On Thursday, the U.S. Capitol became the locus of national attention again when a man claiming to have explosives in his truck forced a standoff with law enforcement agents outside the Library of Congress for several hours. The suspect, who has been identified as 49-year-old Floyd Ray Roseberry of North Carolina, surrendered to the police in the afternoon. But despite the peaceful resolution, the ordeal was yet another reminder of the rising threat of political violence in a perilously divided nation, and of how easily that danger can escalate.
Roseberry had broadcast himself live on Facebook for hours before the site shut it down, offering a stream-of-consciousness rant as he held a device he claimed was a bomb, warning of a “revolution” and demanding to speak with President Joe Biden. He had made multiple posts supportive of former President Donald Trump on his Facebook page, which has since been taken down.
The threat rattled many congressional staffers still raw from the deadly attack on the Capitol on January 6 by a mob of violent Trump supporters. The New Republic spoke to several staffers in the wake of the latest threat to the Capitol who were granted anonymity to be candid about their concerns.
One Democratic Senate staffer working from home on Thursday felt a sense of dread watching the news, recalling the assault on the Capitol eight months ago and thinking: “Not again.”
“I found myself in an all-day anxiety attack,” the staffer told The New Republic. “I don’t think I realized how much I was still coping until now. At one point I just looked out the window and screamed.”
Several of the rioters on January 6 spewed racial epithets during the insurrection, and others had ties to white nationalist groups. One man carried a Confederate flag through the halls of Congress. The Senate staffer, a Black woman, had seen the events of January 6 unfold on television while working from home, but had largely avoided watching the news since. Thursday’s news brought a wave of anxiety that made it difficult for her to work.
“He may as well have been sitting in my living room with me,” she said about Roseberry. “I don’t even think it’s the possibility of death that ranks the highest of my fears. It is a total disbelief in the status of our country, not to mention our world.”
In a time of highly polarized politics, it’s easy to forget that the majority of the people who spend their days in the U.S. Capitol are not elected politicians. Despite popular belief, the Capitol is more than a beautiful, historic building filled with pontificating lawmakers. It’s a complex of several buildings, and the workplace for thousands of employees.
If you ever watch Congress deliberate on C-SPAN, there’s a small army of people behind the scenes that make what you’re seeing on television possible. There is the Capitol Police, ensuring the safety of the lawmakers under their protection. In addition, there’s the floor staff of the House and Senate chambers, among them the clerks reading bill texts, the stenographers collecting every last word of seemingly interminable speeches, and the technicians in charge of the audio and video that transmits those addresses to the public.
Beyond this, there’s an entire superstructure of essential employees that support the daily task of governing the country. Among them are the custodial workers, many of whom are Black, who picked up after the destruction wrought by the rioters on January 6, and make sure the complex remains a clean and comfortable place to work each day. The food service workers provide the coffee and lunch that keep Capitol staff going—and often have to stay late or come in on weekends depending on the scheduling whims of Congress. On January 6, these workers brought plates of hot food to the safe location where senators were held for hours during the insurrection, as well as to the reporters who had evacuated with them.
And, of course, there are the individual staff of the members of Congress themselves, people who came to Washington from all over the country because of a dedication to public service.
“We know it’s a privilege of a lifetime to serve in this institution. But at the same time we’re asking for people to remember that there are human beings behind those doors,” a senior staffer in a Democratic representative’s office told The New Republic.
The Capitol is a tight-knit community, this staffer noted, one in which people often meet their best friends and spouses. Sometimes multiple members of the same family work on the Hill. It’s “jarring and triggering” to receive alerts from Capitol Police about the need for certain buildings to evacuate, the staffer said, and have the subsequent worry that extends beyond the confines of one office.
“When you see those alerts go off, not only are you nervous for your office, for your staff, for your community, but you’re also thinking about your friends and checking in on them and making sure they’re OK,” the senior staffer said. “It’s like, ‘How does this affect me and my staff?’ but also your friends and family.”
The latest threat to the Capitol raises questions about the security of the complex. In the wake of the January 6 attack, a large perimeter of fencing went up, which was scaled down in March to a simple fence around the Capitol building itself. That smaller perimeter fencing was removed in July.
“I get that no one wants the Capitol fenced off. I didn’t enjoy working in the DMZ this January either. But what happened today needs to prompt serious changes to how accessible the Capitol complex is, at least to vehicles,” a Republican Senate staffer told The New Republic on Thursday.
The fencing was largely unpopular among members of Congress. But the threat on Thursday, and an attack in April in which a Capitol Police officer was killed after being rammed by a vehicle, raises questions about access to the streets immediately surrounding the Capitol.
Several Hill staffers told The New Republic that they found themselves wondering if this recurring fear and anxiety would become the status quo.
“I never expected to have a routine figured out for what to do on days where someone is trying to kill us,” one Democratic House staffer told The New Republic. “That is not a normal thing people do or should experience at the places where they work.”
A second Democratic Senate staffer said that they were “shaken” by Thursday’s events.
“I wasn’t expecting this to be my reality when I joined the Hill—possibly my own naivety—and I’m now wondering if this is just the new normal I’m supposed to adjust to,” this staffer told The New Republic. They added that “answering phone calls from an increasingly angry public really does a number on you, especially when the crises don’t seem to stop.” Although this staffer works in what they consider to be “one of the best offices on the Hill,” they are still feeling burned out and overwhelmed.
“I am currently examining exit strategies and ways that I can continue a career in public service that are a little less public,” the staffer said.
Given the events of recent months, multiple staffers may be reevaluating whether remaining on the Hill is worth it. The Republican Senate staffer said that, speaking anecdotally, “it feels like a huge amount of staffers are fleeing the Hill.” While this may be a combination of exhaustion from the pandemic and the fallout of January 6, along with natural turnover, the apparent exodus may also be rooted in concerns about the safety of their workplace.
“I think for a lot of people it’s more a question of: How many times does your place of work need to be attacked before you decide you’d rather send emails somewhere else?” the Republican Senate staffer said.
Another Democratic House staffer told The New Republic that “the pool of applicants for [new] positions is among the worst I’ve ever seen,” suggesting that Covid-19, January 6, and “the general malaise of Capitol Hill” could be possible causes.
“Fewer and fewer people want to work on the Hill. Pay has declined and stagnated over the last decade. Now we have regular threats to our workplace,” this staffer said, adding that “Covid is making everything miserable.”
Some staffers told The New Republic of their deep pride in working on the Hill. Another Democratic House staffer said that they were “proud and excited to come back to my office today.”
“Terrorists want us to be afraid, and I won’t let them win,” this staffer said.
But as the Democratic senior staffer in the House put it: When the Capitol is repeatedly on the news due to the threats against it, “Why would you want to work there?”
“Hill staffers are here to serve, and serve their bosses and their communities and where they represent, and put their best foot forward every day. But it’s difficult to do that, and be the best staffer you can be, when these events happen,” the senior staffer said.
The senior staffer urged those who were struggling to seek help if needed, and take time for themselves to process and unplug.
“Take a mental health break, take time, go on vacation. That’s something that’s really important for staff, because you need that. You need that time off,” the senior staffer said.
Still, many staffers on the Hill will keep marching forward, and do their best to cope knowing that threats against their workplace may become more and more common. The Democratic House staffer who spoke of creating a “routine” for days such as Thursday said that many would leave their emotions “farther down inside.”
“Probably most of the Hill should be in therapy,” this staffer said.