Two weeks to the day before newly sworn in Vice President Harris walked through the halls of the U.S. Capitol — robed in bright purple, making history as the first woman, the first Black American and the first Indian American in the role — another female lawmaker of color hid in the dark, barricaded against a violent pro-Trump mob that had breached the building.
They were mere feet from her door.
On Jan. 6, after the last of the rioters trickled out of the Capitol, leaving broken glass, graffiti, feces and trauma in their wake, an image from inside spread across social media: two chairs, stacked on top of each other, the rounded, wooden back of one propped under a doorknob. On one side of the door, rioters yelled “Where’s Nancy?” On the other, Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) constructed a makeshift fortress to protect herself in the event rioters attempted to storm the office.
Apart from the rioters’ countless selfies and images snapped by journalists, Meng’s photos provided a firsthand glimpse into what lawmakers experienced during the attempted insurrection. With nothing to arm herself with, Meng sat quietly in the room for five hours, she said, with the lights turned off and the TV on mute. She was texting her staff, husband and sons throughout the ordeal, questioning if she’d ever see them again. As a woman of color, she said, her fear was even more pronounced.
“This sounds odd, but I was less nervous about them finding me or coming into the door in the room where I was than I was for them to discover that I was a minority woman,” Meng said.
Indeed, other women of color lawmakers said that they, too, felt uniquely targeted during the riot because of their gender and race. Ramani Durvasula, a psychologist and professor at California State University at Los Angeles, said what people may forget about the Jan. 6 rioters is that they “were going to be targeting certain lawmakers more than others, particularly female lawmakers of color who are often holding more progressive agendas.”
As Durvasula put it: “We forget what it would be like if you really close your eyes and imagine what it would be like if you’re a woman of color, whose agenda on the Hill is at odds with the people in this mob and what they want. They were coming in looking for you.”
For Meng and other women of color lawmakers, this sentiment was very much felt. Meng recalled getting a text from a friend that said, “Just go out, just find a Trump scarf and put it on.” For Meng, “I didn’t feel that I could comfortably walk out as a woman of color. I felt vulnerable,” she said. “I felt that, even if these people weren’t violent, I didn’t know how they would react if they found me, being a minority woman. I was very scared about that.”
For Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.), that Wednesday morning looked similar to days before it, but something felt off. Given the coronavirus guidelines in place, Adams had been given a time of 1:15 p.m. Eastern time to watch the electoral vote certification from the House gallery. Leaving her office in the Rayburn House Office Building and driving over to the Capitol, she saw the crowd, but they hadn’t yet breached the steps of the building, Adams said.
The Capitol Police officer who greeted Adams told her she couldn’t go in the “normal way,” instead asking her to enter through another door. When she arrived at that door, a different officer told her she couldn’t enter “because we have had protesters invade the building and they’re climbing the walls,” she said.
So Adams said she was told that, if she wished to enter, she could use the tunnel. Looking behind her, Adams “saw the people moving, moving pretty swiftly.” Still inside her car, her driver pulled away, heading for the tunnel. But Adams told her staff, “You know, I’m not really feeling good about this,” and directed them to go back to her office with the intention of observing the proceedings on television. She then pulled up the proceedings on her phone.
“That’s when I saw them come in and grab Vice President Pence,” Adams said, referring to the Secret Service officers removing the vice president from the chamber.
In that moment, Rep. Norma J. Torres (D-Calif.) was in the gallery. In harrowing detail, she described what she saw and how it unfolded: a phone falling from the gallery onto the House floor. Yelling at a colleague not to touch it. Hearing the shot that likely claimed the life of rioter Ashli Babbitt. Crouching on the floor, gas mask over her face, fearing she might not make it out alive. Being told to “run.”
Being in the safe room, shoulder to shoulder with fellow lawmakers, yelling at a White male Republican colleague to “shut up” when he took a microphone to pray.
And, later, arriving in her office, clearing the three rooms by herself with a baseball bat.
“We didn’t know how close they were. We could hear the banging and the shouting but we didn’t know that they were just outside and that that shot had been fired was directly below us,” Torres said. “We didn’t think we were going to get out. We just thought, ‘We’re going to have to fight.’ We were sitting ducks.”
Running through the tunnels, trying to get to a safe space, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) wasn’t aware of what was going on above her head. She said she heard screams, had been told to “run,” but hadn’t seen the rioters up close until they were on the ground, secured by Capitol Police.
“In the aftermath,” she said, “we knew that we were targets.”
If the rioters had actually come face to face with any female lawmakers, particularly those of color, Jackson Lee is certain there “would have been violence to women.”
Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.) was in her office in the Rayburn building, watching the news and texting her colleagues trapped in the Capitol. When the breach occurred, she had been walking up to the Capitol and saw a sight she would have previously said “could never have occurred here.” While the images of Trump flags are vivid, she also remembers the sound, “the roar of the crowd.”
She recognizes that, as a White woman, her life experiences leading up to that moment of terror differ from those of her female colleagues of color.
“I have thought so much about the different expectation of safety that I had as a White woman in general,” Clark said. “This was one of those days where that illusion of safety that I have always had in the Capitol was not just challenged, but shattered, and I thought about how that experience happens for my women colleagues of color so much earlier in their lives.”
Juliette McClendon, a psychologist and assistant professor at Boston University School of Medicine, said that for people of color, the stress of experiencing racism, discrimination, sexism, misogynoir and varying forms of oppression over time can accumulate and impact both the body and the mind.
“The experience of racism and discrimination really exacerbates the impact of a traumatic stressor on an individual. All of those experiences compound on each other,” she said, pointing to a 2019 study that looked at post-traumatic stress disorder in Black and Latino adults.
On Jan. 6, whether they were hiding in a locked room or on the House floor, with a Confederate flag being paraded through the Capitol, women of color “knew who they were coming for,” McClendon said.
“That experience in and of itself is traumatic,” she continued. “You’re going to see a differential impact on women of color who feared for their lives versus the White man who didn’t. That’s going to have a lasting impact on those women.”
The trauma each of the women experienced that day has manifested in different ways. Meng said she now tenses up when she hears loud voices. She has also been turned off from her favorite cookie. That January morning, expecting a long day, Meng brought in cookies from a local bakery in New York. As she sat waiting for help, nonstop images flashing across the TV and her phone receiving constant alerts, the cookies kept catching her eye. She told her husband she may never eat them again.
Adams also said the impacts are long-lasting: “That’s a Wednesday I’ll never forget.” She said she’s still “trying to process all that has happened and trying to be cautious going forward.”
Torres bought a bulletproof vest to wear to the inauguration. She and her husband went shopping at Nordstrom, where she fell in love with a blue dress. She bought it one size larger so her vest would fit underneath but, when she got home and tried the two on together, the vest was bulky underneath. She wore a suit instead.
Each of the lawmakers had originally planned to bring a spouse or a friend to the inauguration. All three brought security instead.