the city politic

Voting Isn’t Enough to Protect a Democracy Under Threat

Photo: Jon Cherry/Getty Images

Real life is not a Hollywood movie, so there will be no ominous music or blinding special effects to signal that the final battle is at hand. But that moment unmistakably arrived when a violent mob invaded the Capitol a year ago, with the explicit goal of hunting and killing lawmakers to overturn the results of the presidential election and keep Donald Trump in power.

A year later, each of us must now decide the role we will play — personally and individually — to make sure the attack is remembered as the final chapter of a squashed insurrection, rather than a dress rehearsal for something much worse.

No larger-than-life hero is going to appear and round up the bad guys. Not even the president of the United States.

“Those who stormed this Capitol and those who instigated and incited, and those who called on them to do so, held a dagger at the throat of America and American democracy,” a visibly angry President Biden said from inside the Capitol. “Look folks, now it’s up to all of us — We, the People — to stand for the rule of law, to preserve the flame of democracy, to keep the promise of America alive. The promise is at risk, targeted by the forces that value brute strength over the sanctity of democracy, fear over hope, personal gain over public good.”

All true. And lest anyone think the motley mob was made up of yahoos from some other region of the country, the ongoing investigation — the largest in FBI history — includes at least 47 people from New York who have been arrested and charged.

The list includes Philip Grillo, a Republican district leader and former cop from Queens who later claimed he was too drunk to realize that violently invading the Capitol was against the law.  Dominick Dennis Madden, a Sanitation worker from Brooklyn, was nabbed after surveillance footage caught him, clad in a QAnon sweatshirt, shouting slogans and breaking into the Capitol with the rest of the mob.

Thomas Webster, an ex-Marine and former NYPD cop who once served on Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s personal security detail, traveled to the insurrection with body armor and a pistol, and spent months in jail, charged for attacking officers defending the Capitol. And 34-year-old Matthew Greene of Syracuse, a member of the violent Proud Boys extremist group, recently pleaded guilty to felony charges including conspiracy, and is set to be sentenced in March.

So far, 725 people have been charged, and Attorney General Merrick Garland says he isn’t stopping there. “The Justice Department remains committed to holding all January 6 perpetrators, at any level, accountable under law — whether they were present that day or were otherwise criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy,” he said in a speech this week.

Garland, like Biden, is summoning all of us to join the fight against violent extremism. “The Justice Department cannot do it alone,” he said.  “The responsibility to bring an end to violence and threats of violence against those who serve the public is one that all Americans share.”

In the book On Tyranny, a brooding mediation about how democracies fall apart, Yale historian Timothy Snyder notes that protecting our system requires more than merely showing up to vote every so often.

“The minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote, making it more or less likely that free and fair elections will be held in the future,” Snyder writes. “In the politics of the everyday, our words and gestures, or their absence, count very much.”

I got a taste of how real that warning is in a recent interview with Representative Nicole Malliotakis, a pro-Trump Republican member of Congress, who dismissed the January 6 riot as no big deal.

“Nobody in my district ever talks to me about the election,” she said when I asked her about the insurrection, contending that her constituents are more concerned with gas prices and the state of the economy. A group within her district organized a protest rally in response, underscoring the importance of letting those in power know that these days, democracy and its defense are always on the agenda.

Those of us with children should explain to them — as Vice-President Kamala Harris pointed out — that attacks on our way of life from inside the nation represent as much of a threat as the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 or the terrorist attack of 9/11.

Our city of immigrants is full of people with personal and ancestral memories of what it was like to live through coups, dictatorship, and political violence in countries including Haiti, Spain, Nigeria, China, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Bangladesh, Ecuador, Colombia, the Philippines, and Russia. We should share those stories with friends, neighbors, and co-workers who think it can’t happen here — and let them know that autocracy, whether it arrives suddenly or gradually, inevitably becomes a bloody horror show of death, injustice, cruelty, and shattered dreams.

And religious leaders of all faiths should be conducting a values-based discussion about the presence of radical evil in the world and the need to battle it. A Boston-based minister, Reverend Eugene Rivers, took it upon himself to organize a prayer vigil in Washington, D.C., that began shortly after Biden’s speech, uniting Black and white Evangelical denominations around the biblical verse 2 Chronicles 7:14, which reads: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”

We could use a little divine healing these days.

Reverend Rivers thinks the January 6 riot is the tip of a more menacing iceberg. “There need to be declassified intelligence briefings for significant political and religious leaders to understand the nature and the depth of what we’re dealing with,” he told me. “The Trump people want a civil war politically — that plays to their base. What the leadership has been unwilling to do on the Democratic side is confront the fact that Trump Republicans are seeking total racial polarization of the country. There’s an explicit commitment to the subversion of democratic rules. Democracy is the target.”

The curtain now goes up on the next act in the most serious battle for our way of life since 9/11. Will you join the fight?

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Voting Isn’t Enough to Protect a Democracy Under Threat