What does it mean to live in a fragile democracy? It can be difficult to imagine what that actually looks like. State voter suppression laws and candidates for elected office threatening political retribution against their opponents are two examples. But it isn’t every day that we witness the fragility of our system of government up close.
On August 2, NETWORK government relations advocate Jarrett Smith experienced how a single false alarm can shut down the function of an entire Congressional office building. His experience makes clear how the threat of political violence can stop the functions of democracy in their tracks. If people fear for their safety, they are less likely to participate. From January 6 to people with assault rifles standing near polling places of voters of color, Christian nationalism is a serious threat to democracy in the United States today.
That’s why this season of Just Politics will focus on democracy, the perils it faces, and what we can do to protect, promote and expand the system to build a pluralistic, inclusive society.
The following is a transcript of this week’s episode of Just Politics.
Joan Neal: Note to our listeners: this episode of Just Politics details a personal experience with an active shooter scare. Listener Discretion Advised.
Jarrett Smith: But then a staffer came back to us and said, “No, no, no, you have to stop talking and get under the conference room table”. At that point, it got real.
Colin Martinez Longmore: That’s the voice of Jarrett Smith, a Network Lobby Government Relations Advocate, telling us a story about his experience with an active shooter scare on Capitol Hill. On August 2, Jarrett was taking a meeting on the Hill, when he received the news that no one wants to hear. There was an active shooter in the building.
Jarrett: It was one of those times that you will never forget, when you go to a meeting on the Hill, I had a meeting on the calendar with Senator Bennett’s staff and some of our secular coalition partners, were going to be at that meeting. So I got ready, and then, you know, our office isn’t too far from the Capitol as you know, but it is summer in DC. So you do not want to rush, you want to take your time so you don’t end up wet and in in disarray when you come into any congressional office.
So you know, I walked up the Hill, like I’ve done many, many times. The meeting was at the Russell building. You can just access these Hill offices, whether it’s on the Senate side or the House side, it’s just like any other congressional office entrance, there’s nothing special about it. This security wasn’t any more aggressive, I went through and you know, you have to empty your pockets of any metal and they search you with a wand after you can go through the security checkpoint. And then we went up to the office. In the Russell building, it’s a little different from the other Senate office building, where those offices they have they’re all glass fronts. And Russell, it’s like old school, it’s like these wood walls. And then there’s the main entrance, you can’t see into the hallway from any part of the office unless you open the door.
So we’re at the conference table discussing strategy for the Child Tax Credit. How can we move it forward? So we’re strategizing. There are only a few months left before this congressional calendar year is over. So while this conversation is going on, something is happening. You’re in this open conference room. And there were people staffers walking up and down, like the little hallway area. And there was a door out into the hallway right by us. And they were asking: “Does this door lock? How do you lock this door? How do you close this door?” So this staffer comes in and comes over to the conference table and says, “We just received a message that says there has been an incident and you cannot leave.” So first, you’re trying to wrap your head around, what’s an incident? What is going on when you’re talking about “I can’t leave the Russell building?” Then, a staffer came back to us and said, “No, no, no. You have to stop talking and get under the conference room table.” At that point, it got real.
I mean, it’s no longer, “Oh, something’s going on beyond those doors.” No, this situation might touch us! So we’re all getting under these tables. There were three women and two men at this meeting: The women all get under one section of the conference table together, and men were in another part closer to the doors. And the gentleman I was with was the staffer. Right. So congressional staff usually have two cell phones. One is a personal phone, and one is the Bat Signal, right? So he had a notice, because he showed it to me. But that was it, that there was, you know, an active shooter. So we were like, “Oh, okay.”
What was really hard, as we were trying to understand what’s really happening, was that they didn’t really get good information as staff. So you’re hearing all this noise on the other side of the door. And so we didn’t know if—because this was right after the former president was indicted—We didn’t know if the building had been breached by his supporters. If people were running around the building—all you heard was just noise. You didn’t know whether that noise was the Capitol Police. We were told afterwards that there were a total of 200 law enforcement officers rushed to the scene.
And so we’re under this table, right? I have my cell phone, I’m texting my wife, then I eventually text our Chief of Staff, Sister Erin, to let her know the situation. We were trying to be quiet. We didn’t really talk much. There was more information on Twitter, or X, or whatever you want to call it now, than the actual staffers were getting.
So we’re waiting there for a while. We had heard that this was not an actual active shooter. I don’t know how they were able to determine that that quickly, and even if that was the case, why weren’t there all these officers in the building? We heard someone banging on doors claiming to be Capitol Police. Nobody opened the door because we didn’t know if it was really the Capitol Police. So no one opened the door. No one said anything.
Colin: After what probably felt like a lifetime of waiting, they finally received the all clear. There was no active shooter. Someone in the building had received a concerning 911 call that sent it all into lockdown.
Jarrett: The staffer said, “Hey, we just got word that you can self-evacuate.” I had never heard that term before, “self-evacuate.” What does that entail? Well, that means that we all line up. Staff will be like bookends, they will be at the front of the line at the end of the line. All the visitors will be in the middle. You have to raise your hands with your items in the air from the point that you leave the office until we get the clear signal. Your other option is to wait until the Capitol Police come and they will evacuate you. We all said “We’re leaving.” As long as we’ve been on the floor—I mean, we weren’t even in the chairs, we were lying on the floor, not knowing what was going to happen. Because, yeah, you’re getting this false alarm that’s coming out in the press, but they’re not acting like it’s false. Capitol Police aren’t acting like it’s a false alarm. They weren’t acting like this is just routine. They were like, this might be a situation, we don’t know what is happening.
We all line up, we walk out, we walk down the stairs, and the Capitol Police are in threes, right? And everybody has long guns. They’re not just sitting there like, “Oh, you know, stuff happens,” on a Wednesday. Everybody was like, “If you move in the wrong way, there could be a situation.” So they kept saying, “Hands up, hands up, keep your hands up, keep moving and keep your hands up. Go! Go! Go!” I was like, “Wow.” And then even as we walk out the door—to get into there that there are a few steps, right—on the step there were Capitol Police with long guns. We weren’t clear until we walked across the street to the park. And then it was like, “Okay, you know, you guys are no longer under our jurisdiction.”
It was a harrowing situation. I appreciate all the prayers, and good thoughts that were coming from NETWORK, Sister Erin and Eilis. Really, thank you. The people that were there with me, they were very thankful for the prayers. Joan, really appreciate, you know, senior management, Erin, Mary, guys, making sure that you knew where we were and what was going on. It was an experience that you’ll never forget.
Colin: Thankfully, no one was hurt that day. But the fear was real to everyone who was on Capitol Hill, especially after the unimaginable events of January 6th. But this doesn’t mean we have to live in fear.
Jarrett: It might sound simple, but I would start with: Don’t be afraid. We have to be willing to tell the truth, whatever the costs, because the other side of these forces, they’re going to continue to push and push and push to meet their objective. And they want people to cower. They want people to stop speaking. And once that happens, it’s game over.
We have to be fearless. We have to tell the truth with the facts, the information, the data, to support it, and give people a choice. There’s no threat from your neighbor. Even though they don’t look like you. They are not a threat. You must love everybody. You have to start with us being in one community. It’s neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block. We have to push back, I mean, a full-throated pushback against white nationalism, because it is continuing to poison these conversations.
You know, people of faith are picking out these terms like “Anti-CRT” and “woke-ism” and all this stuff. They are weaponizing them. I wish people would say the same about homelessness or use the same type of energy regarding food insecurity. Why are people talking about woke? How did we get here? We’ve had opportunities to actually eliminate poverty in America. Poverty is a policy choice, just like we have all these other policy choices. And this time in our country, we have veered off. And now we are truly testing the guardrails of democracy and our institutions and who we are going to be in the next 5, 10, 15 years.
You know, your life might depend on voting. That is not hyperbole. This is not some, 20 years ago, 50 years ago we’re trying to just keep things together, or we might want to pass whatever policy increasing taxes on corporations, or whatever. Now, voting might mean that your actual constitutional rights, if you don’t vote, are going to be taken away from you.
Colin: Stories like Jarrett’s shake our confidence in the state of our government. How did we get here? How do we move forward as a democracy? And what is our role to play? These are obviously big questions. So I’m glad that I have Sister Eilis here to join to unpack with me.
Eilis McCulloh: You know, I do remember that day, I was in community meetings, when I saw the email from Erin telling us that Jarrett was sheltering in place at the Russell building, my stomach dropped, and immediately I saw active shooter headlines coming across Twitter and other social media platforms. And you know, the scary thing is that wasn’t new. But this time, it seemed different: It was someone that I knew. It seems like this is almost a normal state of affairs, that one single phony 911 call can shut down the function of an entire part of our government for an entire afternoon.
Colin: At NETWORK, our work centers on the fact that our democracy is fragile. We talk about the threats that face it from bad actors who don’t share our democratic values, and have a very different idea of what our system of governance should be. We see it on the internet when people try to claim that being a “True American” only looks a certain way: usually white, straight, and Christian. Or when people with assault rifles stand outside of polling places to dissuade others from exercising their right to vote,
Eilis Or when one person fires up a mob on the National Mall with resentment and misinformation about the 2020 election and then tries to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power.
Colin: Exactly. The threat of political violence from white supremacy and white Christian nationalism is real, and it is with us. And as people of faith who believe in the vision of an inclusive and pluralistic country, we have a responsibility to call out that threat for what it is.
Eilis: That’s why on this season of Just Politics, we’re talking about our democracy and the perils it faces. What can we do to protect, promote and expand this system to achieve a society where everyone can thrive? We’ll be speaking with our friends, colleagues and other experts who will guide us along in our journey. You can follow along for updates, live streams and other bonus content on our social media platforms. We can be found at @network_lobby. Thanks for joining us! We look forward to seeing you for next week’s episode of Just Politics.
You can read more about Jarrett Smith’s experience, NETWORK, and the importance of democracy in the links below: