Make America Remember Again

Caroline Edwards’s testimony about the January 6 insurrection was a reminder that words can convey truths that even images cannot.

U.S. Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards testifies during a hearing on the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, June 9, 2022.
Andrew Harnik / AP

“There were officers on the ground,” Caroline Edwards testified Thursday evening, during the first public hearing of the House Select Committee investigating the events of the January 6 insurrection. The Capitol Police officer was describing the violence she observed as she attempted to defend the building from the mob. She described her fellow officers, outnumbered and outmatched: “They were bleeding,” she said. “They were throwing up. I saw friends with blood all over their faces. I was slipping in people’s blood.”

In the hearing—the first of several that will introduce the American public to the panel’s findings—the committee attempted to do several things at once. Most prominently, it outlined its legalistic case against Donald Trump: that the former president attempted a coup that culminated with the violence of January 6. But the committee was also mounting a defense—of memory itself. It was attempting to shock Americans out of easy amnesia and into a stark remembrance of the insurrection. Video, as such, factored prominently in the proceedings. Footage of the day’s chaos, some of it aired for the first time, did what video does so well: It re-created the day, scene by scene. It illuminated and illustrated and reminded.

But one of the night’s most notable ironies was that its most powerful moment came not from the footage, but instead from the words that Edwards delivered. Throwing up. Blood all over their faces. Slipping in people’s blood. The story she told, detached and intimate at once, sliced through the fog of forgetfulness, upending familiar truisms about the power of imagery. Edwards’s testimony made the insurrection newly visceral. To a public that is so prone to numbness—and that is so beset by cynicism that even video evidence might be dismissed as a tool of the “fake news”—her measured words were worth a thousand pictures.

Edwards, who spoke near the end of the hearing, described the day’s events in unsparing detail: the way it slowly dawned on her how the violence would unfold (“I know when I’m being turned into a villain,” she said); the way the crowd became a mob; the way the face-off between the officers and the insurrectionists devolved into hand-to-hand combat. She spoke of getting injured in the melee, as rioters treated a bike rack as a battering ram and her body as an impediment. She described how, confronted with the force of the crowd, she tumbled to the ground. “I felt the bike rack come on top of my head,” she said, “and I was pushed backward and my foot caught the stair behind me. And my chin hit the handrail. And then at that point, I had blacked out. But the back of my head clipped the concrete stairs behind me.”

That Edwards was describing something TV viewers had already seen only made her testimony more bracing. Shortly before, the committee had played a video clip showing the crowd chanting “U-S-A!” and using their collective force against Edwards. It showed Edwards, trying to stand her ground, and finally toppling, her legs bent into sharp angles.

The footage was hard to watch—and harder still when the broadcast, carefully stage-managed, split its screen to capture Edwards reacting as she observed herself on film. But it offered a simple alignment of story and imagery. Edwards’s words matched the video, and vice versa. That consonance made the day’s chaos seem profoundly straightforward. Donald Trump and his enablers have spent the past year and a half attempting to argue that the facts of January 6 are fungible; that the truth of the insurrection is in the eye of the beholder. They have attempted to turn time’s passage into its own tool of propaganda. (“All. Old. News,” the GOP House Judiciary Committee account tweeted Thursday evening, well before the hearing had concluded.) But the video and the verbal testimony, thus combined, countered such postmodern partisanship. They suggested that “what happened,” as a general proposition, can be clearly ascertained. Yes, memories fade. Yes, the shock recedes. But these things happened. Here is proof. Believe your eyes. Believe your ears.

“You will hear” and “you will see” were refrains of the evening, as committee members Bennie Thompson and Liz Cheney made their opening arguments to the American public. Fittingly, the other witness they called, for this first hearing, was Nick Quested, a documentarian who had captured some of the day’s violence as part of a film he was compiling. Edwards and Quested, seated next to each other as they answered questions, clarified the approach the committee would be taking as it makes its case. In a moment when facts themselves are at stake, the hearing made its grimly elemental argument: that truth, in politics as in everything else, can be made legible. Truth is not mere “narrative”; truth is not partisan; truth is not what a lying leader would prefer it to be. Truth is instead right there, observable and obvious, captured by body cams and film crews, screaming and whooping as it forces its way into the building.

Edwards’s testimony was thus powerful precisely because of its austerity. “Slipping in people’s blood”: This was a new way of framing the familiar images. Her words, both sharp and blunt, made ground truth bracingly literal. And her testimony’s visual elements served that sense of starkness. As she spoke, she sat at a plain table, devoid of objects save for a placard of folded paper—OFFICER EDWARDS, it said, in black print—a small bottle of water, and a single pen. Framed just behind Edwards sat Sandra Garza, the partner of Brian Sicknick, the Capitol Police officer who died the day after the riot from two strokes, according to D.C.’s chief medical examiner. Edwards spoke slowly. She paused often, seemingly scanning her memory and searching for the right words. She projected the caution and care typical of one under oath. “It was carnage. It was chaos,” she testified at one point. “I can’t even describe what I saw.”

Public discussions of January 6, in the day’s immediate aftermath and in the following months, have tended to resolve into broad queries. Was it a protest, or a riot, or an insurrection? Was it an isolated event, or a symptom of a broader conspiracy? The committee will likely be litigating these questions over the weeks to come. But Edwards’s testimony was a reminder, too, of the galling intimacy of the day’s violence. She was tear-gassed. She was knocked unconscious. She saw her friends covered in blood. She saw colleagues on the ground. The attack, on top of everything else, enforced a series of category errors: It turned a workplace into a war zone. It turned a crowd into a mob. It turned a symbol of American democracy into a symbol of that democracy’s profound vulnerability. Edwards, with her account, captured that sense of destabilizing wrongness. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” she said, as she described the shock of it all. But then, of course, she had to believe—because what she saw, after all, was what happened.