WASHINGTON — Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., knew there might be trouble on Jan. 6.
Lawmakers had been warned to stay in their offices due to protests against the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory the day that they were being planned by supporters of Donald Trump, then still in the last days of his presidency. Bowman also knew Trump’s rallies came with the “possibility of violence.” Still, what happened next shocked him.
“I wasn’t surprised at the attack, I guess. I was surprised by the lack of resistance. I was surprised that they were able to get past Capitol Police, and they were even able to get into the Capitol,” Bowman said in an interview with Yahoo News on Jan. 22.
Less than 48 hours after the attack, Bowman debuted a draft of the COUP Act, legislation that would establish a commission to investigate how rioters were able to storm the halls of Congress. Specifically, Bowman is demanding answers on “specific failures in the United States Capitol security and intelligence apparatus to accurately assess outside threats.”
The effort to demand accountability was Bowman’s first bill in Congress. He was elected last November and was formally sworn in at the Capitol just three days before the attack. For Bowman, investigating the law enforcement response to the attack is part of a larger mission he is focused on in Washington: addressing institutional racism.
As he watched the chaos unfold on Jan. 6, Bowman thought back to recent civil rights demonstrations in the nation’s capital, which were met with violent crackdowns by local police, federal agencies and the National Guard.
“During Black Lives Matter protests throughout the entire summer … there would be no way for anything like this to happen,” Bowman said. “So, you know, what did we know? When did we know it? How was it shared? Why weren’t we more prepared? How the hell did they get in? You know, all those questions kind of ran through my mind as I watched the events unfold.”
On Jan. 6, it took hours for the National Guard to arrive and help clear crowds from the Capitol. During their time inside the halls of Congress, rioters breached the Senate chamber and ransacked offices. The deaths of five people were linked to the ensuing violence, including U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick.
In the weeks since, information has emerged that law enforcement agencies shared intelligence warnings of violence at the Capitol as the election was certified. Questions have been raised about the delay in providing the overwhelmed Capitol Police with reinforcements from the National Guard. Many of the rioters have also been identified as off-duty or retired members of law enforcement and the military. Bowman has cited instances in which police appeared to let protesters freely enter the building and has pointed to disparities between the law enforcement response to the rioters and alleged crimes in minority communities.
“I don’t think it was a surprise to some, or even to many. I definitely don’t think it should have been a surprise,” Bowman said, adding, “At the very least, there should have been hundreds, if not thousands, more law enforcement officials there, with the proper gear and the proper equipment to stop anyone from breaching the Capitol. God forbid a member of Congress was killed, but it's bad enough that five people were killed and one police officer was beaten to death. … We should have done more. We should have shared information.”
Bowman’s bill, which names the Capitol Police, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Secret Service, also proposes looking into whether there are “explicit, direct connections” between these agencies and white supremacist groups. Amid growing indications of threats from extreme-right groups in recent years, there were questions about whether U.S. law enforcement was minimizing the threat prior to the Capitol attack. Bowman also suggested that the lax attitude taken towards the Capitol rioters, who were largely white, could be evidence of discrimination baked into law enforcement agencies.
“We also need to look at it from the perspective of bias and implicit bias, because it’s the bias that stops or alters behavior almost as much as the explicit racism that was on display,” Bowman said.
After his election, Bowman became the first male member of “the Squad,” a group of progressives in Congress whose first wave was elected in 2018 and included Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Bowman and other Squad members have been among the loudest voices pushing to have Trump impeached for what they see as his role in inciting the riot. After spending months spreading false allegations of voter fraud, Trump spoke at a rally just before the attack where he encouraged supporters to march to the Capitol to protest Biden’s win. Republicans and others have criticized the impeachment push as unconstitutional, considering Trump is no longer president, and have argued the country must move forward and focus on unity. Biden has expressed support for an impeachment trial in Congress while focusing on his own forward-looking agenda.
More than 30 of Bowman’s colleagues have signed on to support his legislation calling for a commission to investigate the attack. Polling from a progressive firm has also shown 66 percent of people would support the investigation. In the wake of the attack, the former chief of the Capitol Police and the sergeants at arms of the House and Senate have resigned amid bipartisan criticism of their response for the violence that transpired.
Although there is far from universal agreement on legislation that deals with the Jan. 6 riot — as well as the former president’s role in it — Bowman indicated he is pleased multiple committees are considering probing aspects of what happened, ensuring that the extraordinary event “doesn’t seem to be going away at the moment” from a congressional point of view. Nevertheless, he is adamant that the racial aspects of the incident need to be examined.
“I liked Biden’s speech during the inauguration because he talked about moving forward, but he didn't sugarcoat the importance of dealing with racial equity and racial justice,” said Bowman. “There’s no moving forward without accountability and there’s no healing without accountability right? And I think as a nation, we need to heal, obviously as marginalized and oppressed people, we need to be a part of that healing as well.”
Bowman’s desire for what he describes as “truth and reconciliation” following centuries of racism in the country extends beyond his Capitol investigation push. Bowman campaigned on what he called a “Reconstruction Agenda,” borrowing a term that was used for the post-Civil War policies aimed at addressing the injustice of slavery to brand a suite of initiatives. His platform advocates the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission to address the legacy of racism, criminal justice reform and inequality in health care and housing.
“We can't let it go because it directly connects with our legacy of racism and hate in this country that stems from the genocide of the indigenous Americans and the enslavement of African Americans,” Bowman said. “The legacy of that is institutional racism and white nationalism, and if we don't deal with it directly and explicitly in every institution, it will continue to persist and grow and permeate, and it will lead to a Donald Trump in the future.”
A former middle-school principal whose diverse New York district includes a mix of urban minority communities and well-heeled suburbs, Bowman says that addressing the affects of racism is important to his constituents.
“There are large segments of white America that still do not get and understand how institutional racism works … how it exists and how it still continues to decimate the spirit and psyche of Black and brown communities,” Bowman said. “Someone like Trump, you know, is easy as a foil in this narrative because he’s so demonstrative and explicit and his demagoguery reeks of racism. … But the nice white people in my district who live in Scarsdale who would never consider themselves to be racist are benefiting from an education system and a community that was based on racist policies.”
That’s why Bowman argues the “work of reconstruction … needs to remain top of mind” for everyone in the country — including white people.
“They're just living their lives as white people in a nation run by white people. So theyre good, right? But they’re not racist, they'll never call me a ‘n*****’ or treat me poorly when they see me, but they’re still benefiting from racist policy,” Bowman said. “So we need to go through that process of fully understanding how well-meaning white people continue to benefit from racist policy while Black and brown people who did nothing wrong but continue to suffer under those same policies. We all need to go through that process.”
It’s a challenge Bowman sees as fundamental to the country’s values.
“We will never be who we claim we are, the exceptional America that we claim we are, we’ll never be that without going through the process of true reconstruction,” he said.
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