WASHINGTON — Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley is not ready to turn the page on the ugly chapter of American history that is the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol.
To her, Thursday’s anniversary is a mile marker on an uncompleted journey to repair the damage wrought by a mob of former president Donald Trump’s supporters. The insurrection was the culmination of far right and white supremacist extremism, fueled by four years of his bigotry and hateful rhetoric — and a backlash to a record turnout of voters from many marginalized communities that had propelled Joe Biden to the White House.
The assault on the nation’s democracy continues, Pressley said, as Republican legislators and candidates perpetuate the lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, while states controlled by the GOP pass laws to curb who can vote and when.
So as much as Pressley would like to move on one year after an attack that forced her to shelter in a barricaded Capitol Hill office, she cannot. “We cannot,” she said.
“I think it’s important that we sit with those feelings and stay uncomfortable because if we don’t, we will grow complacent and we won’t do the work that is necessary in this moment,” she said Wednesday from her Boston home.
That work includes the efforts of a bipartisan House Select Committee investigating the events that led to the deadly insurrection. And Pressley said it should also include steps by Congress to hold members who fueled the mob responsible, scrap the Jim Crow-era filibuster in the Senate, and shore up voting rights with federal legislation.
“I do believe that any member who played a role in this should be expelled,” she said. “They’re a threat to Congress as an institution. They’re a threat to democracy. They’re a threat to me and my colleagues.”
The response to Jan. 6 “is much bigger than ensuring that within the footprint and the confines of these office buildings that people feel physically safe,” Pressley continued, although that too, is crucial. “This is about the need to confront, to root out, to dismantle white supremacy, systematic and structural racism, to preserve our democracy, to restore voting rights.”
Pressley began thinking about the need for accountability during those terrifying hours of the attack. She spent most of it bunkered in her office — the door blocked with water jugs, desks, and chairs — with her husband, Conan Harris, and her chief of staff, Sarah Groh. Harris had been in D.C. for Pressley’s swearing-in three days earlier, but, worried that Jan. 6 could bring danger, Groh had requested he stick around.
As the time ticked away amid the chaos, Pressley and her staff joined Representative Ilhan Omar and her team and began drafting articles of impeachment against Trump for the attack. The pair unveiled their resolution the next day, backed by nearly two dozen other House Democrats.
Pressley has since become a leader in congressional oversight inquiries into security breakdowns that day and efforts by federal law enforcement agencies to crack down on far right and white supremacist extremists. And she has been a vocal critic of Republicans who continue to spread conspiracy theories and racist and xenophobic attacks. As one of the few Black women and people of color in Congress, Pressley says those affronts are personal — and dangerous.
In December, Pressley led a resolution by House Democrats to strip Representative Lauren Boebert, a Colorado Republican, of her committee assignments after she made Islamophobic comments about Omar, who is Muslim. At a press conference, Pressley laid the blame for such comments squarely on House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, who had declined to take action within the Republican Party against Boebert and others since Jan. 6.
“Each day that passes without meaningful accountability, we risk normalizing this behavior and endangering the lives of our Muslim colleagues, Muslim staff, and every Muslim who calls this country home,” Pressley said at the time.
The resolution also puts pressure on Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to reprimand Boebert. Pelosi has yet to bring it to a vote. Pressley said she is disappointed that Boebert still held her committee assignments but will continue to push for action.
But she did acknowledge some progress on accountability: The House voted to remove Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, from committees after she spread misinformation over the pandemic, and to censure Arizona Republican Paul Gosar for sharing an anime-style video that depicted him killing Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York.
“I am encouraged by the fact that these threats are at least being taken seriously, and that there has been sunlight shined on them, and sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Pressley said.
After testing positive for COVID on New Year’s Eve, she plans to spend the anniversary of the insurrection in Boston checking in with her staff and ensuring they have access to mental health resources. The issue is important for Pressley, who spent years working on mental health issues while on the Boston City Council and once was a congressional staffer.
“Having been an aide myself I know how easy it is for staff to be rendered an invisible workforce,” she said.
In many ways, Jan. 6 carried echoes for Pressley of her time on Capitol Hill during the 9/11 attacks — the confusion and lack of communication — as a senior aide for then-Massachusetts senator John Kerry.
And, she still remembers the painful decision she and Groh made last year in the midst of the insurrection, when they had fled their barricaded offices for a secure location where other lawmakers and staff had gathered. In that crowded room were many Republican members who refused to wear masks in the midst of a pandemic.
Not feeling very safe in “the safe room,” Pressley and Groh bolted back to their offices.
But the memory that pains Pressley even more, the images that more frequently come to mind, are those of the Black custodians cleaning up the mess left by the mob of white supremacists, insurrectionists, and Trump supporters. In recent weeks, some Republicans have sought to portray the rioters as patriotic heroes.
To Pressley, the real heroes, the real patriots, were those custodians.
“January 6th is about so much more than January 6th,” she said. “All these things are connected. They are not happenstance.”