while working for Senator Harry Reid, I walked the halls of the U.S Capitol almost every day. As an intern, I gave dozens of tours of the historic building to Nevadans visiting DC on planned vacations, and I put real effort into ensuring their experience was memorable and meaningful. Giving tours was a duty that most interns loathed — I guess they prefer the joys of data entry and running errands — but I loved it. I loved reading about the history of the Capitol, the art that adorns the walls, the humans who have occupied its chambers, and details that went into its construction and design.

So seeing the familiar and nostalgic, enveloped in disgraceful absurdity and cowardly violence, struck a dormant nerve in me. The irony of one disheveled Trump lackey, standing on a staircase that leads down to the Senate chamber, waving a red Trump flag in front of a massive painting by William Powell, Battle of Lake Erie, was particularly thick. This painting commemorates one of the largest naval battles during the War of 1812 (the last time conflict led to an insurrections invading the US Capitol) when US naval forces reclaimed Lake Erie and Detroit from the British. Oliver Hazard Perry is depicted in the painting leading the US Navy into battle. He is remembered for his message to President William Henry Harrison (serving as a General at the time), writing about about the victory, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

In 2021, they most certainly are. The enemy is our own. Home grown and home spun across social media platforms that monetize their fear. Radicalized, deceived, and whipped into a frenzy by our own sitting President.

But my resentment was not just a result of the white nationalism parading and grinning through a space that I have grown to have reverence for. The anger surfaced most quickly because of the people who were being victimized within those walls. Individuals who were being terrorized while trying to live normal lives and do their jobs across Capitol Hill. Journalists and photographers. Parliamentarians and congressional staffers. Medical and banking staff.

But more poignantly, the overworked and underpaid custodial workers, and cafeteria workers, and the furniture movers. The people sorting mail, cleaning the windows, vacuuming the floors, and preparing food. Service workers — largely unseen and unappreciated — who are typically from the surrounding Black and brown neighborhoods in DC.

Capitol Hill is very much a unique place in the world. Each day, a cross section of Americans from every corner of the country, congregate in one place. It is a microcosm of America. And it is a microcosm for one of America lasting trends: Black and brown people, immigrants, doing the heavy lifting that keeps the privileged and comfortable delusional in their own self-importance.

There are many people who trudge those hallways of American power who take notice, develop real friendships, and show gratitude to those marginalized workers who help keep our government humming, but there are plenty who do not. There are many who take them for granted, pay them little respect, or worse, look down on them as less-than and undeserving. The dichotomy between these two worlds is as apparent as it is stark. And rest assured, the arrogant and aloof on Capitol Hill are spread out across the political spectrum.

So on the day of the attack, we bore witnessed to a mob of phony-patriots, professing a victim status, while they were terrorizing real victims of America’s deeply rooted racist and oppressive power structure. Forcing hard working people to shelter in place while they cos-played through the halls of a place I consider sacred — expecting no lasting consequence for their treachery. It was a pinnacle of privilege and ignorance. It was instigated and abetted by craven Republican politicians, some of whom know better, alongside some who stopped pretending to be guided by any principles other than self-service after Donald Trump became their pimp — seeking to carve out their own little micro-kingdom of deplorables.

Even though I reacted on Twitter with snark — because snark is the language of Twitter — it made we want to weep.

The US Capitol is full of contradiction and hypocrisy just like America and America’s history are full of contradiction and hypocrisy. It houses the legacy of Lincoln and the Reconstruction, but also segregationists like George Wallace and Jim Crow legislation. The same granite steps leading up to the Capitol have been walked both Shirley Chisholm and Joseph McCarthy. Robert Kennedy and Strom Thurmond. Barack Obama and Ted Cruz.

But the reason I (and others) get a bit romantic about the place, despite the hypocrisy, is because very shortly, the Rev. Raphael Warnock will occupy the same seat in the US Senate as a man named Herman Talmadge. Talmadge was a staunch segregationist who served in the Senate during my lifetime. He was a man who would have demanded Warnock’s 82 year old mother pass a reading test before being allowed to vote. And he once ordered the closing of Georgia’s public schools rather than allowing them to desegregate. Warnock will also hold the same seat of American political power as a man named Walter F. George (Talmadge’s predecessor), who not only signed the Southern Manifesto in March of 1956, but held the ceremonial signing in his personal office inside the Capitol with 18 of his fellow US Senators. Seeking to overturn Brown v. Board of Education, signers of this manifesto declared that the integration of southern schools was:

“…destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through 90 years of patient effort by the good people of both races. It has planted hatred and suspicion where there has been heretofore friendship and understanding.”

Just in case you thought the rhetorical racist gaslighting by America’s legislators was a new tactic.

So yes, the US Capitol is both a symbol of American imperfection and guilt, but, as Warnock’s story and countless others demonstrate, it is also a symbol of American progress and potential.

What Shirley Chisholm said in 1968 is as relevant then as it is now:

Our society is not yet either just or free…But that is no reason to allow prejudice to continue to be enshrined in our laws — to perpetuate injustice through inaction.

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