capitol insurrection

‘It Was No Accident’

Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal on surviving the siege.

Capitol Police direct Representative Pramila Jayapal to stand for arrest as she joined demonstrators calling for an end to family detention on Capitol Hill June 28, 2018. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS

On Wednesday, January 6, Pramila Jayapal, a Democratic congresswoman from Washington State, was sitting in the gallery above the House chamber, watching the proceedings to count the Electoral College vote and certify the result of the presidential election, when armed right-wing rioters breached the Capitol Building and began to make their way inside, toward the lawmakers and administrative, custodial, and food-service staff working inside. Jayapal, a longtime immigration activist who worked to negotiate Seattle’s $15 minimum wage before being elected to Washington’s state senate in 2015, then to the U.S. Congress in 2017, heads the House Progressive Caucus. We spoke about Wednesday’s siege, about the particular vulnerability of Black and brown women to violent incursion, and about how her party must now move forward, both in response to the attack and as the governing party moving into a new administration.

Rebecca Traister: What was your experience on Wednesday like?

Pramila Jayapal: There were a number of congresswomen up there in the gallery: Val Demings, Abigail Spanberger, Lisa Blunt Rochester, Sheila Jackson Lee, Terri Sewell … And before anything had really happened — we noticed that there were very few women on the floor.

RT: Why was that?

PJ: The first challenge was going to be the Arizona electoral challenge. And of course the Speaker [Nancy Pelosi] was a woman, and she was presiding, and [California representative] Zoe Lofgren was one of the people managing the proceedings. Almost everyone in the Arizona delegation, and I guess everyone who was seated on the floor who was going to speak, were men.

We all were aware of the danger. Ten days ago, Maxine Waters had raised the issue of our security on a caucus call to the Speaker and asked what the plans would be. And 48 hours before, we had gotten instructions from Capitol police about all the threats: that we had to be on high alert, that we had to get to the Capitol by 9 a.m. before the protesters, that we couldn’t plan on going out, that we should have overnight bags. It was very clear, and everyone understood what the threats were.

As we sat there, my husband texted me, “There’s a big mob of protesters. Are you sure you’re safe there, do you want to come back to the office?” And I said “No, this is the U.S. Capitol Building; the Speaker’s here; this is probably the most secure place to be.”

Then we started getting alerts on our phone that security had been breached. And we began hearing the noises, perhaps even before people on the floor could hear them. We could hear the insurrectionists coming in. Then we saw the Speaker and the leadership being taken off the floor; there was a brief suspension of proceedings, but by then we were seeing all the social-media posts of what was happening outside. And the noise was getting louder and louder.

Before we knew it, everyone on the floor below us had been removed, and … we were still there. And it didn’t look like anyone was coming to get us.

The Capitol police with us seemed very confused about who had the key to the doors. They were closed, but we weren’t sure if they were locked, and we were yelling, “Lock the doors! Lock the doors!” We heard shots being fired, presumably into the chamber.

They told us to take off our masks to put on the gas masks that were under our seats. I just got a knee replaced five weeks ago, and I had a cane. My concern was would I be able to get up and down quickly enough if we needed to get out. Capitol police had barricades up against the doors, and the police were in a half-circle around those barricades with their guns drawn. We were kind of waving and saying, “Hey, how about us? How do we get out of here?” I don’t know how long it was, maybe an hour and a half, until we were finally ushered out and taken down the stairs to a secure location — which was another challenge with my knee. I basically had to hang on to Mikie Sherrill to get down six flights of stairs.

I’m quarantining now because I am convinced that where we ended up, in the secured room — where there were over 100 people and many were Republicans not wearing masks — was a superspreader event.

RT: What was going through your head while you were waiting to go to the secure location?

PJ: My biggest concern was honestly for people’s safety. I think we all understand, but particularly as a woman of color and an immigrant woman of color, what happens when you have white nationalist, armed, violent individuals. The threat is extremely real. I just knew this was going to be terrible and consequential. And that it would not be fixable quickly. I saw the Confederate flags on social media. And I saw them put a Confederate flag on the Capitol. I think for people of color, the rising of the Confederacy in such vivid detail … there was an added sense of what this meant for the country beyond what was happening on that day.

I also felt rage. I mean, I wrote that in my first tweet, and then I thought, Maybe I shouldn’t have said that, because we always are aware of what happens to us as brown or Black women, or women generally, when we talk about our anger. But I felt it towards my Republican colleagues and Donald Trump for leading us down this path.

RT: I can’t tell you what relief it is to hear you expressing rage. I understood the importance of going back to finish the vote — but I was also watching the resumption of work and thinking, Where is the fury?

PJ: That reminds me of my questioning of Bill Barr [in July, about the clearing of Lafayette Square during the George Floyd protests] when I said, “I’m beginning to lose my temper.” That [exchange] was about the discrepancy between how the armed, violent, malicious individuals storming the Michigan State Capitol were treated versus the way Black Lives Matter protesters who were peaceful and protesting the murder of George Floyd were treated. I was just furious with him.

I got so many women in particular tweeting at me, emailing me, Facebook posting about how glad they were that I said I was losing my temper and how important it was for them to hear a woman with some power in Congress say that, and give voice to that, because it validated the rage that people have been feeling across the country.

I got an email from a wealthy, progressive, white male donor who was basically saying, “I don’t think it’s the right path to call for the 25th Amendment and impeachment. In fact, maybe Trump has done us favor with this,” or some language along that line. This is a good person, so I’m not trying to throw shade. But no person of color, no woman of color, certainly, would say anything like that. The lack of awareness of the consequence of what has been happening in this country, and what it means to see a Confederate flag raised and a noose hung … to see the most violent, destructive assault on the Capitol since the War of 1812 … I mean, this is unprecedented. For people to want to say “We want to move on, and we can’t focus on this” completely ignores the depth of the problem and the trauma associated with what we just went through.

They came with guns. They were armed. They were clothed in bulletproof vests; they were shooting towards the chamber in the Capitol. They desecrated the Capitol, broke into offices, the office of the parliamentarian. Had the Electoral College certification votes been there, they would’ve taken them. No question.

Trump supporters and police interact on January 6, 2021. Police fire tear gas at BLM protestors on June 1, 2020. Photo: NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images; AFP via Getty Images.

RT: This all happened within months of the failed plan to kidnap and kill Gretchen Whitmer, and some of the rioters on Wednesday were there with zip-ties.

PJ: Yes. And they had talked about hostages. This was all done in the open! They’ve been planning this in the open, and Donald Trump has been encouraging this in the open for days. Actually, he’s been encouraging it pretty much for his whole presidency.

The lack of security at the Capitol is not an accident. It is very clear to me that there were breaches of our law-enforcement agencies. The fact that there were no barriers, that they were essentially allowed in. And again, the discrepancy of what would have happened if these had been peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters … Believe me, they would not have been anywhere near that building. And there would have been a lot of arrests.

RT: You yourself have had the experience of being arrested within the Capitol complex, right? You were one of 600 people arrested during a protest against the family separation at the Hart Senate Office Building in 2018.

PJ: [Laughs] Yes!

RT: And you were a sitting congresswoman at the time.

JP: Yes, I was. We were all peaceful. There were 500 women singing and refusing to leave. We were warned that if we didn’t, we would be arrested, and we all agreed to be arrested because we wanted to draw attention to the travesty of thousands of children being separated from their parents.

Then there were 250 people arrested during the Kavanaugh hearings. And then, of course, we know what happened during the Black Lives Matter protests and the National Guard being called in. Yet on Wednesday, there were no barricades. The National Guard didn’t show up until very late in the day. And Capitol police essentially allowed protesters to come in. We’re a country that, to my great chagrin, spends $750 billion on the military. And yet we can’t protect our own U.S. Capitol? To me, that’s no accident.

RT: So what does your party need to do, moving forward, in response to what happened?

PJ: I believe we have to reconvene immediately. I was proud of us for going back into the chamber and finishing the job because we had to make sure Joe Biden and Kamala Harris would be the next president and vice-president. But we’re not done. So I’ve called for the vice-president to invoke the 25th Amendment. We’re about to inaugurate a new president in 13 days. How can we be sure that we are secure to do that?

Those insurrectionists got on planes and are laughing all the way back to wherever they came from. Members of Congress ended up on those same planes, and I’ve been hearing reports, from women primarily, of how they were mocked and taunted by these people who see [Wednesday’s events] as a great victory, the fact that they’ve got all these videos of them bashing windows and taking over Pelosi’s desk, with no consequence. So we need to get this president out.

Then there are investigations that need to continue. We have a lot of work to do to address all the crises that face our country: the racial-justice crisis, the economic crisis, and the pandemic. But we have to hold this president and all the people who were part of this accountable, because otherwise what message does it send to the next person who comes in and refuses to have any allegiance to the Constitution?

The other thing that we have to do is an immediate and thorough investigation into the security pieces of this. Why were there pictures of Capitol police taking selfies with these insurrectionists? Videos of barriers being open to let the crowd through? They said, “We were overpowered.” How could that be?

RT: You began by noting your extra awareness of vulnerability as a woman of color. Women, progressive women, Black women especially, members of the Squad — these are among those who have been particularly villainized by this faction. How much were you thinking about that as this was happening?

PJ: I know my friend Ilhan [Omar] has dealt with so much, in particular, because she is not only an immigrant, not only a woman, not only highly visible progressive, but also Muslim. One of the things I looked for immediately when this started was to see if any members of the Squad were on the floor, and I didn’t see any of them. And I was really relieved that they weren’t. I was just hoping that they were tightly locked away in their offices.

But I had another realization: One of my colleagues was talking about how she had instructed her staff to wear just regular casual clothes in case they needed to blend in with the crowd at any point, and she herself was wearing black pants and a black turtleneck because she wanted to fit in if she needed to. And when I saw that description, I thought to myself … that’s not an option for me. That’s not an option …

[Jayapal briefly chokes up]

RT: Would you prefer if I not include, when I write up this interview, that you just cried a bit?

PJ: As long it’s clear that I was able to control myself quickly.

RT: I think women often reflexively cry when we are angry.

PJ: Oh, totally. I like to say that it’s a good thing when we cry because policy-making is better when you have emotion about it. I think this whole myth that you have to be dispassionate, that you can’t feel things, was constructed by men in power and is an excuse for why we have bad policies. But when you feel the pain of a family not having health care or losing their home, or being in poverty or losing a child to police violence, you are more inclined to address it.

RT: Speaking of good and bad policy: How do you want to help steer your party, heading into this next administration, where Democrats have the presidency and the House and now a limited Senate?

PJ: I feel like our job, as Democrats, broadly speaking, is to show people that we have their backs. That government is a force for opportunity, for addressing and alleviating crisis. Now that we have control of the Senate, as slight as it is, we have a real opportunity to get this done. That means immediate expansive COVID relief. That is everything from economic proposals that meet the scale of the crisis, that put money directly in people’s pockets, that address homelessness as well as the immigration status of our frontline workers. You can’t call somebody expendable and essential; that’s just not possible. So we should give them all green cards to be here. It also includes canceling student debt, because the financial cliff that people are going to be at is enormous, and we can do this with budget reconciliation quickly.

It should include increasing the minimum wage for at least all federal employees, then we should figure out if we can get a $15 minimum wage passed as well. A second very important area is around democracy reform: We have to not just fix and restore the Voting Rights Act; we have to expand it. We’ve got to give D.C. statehood and the power to vote. Honestly, what happened yesterday is even more argument for why D.C. needs to be a state. Not just so that people can vote but so that [leaders] have the power to control what happens in the city.

Then there’s a whole set of things around putting people back to work. Green, renewable energy infrastructure but also our family infrastructure. We think about infrastructure as just being roads and bridges, but what about our child-care workers, our domestic workers, our long-term-care workers, paid family leave?

And, of course, the reckoning with race. Taking on structural racism and addressing it from every level, including a Reparations Study Commission and a Truth Commission, as well as justice and policing. Part of taking on race is immigration. We can address immigration in multiple places, but it has to be done because Trump has taken tools that were given to him and really used them to demonize and vilify immigrants. We need to take those tools away.

RT: So you’re arguing that Democrats need to think big and aggressively.

PJ: Trump is both a problem in and of himself but also a symptom of all the things that the government has not done for people. That’s what led people to lose faith. It’s led people to somebody they think is just going to throw things into chaos, like Trump, or it’s led to people staying home. And we did a lot of work — Stacey Abrams, Latosha Brown, so many activists across the country in Arizona, Georgia, who built infrastructure — to convince people that they should give us one more shot to trust that the government will step in and do something that matters. We’ve got to deliver.