Amy Katz: January 6 Riots (Part 1)
In the wee hours of January 5th, I woke up in a state of abject fear, and in that liminal space between the death of sleep and the resurrection of waking, wrote this in my journal, and on Facebook:
“I can’t put my phone down.
If I put my phone down, the world may stop.
I am on the verge of a panic attack.
Trying to breathe.
I’ve broken out in hives.
I’m having this nightmare:
People are dying in mass from a pandemic…
People are dropping like flies all around me…
I am having a nightmare
that America the Beautiful is on the edge of a political coup
and civil war may break out on our own soil,
My heart is racing.
Breathe… Breathe…. breathe.”
That morning, I attended Elizabeth Gaynes’ 8:30 am Zoom group, knowing the supportive presence of community members would be healing. She asked about New Years resolutions. What sprang from the depths of me surprised me: “I want to be the best that I can be; to use my gifts and resources to the fullest.”
I didn’t know what that would look like, and still basking in the warmth of the group, soon forgot about it, because I became obsessed with listening to the news. I fell asleep to the chatter of Satellite radio. So January 6, instead of beginning with birdsong and fresh brew, started, and startled, with the voice of Trump speaking at the rally he had spearheaded: telling tens of thousands in attendance to go to the Capitol to stop the vote of electorates and “fight”. My ears, trained in textual and dream analysis— and, more recently— Torah study— heard the multi variant messages: “The media is the biggest problem we have as far as I’m concerned…We BEAT them… Now it is up to CONGRESS to CONFRONT this egregious ASSAULT on our democracy… Our country has been under SEIGE for a long time, far longer than this four-year period… But it used to be that they’d ARGUE with me, I’d FIGHT. So I’d FIGHT, they’d FIGHT. I’d FIGHT, they’d FIGHT.”
All my anxiety from the previous day returned. That wasn’t only PTSD. It wasn’t even just “Transgenerational Trauma” — the horror of the Holocaust our ancestor’s experienced passed down in our very genes.
My panic attack the day before had been the other kind of PTSD: “PRE-Traumatic Stress Disorder”: the worst kind: the kind that our bodies and our nightmares know before our logical, rational minds can understand. I sat there in horror and waited for the “assault”, the “fight” and the insurrection. Moments later, it happened.
I switched to CNN and watched as a vicious mob, waving Trump flags and Confederate flags— some using them as weapons— smashed through windows and broke through doors and poured into the US Capitol— America’s holy temple of Democracy— where at that moment, every congress member and the Vice President of the United States was gathered. I saw them rush through the doors with their rage flaring.
As I watched, I became increasingly alarmed. One of the men who stormed the US Capitol Building was wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words, “Camp Aushwitz: work brings Freedom.” This was a copy of the sign that hung at the entrance to the concentration camp during WWII. The back of his shirt said “Staff.” Others were carrying flags, nooses and swastikas. According to the Anti-Defamation League, “NSC members consider themselves soldiers fighting a war against a hostile, Jewish-controlled system that is deliberately plotting the extinction of the white race.”
I had to do something.
It was the same feeling I had the week of the Montecito Mudslides: I was safely out of town, for that, as I have a knack for evacuating the day before disasters. But my own safety and well-being is irrevocably bound to those in my community: I was jumping out of my skin just sitting there, thinking of those suffering back home. And to those who advised me to stop listening to the news— as many have— I had to point out my radio and TV was turned off the morning of the 5th when I had a panic attack, about the events in the process of unfolding. We don’t need a TV to be effected by the collective psyche! We are continually effected by what is in the field around us: by our families, communities, nation and planet. What prayer have Jews recited twice daily as the corner stone of our morning and evening services, for millenniums, but the most sacred prayer, the Shema? “The LORD is our God; the LORD is one”.
Now, watching, contemplating and experiencing the fear of our elected officials in the US Capitol, and reflecting on the violence against Jews in the past, I was getting that same, adrenaline-surge feeling as I had during the fire and mudslide. I had to DO something. What could I do?
“Tell the truth. Tell the story.”
Elizabeth’s question rang again in my ears like the Liberty bell. “What is your New Year’s resolution?”
To put my gifts and skills to the best use. So without hesitation, I hesitated. I wrote a message on FB, which I knew would be cryptic for most, but crystal clear to anyone who knew me, and had been following the news. “Should I go? With my camera?”
A couple of male friends wrote, “Yes! Call to adventure!”
But a couple dozen others screamed in unison, “No!”
This didn’t surprise me. It was dangerous. I was scared! But It was the REASONING so many used in their urgings for inaction that really struck a blow to my heart:
“Leave it to the more seasoned Photojournalists.” “Aren’t there already enough people with cameras?” “Leave it to someone else.”
Oh! The worst thing they could have ever said to me— and the best for inadvertently motivating me to go! For what flashed through my mind in a split second upon hearing those well-meaning comments from loved ones wanting to protect me— and themselves—was this: “The Bystander Effect.”
The case of 28 year old Catherine “Kitty” Genovese, whom on Friday, March 13, 1964, was walking home when she was brutally stabbed by a Winston Mosley. The atrocious attack was observed or heard by dozens of people, but it took almost a half hour before any one called the police or tried to help her.
Oh, but I did not even need to look back in history for examples of this: how many of those raiding America’s most sacred structure, where every national law maker was assembled were also not wearing masks? How many times throughout the pandemic right here in Santa Barbara had I witnessed people not wearing masks or social distancing, yet not one said one word, except me? (And many times, not even me.)
At what point do you speak up when you see someone endangering the lives of others? When Holocaust Survivor and Author of “Night”, Elie Wiesel, gave his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech on Dec. 10, 1986, 40 years after escaping the death camps, he apologized— on behalf of humanity— to a young boy who questioned what had happened to the Jews:
“And then I explained to him how naïve we were, that the world did know and remain silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
Weisel was echoing Edmund Burke, who famously stated, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
So what was I going “to do”? I spent the next couple days weighing these voices, which I recognized, once again (“the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”) as my own inner my voices. Finally, these perspectives cooked together and melded, like the disparate flavors of veggies and chicken coming together, at last, in a simmering pot.
I cancelled my flight to Washington DC. Instead, I packed my Covid-free rental car — with big snow tires and added insurance, and enough all-weather clothes to last me a year…
Amy Katz is a photojournalist and member of CBB. She has been travelling and covering the protests across the country.