Opinion | Kirsten Gillibrand: ‘Yes, We Are Safe,’ I Texted From the Capitol

On Wednesday afternoon, I gathered with members of both chambers of Congress inside the Capitol to certify the electoral votes, a ceremonial and routine step in our nation’s process for a peaceful transition of power. As we sat in the Senate chamber listening to our colleagues, the Senate staff started to get up and move very quickly across the chamber. Vice President Mike Pence was abruptly removed from the presiding chair by his security detail, and Senator Chuck Grassley was shuttled across the floor into that seat. Moments later, a Capitol Police representative informed us the Capitol had been breached and that we were sheltering in place.

I looked at my phone; my mother was calling. I told her I was safe and that they were locking down the chamber. Over the next hour, I answered the same text, “Are you safe?” over and over. The Capitol Police led us out the chamber’s back doors, through the corridors, down the stairs, into the tunnels under the Capitol to a secure location in a nearby office building. As we descended the stairs, I held Senator Mazie Hirono’s hand.

In the secure room, I called home and reassured my husband that I was OK. He was angry, worried and had a lot of questions about how this could happen. The room was filled with the sounds of my colleagues having the same conversations with their families. Meanwhile, the rioters raced through the Capitol, ransacking offices and desecrating public spaces. Their chants of “stop the steal” echoed in the halls.

We waited for hours. Anxiety faded to frustration and impatience. We wanted to vote, to do our jobs. It is our job as senators to represent the will of the American people. That meant making it clear that while this riot was a temporary disruption of the democratic process, it was not a disruption of our democracy. So, after the violence came to an end, we set out to fulfill our constitutional duty.

We were escorted back to the Senate chamber, swept free of broken glass, and resumed our certification of the electoral votes. We held fast to the oath we swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. State by state, we certified the results that have been checked, rechecked and certified by Democratic and Republican state officials alike. That is how elections are conducted in this country — not by mob rule.

Unlike the peaceful protesters who gathered in Lafayette Square or across New York City last year for Black Lives Matter protests, the rioters at the Capitol were not met with overwhelming police and military force. They were not stopped from storming onto the Senate floor, taking a podium or defacing the speaker’s office. We should all consider what that says about our country, how we see public safety and racial biases in our law enforcement.

These rioters must be held responsible for their criminal actions. So should the president who incited them. Every option available, from invoking the 25th Amendment to impeachment and removal to criminal prosecution, should be on the table. These options will require the vice president, cabinet members and Republican members of the Senate to hold the president accountable in a way they never have before. When they fail to take decisive action, history will judge them as complicit.

Congress and the Department of Justice must undertake a thorough investigation of how this happened, and why the planning for this protest and response to these white supremacist groups was so inadequate, putting lawmakers and the people who work in and maintain our Capitol building at risk. More broadly, we must assess the role of the ultra conservative media, which purports to be news but only offers misinformation and division, as well as the power of unchecked social media to divide our nation.

I’m a person of Christian faith, and my faith teaches me to love one another as ourselves. That’s a pretty tall order given where we are. But, we can start by identifying the sources of the hate and division and addressing them through investigation, accountability and justice.

Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) is a Democratic senator representing New York.

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