Race stands as a backdrop in Jan. 6 committee hearings on Capitol Hill

During interviews with theGrio, U.S. Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn and former Trump impeachment manager Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett reflect on the attack committed by a mostly white mob.

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After nearly a year of investigating the horrific events of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, the House committee that was formed to uncover the root causes of the deadly and violent attack is finally releasing its findings in a series of hearings on the Hill.

Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

The House committee’s presentation to the American public will focus on extremist groups that committee members will show conspired to obstruct Congress through a coordinated attack. But a running thread that may or may not emerge in the renewed attention on the events of Jan. 6 is the role that race played in the unprecedented insurrection. 

While not all of the more than 2,000 insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol building were white (and male), a great majority of them were. What’s more, countless images of that fateful day showed insurrectionists toting symbols of hate and white supremacy, including a noose displayed near the Capitol, the confederate flag and even the “white power” hand gesture, among others.

“Black Americans had to see the insurrectionists resurrect the Confederacy in front of the Capitol in a way that I think was very suggestive of the types of white supremacist activities we’ve seen in modern-day America,” Nicol Lee Turner, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, told theGrio.

Turner, who researches public policy, noted that “Congress has well situated [Jan. 6] to be something that envelops race,” adding that the insurrection resurrected “the type of white supremacist values that has led to the widening polarization that we see in society.”

The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attacks in its first hearing on Thursday focused heavily on the man believed to have instigated the violence and hate that manifested that day: former president Donald Trump. 

The committee, led by U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi’s only Black member of Congress, will through the weeks-long hearings carefully connect the dots between the events of the Capitol attack and Trump’s actions leading up to, during and after the event.

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), chair of the select committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol, speaks during a committee business meeting as vice chair, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) looks on at Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill October 19, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Former Trump impeachment manager U.S. Del. Stacey Plaskett (D-V.I.) told theGrio that she believes the special committee will provide a “full, much broader picture” of how the former president “engaged in an attempt to change an election outcome and to thwart our democracy to retain power.”

The results of the election were notably driven by the mobilization and turnout of Black and brown voters in key states that handed Joe Biden the presidency—ultimately leading to false claims and investigations of voter fraud in predominantly Black and Latino populated counties.

Congresswoman Plaskett noted that the white supremacist and right-wing extremist groups that stormed the Capitol were emboldened by the twice-impeached Trump. 

“The reason you’re seeing Proud Boys and other white supremacist organizations come out, is because they, in fact, do not want the will of the greater majority of Americans to be executed through the vote,” said Plaskett. 

She added that Trump, during his run for president in 2016, sent a message to aggrieved white voters that electing him was “[their] last chance” to take back their country—a nod to the “great replacement theory” that motivated the murders of 10 African Americans in Buffalo, New York last month.

Rep. Stacey Plaskett
Rep. Stacey Plaskett (D-VI) questions Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Commissioner Charles Rettig as he testifies before the House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee on March 17, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Plaskett said that Trump “embraced and encouraged” these “white extremist organizations that are not just coming for Black and Brown people, but…our Arab brothers and sisters, Muslims [and]…our Jewish brothers and sisters.”

Turner pointed out a stark difference in how the mostly white pro-Trump insurrectionists were treated by law enforcement versus how Black Lives Matter demonstrators were handled during protests in 2020. She also recalled the violence African Americans endured during the civil rights movement. 

[The insurrectionists] were the ones that sprayed the tear gas and the bear spray on police officers, unlike in the 1960s when we had the tear gas sprayed on us, and the fire hose on us,” Turner told theGrio. “[There was] different management of the way that crowd was handled. There were more positive outcomes for them in terms of their ability to protest peacefully and safely.”

Turner said there were many “racial undertones,” including the difference in the use of “social media surveillance, and the tracking and the safety that was present for those insurrectionists.”

U.S. Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn, who risked his life on Jan. 6 defending the Capitol, told theGrio that while he doesn’t think the insurrection was a “racist event,” he does believe that there were racists among the mob.

U.S. Capitol Police officer Sgt. Harry Dunn testifies before the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol on July 27, 2021 at the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In his testimony before the Jan. 6 committee last summer, Officer Dunn recalled pro-Trump supporters hurling the n-word at him. During his interview with theGrio, Dunn recalled right-wing extremist message boards circulating images of him in a noose as he testified about the racism he experienced.

More than a year later, Officer Dunn finds it difficult to “get over” what happened on Jan. 6 because every day, he has to show up to “work in the crime scene.”

“I don’t think a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about that day,” he said. “I’m just waiting for the next ball to drop.”

Despite all that he endured, Dunn said he continues to show up to do his job because he “loves” the institution that is the Capitol and his role in defending democracy. “If I don’t do it, who else is, you know?”

(L-R) Sgt. Aquilino Gonell of the US Capitol Police, Officer Michael Fanone of the DC Metropolitan Police, Officer Daniel Hodges of the DC Metropolitan Police and Private First Class Harry Dunn of the US Capitol Police are sworn in to testify before the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 attack on US Capitol on July 27, 2021 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images)

Congresswoman Plaskett said that in addition to detailing the facts of the events that led up to the Jan. 6 attack, she also anticipates the committee’s legislative recommendations to ensure this “does not happen again.”

And while the hearings are intended for every citizen to see for themselves the evidence of the modern assault on America’s democracy, Plaskett said she especially hopes it motivates Black and brown voters to continue to show up at the polls in direct response to the efforts made by Trump and his supporters to silence them, adding, “just as those police officers were standing at the line against marauders coming over and attempting to overthrow our government in the Capitol.”

“I’m hopeful that that thread will trigger Black Americans to remember their duty to come out and vote,” said Plaskett. “Rather than be frustrated and stay home, we need people to come out and fight. And I’m hoping that that message also comes through.”

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