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The legacy of Jan. 6 is trauma, despair — and hope

Mika Brzezinski says the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol is a reminder that we must work even harder to protect our democratic institutions because our lives – and way of life – depend on it.
"Morning Joe" co-host and Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski.
"Morning Joe" co-host and Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski.Anthony Scutro

The United States Capitol – the center of our democracy – is a place I have cherished and revered for most of my life. Never in my darkest nightmares did I imagine it would be invaded by a violent mob of our own countrymen and women, as it was one year ago.

I am still haunted by what happened outside the House chamber, by the image of a Confederate flag being paraded through the Capitol, by the videos of protesters taking over the dais, shoving police and breaking barricades. I am haunted for the Capitol police officers outnumbered by the mob, and seemingly abandoned by higher authorities. Who to this day still suffer from their ordeal.

For so many Americans, the bedrock of our democracy was shaken, with Trump flags, Bear spray, plastic handcuffs, nooses and so much venomous hatred.

My first visit to the Capitol was on an elementary school field trip. Richie Schweiker was in my 5th grade class, and his dad, Sen. Richard Schweiker, offered us a tour and visit to his Capitol Hill office. I remember gasping in awe as I looked up at the majestic rotunda. I still do every time I return.

I was fortunate to intern at the Capitol when I was a junior in high school. I worked on the Hill every Wednesday for then-Sen. David Durenberger. Walking the same halls as legislative legends like Sens. Ted Kennedy, Sam Nunn and Alan Simpson, I felt the import and imprint of history all around me. My tasks were menial, like delivering envelopes from one office to another or fetching coffee. But the aura of the U.S. Capitol surrounded me.

This center of democracy is a massive and magnificent structure, fitting for the historic events that happen inside of it, from the pomp and circumstance of the State of the Union address to the day-to-day details of policy and lawmaking. At its best, this is the place where people come to protect our freedoms, defend our nation and improve our imperfect union.

And then, on Jan. 6, 2021: Chaos. Violence. Destruction. A despicable display of disrespect for our democracy.

Image: Protesters climb over Capitol building where pro-Trump supporters riot and breached the Capitol,
Protesters at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.Lev Radin / Getty Images file

Joe and I watched in horror on TV as the afternoon’s events unfolded. I was so worried for the safety of everyone, from the lawmakers we cover and their teams to all the young staffers who go into work every day so excited to be a part of democracy.

I got very visibly upset. I was pacing around the room and shouting questions — the same questions we have been asking ever since — including “where are the cops?” and “how is this happening?” As I watched President Donald Trump earlier in the day telling his supporters that “we are going to the Capitol” and “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” I knew Trump wouldn’t actually be joining them. Trump wasn't coming, but his supporters were doing all of this for him anyway. They were being duped by a conman.

Image: Supporters of President Donald Trump protest inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Supporters of President Donald Trump protest inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.Roberto Schmidt / AFP - Getty Images file

We did our best to cover the attack and make sense of it all on “Morning Joe” the next day. But I was angry and had a hard time controlling my emotions. We have since covered the 700 arrests, 158 guilty pleas and 57 convictions in connection with the attack. The true inciters of this attack, potentially including Donald Trump himself, have yet to really answer for this egregious transgression.

So, while the physical aspects of the Capitol, like the fences and broken glass, have all been repaired, haunting questions and emotional scars remain.

This was too close, too violent, too real and a threat to our American democracy. I still feel a sense of dread when I think of that awful day, and I’m fairly pessimistic about what’s coming next. There is much work that needs to be done to rebuild our shared sense of what America is. It will take so much time for us to heal. Many of us (myself included) are impatient and frustrated. I fear we will become complacent, and I want accountability

But what overrides that feeling is knowing we are a resilient nation. In spite of everything, our system has held. Jan 6 is a reminder that we must work even harder to protect our democratic institutions. Our lives – and way of life – depend on it.

Mika Brzezinski is the co-host of MSNBC’s "Morning Joe," founder of “Know Your Value” and author of four best-selling books.