Wednesday, April 17, 2024
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Profiles in courage

By Indranie Deolall

On January 6, 2021, the California Congresswoman, Jackie Speier thought back to a traumatic November day, as she and her colleagues in the United States (US) Capitol hid in a safe location, after the Rotunda was breached and tear gas filled the air.

“More than 40 years ago, as I lay bleeding from five gunshot wounds on an airstrip in the Guyanese jungle not knowing if I would live or die, I swore that if I did survive I would dedicate my life to public service. I thought of that moment today when the US Capitol was stormed by a mob of Trump rioters emboldened by the President fomenting a coup d’état,” she wrote in a social media post, that night.

Stressing, “this is a dark day for American democracy,” she said, “the responsibility for this act of domestic terrorism lays firmly at the feet of the President and House and Senate Republicans who refused to impeach him, stoked his ego, and entertained his conspiracy theories about non-existent voter fraud.”

Survived Jonestown

Speier survived Jonestown. Yesterday, she returned to the Capitol’s chamber, that lawmakers fled last week, and voted for House Resolution 24 impeaching Donald John Trump, president of the United States of America, “for high crimes and misdemeanors.” He became the first US leader to be impeached twice, charged this time, for inciting the recent riot at the Capitol, which left five people dead and his legacy in tatters. Ten Republicans sided with Democrats in a historic, bipartisan move, voting in the House of Representatives 232-197.

The outraged politician did not mince words. “President Trump organized, baited, engaged, encouraged, and unleashed thousands of armed insurrectionists who laid siege to our nation’s Capitol on January 6, with the goal of overthrowing our government, murdering the Vice President and the Speaker of the House, and stopping the certification of the November 2020 election results that declared Joseph R. Biden the next President of the United States of America.”

With a week to go before his one term as Commander-in-Chief ends, Trump, a Republican, faces a trial in the Senate, and if convicted he could be barred from ever holding office again.

800 Years

In a post yesterday following the vote, as armed National Guard troops kept watch over the Capitol, the Congresswoman declared, “If inciting an insurrection isn’t an impeachable offense, nothing is. The Capitol has now been turned into a war zone and we are bracing for further attacks. We’re not doing this for the next eight days, we’re doing this to protect the next 800 years of this democracy.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has warned of possible armed protests in Washington, and all 50 State capitals ahead of Biden’s inauguration on January 20.

Slamming the outgoing US president for “sowing discord, deepening divisions, spreading distortions, and speaking outright lies over and over until they take hold in the minds of his followers,” Speier said, “we haven’t been effective at pushing back – until now.”

Right side of history

“Their goal has been clearly stated: Destruction of our democracy to establish an autocracy. They want a government in which those who disagree, who look different, who think for themselves, who worship differently or don’t worship at all, and—most importantly—who don’t kowtow to Trump, are shutdown.”

She cited the symbolic vote of support from the group of Republicans like the highest-ranking member to back the measure, Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney who has blamed President Trump, terming them “profiles in courage” for seeking to take back control of their party and for “ensuring that they are counted on the right side of history.”

Younger staffer

A young staffer for California Congressman Leo J. Ryan, Speier, then 28, accompanied him on a fact-finding mission in November 1978, to investigate allegations of human rights abuses by Jim Jones at the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, known as the infamous “Jonestown,” a remote settlement in Port Kaituma. Ryan represented California’s 11th congressional district, including San Francisco, home to the Peoples Temple before the American congregation fled to the interior of Guyana.

Several nervous defectors were preparing to leave the compound with the delegation, and about to board two small planes when they were ambushed by the cult leader’s gunmen, assassinating Ryan and four others. Against the odds, Speier survived five gunshot wounds at close range, feigning death, lying on the ground next to the wheels of one of the planes and waiting for help for some 22 incredible hours. Over 900 members would die in the mass murder-suicide that ensued, many forced to drink the Flavor-aid grape concoction laced primarily with cyanide.

Fighting back

Later becoming a Congresswoman, and representing the 14th District in California, she recounted her survival in a haunting memoir, “Undaunted: Surviving Jonestown, Summoning Courage, and Fighting Back” which was highlighted in October 2019, at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

“I was dying,” related the resilient Speier as she read the opening passage of her book, “It was just a matter of time. Lying behind a wheel of the airplane, bleeding out of the right side of my devastated body, I waited for the rapid shooting to stop. Then I said my act of contrition, praying by rote for forgiveness. I used what little energy I had left to finish that prayer before the lights went out. But the lights didn’t go out, and I slowly began to take stock of my situation.” She pretended to be dead, but the shooting seemed to go on forever, even though it was “just a couple of minutes,” she recounted in another interview.

Meant to live

“November 1978 was a harrowing month for residents of the San Francisco Bay Area,” recalled Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero. “Speier’s survival of the massacre at Jonestown, she wrote, guided her ‘into the life [she] was meant to live.’ For the past 40 years, she has pursued a life of public service and now serves in the United States Congress,” reported the National Archive News.

In his book “Rage” by legendary investigative journalist, Bob Woodward, based on 18 interviews with President Trump he quoted  Trump’s reaction to his question about the Black Lives Matter protests, when the writer suggested that “white, privileged” people like themselves ought to work to understand how black Americans feel. Trump replied: “You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you.”

*ID reads Congresswoman Speier’s post of January 8, 2021: “I’m joining my colleagues in sponsoring articles of impeachment. Trump’s vile rhetoric and terrifying actions encouraged a violent insurrection. He presents a direct and deadly threat to our democracy and the rule of law. We simply can’t wait until January 20.”



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