It was both politically smart, and the right thing to do.
By opening the hearing of the House select committee to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol with the testimony of police officers on the front line, still suffering from the effects of the violence of that day, the world got to hear what really happened and to see the human cost.
Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell compared it with his Army service, “different” because the Jan. 6 attackers were “our own citizens.” He described warning his worried wife away when she tried to hug him on his return home because his uniform was drenched with chemical spray. D.C. Metropolitan Police Department Officer Daniel Hodges said white rioters tried to recruit him as one of their own: “Are you my brother?” one asked. Another told Hodges he would “die on your knees.” MPD Officer Michael Fanone thought he would be killed and almost was, before his plea that he had kids moved a few.
Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn, who is African American, is still in therapy after being booed and showered with obscenities and racial slurs. “Frankly, I guess it is America,” he said.
Unfortunately, the Jan. 6 attack, so vivid and undeniable just months ago, is already being reimagined by politicians with a political agenda, led by the former president who hoped to remain in power by disregarding the will of the majority of American voters. In an audio recording made by Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker during an interview for their book “I Alone Can Fix It,” Donald Trump described the crowd gathered for his pre-riot speech as “loving.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy couldn’t be bothered to listen to the officers’ honest words. To counter-program, as though there is another side to insurrection, four House Republicans — Matt Gaetz of Florida, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Paul Gosar of Arizona and Georgia ringleader Marjorie Taylor Greene — planned a news conference outside the Justice Department “demanding answers from Attorney General Merrick Garland,” according to Greene’s press release, about the folks they called “political prisoners,” also known as rioters trying to subvert democracy. Protesters shut that bit of theater down.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi promises an investigation, not a whitewash, and now that Republicans who rejected a nonpartisan commission and legitimate election results have walked away, that should be the result. Bring on the hard questions on law enforcement preparedness, signals missed or not conveyed, and how plans by right-wing, anti-government and white supremacist groups were dismissed. As was the case in the 9/11 investigation, Americans will want to know what is being done to prevent another Jan. 6 from happening.
On the record
However, to start, the first day reports from Capitol and Metropolitan police were riveting and heartbreaking. While their testimony might never convince those already dug into a partisan narrative, it will be on the record, bolstered by impossible-to-ignore videos, of officers knocked down, stabbed with “thin blue line” flags and Trump banners, and “electrocuted,” as Fanone said, with their own tasers.
In this case, as is the pattern, law enforcement officers were symbols as well as human beings; reaction to their testimony might offer a clue in the debate over which political party has earned the “law and order” label.
It was 21 House Republicans who voted against awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to police officers who responded to the Jan. 6 attack and saved the said lawmakers’ lives. But, in another case of “who you going to believe, me or your lying eyes” logic, the GOP is intent on moving ahead with a midterm strategy of painting Republicans as friends of “the blue” and Democrats as anti-police.
Using statistics on rising violent crime rates and the concern of citizens who understandably are worried about safety, Republicans will ignore the pro-Trump criminals who attacked police with violent relish and use troubling crime spikes in cities to bash opponents.
All this is going on while promised police reform legislation is being hammered out, with some doubts whether Democrats and Republicans will ever agree. It had stalled after disagreements over the issue of “qualified immunity,” the involvement of police unions and the fact that urgency after former Officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd and protests filled the streets is fading.
There is more political gain for a party out of power in painting as mutually exclusive the notion that police departments can be both reformed and effective, despite the professed desire of Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., to broker a deal.
Expect Republicans to follow a well-worn playbook and Democrats to emphasize their support of the Jan. 6 saviors of democracy and of President Joe Biden’s delicate dance on the issue — with plans that increase funds for both police personnel and community programs.
A complicated issue
In truth, it’s complicated, as it always is when it comes to policing.
In New York City, former police officer Eric Adams’ recent success in the Democratic mayoral primary was seen as a triumph for “law and order.” But he also brings his experience as a Black man who was abused by police as a teen and who advocated reform when he was in the department.
In Tuesday’s testimony, officers spoke of rioters who flashed badges. A disturbing percentage of active and retired law enforcement officers were among those who fought fellow officers that day. And the militarized police presence at social justice and Black Lives Matter gatherings was far different from the smaller force that met the Jan. 6 attackers, prompting questions about just whom the police see as dangerous.
No wonder many of those now facing charges are surprised; they expected law enforcement to be on their side and Trump’s, as many police unions were in his presidential runs.
Don’t expect any of this nuance to survive when there are electoral battles to be won and lost. Instead, the role of policing in politics — who’s on their side and whose side they’re on — will get ever more muddled the closer we get to the next election.
But it will be hard to forget this week’s testimony on the Jan. 6 sacrifice of the always lauded “good cops,” those whose job it is to protect and serve everyone, including members of Congress who don’t have their back.
Their words, if those on both sides of the aisle will listen, were clear as day.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.