I Asked My Colleagues to Wear Masks. They Laughed.
Delaware’s congresswoman thought she might die in the riot at the Capitol. Then her Republican colleagues mocked her for handing out masks while they sheltered together.
As a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol on January 6, security guards hustled representatives into a secure location. Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester, Delaware’s sole member of the House, tried to convince several of her Republican colleagues to put on masks. They refused, and laughed at her—behavior that was captured in a viral video. In the days since, House Democrats Pramila Jayapal, Brad Schneider, and Bonnie Watson Coleman have tested positive for COVID-19. They blame their GOP colleagues’ carelessness for their diagnoses. On Tuesday, I asked Blunt Rochester to reflect on what happened, and why. She agreed to let me share the story as she told it to me, edited and condensed for clarity. —Edward-Isaac Dovere
It started that morning with a notice from the Speaker’s office. If members wanted to witness the certification of Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory, we had to send an email to a particular address. We would have to go in groups, staggered. I told my staff I really wanted to be a part of it. I was a part of Joe Biden’s campaign from the very beginning. To me, this was an important historic moment, and I wanted to witness it. You had to be there between 12:45 and 1 p.m. I literally got in the room at 12:50, with my Moleskine, ready to experience the moment.
I was in gallery three. There were a group of us sitting to the side of the chamber in the gallery. I started receiving these email alerts about suspicious packages, evacuations of buildings. I remember turning to my right because I could hear noise. Then I looked down on the House floor and noticed that security had lined the back of the floor. And next thing you know, they whisked [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi out of the room, and then [Majority Leader] Steny Hoyer. I noticed the leadership leaving.
There was an announcement that folks had breached the building. The hard part about it was that we saw everyone being evacuated from the floor; then they said, “Lock all the doors, lock all the doors!” And I realized we were locked in the balcony. I remember someone right behind the door, banging on the door, and I think they were trying to get in.
Then I hear, “Get down and crawl to the other side!” Later, I found out that the thinking was that maybe if we weren’t on the Democratic side, we would not be hurt. When we stopped crawling, I looked down on the House floor and saw law enforcement with their guns pointed at that door to the back of the chamber. I saw the broken glass. At one point I thought I heard a shot. I saw something come through the door.
The only thing I could think to do was pray. I believe in the power of prayer. [Florida Representative] Val Demings is one of my great, great friends, and she and I grabbed each other’s arms. She looked at me and said something like, “We know God is bigger than this.” It was almost like a call to prayer. I started praying in a normal voice. Then I got louder and louder and bolder and bolder. And I just felt the presence of God, and I didn’t feel fear. I felt like even if I died in that moment, I would be talking to my best friend.
There was banging on the door where we were, right after I prayed. We didn’t want to open it because we didn’t know who was out there. It turned out to be someone who came to free us. They just said, “Everybody go—take your mask and follow us.”
People a lot of times don’t realize the calculus that you have to take as a Black woman. As we were escaping, someone trying to be helpful said, “All the members take off your pins!” That way we wouldn’t be targeted. But in that second, I had to do the calculus of, If I take off my pin, then law enforcement or people who are trying to help won’t know who I am. If I leave it on, terrorists may target me. I ended up taking off the pin and holding it in my hand in case I had to show it.
They took us through an unfamiliar tunnel. I still don’t even know where I was. They got us in the undisclosed room, and we waited for the Capitol to be swept and be secured. When we saw people not wearing masks, I was talking to a few of my colleagues, and they were really concerned. Some were angry about it. And I saw somebody had extra masks. I said, “Hey, are you using those?” I just went around and started asking people, “Would you like a fresh, clean mask?” People took them. One of my Republican colleagues actually said he had sneezed in his and that’s why it was in his pocket, and he said, “Yeah, I’ll take it.”
One of my Democratic colleagues was on the telephone and had the mask down below his chin. I motioned for him to lift it up, and he thanked me and did it. I was just making my way around the room—Democrat, Republican, staff member, whoever you are. We had just literally escaped bullets, and I wanted to make sure that we were not in a super-spreader situation.
I wasn’t mad or frustrated. I was just thinking about how many people I could get to put on a mask. My goal wasn’t about making friends. My intention was to make us as safe as possible.
They certified the vote at 3:41 a.m. Afterward, I had too much adrenaline to go to sleep. I probably went to bed around 5 in the morning. When I woke up, my entire body was sore, just from falling down and bending, and stress. I started looking at TV and social media. And that’s when I realized that the mob had tried to break into the chambers at the main doors, and that they had tried to break into the Speaker’s lobby, where the shooting took place.
In the next few days and next few weeks, part of this process is going to be about accountability and about truth. When you hear about Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, you don’t get to the reconciliation without truth. The same thing is true with healing: You don’t get to the healing without accountability. There will have to be accountability and truth—and then we move to the reconciliation and healing.