One year after protesters stormed inside the United States Capitol Jan. 6, One Detroit contributor Stephen Henderson sat down with Michigan Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence to recount how it felt to be inside the Capitol during the insurrection. She also shares her thoughts on the divisive protests at the TCF Center in Detroit on election night 2020, and how the two events are connected.
Stephen Henderson, Contributor, One Detroit: So I want to go back in time a little bit to talk to you about two really pivotal things that have happened just in the last 14 months. Let’s start with the presidential election in 2020 and November, and this really crazy reaction that we saw to the idea that we were just counting votes in the city of Detroit. It was very badly interrupted by a bunch of really angry citizens who believed that there was fraud going on. Talk to me about what your reaction was to that and again, sort of how we build from there to some of the things that would happen later
U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, (D) Michigan-14th District: TCF, and what happened here on the Hill and the Capitol, was not the America I know. I was raised by a Southern woman who lived through the Civil Rights and Jim Crow laws, who took her right to vote as one of the most precious gifts of being in America. I was taken by the hand every election day to stand next to my grandmother as she voted so she could teach me, and she would constantly say, ‘This is what will protect your rights and freedoms in America and as an American citizen, you must vote.’ And so to this, we call it “the big lie.” To see criminal behavior and to see just people who are misinformed to the point where we saw an attack on our democracy, and that’s what all of this summed up to be: an attack on our democracy, which is so unacceptable, so disappointing, and it’s just not the America that I know and I love.
Stephen Henderson: Yeah. So on January 6th at the US Capitol, you were there while this mob, this insurrection, this mob was trying to interrupt the official counting of votes in the presidential election. Let’s go back to that day for a second and just talk about what that was like.
U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence: So, Stephen, one of the things that just really stood out as I try to suppress this memory is the words from the sergeant at arms: “They’re headed our way.” I had not seen TV. I know they had whisked out Nancy Pelosi so I figured something was really serious and they said they had locked the doors. And they said “They’re headed our way. Find shelter. Someplace to protect yourself,” and it was, you know, it was surreal. Then they told us “Put on the gas masks,” and I didn’t even know under the seats that we sit on all the time to vote in the Capitol chambers were gas masks. So I’m trying to put on this gas mask and then you hear this banging at the door, and it’s vibrating because the door is locked, and it is a mob.
You can hear them screaming and they’re banging on the door. And I’m looking around saying, “Oh my God, am I going to die today? What in the world is happening?” And then the Capitol Police came in and this is the point I want everyone to understand because whether you’re a Democrat or Republican listening to my voice, at that point Capitol Police came in with their guns drawn and said, “Everybody exit this space,” so it was the opposite end of the chamber, so the chamber has about six or eight doors that you can get into to come on the floor, and it was the opposite end. Their guns are pulled, and they’re telling everybody, “Move, move! Go, go, go!” And Democrats and Republicans.
So this is the point I want everyone to understand: this was not a partisan moment. And I tell people it’s probably the most nonpartisan moment that I’ve seen on the Hill lately, where Democrats and Republicans were literally running down back staircases and hallways to get to some place of safety. We were literally running, because I had to grab the hand of one of the staff because she was older and she wasn’t able to run and I just pulled her and said “We got to go, we got to go.” And so to think about what this was all about. It was about our democracy. It was about counting the votes and a person who did not want to leave office. So because he did not want to leave, he was going to create a riot; he was going to disrupt democracy, and he encouraged violence, and that person was Donald Trump.
Stephen Henderson: Yeah. So I want to talk about the role of race in all of this, and it’s something that even as we are watching the hearings on The Hill take place to try to assign culpability for what happened. There’s not a lot of talk anymore about the racial motive and the racial context for all of this. There’s a reason, for instance, that the protesters showed up at the TCF Center in Detroit and not, for instance, in places like Farmington or Farmington Hills, where…
U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence: Or Livonia…
Stephen Henderson: Or Livonia, where votes flipped even more than they did in Detroit between 2016 and 2020. There’s a reason that this attack on the Capitol, you know, was about the idea of African American votes and counting African American votes. I want to give you a chance just to talk about why we’re still some 50-some years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, why we’re still dealing with this.
U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence: It’s been said publicly and behind closed doors, if that crowd had looked different, if it had been the typical Black Lives Matter, young, multicultural children, young people rather. If it had been predominantly people of color, African Americans, with the patience and tolerance that we saw that day, the hesitation to use armed weapons to stop the riots. There was one shot fired and it was, you know, it was— I don’t ever want a police officer to use violence unnecessarily, but I also want our laws, our policies, in this case, my dear democracy protected. And you saw, just a mob of angry, just overexcited mob just out of control, and you have all these armed police officers begging them to stop. Don’t. You know? No, you can’t do that. You know, there was a lesson to be learned here. Lives were not lost. Excessive violence was not used. And that, I know for a fact. And, you know, people say ‘You don’t know that.’ I do know this, I’ve seen it in history time and time again. When there are mobs of people of color, Black people, the result of law enforcement is totally different.
Stephen Henderson: Yeah, yeah. I also want to give you a chance to talk about what’s going on now, which is that you see a lot of supporters of the former President Donald Trump trying to gain access to or control over the mechanisms of democracy, running for posts where they would be able to get to certify or not certify votes, running for Secretary of State in places where they would hope to set the rules for election. What should we be making of that and what should we be doing to protect democracy? This is not just about some sort of partisan aim, as you point out. This is about the democracy itself and whether it actually works and whether people can have faith in it. I’m not sure how we are supposed to push back against what’s happening.
U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence: So, Stephen, isn’t it ironic that we only have a conversation about democracy working when it doesn’t work for you?
Stephen Henderson: Right?
U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence: I have some of my colleagues who are supporting these bills and laws, and that same democracy they’re attacking is the democracy that resulted in them winning their seat time and time again. And let’s be very clear, zero audit, zero investigation has returned results of any fraud. It isn’t there. Even these rogue investigators who went into different states to find the corruption has not found any. So when you talk about, we want to change the laws of democracy, be careful America, because this is just scratching away at the foundation of the American democracy, the one that we have touted around the world that others look at. And you saw when President Biden now goes and talks to other countries about humanity and about values and about democracy.
Some are laughing in his face, ‘You need to fix your own home ground first before you go talk to us.’ And it’s sad to me and it makes me very angry that we in America, based on partisan misinformation, will destroy something that has made us the great country that we are. And I, you know, I say this often, Stephen, I love America, even though she didn’t always love me back. This great country has given me opportunities for whether you are rich or whether you’re poor. It has looked after us all and taken care of the young. It has done so many great things, but yet still, you have the audacity because you did not win an election to assemble this mass destruction of our democracy. It’s not right. It infuriates me. And you know, at the same breath will turn around and say the Pledge of Allegiance. Think about what you say. I pledge allegiance. To this country, to our democracy, to protect it. When I take an oath as a member of Congress, I say that I’m going to serve and protect. It’s a very difficult time right now down there.
Stephen Henderson: OK. Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence, it’s always great to catch up with you.
U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence: Great to catch up with you. I want to say happy holidays to everyone. Please be safe. We have a new variant out there. Keep those masks on. Please get vaccinated. And Stephen to you and your family, may God bless you and give you all the desires of your heart and that we’ll have a better 2022.
Stephen Henderson: Yeah. Can’t get much worse. To you too though, thanks.
U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence: Take care.
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