I have been to the United States Capitol once. A few years ago, my wife and I attended an evening event that allowed us to access parts of the Capitol I had read about, watched on television, and imagined. To attend, we had to be cleared to enter, submitting our legal names, dates of birth, employment details, and more in advance. Only after we were found on the guest list, had our bags searched, and cleared security were we able to walk past the perimeter and enter the Capitol.
Inside was a diverse crowd, dressed to the nines. Food, wine, and liquor were in an ornate room, with live musicians playing softly as guests mixed and mingled. For us, none of that was the priority. We were there to take everything in. As with the other guests, we were permitted to walk through the Senate Majority Leader’s and House Speaker’s office suites. We were struck by the size and order of the offices. Nothing was out of place and everything spoke to the power of these workplaces. We made our way to a terrace, where we had to wait our turn among the throng to gaze at the beautiful, distanced view of the Mall and beyond. We then entered the House Chamber, utterly stunned to be in the space that holds the State of the Union address and Joint Sessions.
We were stunned because we knew that for us this was an once-in-a-lifetime experience, to move freely around this grand structure built through the blood, sweat, tears, and toil of slaves, who lived in shacks on the construction site. We understood, clearly, the significance of this moment and how fleeting it would be.
Luck and good fortune brought us to this moment, as it does for so many Black adults who find themselves in spaces that as children they had not dared to dream of entering and experiencing. We felt privileged to be at this event because part of us believed we were not supposed to be there. I have an acute case of Imposter Syndrome. Discomfort and dread, often in equal doses, come over me when I find myself in places where I assume I am not welcome or fully accepted. A rigidity takes over that dictates how I comport and carry myself. In these moments, I feel like a guest in these places and in my own body.
But then we made it to the space where we spent the most time that evening: directly in front of the portrait of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress. Painted by Kadir Nelson, the portrait sits along a wide hall and captures Congresswoman Chisholm in her majestic, unbought and unbossed beauty. It was here that we took many pictures, which we excitedly sent in real time to friends and family. It was here that we relaxed and felt comfortable. It was here, in this small space, directly in front of this portrait, that we felt we belonged.
I reached back to this magical evening as I watched and began the journey of processing the attempted coup at the Capitol this week. None of us is alone in the horror that rushed into, flooded, and will remain in our bodies as we witnessed the insurgency orchestrated, fanaticized, and fomented by Donald Trump. Many of us shouted immediately that if the unpatriotic cabal of insurrectionists, marauders, looters, plunderers, and — yes — terrorists who put in peril the lives of federal, state and local law enforcement officers, members of Congress, congressional staffers, reporters, and the unnamed and unsung workers who maintain the Capitol had been Black or Brown, quite simply things would not have gone down like they did. Every social media post threatening to do what actually took place would have been perceived and treated as fact and premeditation. There would have been no breach of the perimeter and no need to call additional law enforcement departments after the onset of violence. All types of law enforcement personnel, military tanks, and the police dogs that Trump threatened to sic on protestors near the White House last summer would have been there on time and earlier. Officers would not have submitted, retreated, and run. No one would have been gingerly helped down the steps. Hyper-policing on steroids would have ruled the day. Scores of Black and Brown men, women, and children would have been shot, tear-gassed, pummeled, arrested, and killed. Coroner vans and paddy wagons would have raced to the Capitol to stack bodies.
The differences between my experience at the Capitol and the attempted coup in the very same space could not be any more stark, telling, or poignant. My wife and I walked through the Capitol with reverence and awe. We were on hallowed ground. We touched nothing and knew that we could not. We knew, as we have been raised and conditioned, that we were guests and that nothing belonged to us. Thus, as I watched the insurrectionists run through and past law enforcement officers, scale the Capitol walls as if there were at a rock climbing gym, break windows, chase officers, crowd the Rotunda, wave confederate flags that surely they wanted to plant, rush the House and Senate chambers, storm and destroy the House Speaker’s office, roam through Statuary Hall, rummage through government papers and throw them to the floor, sit in lawmakers’ chairs, place their feet on lawmakers’ desks, steal all sorts of items, and smile, laugh, cheer, and take pictures (even with officers) as if they were having the absolute times of their lives, here is what I saw: White comfort and privilege on full, unvarnished, and revolting display. They had no fear or apprehension because they knew the consequences, if any, would be relegated to an unlucky few (collateral damage). They knew so because they knew that in these moments they owned D.C., they owned law enforcement, and they owned the U.S. Capitol during the Joint Congressional Session held to certify the next President. The only thing they did not own was the ability to overturn the election and to re-select their President. But they thought they did.
Michael Pinard is the Francis & Harriet Iglehart Professor of Law and co-director of the Clinical Law Program at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. Twitter: @ProfMPinard.