Some memories and trips stay with you. I remember the art in the light-filled space of the beautiful Capitol dome on a wintry day. The 16th US president, “Honest Abe” said: “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts” (and may I add, convince them to believe).
By Indranie Deolall
A group of visiting foreign journalists, we stood that cold morning to one side, struck into silence by the sheer size and splendour of the Capitol’s Rotunda, as we stared at the ornately decorated dome with its neo-classical motifs, in soaring symmetry above us.
All around gleamed fine marble statuary of famous figures and founding fathers, and on the curving sandstone walls glowed the giant historical oil paintings that depict vivid scenes from the American Revolution and the early exploration and colonisation of the region. Intended to evoke the ancient Roman temple of the grand Pantheon, the Rotunda is divided by fluted columns topped with wreaths of olive branches, an ancient symbol of peace or victory, particularly in supplication to the Gods and people in power.
Pre 9-11 we had each gone through a barrage of security checks and scanners even though we were vetted prior to a guided tour of key Washington institutions and landmarks done through an international programme organised by the United States Information Agency.
Later that day, accustomed to the predictable order and usually staid nature of our British-based Guyana parliament, I ventured deeper into the chambers of the United States (US) Congress and the seat of the legislative branch of the federal government, ending up initially stunned by what we witnessed.
Feuding representatives shouted, a few were standing, and some strolled around, even as another spoke passionately at the podium and the gavel thundered. “Order! Order!” Wondering about the seeming citadel of confusion, I and my bemused colleagues grilled one of our assigned officials. He shrugged, laughed and eventually summed it up in one memorable sentence, “That’s American democracy at work.”
Last Wednesday afternoon, like the rest of the world, I watched again mesmerised, but in shock and horror as the historic catalogue of chaos frozen in extraordinary images of anarchists, conspiracy theorists and social media influencers, rolled across the screens. Leaving an indelible imprint on the minds of dismayed friends and gloating foes alike, these graphic scenes of the storming of the Capitol capture the latest attack on the heart of a great nation locked yet again in a decisive crisis.
This was triggered by a dangerous and deluded demagogue and his enablers, unable to peacefully concede that this is no reality television show and that their party has lost a free and fair election and both the Electoral College and Popular Votes, with over 74 million of the latter as against his rival Joe Biden’s 81.3 million votes, or 51.3 percent of the amount cast. Biden is the first US presidential candidate to have won so many votes.
Irrespective of the recounts, the evidence the polls were untainted, and the countless court rulings against his Republican party’s shameless efforts to overturn the results, the now beleaguered president Donald Trump vowed Wednesday, “never to concede” the “stolen” election in an incendiary speech on the nearby grassy area known as the Ellipse. Terming the assault “a dark moment” in the nation’s history, Biden appealed for calm, acknowledging, “The work of the moment and the work of the next four years must be the restoration of democracy, of decency, honour, respect, the rule of law,” observing, “We must step up.”
As Guyanese who faced a bitter five-month political impasse in which the losing ruling party and its defiant leaders clung to power, we know all too well the perils of denial in a polarised duopoly and parliament.
For it is largely due to American-imposed visa sanctions and mounting regional and international pressure that this country was ever able to witness the eventual August 2nd 2020 peaceful inauguration of a new president Irfaan Ali and the return of the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) that is fast forgetting its slim one-seat majority, even as long-time rivals, outgoing president David Granger and the one-term coalition A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance For Change (APNU+AFC) dominated by the People’s National Congress (PNC) have continued to pursue baseless allegations of widespread electoral fraud, in the Courts.
No mention of rigging
Just days ago, in a New Year’s message, Granger sought to absolve himself and his government of any responsibility related to the two-year legislative crisis and electoral deadlock which gripped the nation, Stabroek News reported. Granger made no mention of the attempted rigging of the District Four count, claiming his administration did what was “necessary to ensure the functioning of the Constitution.”
Blaming it all on the Guyana Elections Commission and Chairperson, Claudette Singh, Granger declared, “We believe that the measures we took fortified democracy.”
Shaken offices of power
Fast forward to Wednesday’s mob of angry American protesters, some armed, incited by their desperate president as his agents of war, easily scaled walls, flipped security barriers, smashed windows, charged past outnumbered and unprepared lawmen, and surged across the hall with its central white marble slab, reserved for important ceremonial events.
On this day, January 6, 2021, when the House and Senate were meeting in the separate wings to formally confirm president-elect Biden’s Electoral College victory, the US experienced direct and deadly confrontation inside its stricken innermost corridors and shaken offices of power, as what was expected to be a peaceful transfer had to be abruptly cut short.
The viral images are unforgettable and unsettling whether feeling the fear of visibly panicked lawmakers lying on the carpeted floors; watching the black handguns poised to fire before the besieged doors; or studying the smiling man with his baseball cap and check-patterned shirt, who took the opportunity, cell phone in hand, to relax and record himself in the chair of the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, with his foot resting with contempt on her desk. Identified by an Arkansas station as Richard Barnett, “Bigo” said he took an envelope because his cut had bled on it, noting ironically, “I put a quarter on the desk ‘cause I’m not a thief.”
Others bearing huge flags of the Confederacy, the Southern States that fought to keep slavery during the American Civil War, roamed the building, still unable to accept defeat more than 150 years on. Who can forget the horned character who calls himself the QAnon Shaman, screaming as if possessed for the cameras? Or the grinning man with the Trump-beanie strolling between the guide ropes, carrying the podium with the seal of the Speaker of the House, as he waved in front of the painting completed by John Trumbull a century ago, depicting the surrender of a British Lieutenant General John Burgoyne?
At war with itself
In this most uncivil of conflicts, instigated by this most uncivil of American presidents in the White House, who seemed to thrive on constant chaos, the US appeared wounded and at war with itself as it has been more times than we want to remember in the past four cringe-worthy years, but especially in the last 12 months when to be Black or different meant some lives and protests mattered far less than others.
Much as we would like it to be different, the United States of America, too, is an imperfect union, an exasperating conundrum that allowed a towering man of Barack Obama’s character to become president, only to be followed by the debacle of Donald Trump. Yet, in the nervous days to come, as we wonder about easy access to the nuclear codes and rampant tendencies to authoritarianism, there are valuable lessons to be learnt from the collective trauma of January 6, 2021, when the wake-up calls sounded, America’s credibility and place in the world shuddered, and we trembled, knowing that democracy is precious but so fragile.
ID remembers walking down to the Lincoln Memorial, as she contemplates the warning of president Abraham Lincoln: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”