Every time Harper White looks at the U.S. Capitol dome, he thinks back to the day, one year ago, when he barricaded himself inside a congresswoman’s office a few steps from the House floor and heard the sound of gunfire.

He remembers trying to hide in a wooden storage unit half his size. His job as a Capitol Hill staffer was his first full-time work after graduating from the University of Kentucky, and he was trapped during a violent attack – one that many Republicans and right-wing groups have defended by pushing false and misleading accounts.

White, a 25-year-old legislative assistant and correspondent for Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., spoke to a crowd of hundreds on Thursday outside the Capitol on the anniversary of a violent mob’s entry into the building to try to stop Congress from ratifying the 2020 electoral college vote.

Less than three miles away, a much smaller crowd – including the mother of Ashli Babbitt, the pro-Trump rioter who was killed when she stormed the Capitol last January – gathered outside the D.C. jail to support people who were charged in the insurrection and are being held there.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi leads members of the House and Senate in a moment of silence Thursday during a vigil commemorating the anniversary of the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol. Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

These rival events reflect the fact that a year after the Capitol riot, much of the country remains divided on what happened. As most Democrats and many others have condemned the violent attack on the country’s democratic process, a majority of Republicans continue to believe the falsehood that President Joe Biden was elected illegitimately or fraudulently, and some have sought to recast those charged in the Jan. 6 attack as martyrs.

Thirty percent of Americans say there is solid evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election, according to a recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll. Almost 3 in 10 Americans say Biden’s election was not legitimate. Among people who voted for Donald Trump in 2020, 69% say Biden was not legitimately elected, according to the poll.

This counternarrative is not only untruthful, experts say, but dangerous.

“It suggests that we’ve actually moved beyond just partisanship,” said Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Americans are living in two wildly different realities and are viewing each other increasingly as enemies that they have to contend with.”

Following last year’s violence, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, D, and Police Chief Robert Contee said that local officials had partnered with federal authorities to monitor events planned for the day and that D.C. police were prepared to mobilize and respond to any possible issues. But the two groups of demonstrators remained separate, and the vigils proceeded peacefully.

With the U.S. Capitol building in the background, a person holds a candle during a vigil Thursday in Washington, on the anniversary of the attack on the Capitol. Evan Vucci/Associated Press

For the vigil outside the Capitol, organized by a coalition of more than 100 liberal groups, a few hundred people gathered on the National Mall near the Capitol Reflecting Pool, the grass still coated in melting snow. The racially diverse crowd chanted and sang, seeking to transform last year’s pain into policy change.

The demonstrators heard from speakers about their experiences inside the Capitol that day, including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D, the District’s nonvoting delegate in Congress, and Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., who was trapped in the House chamber during the insurrection while mourning his son’s suicide.

In their reflections on the attack, many speakers also demanded statehood for the residents of D.C., to cheers from the crowd. “The attack was not only an attack on democracy, it was an attack on the District of Columbia, where we are now standing,” Holmes Norton said.

Speakers also demanded the Senate and Biden enact the Freedom to Vote Act, a voting rights bill, and the Protecting Our Democracy Act, which includes reforming oversight of the executive branch, among other legislation. They pointed to restrictive voting legislation passed by Republican-led state legislatures across the country and said the Jan. 6 attack highlighted the need for federal voting rights protections and expansions before the next election.

Demonstrators held signs reading “No Trump. No Lie. No G.O.P.”, “Voters decide outcomes of U.S. elections” and “DC statehood is racial justice.”

“We are looking to our elected officials to continue to investigate the insurrection,” Lisa Gilbert, vice president of Public Citizen, one of the groups behind the vigil, said to the cheering crowd, “but also to pass urgently needed voting rights legislation and democracy reform legislation that will protect this country from the anti-democratic forces who are continuing their efforts to destroy it.”

Capitol Riot Anniversary

With the U.S. Capitol in the background, a person holds an American flag and a flameless candle during a vigil in Washington on Thursday, the anniversary of the attack on the Capitol. Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Nadine Seiler, a racial justice advocate who became the unofficial curator of the memorial and protest fence between the White House and Black Lives Matter Plaza, stood on the National Mall, surveyed the crowd and felt disappointed.

“It’s not enough,” said Seiler, 56, of Waldorf, Md. “There should be thousands of them here.”

She was at the Black Lives Matter fence last Jan. 6 and remembers seeing dozens in the pro-Trump mob heading toward the Capitol. She never thought they would actually make it inside. At Thursday’s vigil, she held a sign that said “SEDITION” in large orange letters, above the text: “When You’re WHITE They Let YOU Do It.”

In the early evening, as the speeches outside the Capitol concluded, a far smaller group gathered for a different vigil, one that advocated for those charged in connection to the insurrection, as well as honoring Babbitt and Rosanne Boyland, who died last Jan. 6 after authorities said she had been “trampled by the mob.”

About 20 demonstrators assembled outside the D.C. jail in Southeast Washington to honor more than three dozen prisoners held there on charges related to the insurrection. Far outnumbered by media, they crowded near the jail’s back entrance, where a phalanx of police stood beside a bus, blocking the entrance.

The small group lit candles, recited the Pledge of Allegiance and sang “God Bless America.” Micki Witthoeft, Babbitt’s mother, said her daughter “was publicly executed.” Not enough public figures have spoken up to defend her, she said. “Patriots don’t want to come to Washington,” she said. “They’re scared.”

Matt Braynard, center, speaks during a candlelight vigil in support of the “political prisoners” of the Jan. 6 insurrection, at Washington’s Central Detention Facility, where several are being held. Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Matt Braynard, executive director of Look Ahead America, the group behind the vigil, compared the events of Jan. 6 to the Tiananmen Square protest. Just as the Chinese government lied to its citizens about the events of that massacre, he said, the U.S. government was lying about the insurrection and the violence of the pro-Trump rioters.

Federal prosecutors in the District have charged more than 725 people with various crimes in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection. Of those arrested, 225 were charged with assault or resisting arrest, and more than 75 were charged with using a deadly or dangerous weapon against police officers.

Inside the jail, there are 39 people detained on charges in connection with the insurrection, Keena Blackmon, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Corrections, said Tuesday.

The detention of the Jan. 6 defendants has brought more attention to the jail than it has received in years – despite more than a decade of complaints and litigation from the facility’s inmates, who are mostly Black. In November, a month after a U.S. District judge said jail officials “abused” the civil rights of an insurrectionist, the U.S. Marshals conducted a surprise inspection and found unlivable conditions at the facility.

“The difference in treatment is either based on race or political sympathy for the insurrectionists – or both,” said Tammy Seltzer, director of the D.C. jail and Prison Advocacy Project. “Everyone at the jail deserves to be treated with dignity, not just White insurrectionists who have become right-wing Internet celebrities.”

Although the crowd at the jail was small, experts warn that the group’s beliefs are widespread among Republicans and the far right.

Ashli Babbitt’s mother, Micki Witthoeft, along with others attend a candlelight vigil at Washington’s Central Detention Facility on Thursday. Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

“The U.S. government can arrest every single rioter who entered the Capitol building last year, but it won’t make these dangerous incitements disappear, or prevent another January 6,” Rita Katz, executive director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors online extremism, said in a statement. “Because those behind the keyboard, who played vital roles in organizing, coordinating and mobilizing the community for January 6, continue to incite and recruit, and proved to be untouchable.”

Those who lived through the attack – sheltering in place, hearing the violent mob, watching rioters storm the seat of the U.S. government – said the trauma continues to linger.

Some lawmakers and staff are still receiving counseling to deal with post-traumatic stress, and threats against lawmakers are at an all-time high.

Many people living and working on Capitol Hill are still fearful and angry. After the attack, their neighborhood turned into a fortress. An eight-foot-high black metal fence topped with razor wire surrounded the U.S. Capitol for months. There were concrete barriers, security checkpoints and armed National Guard members.

“I’ll never look at the Capitol without the reminders of that day and the reminders of the fragility of our democracy,” White, who lives on Capitol Hill, said in an interview. “We should not let anyone deter us from the work we do here, not let anyone deter us from doing what’s right.”

Tom Jackman and Michael Brice-Saddler contributed to this report.


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