There is a certain cruelty underpinning the position that Jan. 6, 2021, was a day of “legitimate political discourse.”
Chalking it up to a tourist visit or a typical protest marred by a few bad apples is an offense not just to the truth of what happened that day—it was a riot raised by a president who spent weeks strategizing how to stop or delay the certification of the 2020 election—but it also betrays the courage and the humanity of the people who defended the Capitol and all inside of it.
This sort of gaslighting also undercuts the experiences of those Americans who watched from afar as the assault exploded into sheer chaos and the Capitol’s defenses were pushed to the brink. Many who felt shame or horror or fear as they watched the attack, are offered no succor by this latest minimization of the insurrection.
Jan. 6 shook something loose in America and the race is now on to see whether what was broken can be repaired. In the year since the attack, 70% of Americans polled—regardless of political persuasion, gender, race, or geography—have said they believe the U.S. is at risk of failing. The Jan. 6 committee, in that same year, has quietly persisted, conducting over 400 interviews and securing thousands of pages of documents—despite vehement pushback from its targets.
The select committee’s efforts have exposed information that has allowed for a greater weaving together of points in a plot that, for the most part, unfolded openly in 2020 and early 2021: Trump and his cronies—official and not—schemed and lied about election fraud, supported the fabrication of bogus elector slates, called on sitting Republicans lawmakers to stop certification despite an overwhelming lack of evidence of fraud, and exerted pressure on the vice president to subvert the results as a last-ditch attempt to keep Trump in power beyond President-elect Joe Biden’s impending inauguration.
So, when U.S. Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn shared a crumpled piece of paper with me recently and I read its contents, the starkness of this nation’s now more than year-long division over the events of Jan. 6 seemed particularly jarring and especially painful.
There, scrawled in heavy blue ink, was an officer’s thoughts served up without filter.
This list was given to Dunn by another officer because Dunn was one of the few who would be testifying before the Jan. 6 committee. The questions were of the “If I could ask this” variety and were aimed at those lawmakers who had expressed opposition, and often callously, to even the very suggestion that the attack be investigated.
It read: “If Jan. 6 was 1776, where were you? Didn’t see you on the battlefield? And what does that make me? And my colleagues?”
Memories in a still-churning wake
Officer Dunn agreed to sit for an interview last week for Daily Kos and permitted me the opportunity to carefully rifle through his personal collection of documents and mementos tied to Jan. 6.
The 14-year veteran of the force has amassed a collection capturing a moment in time some would like to forget and the pieces tell part of a greater story others would rather leave untold.
He has relived his experience from that day in hundreds of interviews, including one with me just weeks ago. He has told the world again and again precisely what occurred from his vantage point at the Capitol, and he has offered his testimony with fearless honesty.
It is easy to hold one’s head high and keep one’s self cool when the truth is on your side, Dunn likes to say.
I did not want him to sit for yet another interview to revisit the pain of having racial slurs hurled at him. I did not wish to make him rehash the egregious disrespect and abuse that he and his colleagues endured from those hellbent on stopping a key process in the nation’s peaceful transfer of power.
Instead, when he showed me that crumpled note, I wondered what other things he had held onto over these many months.
I imagine Jan. 6 as a story told with millions of small parts, some tangible, others not. I imagine many of those tangible parts now take up residence in drawers or big manilla envelopes and file folders scattered throughout the country. Other pieces may be sitting behind glass, under frame or lock and key. Maybe they are mounted on the walls of homes belonging to people that most Americans will never meet face-to-face nor could likely recognize without prompting.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is currently collecting pieces tied to Jan. 6. Its director, Anthea Hartig, aptly and succinctly described the attack as a revelation on the “fragility of our political system.”
The items collectively held onto from Jan. 6 preserve not just the matter-of-factness about the moment. Such preservation also allows people to reflect on the humanity inside of a tragedy. It makes history real, it makes its players mortal. It cuts through the dross of propaganda and misinformation.
I did not want to see something like that crumpled note Dunn kept for a year somehow lost to time. It should be seen. People should know more about the toll Jan. 6 has exacted and the ways it has marked moments in so many lives indelibly.
Some of the ephemera Dunn has in his possession is rare, even sacred. One such item includes a papal rosary that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi had blessed by the Pope just for Dunn and other officers on the front lines like Michael Fanone, now retired, Sgt. Aquilino Gonnell and Eugene Goodman. Another went to Metropolitan Police Officer Daniel Hodges.
Dunn is not Catholic, but he was touched by the gift nonetheless when he received it over Christmas, the first since the insurrection.
Dunn, sitting on a large soft sofa, surrounded by the mementos showed me two commemorative pens held in neat, small darkly colored boxes. He collects challenge coins, as well, and among the dozens in his collection is one honoring fallen U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick. Sicknick died after battling with the mob and suffering two strokes.
Another coin kept on hand is from NASA. Etched onto its side are the names of a handful of American astronauts who were in orbit—blissfully far away from Earth—during the insurrection.
Dunn reflected on their luck with a wry smile.
There are also heaps and heaps of envelopes, large and small, stuffed with letters so numerous they peek out from drawers or boxes and folders strewn about his home.
Some messages are written in perfect script. Others are typed or adorned with colored paper. Others are written, for reasons neither one of us could discern, with ink so light in color that the message could barely be read—even when squinting and backlit.
“Regardless, the sentiment means a lot,” Dunn said jovially last week, flipping through a stack of notes with the quasi-invisible ink.
Other pieces Dunn has retained are messages from fellow Americans acknowledging the trauma and physical pain he has endured. Some of that mail has even included “healing crystals,” a well-intended gift from a perfect stranger who saw Dunn’s pain and simply wanted to help him feel better.
Other items Dunn has kept are darker in tone and speak to the more difficult parts of processing the Capitol riot.
A visceral anger is still very much in play; Americans who watched the assault from afar now wait for justice. One letter, sent to Dunn by a veteran, dripped with a potent mix of regret, ire, and respect.
A veteran of the 1989 invasion of Panama was wounded and took lives during his stint in the military. In large, neat letters, he wrote to Dunn: “I don’t think my experience holds a candle to your experience on Jan. 6, 2021.”
It was the racism foisted on Dunn that really got under the veteran’s skin.
The man’s words for those who participated in the brutalities against police defending the Capitol was unbridled.
Saying he wished he could have been by Dunn’s side, the veteran added, it was a “probably a good thing” he wasn’t.
“I do not know if I could have restrained myself from shooting to death as many of those Trump-supporting white trash racist motherfuckers as I could,” the man wrote. “Especially the ones who called you the N-word.”
Dunn is not a proponent of violence. Reflecting on this veteran’s anger, I remarked to him that it must be very difficult at times to restrain one’s outrage in his position. Other people so clearly feel it on his behalf.
“Violence is never the answer,” Dunn said. “It is always better to negotiate or talk things through.”
Other inflamed passions over Jan. 6 were poured into more artistic endeavors, like a framed watercolor painting sent to Dunn by a retired Army colonel.
It came with a homemade spiral-bound book of illustrations and an accompanying letter of thanks. The book featured a collection of 8x10 paintings done by the colonel who observed closely as Dunn, Fanone, Gonnell, and Hodges testified for the select committee’s debut hearing.
As it turned out, the artist was local and Dunn, out of gratitude, dropped in on the colonel by surprise.
When she opened the door, he said, she was overjoyed that he would even take the time to thank her personally.
That memory is a sweet one for Dunn; the depths of his modesty and gratitude become obvious while he looks at the painting with a sort of disbelief.
A letter from Senator Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, is also in his collection.
Casey was particularly moved by Dunn’s unwavering commitment to preserving the Capitol and, as he wrote last August, democracy itself.
The letter arrived shortly after the Senate unanimously voted to award Capitol Police officers with the Congressional Gold Medal.
The House of Representatives in June had passed a measure approving the awards too but it did not come without weeks of open opposition.
Twenty-one House Republicans including members like Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, voted against the gold medal measure.
Biggs, who serves as chair of the uber-right wing House Freedom Caucus, was named by organizers of the ‘Stop the Steal’ rally as one of several lawmakers who allegedly participated in routine planning sessions for Jan. 6 with the Trump White House.
Now Biggs is one of the committee’s most overt critics.
When he cast his no-vote to bestow the honors on police officers, the Arizona Republican pointed to usage of the word “insurrection” in the resolution. Rep. Greene, who also refused to call Jan. 6 an insurrection, turned her nose up too at language in the bill that called the U.S. Capitol a “temple of democracy.”
For the record, an insurrection is defined as a usually violent attempt to take control of a government.
Before the resolution was finally passed in the House, Officers Dunn and Fanone wanted to visit those legislators who had indicated they would vote no.
Dunn and Fanone mocked up a list to guide their mission, hoping to take meetings on behalf of all fellow officers who held the line.
Each entry on the handwritten note displayed a legislator’s name accompanied by their office number. They never had all of their meetings but Dunn kept the list.
The passage of time
Officer Dunn has reiterated over the last 13 months that his service in the Capitol is not performed for the protection or benefit of any political party over another. He defended every legislator he could on Jan. 6 and would do it again if called.
His resolve exists even as he has been forced to watch, time and again, as many Republicans led by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, overwhelmingly hitch themselves to Trump’s continued disinformation about the events leading up to and on Jan. 6.
McCarthy was asked to sit for the committee voluntarily but he refused. The California Republican once laid responsibility for the riot at Trump’s feet but his political allegiances to the twice-impeached president have seemingly prevailed over the oath he once took to uphold the Constitution.
The GOP leader sounds more like Trump than he does himself when he discusses Jan. 6 and his attacks on the committee as an overbroad witch hunt led by so-called radical Democrats is straight from the Trump playbook.
Nonetheless, the passage of time has left Dunn and others with experiences and memories that cannot be washed away by heated rhetoric.
These personal items are additional proof that there are still so many in America who do not buy into wild conspiracy. They believe what they saw with their own eyes. They believe those who not only took an oath but when called to defend it, stood up and spoke up without hesitation.
Officers who have been forthcoming about their personal experiences on Jan. 6, often receive fierce criticism and Dunn is no different.
Though Dunn’s testimony and other public remarks are typically carefully worded so as not to misinform or confuse his position as an officer who protects all regardless of their political affiliations, the insinuations that he or others are attention seekers hungry for fame has been particularly hurtful.
Dunn was accused of being a liar by right-wing personality and Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Carlson attacked Dunn on air, calling him an “angry, left-wing activist.”
Dunn responded to the accusation during an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon. Sounding much like he did when he sat before the Jan. 6 Committee last July, his words were earnest and his delivery calm.
“You know what hurts more, or just as much as what happened on January 6? The attacks. The attacks on our credibility and that we're lying and that we don't love our country and we're fake police officers and we're not real cops,” he said.
Incidentally, for all the criticism that Dunn has an overinflated ego, the officer has yet to even hang on a wall in his home the beautifully framed reprint of a New York Times front page that was gifted to him following his interview with the paper last February.
Its corners are even still covered with protective cardboard.
Where one president once reportedly sat in the White House and idly watched as Dunn and others were attacked and almost completely overrun, the transition of power they fought to protect that day has produced, as the people’s will intended, another president.
In September, when Biden finally signed into law the resolution granting Congressional Gold Medals to all of the police forces who defended the Capitol on Jan. 6, Dunn was able to bring his daughter along to the ceremony.
He beamed at the thought when sharing pictures of her from the day. She looked beautiful next to President Biden and positively radiant appearing with Vice President Kamala Harris. It is a memory that she will have to treasure for the rest of her life.
Biden’s letter to Dunn promised to recognize his service through implementing real policy change.
It was accompanied by a presidential pen and much to his enjoyment, a White House challenge coin to add to his ever-growing collection.
His artifacts from Jan. 6 are reminders of a truth he already knows about that day.
it is a truth that may not be acknowledged by some of the legislators walking inside the very building Dunn still patrols, but truth exists with or without them. And even with Jan. 6, there’s something to be about the bigger world outside of Washington’s shadow.
“I’ve read every single letter, every single word,” Dunn said of all the letters, notes, and cards in his collection. “It’s thoughtful and intricate. Some of the letters, you can feel the emotions in people and that resonates with me. The fact that so many people support me is encouraging. It helps me to keep going because it feels like so many people are, I don't know, counting on me.”
Though he has been unable to keep up with responding to every message, occasionally, a letter or card will include a phone number and he will call to say thanks.
The day of his interview with Daily Kos, Dunn had fielded a call with a man in San Francisco.
“When he picked up and told him who I was, he said it made his day,” Dunn said laughing. “That meant a lot to me. He sent me a couple gift cards for coffee but I don’t drink coffee, so I gave them away to those who do.”
Again, he emphasized, he reads everything sent his way.
To those who haven’t received a reply from him, he expressed his gratitude.
“Thank you for your support. It means more than you know,” he said.
Dunn would like to see truth and justice win the day. He believes in transparency and fairness. If there are indictments that are deserved, or criminal contempt referrals to be made, he’s waiting, like the rest of America, for the committee to do its work and render its recommendations.