A year after viral photo, Rep. Andy Kim reflects on being a ‘caretaker of our democracy’

Kim, who was photographed clearing debris from the rotunda after the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, said his immigrant roots made him fiercely protective of his country.

Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., cleans up debris and personal belongings strewn across the floor of the rotunda in the early morning of Jan. 7 after protesters stormed the Capitol in Washington.Andrew Harnik / AP file

For Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., the Jan. 6 Capitol riot continues to be a difficult topic to broach with his two young Asian American children. He’s struggled to find the right words. 

“When I saw my kids for the first time after Jan. 6, my oldest came up to me and hugged me and asked me if I’m doing OK. They know something happened, but I haven’t really talked to them about it,” Kim said. “That’s sort of the question now: How does Jan. 6 fall into the broader story of this country? How are we going to talk about it?”

A photo of Kim cleaning up the Capitol rotunda on his own following the riot went viral. The internet hailed the act as a moment of hope after hours of chaos.

A year later, he’s still processing his thoughts as the son of Korean immigrants who uprooted their lives in search of a strong, secure country to call home that was not evident that day, he told NBC Asian America. But the events, he said, also uncovered a sense of fierce protectiveness over the country his parents sought.

“I do feel like that sense of being a caretaker is something that my parents very much shaped in my mind — love of country and service to this country, taking care, trying to preserve it,” Kim said.  “Whether that’s the big things I tried to do, like voting that night on Jan. 6 to affirm the Electoral College vote, or the simple gestures of cleaning up the floor of the rotunda. That’s all the same to me. That’s all being a caretaker for our democracy.”

Then-candidate Andy Kim plays a word game with his son as his wife, Kammy Lai, looks on with their younger son outside a polling place in Bordentown, N.J., on Nov. 6, 2018.Mel Evans / AP file

In the year since Kim found himself clearing the damage in the Capitol, more than 700 of former President Donald Trump’s supporters, including many who aimed to overturn the election results, are now facing criminal charges related to the attack.

A House committee tasked with investigating the events is preparing to present its findings in the coming months. Remnants of that day have also been collected and donated to the Smithsonian Institution for historical documentation, including the blue J. Crew suit Kim wore as he emptied debris into garbage bags. 

The congressman said he now feels an “even stronger sense of love for this country and patriotism” in part, he said, because of the reflecting he’s done on his parents and their chosen home. 

Kim, the son of a scientist and a nurse, said his family’s American dream never involved “private jets or rockets to outer space.” Rather, his parents longed for a life of dignity and decency, he said. Much of how they felt toward their new country, he remembered, was mirrored in his mother’s reaction on a family trip to Washington, D.C., when he was a kid. 

“They felt like we could walk in there. We had every bit as much of a right to walk into the building — the Capitol, the White House — as anyone else,” he said. 

Decades later, as Kim gathered plastic bottles from the ground after the rioters deserted the rotunda, he said he was reminded once again of his parents’ awe of the country when he came across a plaque on the wall that read, “Beneath this tablet the cornerstone of the United States of America was laid by George Washington.” 

Then-candidate Andy Kim holds his son as he finishes voting on Nov. 6, 2018, in Bordentown, N.J.Mel Evans / AP file

“That kind of took me out of the moment for a second on Jan. 6 and reminded me of this building’s history, and that it was generations before me that built and preserved the Capitol building,” he said. “And there will be generations after me that will continue to do the work of this country.”

The memories, Kim said, have prompted him to look at his work through a different lens, shifting his focus to how to heal from the events. 

“The idea that they traveled halfway around the world to live in a place that didn’t speak their language, didn’t have any friends and family — it was something else that drew them,” Kim said. “I hope that Jan. 6 reminds us of what it is that drew our families here and reminds us that that is worth fighting for. That is worth trying to preserve.” 

But as passionate as Kim said he feels, he also mentioned that he’s concerned with how the country and government has reacted to the riot. He said he’s unsure that the stability his immigrant family sought will be there for his children. For him, the riot represented long-standing fractures in the nation on topics ranging from climate change to the pandemic. 

“The issue wasn’t just about the storming of the Capitol. It was about just the divisions in our country,” he said. “And the fact that we live in a country where that type of violence against each other is possible. I actually think we’re in a worse situation than we were a year ago. I think the Jan. 6 tragedy didn’t bring us together as a country.”

Americans were divided on the events, from the immediate aftermath to the months that followed, research shows.

A survey that Pew Research Center conducted in the days following the riot revealed that 48 percent of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents expressed disappointment, disbelief or fear, compared to 27 percent of their Republican counterparts. And 95 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners placed some blame on Trump, while roughly half of Republicans felt the same way. Nearly the same percentage of conservatives did not feel Trump played any part in the events. 

As time went on, Republican officials, some of whom publicly condemned Trump in the wake of the events, became less open to criticism of him from their own party. The percentage of Republicans who said their party should be “not too” or “not at all” accepting of those who criticized Trump rose from 56 percent in March to 63 percent in September, Pew found.

“It just makes me so upset that people who were there, my colleagues and others, that some of them decided to, to spread lies about what happened for their own political and personal benefits,” Kim said. “We are at a place where we cannot even have a shared truth about what happened that day.” 

As Kim looks back on the events, he said the most critical takeaway is the fragility of American democracy, something he feels cannot be taken for granted. 

“There’s not a day that goes by when I’m at the Capitol, where I walk around that building, and it doesn’t hit me that Jan. 6 occurred. I see it every day,” Kim said. “What I’m trying to do is to channel that experience into something productive towards a goal of never having something like that ever happen again.”