When the film of the 6 January Capitol insurrection was shown to the US Senate on the first day of Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial, the TV station I watched ran a warning in the upper right-hand corner. Explicit video. After a few minutes, I began to think that explicit was an understatement, that we should have been warned that what we’d be seeing was brutal.
In the aftermath of the 6 January riot, I – like many Americans, I imagine –watched plenty of footage of the riot. It was horrifying, for obvious reasons, and also mysterious, because I found it hard to understand exactly what, in addition to Donald Trump’s urging and the fake claims of a stolen election, had unleashed such murderous rage in so many people.
But as the film that was shown at the impeachment trial makes clear, I – and many Americans – had seen a somewhat denatured version of the truth, a toned-down report on what happened that day.
It turns out that when the police officer was being squeezed in a door, it went on for a long time and was accompanied by terrifying cries of agony from the victim and shouting from his attackers. It turns out that when you have someone down on the ground and are beating him with a hockey stick, viewers can watch the hockey stick being raised and slammed down, rising and falling. The violence is chaotic, but not indecipherable; it reminded me of the scene in the Maysles brothers’ brilliant documentary, Gimme Shelter, in which the Hells Angels beat a Black audience member to death at a 1969 Rolling Stones concert in Altamont, California.
Part of the difference between what we’d grown used to seeing and what was revealed in the trial video was simply a matter of length. The video at the hearing lasted 13 minutes, and though shots of the rioting were intercut with clips of Trump speaking and the Senate convening to certify the 2020 election, most of the film showed the mob swarming the Capitol steps, smashing windows and doors, surging through the halls and on to the floor of the Congress, chanting and demanding, “Where are they?” I realized that much of what I had seen was in fragments – a minute here, another few seconds there – without the sustained, increasing power the film gathered as it went on.
We had been spared the most graphic moments: the hockey sticks, the police officer caught in the door. I was amazed, not only by what I was seeing, but also because I’d never seen it, not all of it, before. I realize that a film this long would take up most of an evening news broadcast. Perhaps more significantly, a screaming man being squeezed in a door is the polar opposite of clickbait, at least for most of us. If that footage had been available to mainstream television producers, you can imagine them calculating how fast and how many viewers would grab for the remote. Yet seeing these new horrors, I felt that we had been cheated, the way you do when someone has told you a half-truth.
I don’t like staring at images of death and destruction. I can’t make myself watch the dusty bodies being pulled from the earthquake rubble. But the Capitol footage was different, because it is something that we, the American people, need to see. We aren’t children who have to be shielded from the truth, especially when it helps us make political decisions. Many of the Republicans recently reported to be changing their voter registration and fleeing the party in droves are responding to what happened, to what they saw. And they hadn’t yet seen it all.
Oddly, a number of Republican senators – Rand Paul, Rick Scott, Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio, among others – made a point of ignoring the film. They flipped through papers as a man screamed in pain in the background. Their refusal to look up and find out what was wrong was meant to send out a signal. They scribbled notes as the crowd hunted Mike Pence. Mitch McConnell, who appears in the film, apparently showed no reaction.
It’s a clear reminder, visceral and surreal, of one of the most insidious things – a stain that remains – of the Donald Trump presidency: the spectacle of a powerful person ignoring and denying the truth when it threatens their personal interests. The senators, Republicans and Democrats alike, were in the Capitol building that day. They know what happened. They know the film wasn’t staged, and that the rioters were not disguised antifa. They know that Donald Trump incited the riot. If they watched the film, if the public knew they’d watched it, it would be harder to insist that the former president shouldn’t be convicted.
Fortunately, most Americans don’t have a narrowly focused obsession with being re-elected. Except for extreme conspiracy theorists, we understand what we are seeing. Most of us watching that film will consciously or unconsciously register what happened, and what could have happened that day. I hated seeing the most graphic clips again – the newscasters used that word, graphic – but I was glad the footage was appearing on the evening news and, I imagine, shocking its viewers. It was smart of the Democrats to put the film out there and encourage the media – to give them permission – to show it.
Like it or not, those scenes will stay with us, even if certain senators refuse to consider the evidence that they have been elected to consider. So here’s what I’d like to think: the disturbing scenes we watched while those senators pretended not to notice will lodge like a splinter, like that terrible song you can’t get out of your head, in the memory of Americans who vote in the next election.