Melissa Harris-Perry: We're continuing to mark one year since the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, and it's a stark moment. In years and decades to come, I'm sure we're all going to remember where we were and whom we were with when we watched the events unfold on television. For some, this was not a televised horror, this was lived experience.
Bonnie Watson Coleman: My name is Bonnie Watson Coleman, I represent the 12th district in the state of New Jersey.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I asked the congresswoman to take me back to that day, one year ago, when she and others were under attack by their fellow Americans.
Bonnie Watson Coleman: My day started earlier than the actual insurrection at the Capitol because I live in an apartment building next to the Republican National Committee. We were evacuated from our apartment because there was a bomb supposedly in the back, which they subsequently found out in the back alley.
I left there, went immediately to my office. As I was going into the office building, a Capitol Police officer said, "You got to leave here. You can't stay here. It's too close to what's happening." He said, "Go downstairs and go through the tunnel." I went down through the tunnel, stood for a while in a little cafeteria area, and said to my husband and my staffer who were with me, "I think we should go to the Capitol because we'll be safe. There are too many people in this cafeteria and there are people who don't have mask on."
We walk through the tunnel over to the Capitol. I went over there. I decided I was going to go to the attending physician's office for something because I had some time. As I was walking down the hallway to the office, I encountered the first police officer. He said, "Ma'am, you don't want to go down there because they're going to breach that area." I said, "Well, I'm just trying to get to the doctor's office." He shrugged his shoulders and went in the opposite direction.
I then walked a little ways more and encountered another officer. He said, "Ma'am, don't go down there, they are breaching now." He stood in front of me as I walked down another hallway. As I walked down the hallway, all these doors opened up saying, "Come shelter, come shelter, come shelter." We end up sheltering in one of the small offices next to the attending physician's office.
We were there. We could hear things, but we didn't really have a good sense of what was happening inside. Had a small TV on, Melissa, could see activity on the outside a little bit but I could hear USA, USA chanting. I could hear stomping inside, and my thought was, "Oh my God, who's ever doing that, I feel sorry for them because the Capitol Police are going to shut them down." Little did I know that the opposite was happening.
We were there for I guess maybe a couple of hours, I'm not sure. We had this knock at the door and they said, "Come out, we've got to get you out of here." I'm like, "Who are you?" They said, "We're Capitol Police." I'm like, "Show me your identification." They held it up over a transom so I could see it and somebody else tried to put it under the door so I could see it.
The nurse that was there, my husband, my staffer, and I, went with the Capitol Police down through the tunnels, and they took us to a large room where they were holding everybody and where they had security outside. It was in there that we were for quite a while. It was in there where one of my colleagues tried to give some of my other colleagues mask and they refused to take them.
We were there until we got an all-clear sign. We left there, I ended up in the whips office upstairs waiting until we were going to be called to vote so we were there for a couple of hours. Then we were called to vote and we did, and as I was leaving the whips office, I saw Capitol Police officers just like drained, absolutely drained sitting down on the floor, you saw debris on the floor outside of the office, went in and voted and went home, then really saw what was happening on TV and was absolutely mortified that I was in the middle of it and didn't realize how dangerous it was.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You ended up with a positive COVID diagnosis after this. Talk to me about where that exposure happened. You were talking about trying to give masks to some of your other colleagues.
Bonnie Watson Coleman: We were in the large room where they were holding members and staff. There were a number of people in there, some members, I think, even some staff who weren't wearing masks. One of my colleagues had some of the cloth of the disposable mask and was trying to get them out and they were being declined. We were in that room with people who didn't have mask.
After we voted, we went back to our apartment and the next day we left and the very next day, I got a call from the attending physician's office saying, "There were some positive people in that holding room to get tested." I got tested and I tested positive. They sent me to get monoclonal antibodies. The doctor said to me, "Thank God you had one shot already, and we got the infusion of monoclonal antibodies that probably saved your life." That was a frightening prospect just retrospectively looking on it but thanking God that that was the case.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Representative Watson Coleman, when you say that, I have to say when we talk about and remember January 6, we typically think of the only source of-- particularly of life-threatening danger as having come from the outside, from those who were breaching the Capitol, but that's quite something to say that you were actually in a situation where it was potentially a threat from the inside, that someone who chose not to protect you and other members of the staff, other members of the US congress by doing something as simple as wearing a mask in the context of such a difficult situation.
Bonnie Watson Coleman: Yes, I know, it's really not understandable because it is a very simple thing to have done just recognizing that we were all in this together, but this buying into the big lie or this defiance that we saw from members of the Republican conference, just makes no sense. The politicization of this health scare and this threat to our well-being, it just makes no sense.
The threat was from the inside as well. It was from that perspective. It was also from the perspective that would potentially have members and staff members who were colluding with the folks who were creating all the damage and wreaking all the havoc and creating the dangerous situation, the insurrectionist. When you look at it all around, it was a pretty terrifying moment. For me, it was watching it, because while I was in the midst of it, I couldn't see all that was going on.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to stick with that phrase for a second, when I was in the midst of it, I couldn't even see all that was going on. With the value of a year now of looking back, what do you now see, and particularly I have to say as I remember watching it. I think none of us will forget the experience of watching it.
You couldn't have told me a year ago January 6 that so little accountability would have been put into place by now. I would absolutely have presumed much more and much higher profile accountability than we have seen. Are you at all surprised by that?
Bonnie Watson Coleman: I'll tell you, I think the wheels of government run very slow as we know. I think the fact that we weren't getting any cooperation from the Republican conference and getting some of these answers contributes to that. I think the January 6 committee is doing a good job of trying to get the information, get the answers to the questions, get the folks who have that information before them, make sure that there's some accountability.
I think there's a lot more going on with that committee than even members of congress who are not on that committee, let alone people in our respective communities know. I just hope that when it's time to hold these public hearings, that they're given the air time that we had during the Nixon issue, during the 9/11 issue, because it is that threatening, it is that serious.
This is a serious threat to our government, our governance, our democracy and we need to have this in front of people so that they don't forget nor do they think that this was just something that happened on one day and it'll never happen again. We're in a very dangerous environment right now. We don't know what to expect.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Over the course of the past year, I'm wondering if you have experienced either greater sense of trust with your fellow members given that you had this shared frightening experience or if a year after the January 6 insurrection, not so much trust in Congress, but trust among those who serve in our legislature. Has it deteriorated?
Bonnie Watson Coleman: I'll tell you, there are members who aren't cooperating right now. We've got one member who refuses to wear her mask every single day that she's on the floor. There's this total disrespect for anybody else.
I can't believe that they don't recognize the health threat that COVID presents because they were smart enough to get elected so they're smart enough to read. They're smart enough to have gotten vaccinations throughout their lives for various things. Disregarding this stupid [unintelligible 00:11:21] to not protect your fellow members and other folks that you encounter, it's unexplainable. I've just never seen anything like this.
When I see what happened on the 6 played over and over and over again on the various news programs, it is frightening. It brings a sense of trauma back to you that, oh my God, I was in the middle of this. Oh my God, I was not that far from where they were breaching. Oh my God, if they saw me with a pin, I would have been fodder for them as well. They didn't care who it was. They were just an angry mob determined to disrupt government.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Are you feeling hopeful these days about our democracy?
Bonnie Watson Coleman: I'm really scared that the people are not paying enough attention, are not yelling enough, are not collectively saying, we know that our democracy was challenged. We see what's happening in states that will thwart the opportunity and accessibility to voting. We can tell what the plan is to interrupt democracy and elections. I want to make sure that everybody is constantly aware of it.
Melissa, I say to my husband and my staff, "Let us go to the Capitol. We will be safe there. If you can't be safe in the citadel of democracy with all of the kind of security that's supposed to be there, you can't be safe anywhere. It is frightening today because you know that there are people who are plotting something you just don't know what.
There are people who are hell-bent on disrupting government because they don't believe it works. They still buy into a lie that this maniac former president perpetuates. I don't understand how people could be so ignorant and evil at the same time here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What does give you hope in our democracy? What are the moments that maybe are far from the view of the public and maybe particularly over the past year where you thought, okay-- because you're still doing, you're still waking up, you're still going to the citadel of our democracy, you're still serving. Why?
Bonnie Watson Coleman: Because we have to. Because we can't let things of that nature stop our government from working. We've got to be stronger than that. We've got to stand up for that. We have a responsibility to those who elect us. If we believe that democracy is the form of government that we think is the best form of government then we've got to literally stand up for it and do whatever is necessary.
I have a lot of confidence in the January 6 committee. I have a lot of confidence in the Democratic Caucus. I have no confidence in the Republican conference. I think they're doing everything they can to disrupt, to destroy, and to perpetuate continuous lies. I think that, at the end of the day, if we can get our message out, if we get the fair coverage of the hearings that are going to take place, people will see for themselves.
It's hard to understand how members of families who are not vaccinated and die still refuse to get vaccinated. I don't know what it takes but I know we can't give up.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey. Thank you so much for joining us.
Bonnie Watson Coleman: Thank you for having me have a blessed year.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Thank you as well.
Bonnie Watson Coleman: Thank you.
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