Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., one of three lawmakers who have tested positive for the coronavirus after the Capitol riot, has condemned Republican members of Congress whose actions, she said, have endangered their colleagues.
Jayapal, who tested positive Monday night, said that last week's violence and the infections — which she said she suspects came from being in lockdown with Republicans who refused to wear masks — stem from "the selfishness, the cruelty and the idiocy of these people who have refused to take this seriously and who then went on to fuel these white nationalist insurrectionists."
She told NBC Asian America that her Republican colleagues at the time prioritized loyalty to President Donald Trump over the safety of others.
"It was a cult following of a president who refuses to take the virus seriously, who gives in to conspiracy theorists who say this pandemic is not real and who himself has refused to wear a mask or take the most basic precautions," she said. "These people just follow him blindly, even if he's taking the country and our democracy over a cliff — whether it's through these insurrectionists denying the election or denying the virus."
As the mob descended on the Capitol on Wednesday, Jayapal was in lockdown with about 100 other lawmakers. Some Republicans not only refused to wear masks, but they were also recorded mocking Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., for passing them out.
Two days previously, Jayapal had taken the first dose of the vaccine, and she tested negative for the virus shortly afterward. The vaccine has been shown to be more than 50 percent effective about a week later, but its efficacy rises to 95 percent after the second dose. Since then, Reps. Brad Schneider, D-Ill., and Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., have also tested positive.
Jayapal said that as a woman of color, she was concerned not only about the spread of Covid-19, which she spoke out about as early as last week, but also about her safety. In addition to weapons, many rioters wore racist props or symbols of white supremacy, including Confederate flags and nooses.
One man, who has been identified as Robert Keith Packer of Virginia, wore a sweatshirt bearing the words "Camp Auschwitz," the name of a Nazi concentration camp in Poland that was the site of at least 1.1 million deaths.
Jayapal said the ability to breach the building with so little resistance was an obvious sign of "white privilege."
"As an immigrant woman of color, one of only 14 immigrants to serve in the Congress, at least in the last session, I can just tell you that for us, looking at Confederate flags being planted on the Capitol steps and armed tactical militia essentially coming in and storming the Capitol with guns ready to scale the walls and no federal response that took the threat seriously — that absolutely has to do with the way in which people of color are seen as a threat, versus white people are seen as not a threat," she said.
Jayapal has been arrested by Capitol Police, under very different circumstances. In 2018, she took part in a protest against Trump's zero-tolerance immigration policy and migrant family separations in a congressional building. Carrying a Mylar blanket like the ones children are given in immigrant detention facilities, she was swiftly arrested and fined for "crowding, obstructing, or incommoding." It was one of three times she has been arrested for civil disobedience.
The contrast with the slowness of punitive measures against the rioters has its roots in the history of law enforcement, she said.
Rather than protect communities of color, some of the earliest forms of law enforcement were intended to control the behaviors of people of color. Victor E. Kappeler, a justice studies scholar at Eastern Kentucky University, wrote that early New England settlers appointed constables to police Native Americans and that by 1704, the colony of Carolina established the first colonial slave patrol to help wealthy landowners maintain economic order.
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White supremacy, Jayapal said, has continued to seep into social structures.
"Racism and institutionalized racism is built into every single one of our institutions. But we have to remember that law enforcement was originally established with a very racist mission — it was to essentially capture slaves who were trying to escape slavery," she said. "And so I think that was the history of the structures of law enforcement in this country, and I think that has continued to perpetuate through the system and into the sensibilities of not all but many who serve in law enforcement."
She also cited FBI Director Christopher Wray's warning last year in a meeting with the House Homeland Security Committee that the majority of domestic terrorism threats came from white supremacists, and she said her Republican colleagues have not sufficiently spoken out about the threats. She said some are "complicit" by failing to raise concerns while benefiting from Trump's economic policies. Others, she said, tried to paint false equivalencies between Black Lives Matter protesters and the white "militias."
"I think there's been a lot of complicity with my Republican colleagues, with people who serve in the administration, with businesses, with many institutions, frankly, who either closed their eyes or literally did not see — which was hard for me to imagine with the giant flashing red lights that have been going off," she said. "For so much of this presidency, going back to things that Donald Trump did when he first came into office — the separation of children from their families, the Muslim ban — those policies were so horrific and unimaginable."
Jayapal said that for now, she and her colleagues are trying to process the events and "do everything that we can to hold up our democracy and impeach this president so that he does not stay in power for a single day more."