It was a visceral cry at the moment with maximum danger to American democracy.
A furious mob had overpowered the police and was almost at the door of the House of Representatives. Inside the chamber, Republican Paul Gosar launched a false challenge to Joe Biden’s election victory in Arizona.
Then, at the back of the gallery on the second floor, Democratic Dean Phillips stood up and shouted in earnest to Gosar: “This is because of you!”
The outburst was out of character for a “Minnesota nice” congressman with a reputation for moderation and work across the aisle. But a year later, Phillips remains convinced that it was an urgent and necessary response to the deadly uprising inspired by then-President Donald Trump.
“It’s not my style to break decorations and scream,” he told the Guardian, “but I must say that at that moment I felt like tens of thousands of Americans did, which is that there were people responsible for, “What was happening, and there are moments when you do what you have to do, and I had to do it. I do not regret it for a second, because it is true.”
Phillips, 52, comes from a business background. He ran a family-owned distillery – producing vodka, gin, rum and other spirits – and an ice cream company. He was elected to Congress in 2018, which represents Minnesota’s third congressional district, and is vice president of the two-part problem-solving council meeting.
“I never imagined I would do this,” he admits. “I woke up the morning after the 2016 election, saw the reaction from my daughters, who were 18 and 16 at the time – their fears, their tears – and I promised them right there and then that I would do something, and here I am. “
On January 6, 2021, he had been informed that there might be trouble, so his staff was told to stay home. He saw his office television “horrified” when Trump gave a speech in which he urged supporters to “fight like hell” to overthrow his defeat. He then went to the House to begin confirming Biden’s election victory. But soon he received text messages from anxious family members showing video of protests forming outside.
“I asked my colleague, Tom Malinowski from New Jersey, to leave the house chamber with me to look out the windows, and a Capitol police officer literally shouted at us to get away from the windows and get back into the house. We asked if everything was in order, and – I will never forget – she said: ‘You are in the capital of the United States. It is the safest building in the country.’
They returned to the House of Representatives just as Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer were evacuated. Gosar was at the microphone, making the effort to undermine his state’s constituency vote when the gun sergeant urged members to take cover behind the seats and prepare their smoke hoods – making Phillips feel “furious” and let tear on the Trump loyalist.
While members on the floor of the house were able to escape, there was no way out for 20 sitting up in the gallery due to coronavirus security measures. “I screamed at my colleagues at that moment to follow me to the Republican side of the House because I thought it would be safer,” Phillips said. “I thought the rebels were coming after us.
“First, it was almost impossible to get through these railings; either you should go under or over. But more than that, I recognized right at that moment that many of my colleagues could not interfere. I’m talking about colors. It really left an indelible mark on me.
“All that day, of course, changed me, as it would for anyone else, to recognize that privilege and the fragility of democracy and also a significant increase in my empathy for those who have endured trauma in their lives, which is life-changing.”
Rebels reached the doors of the chamber of the house, but found their way blocked by an improvised barricade and Capitol police with drawn weapons. After an ordeal lasting about 25 minutes, Phillips recalls, members of the gallery were led out by a Capitol police officer and through a maze of tunnels.
“We ran into Rayburn’s lunch room, and it was a bizarre moment, because there were people just eating lunch at the tables. The sun was shining in from the large glass panes, and here we are, an officer with a rifle running with us. into the lunchroom, and people just stunned and watched us, what the hell is going on? Of course, moments later, the TVs would definitely change that. “
The group was then moved on to a committee room where they were finally safe. But their common trial would remain with them. They now call themselves the “gallery group” and still meet regularly, sometimes with facilitators or therapists. “It has been the most wonderful support group imaginable because we endured it together,” Phillips says.
On the night of January 6, with the Capitol finally secured, they and other members returned to the House and Senate to complete the job and ratify Biden as president. In a fleeting moment, Democrats and Republicans seemed united in completing the work of democracy and rejecting Trump’s authoritarianism. But that should not hold.
In the year following the uprising, some Republicans have embraced Trump’s “big lie” and his portrayal of the mob as patriots driven by a noble cause; others have simply been tight-lipped and failed to condemn it. Phillips, who sees them closely during congressional sessions, believes they are motivated by self-preservation of both position and personal security.
“This is perhaps the saddest part of all this. Many of my colleagues – especially those who voted in favor of a trial, those who voted in favor of the January 6 commission, those who voted to confirm the election – have received terrible threats to their and their loved ones’ safety.It is a slightly enviable position, but it is also our responsibility and duty.I understand self-preservation drive, but I wish the principle took precedence, he says.
It has been difficult for Phillips to witness denial on Jan. 6 as Republicans and right-wing media try to rewrite the story of what happened that day, and in various ways characterize it as a “normal tourist visit” or an FBI operation with ” false flag “designed to capture Trump supporters. The former president even insisted that his supporters “hug and kiss” the police.
The Democrat says, “This is one of those rare occasions where I was there. I was inside. I heard the gunshot. I saw the remnants of the uprising in the rotunda and went with [Congressman] Andy Kim at midnight that night to help clean up when I saw him on hands and knees alone. “
“I saw the body armor. I saw the clubs. I saw the feces. I saw the speaker’s office searched. I saw with my own eyes people on the ground under arrest. I saw the mob break in. I met with the officers, who were later subject to it. I was there to witness it and hear people say it did not happen, or that it was not a big deal, or that it is time to move on, shame on them. “
Republicans’ denial of reality and continued dependence on Trump have created fears that January 6 was the beginning, not the end, of the near-death experience of American democracy. The party imposes extensive voter restrictions across the country and seeks to put “big lie” believers to stand for future elections. Trump could make another bid for the White House in 2024 with many checks and balances no longer in place.
Phillips comments: “We are on the abyss of a very slippery slope and it is far up the mountain when building a democracy, but it is a quick trip down when it slips away. We jointly have to make a choice and a decision here, starting with the simple fact that it is not something that one side or the other can win. ”
“If one side upholds democracy and destroys its institutions and does not respect the rule of law, chaos will result, violence will result, and everything that propagates this claim is important to them – a strong, stable, secure, prosperous country – will have been lost … that is why I try to be a voice of reason and a bridge-builder, not a destroyer. ”
A self-proclaimed eternal optimist, Phillips believes there is still a cohort in the Republican Party that can find a way back to the mainstream. He describes Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, Trump critics who serve on the House committee examining January 6, as “heroic.”
“I know there are more who share the feeling that is simply not so public. I am confident that we will see some kind of restoration of principles, provided American voters find it important.”
The congressman’s efforts to lower the political temperature include a series of “joint” rallies in his home district that encourage mutual understanding between voters across the ideological spectrum.
He says: “They have inspired me and made me more optimistic, because I have discovered when, with a certain intention, people are brought together with different political perspectives and break the bread, get to know each other and share life stories, common ground is easily accessible and easy to find. “
But in this age of polarization and negative bias, must there be some awkward conversations? “We had an experience just a few weeks ago where a person stopped in what would be considered a vehicle that a Donald Trump supporter could drive and a person who was on the far left of that person – in a very unpleasant moment, but it turned out to be a very productive – acknowledged what she felt when she saw the vehicle drive into the parking lot, and what she expected from the person driving it.
‘It took courage to share it. It took courage for the driver of the vehicle to listen to it. At the end of the evening, for both of them to acknowledge their common humanity and common interest in a safe and secure country was a moment of great security, but a moment that can only occur if people stop stereotyping and actually begin to break bread. “
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