On the Brown Side: Insurrection, inauguration and rebirth

Sydney Brown and Congresswoman Barbara Lee meet up early on Inauguration Day, excited that their work on Capitol Hill will build a better, fairer America.

by Sydney Brown

On Jan. 20, 2021, the crisp morning breeze, fresh off the Chesapeake, pierced through my overcoat as I briskly walked down New Jersey Avenue towards the United States Capitol. My gloved hands, fumbling in the unfamiliar East Coast chill, clutched my hat and pulled it lower over my ears. 

Hundreds of members of the United States National Guard solemnly lined the sidewalk as I approached, some offering a curt head nod, others, a muffled “good morning, ma’am.” The occasional blacked-out Suburban screeched past me, eager to get through to the inaugural activities set to commence later in the day. 

I watched, one by one, as all the cars were stopped by the military barricades and roadblocks that guarded the entrance to the Capitol perimeter. I, however, posing a substantially smaller risk to national security in the eyes of the guards, strolled swiftly past the barricades. 

My pace was swift not only as a method of combating the cold, but because the last thing I wanted was to be late to my meeting with United States Rep. Barbara Lee. As I approached our meeting spot, meters away from the same Capitol steps that had been infiltrated only two weeks prior by a group of white supremacists, my mind raced back to that dreadful day, Jan. 6, 2021. 

For weeks prior to Jan. 6, President Trump raved about that date as his supporters’ final chance to “save civilization,” “save America” and “stop the steal.” On Dec. 19, 2020, Trump tweeted, “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” 

Supporters took him at his word. The morning of the 6th, Mr. Trump held an overflowing, maskless rally outside the White House, insisting that the recent presidential election, one which ended in a convincing and historic victory for Joe Biden, had been “stolen” from him. At the rally, Mr. Trump urged his supporters to march to the Capitol and “take back the country.” 

Covering the inauguration for the Bay View, Sydney Brown stands with co-correspondent Lee Houskeeper of San Francisco Stories on Inauguration Eve. They are three blocks from the Capitol, but the police tape indicates traffic stops there. 

As a result, thousands of his supporters stormed their way into the Capitol, angry, armed, and full of belief in the words and wishes of their leader. Many touted the infamous red MAGA Hat, others carried flags of the Confederacy, and some even wore shirts bearing the words “Camp Auschwitz.” Some carried firearms, and others carried pipe bombs. 

As a result, five individuals died in the Capitol that day. The actions of the president and his supporters shocked millions across the world. 

As the insurrection unfolded, I was home in San Francisco, feeling a sudden bone-chilling fear about my flight back to Washington just three days later. I sat with my mom, safe within the comforts of our home, glued to the TV for over 16 hours. 

My phone was going off all day. Calls from my colleagues at the Capitol flooded my voicemail, and texts from my loved ones, concerned for my safety, crowded my inbox. As I answered every call, responded to every text, and reached out to every friend who was in proximate danger on the Hill, I felt numb from shock. Shock as the reality set in that insurrectionists had invaded and taken over what I saw to be my place of work. 

This photo, courtesy of Congressman Jim Costa, who is pictured in the center with a white mask and white hair, was taken Jan. 6 as the white supremacist mob breached the Capitol and Congress member were forced to dive for cover. – Photo courtesy Rep. Jim Costa

I’ve worked on Capitol Hill for four months. Not even being 20, I feel incredibly lucky to hold a legislative intern position in Congress. I view the Capitol and surrounding office buildings as sacred spaces filled with opportunity and hope, employing those with a fierce urgency to make a difference in the world and improve the lives of others. 

The insurrection that unfolded in the very same halls that I walked every day only several weeks prior was a painful reminder of how fragile our democracy really is. And that there are those in power who would compromise it without a second thought to further their selfish interests. 

As I saw photos of the assailants in the Rotunda, Statutory Hall, the Gallery, and in the halls of the Capitol, I thought about the photos of myself in those same rooms. I felt proud to be a Black intern working in the Capitol – honored to have this incredible opportunity at such a young age. 

Today, I look upon the future of this country not with fear, but with hope; not with shame, but with inspiration; not with hate, but with love.

I felt like even in a small way, I was representing my community, fighting for the voiceless and on my way to creating waves of change. Seeing these white supremacists in the very same halls that I proudly walk through each day made me sick to my stomach. 

Seeing them wave the confederate flag on Capitol grounds was a bitter reminder of the work that needs to be done. A reminder that who America professes to be is not yet who we really are: a deeply and painfully divided nation in need of some serious soul-searching. 

In the early morning hours of Jan. 7, as Congress sat to confirm the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris around 2:00 a.m. after the insurrection, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker posed a question to the American people: How are we to confront the shame from what we saw on the 6th? How do we address this dark time in American history? 

Two weeks after the Jan. 6 insurrection, on Inauguration Day Jan. 20, about-to-be President and First Lady Joe and Jill Biden walk onto the Capitol steps to be sworn in to lead the nation and the world out of the dark danger of the Trump regime. – Photo: Rep. Jim Costa

The Senator reminded his colleagues of a Georgian: Rep. John Lewis; a Civil Rights activist, freedom fighter and one of our Nation’s heroes. Sen. Booker reminded us of the spirit of John Lewis. He reminded us of what John Lewis believed in and so tirelessly fought for. 

He reminded us of what John Lewis would say now – that like the Georgians who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, fighting for African American rights on Bloody Sunday, we must join in spirit together. We must live in unity and hope. For together, we shall overcome.

On Jan. 20, I felt a sense of renewed hope and urgency. I waited at the corner of the Capitol and watched the sun rise over Washington, D.C., projecting a beautiful tint of golden light upon the Capitol’s dome. Various members of the press from different media outlets stood next to me with their cameras trained on the National Guard members in front of the Capitol. 

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris arrives to be sworn in on the arm of her husband, the first “second gentleman” in U.S. history, Douglas Emhoff. Harris is a role model and beacon of hope as the first woman vice president and the first of African, Asian or Jamaican descent. – Photo: Rep. Jim Costa 

I snapped some pictures on my cell phone and patiently awaited the arrival of Congresswoman Barbara Lee. As I watched her car pull up and saw the Congresswoman step out, radiating calmness and certainty, she glowed with excitement and hope about this turning point for America. The inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris was a monumental first step in our march towards a more perfect union in the aftermath of the Trump presidency. 

Congresswoman Lee smiled at me and told me how great a day this was for our country. She explained to me that she was wearing the late Congresswoman Shirly Chisholm’s pearls. Congresswoman Chisholm was the first woman and first African American to run for the presidency. 

Congresswoman Lee beamed with pride in wearing her mentor’s pearls and told me of how she knew that Congresswoman Chisholm was looking down on us all with great excitement and pride in our electing the first female, African-American and Asian-American Vice President, Kamala Harris. 

The youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, Amanda Gorman, who stole the show at the inauguration with her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” watches former President Bill Clinton sign an autograph at the end of the inauguration. – Photo: Rep. Jim Costa

The election of Vice President Harris marks a historic day in our country. The election of Joe Biden marks a desire for unity in this nation. I feel thrilled and honored to have been in Washington, D.C., during this inauguration. 

In Vice President Harris, I see myself. I see an African American girl from California – the Bay Area, to be exact. I see a woman who has experienced everyday racism and adversity similar to my own. Vice President Harris’ election gives credence to the voices of millions of women, African Americans, people of color and first-generation Americans who have been and sometimes continue to be silenced in our society. 

Being in Washington on this momentous occasion was an incredibly high honor. Having the opportunity to share my story and report back to the invaluable readers and community of the SF Bay View is an even higher one. 

On the evening of Inauguration Day, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, shared his account with Sydney Brown of the terror that gripped the Capitol on Jan. 6. You can listen in here: https://sfbayview.com/2021/01/sydney-brown-inauguration-coverage-jan-20-2021/.       

Today, I look upon the future of this country not with fear, but with hope; not with shame, but with inspiration; not with hate, but with love. It is the incredible diversity of our people that makes the hope of unity so special. With the new administration, new generations and new voices are taking a seat at the table, and I am eager to witness the inevitable adversity that we will overcome, and as a result, the inevitable accomplishments that we shall achieve, together. 

Sydney Minetta Brown, Bay Area born and raised, is a student of law and politics at University of Southern California. She is currently living in Washington, D.C., working on Capitol Hill. Read her column, On the Brown Side, every month in SF Bay View.