On Tuesday morning, I turned on the TV. That afternoon I was supposed to fly home from Denver, where I had been touring colleges with my eldest son. I had almost completely forgotten that the first day of the January 6 Insurrection Select Committee testimony was taking place. I was packing and not completely focused on watching the hearings and then a few minutes later I found myself standing in front of the television crying.
It’s been more than six months since the January 6 attacks on the Capitol, and during that time Republicans have worked incredibly hard to avoid having public hearings about just what happened that day in the United States Capitol. In May, Senate Republicans blocked a bipartisan independent inquiry to investigate the attacks. "It's not at all clear what new facts or additional investigation yet another commission could lay on top of the existing efforts by law enforcement and Congress," Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell said at the time.
But the existence of other investigations isn’t why Mitch didn’t want the hearings. Mitch didn’t want the hearings because he knew that four cops talking about Trump supporters beating them up might be bad optics, and it turned out he was right. After all, Republicans have had some experience with hearings that have made the other side look bad. Who could forget the Benghazi hearings, where Hillary Clinton testified for 11 hours about the death of four Americans when she was secretary of state.
Last week it looked as if house minority leader Kevin McCarthy had managed to blow up the change for a bipartisan commission by putting Jim Jordan and Jim Banks—both of whom had pushed to overturn the presidential election results—on the Select Committee. Nancy Pelosi rejected the two profoundly unserious congressmen. Some pundits saw this as a win for the GOP; after all, now Democrats couldn’t say the investigation was bipartisan. As it turned out, there were a few members of the GOP who actually did want to find out the truth: Pelosi was able to put both Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger on her select committee.
That said, I was still expecting the hearing to be similar to the Trump impeachment hearings—powerful but partisan. I don’t think I realized just how moving and disturbing the testimony was going to be. Tuesday's hearings cut through the noise in a way that must have been truly terrifying for the Republicans who have hitched their wagons so completely to Trump. On Tuesday it became clear why McCarthy and McConnell had been so obsessed with preventing these hearings from taking place at all.
The four officers who testified spoke about being beaten and bloodied by the Trump supporters, about gasping for breath, about watching a rioter bring a Confederate flag into the halls of the Capitol—an act that was forbidden even during the Civil War. And the revolting racial underpinnings of this insurrection came fully into focus when the one Black officer who testified, Officer Harry A. Dunn, described his experience with the rioters:
A torrent of racial epithets. One woman in a pink “MAGA” shirt yelled,
“You hear that, guys, this nigger voted for Joe Biden!” Then the crowd, perhaps around twenty people, joined in, screaming “Boo! Fucking Nigger!”
No one had ever—ever—called me a “nigger” while wearing the uniform of a Capitol
Police officer. In the days following the attempted insurrection, other black officers shared with me their own stories of racial abuse on January 6. One officer told me he had never, in his entire forty years of life, been called a “nigger” to his face, and that that streak ended on January 6. Yet another black officer later told he had been confronted by insurrectionists inside the Capitol, who told him to “Put your gun down and we’ll show you what kind of nigger you really are!”
Officer Daniel Hodges described the rioters as terrorists, whose messaging may have been confused, but whose violence was brutal and direct: “To my perpetual confusion, I saw the thin-blue-line flag — the symbol of support for law enforcement — more than once being carried by the terrorists as they ignored our commands and continued to assault us.”
Perhaps the most concrete proof of the importance of the hearings came from House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy, who told CNN’s Melanie Zanona that he was unable to watch the hearings because he was stuck in “back to back meetings.” This kind of “I didn’t see the tweet” denial is only used by Republicans when the truth is just too damning to entertain.
America is so profoundly siloed right now, it’s hard to know if this testimony will permeate the membrane. Certainly, a portion of the population is so profoundly indoctrinated into Trumpism that they are unreachable. But for the rest, for the people who are just conservatives or perhaps disaffected Democrats, perhaps those people will hear some of the testimony and realize that there’s only one way forward for American democracy and it's through.
Flying home I thought about the testimony of those officers, I thought about Sgt. Aquilino Gonell saying he “was more afraid to work at the Capitol than during my entire Army deployment to Iraq.” I looked over at my seventeen year old and I thought about the broken polarized country he was inheriting. As we landed in New York the sky was still smoky from the fires in the west. It's hard to look at this next generation and not worry that we’re too late. But we have to believe that we can change things, salvage things, get things right.