Last January, Joe Biden claimed that the events of January 6, 2021 were the greatest threat to American democracy since the Civil War. That invites a look at what happened at the Capitol some 80 years after the Civil War.
On March 1, 1954, Puerto Rican nationalists Lolita Lebron, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Andres Figueroa Cordero and Irvin Flores Rodrigues, took a train from New York City to Washington DC, arriving at Union Station shortly after noon. The four entered the House gallery alongside a class of sixth-grade students from Maryland.
That day, the representatives were debating an immigration bill. At approximately 2:32 p.m. the foursome yelled “Viva Puerto Rico libre!” and began firing with .38 caliber pistols.
Rep. Alvin M. Bentley, Michigan Republican, took a bullet to the chest. Iowa Republican Ben F. Jensen took a hit in the back and Clifford Davis (D-Tennessee) suffered a bullet wound in the leg. The gunfire also wounded Democrats George Hyde Fallon of Maryland and Kenneth A. Roberts of Alabama. Amid the chaos, members took quick action.
Congressmen and pages carried the wounded to safety, and one representative used his tie as a tourniquet. Rep James Van Zandt of Pennsylvania overpowered Rafael Miranda, who had fired most of the shots. Capitol visitors captured three of the shooters and a police search turned up Irvin Rodriguez.
The shooters were members of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico (PNPR), which had attempted to assassinate President Harry Truman in 1950. On October 26, 1954, Judge Lawrence E. Walsh sentenced the four to more than 70 years in prison, a stretch they would never serve.
Andres Cordero died in 1979, and that year President Jimmy Carter commuted the sentences of Lebron, Miranda and Rodriguez. That drew a protest from Puerto Rico Gov. Carlos Romero Barcelo, who argued that the prisoners’ unconditional release would encourage terrorism and “constitute a menace to public safety.”
Carter also commuted the sentence of Oscar Collazo, who had taken part in the assassination attempt on President Truman, during which one of the president’s guards was killed. Collozo had been sentenced to death but in 1952 Truman commuted the sentence to life in prison.
The Puerto Ricans had not applied for clemency, claiming they were political prisoners. Baltasar Corrada, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting Representative in Congress, countered that the shooters were “jailed for their criminal conduct, not their political beliefs.”
The wounded all survived and continued their careers in Congress. Nearly 130 years after the Civil War, the Capitol would suffer another attack.
“Listen carefully, I’m only going to tell you this one time,” a caller from the “Armed Resistance Unit,” told the Capitol switchboard operator on November 7, 1983. “There is a bomb in the Capitol building. It will go off in five minutes. Evacuate the building.” A Senate document, “Bomb Explodes in Capitol,” describes what happened.
The caller warned that “a bomb had been placed near the chamber in retaliation for recent U.S. military involvement in Grenada and Lebanon.” At 10:58 p.m. “a thunderous explosion tore through the second floor of the Capitol’s north wing.” The device, hidden under a bench at the eastern end of the corridor outside the Senate chamber, “blew off the door to the office of Democratic Leader Robert C. Byrd.
The blast also punched a hole in a wall partition sending a shower of pulverized brick, plaster, and glass into the Republican cloakroom.” The adjacent halls were virtually deserted, so “many lives had been spared.” The attackers later called National Public Radio and proclaimed, “Tonight we bombed the U.S. Capitol.”
Historian William Rosenau explains, the Armed Resistance Unit was part of the May 19th Communist Organization, named for the shared birthdays of Malcolm X and Ho Chi Minh. The May 19th Communist Organization was the “the first and only women-created and women-led terrorist group,” with leaders including Judy Clark, daughter of high-level Communist Party officials, Marilyn Buck, and Susan Rosenburg.
Marilyn Buck attended UC Berkeley, joined Students for a Democratic Society, and later lent her services to the Black Liberation Army (BLA). Susan Rosenberg, daughter of progressive parents, saw herself as part of the struggle against U.S. imperialism.
At 29, Rosenberg made the FBI’s most wanted list as a suspect in the prison escape of Joanne Chesimard of the BLA. Rosenberg was also wanted for a 1981 Brinks robbery that claimed the lives of two police officers and a guard. In 1984, police caught Rosenberg with 12 guns, some 200 stolen sticks of dynamite, more than 100 sticks of DuPont Trovex explosives, and hundreds of fake identification documents.
In 1985 Rosenberg was sentenced to 58 years, but through a plea deal escaped additional time for aiding and abetting a series of bombings at the U.S. Capitol, the National War College and New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent association. After 16 years in prison, the terrorist bomber caught a break.
On January 20, 2001, President Bill Clinton commuted Rosenberg’s sentence. That drew criticism from New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. Charles Schumer, and officials such as Bernard Kerik. As the former New York police commissioner told Fox News, “I’m sure she would have killed every single one of us if she could have.”
Like the Puerto Rican shooters of 1954, Rosenberg claimed she had been imprisoned for her political beliefs. In 2011, she published An American Radical: Political Prisoner in My Own Country. The Capitol bomber went on to become vice-chair of Thousand Currents, fiscal sponsor of the Black Lives Matter Global Network.
In the summer of 2020, BLM teamed with Antifa on riots in more than 100 cities, with some 30 killed and more than $1 billion in damages. On January 6, 2021, by contrast, the only casualties were Trump supporters, including Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt, shot dead by Capitol Police officer Michael Byrd.
For Joe Biden, Jan. 6 was the greatest attack on democracy since the Civil War. He left out the shootings of 1954 and the bombing of 1983, which could easily have claimed his life. The Delaware Democrat had also forgotten another attempt on September 11, 2001.
That day al Qaeda terrorists hijacked four airliners, including United Airlines Flight 93. According to The 9/11 Commission Report, the objective was to crash the airliner into the Capitol or the White House. The flight was 20 minutes from Washington when the terrorists were “defeated by the alerted, unarmed passengers of United 93.”