One year ago, armed insurrectionists stormed the US Capitol building in an attack that left five dead. Here’s how four Michiganders experienced that day.
MICHIGAN—There are few dates that are etched into the collective American consciousness, when you remember precisely where you were, what happened, and how you felt at the time. Chances are, for example, you recall a lot about Sept. 11, 2001, but vanishingly little about Sept. 10 or 12 of that same year.
Just like 9/11 has transcended its status as a date and taken on a meaning of its own, so too has Jan. 6. One year ago, a band of violent insurrectionists stormed the US Capitol, attempting to interrupt Congress as lawmakers certified the results of the 2020 presidential election. Hundreds of terrorists—including dozens from Michigan—breached the Capitol building, brutally attacked police officers, hunted lawmakers, and carried out a dangerous attack that left five people dead. The insurrection nearly succeeded in overturning a bedrock foundation of American democracy: free and fair elections.
“This was the most serious assault on our democracy and our democratic institutions that we have witnessed maybe since the War of 1812,” said Michael Traugott, a political scientist and research professor at the University of Michigan.
The attack was a culmination of months of lies and dangerous rhetoric from former President Donald Trump and his allies in Congress. They refused to admit that the Republican candidate lost the 2020 election and instead spoonfed their followers lie after lie about voter fraud and rigged elections. Those lies have been disproven time and time again; in June, the Republican-led Oversight Committee in the Michigan state Senate published a report rejecting Trump’s Big Lie conspiracy as bogus.
“Our clear finding is that citizens should be confident the results represent the true results of the ballots cast by the people of Michigan,” state Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan), the committee chair, wrote in the report. “There is no evidence presented at this time to prove either significant acts of fraud or that an organized, wide-scale effort to commit fraudulent activity was perpetrated in order to subvert the will of Michigan voters.”
But the legacy of those lies and the quest to undermine the outcome of the election not only led to an attempted coup on Jan. 6, but continue to chip away at democracy.
To mark the one-year anniversary of the horrifying events at the Capitol, we asked four Michiganders, including a state lawmaker, to share their thoughts on that day and the state of American democracy moving forward.
Nicole Iraola, 28, Ann Arbor
Nicole Iraola was unloading her belongings into a storage unit when she learned about what was happening at the US Capitol. The 28-year-old—who was moving out of her apartment and gearing up to start a new job—received a push notification on her cell phone, informing her of what was happening in Washington, DC. She clicked over to her social media feeds.
The videos she saw made her stomach drop: She was terrified lawmakers would die in the chaos.
While that horrific possibility was narrowly avoided, the attack still left Iraola shaken. As an immigration attorney who’s worked with clients who’ve come to the US from countries experiencing civil turmoil and unrest, she knows the erosion of democracy doesn’t happen overnight. She worries about the stability of America’s system of government moving forward.
“People think a certain way about the US and that we have protections for basic freedoms and rights,” Iraola said. “That it’s generally safe and that we have a democracy in place that protects the rights of everybody and all that good stuff. But after seeing Jan. 6th, it kind of made me step back and think like, ‘Okay, how stable is this and how sustainable is this going to be?’”
Iraola’s biggest fear now is what could happen next. An astonishing number of Republicans, including some current lawmakers, believe Joe Biden’s win was fraudulent. Moreover, there appears to be no future for Republican politicians who refuse to embrace the idea that the election was stolen from Trump; the former president has taken over the party and made belief in The Big Lie his litmus test.
The dangers of this sort of authoritarian slide within the GOP is significant.
“It poses serious questions for our democracy and our future,” Iraola said. “Because if such a large percentage of lawmakers and voters believe that an election can be stolen and then think that they can take things into their own hands, then I really don’t know what type of precedent that sets for the future.”
Jon Coggins, 62, Millington
It started off like any other Wednesday for Jon Coggins. The lifelong Michigander was at home watching TV—after having five surgeries in the past three years, he is effectively disabled. As he watched the attack on the Capitol unfold on CNN, he recalls feeling “disgust, fear, and anxiety.”
“My mouth was open, my jaw dropped for hours on end. I just [thought] ‘This is my country. This is happening in my country?’” Coggins said, adding that he felt dismayed as he watched the insurrectionists beat police officers with their own billy clubs. “The US Capitol is a sacred ground. You don’t go in there and defile it.”
The Republican Party’s drift toward fascism is personal for Coggins; his father earned three Purple Hearts flying a plane in Europe during World War II. “He was a very young man, taken from rural Michigan to overseas and taught to fly a plane and drop bombs and kill people at all of 21, 22 years old,” he recalled.
His father’s military service and role in defeating the Nazis has long been a source of family pride—which is why it’s so disappointing for Coggins that his brother has become a diehard supporter of former President Trump. The two have been estranged for nearly two years, and Coggins believes his father would be “very disappointed” in his brother’s political drift to the far right.
“The Greatest Generation defeated Nazism and Fascism, and now it’s springing up right under our noses again,” he said. “And this time, we have met the enemy and they are us.”
That’s why Coggins believes there needs to be real accountability. “It was not a bunch of friendly tourists out for a romp. It was an armed insurrection against our government—a failed coup attempt—and the people that were responsible for it must be punished.”
So far, 13 Michiganders have been arrested and charged by the US Department of Justice over their roles in the insurrection. But Coggins also wants to see those senators that incited the attack punished.
“They shouldn’t be able to be sitting on committees and taking votes to impeach or to indict,” he said. “Maybe we can’t make them step down, but we can certainly keep them from voting if they have such a severe conflict of interest. I hope to heck some of these people get indicted. It’s crazy the crap that they’re spewing.”
Pat Morgan, 65, Adrian
Pat Morgan came of age in the 1970s. She’s no stranger to protests, sit-ins, and other political demonstrations. But as she sat at home watching the insurrection unfold live on CNN, she was aghast.
“It was just such a personal affront to me and my senses that fellow Americans would behave in this manner,” said Morgan, a lifelong Michigander who’s voted in every election since 1974. “There are no words for it, but it was unacceptable behavior.”
The events of Jan. 6 angered Morgan, but the way the attack has been downplayed or mischaracterized by many Republicans and members of the media has proved equally infuriating.
“Do not call this a riot, it was an insurrection, it was an attempt to stop the way our democracy works when we vote in a new president,” Morgan said. “The insurrectionists’ goals were to stop democracy—that was their intent.”
While Morgan was shocked when the insurrection occurred, she knows the deadly events of Jan. 6 didn’t occur in a vacuum; they’re the logical result of growing political anger and division amid the Republican Party’s drift toward extremism. Morgan has experienced the consequences of that extremism and anger first hand.
“We were afraid to put a Biden sign in our yard for fear of what kind of repercussions it might bring—vandalism to the house or they might have just stolen the sign,” she said. “This is a highly Republican area, and we’re a Democratic household. For fear of the attitude of the people in the county, we didn’t want to put a sign like that out.”
State Rep. Kyra Harris Bolden (D-Southfield)
Kyra Harris Bolden can’t remember where she was or what she felt on Jan. 6. That lack of specific memories isn’t because she wasn’t watching, but because the events hit way too close to home for Bolden, a state representative from Southfield.
In April 2020, Bolden was inside the Michigan Capitol when a group of armed, right-wing radicals stormed the building to protest the state’s public health rules during the earliest months of the coronavirus pandemic. In an eerie foreshadowing of what would happen on Jan. 6, protesters attempted to gain access to the House floor, but were blocked by the chamber’s sergeant at arms.
“I honestly thought I was going to die at work and that’s just my honest feeling. There were people there that had on full tactical gear that had very large guns,” Bolden said. “They also had Confederate flags and nooses, which added another layer of fear.”
The experience was traumatizing for Bolden, and she still struggles to accept that it happened at all.
While the events of April 30, 2020, and Jan. 6, 2021, have stuck with Bolden, so too has the response—which she likened to “gaslighting.” She pointed to those who have downplayed the horrors of the siege and defended the armed insurrectionists.
“You don’t exercise your Second Amendment right with nooses and Confederate flags and people dying,” Bolden said, exasperated. “The thing that has been extremely disappointing in the wake of all that has occurred is just the lack of acknowledgement of how horrific January 6th was and the urgency to move on from an assault on our nation’s Capitol.”
If we don’t acknowledge what happened and really reckon with the events of Jan 6, Bolden believes there is a risk of it happening again. “It’s not lost upon me that something like that … could occur again if we don’t put in proper precautions to protect our democracy and protect the physical safety of our elected leaders.”
Physical threats of violence against lawmakers have surged this year as Republicans have embraced more violent rhetoric. As a lawmaker, Bolden knows firsthand how serious the problem of safety has become.
“There have never been so many death threats. I mean, it got to the point where for me, you have to decide which death threats you’re going to report,” she said. “There are so many that we were getting through this whole time period.”
She added: “The environment and the climate that we’ve created as a result of the Big Lie and the assault on democracy with very little accountability … has emboldened people to further verbalize threats of physical attacks on our elected leaders and normalize it.”
The Legacy of January 6
A US House committee investigation has already revealed an unsettling level of coordination between conservative activists, the Trump White House, and extremist members of the Republican House delegation as they plotted how to best overturn the 2020 presidential election results.
Trump and his Republican allies have largely refused to cooperate with the investigation, though, and have instead sought to delay and sabotage it. They appear to be trying to avoid facing accountability, and the reasons are obvious: Success in the Republican Party now hinges on embracing and defending The Big Lie.
Rather than face accountability or express remorse, many Republicans who embraced the Big Lie have doubled down on it and are using it for political gain. Kristina Karamo—who tried to overturn the 2020 election results in Michigan—is running to oversee elections as Michigan’s next secretary of state. Trump has endorsed Karamo as well as seven other state candidates who’ve called into question the results of the 2020 election.
“We have a lot of people who believe that the election was stolen that are running for office,” Bolden said. “Some of them are winning, and it is a very scary thought to me that people who clearly do not respect the results of the election are going to be elected leaders and help to chip away our democracy.”
If Sept. 11 was a terrorist attack on the US from the outside, Jan. 6 was a terrorist attack from the inside. It was promoted, embraced, and called for by the president of the United States of America. Trump’s attack on democracy may have failed, but he’s working to install loyalists into the halls of power so that his next one won’t.
If that sounds extreme or exaggerated, consider this alarming fact: A recent analysis suggested that upwards of 10 million Republicans were okay with using violence to restore Donald Trump to the presidency.
There were mere hundreds of people storming the Capitol on Jan. 6 and they nearly succeeded. Imagine what a determined group of 10 million could do?
Editor’s Note: This story is part of our coverage of the one year anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the United States Capitol. You can find all of our coverage here.
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