There’s always work to do in the aftermath of an insurrection. There are the big things like restoring democracy, taking stock of widespread security failures, and holding those responsible to account. But there is also the mundane work: the cleaning. Someone must sweep the shattered glass, pick up the fallen bookshelves, and replace the broken furniture. Someone must make things as they were before. And this week, the support staff of the U.S. Capitol has done just that.
After long, tense hours of violent insurrection against the nation’s central seat of government, the Capitol’s own essential workers began cleaning the ornate halls near the recently evacuated Senate chambers. Flanked by stately paintings of Henry Clay and John Calhoun, and standing on an intricately detailed floor that doubtless carries its own fascinating history, two workers donned white bodysuits and gas masks — vacuum attachments in tow — to make sure that no speck of dirt escaped their notice.
Of the many images that came out of the events of that terrifying day and long night, this is one of the most striking — a small, practical attempt to return to the tenuous sense of normalcy that had preceded it. Other images were newsier, stickier — more terrifying, sure. It’s hard to argue against the sheer symbolic power of a massive Confederate flag being marched into the Capitol. But when the dust settled and the whole treasonous business was done, it was the support staff who were left behind to clean up the mess so that American democracy could continue apace. They had no choice in the matter. They continued to serve.
The United States is often described as the world’s greatest democracy. “It is an awesome project in collaboration and freedom,” they said. “Our Constitution is the greatest legal document in the world,” they said, “because it guarantees rights and freedom for all.” It’s always the freedom. But the events of this week beg the question “Freedom for whom?”
Who is free in a country where a violent, organized militia breaches the security of the nation’s seat of government, is goaded on by its president, aided by the police, and sees little to no consequences?
It is telling that the men and women who took the Capitol did not wear masks or hide from cameras. They gleefully plastered their crimes all over the internet and left evidence that they had been there. They defiled the very seat of power that all their wistful American myths hold in such reverence. And they did it because they knew something that certain people, Black people especially, have always known: This land was made for them. This country was never intended to be fair or equitable. It was intended to be a utopia of their own making. And if this American Dream did not materialize of its own accord, then they felt within their rights to make it so.
And as the ashes of this republic smolder on, it is still the most disenfranchised of us who are forced to keep the wheels turning and the engine running. It is the uniquely vulnerable “essential workers” who will be asked to risk their health and those of their families to make sure that our leaders can gesture at a civility that is never extended to them. It is the Black women voters who flipped red states blue who will be assigned more labor so that they may “save the soul of the nation,” ever the mule to white apathy. It is the Capitol food-service workers who continued to work even as their workplace was under siege. It is the Black and brown prisoners, who have been disproportionately incarcerated, who will likely be forced to risk their lives and further expose themselves to COVID-19 in order to return the Capitol to the lavish air of veneration it has always enjoyed. It is the very people who have built and rebuilt this country who will be called on to forgive and heal and move on, with no promise of a better day. And when the news cycles have moved on, there will still be Black and brown men and women cleaning up the messes left behind by the violence of white supremacy.
It’s the American way.