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Perspective | The enduring moments of 2021, as told by Post reporters

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The city was once again on edge April 20, with National Guard troops deployed on neighborhood streets amid fears the city could erupt in flames. The excruciating videos of George Floyd begging for his life beneath Derek Chauvin’s knee played again and again in court. Jurors closely watched the footage, some visibly cringing as Floyd’s moans echoed through the courtroom. They stared at Chauvin, who avoided their gaze and showed no emotion.

Chauvin was much smaller and thinner than how he looked in the footage, and over the weeks, he seemed to diminish more in the face of damaging testimony, including from his former Minneapolis police colleagues. Still, police officers were rarely convicted. As the verdict was read, even Chauvin seemed taken aback — his eyes darting and blinking above the medical mask that concealed most of his face. “Guilty,” the judge declared. “Guilty. … Guilty.”

I heard a loud commotion outside the blocked windows — shouts of joy and honks from cars erupting from a city that had gone absolutely still. As I stepped into the daylight a few minutes later, a loud crowd had gathered on the lawn of the courthouse to celebrate. On the nearby steps, I saw an older Black woman kneeling and crying. They were tears of relief, she explained, but also tears for other people of color killed by police who hadn’t gotten similar justice. “I pinched myself when he said guilty,” the woman said. “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t in a dream.”

I’m always going to remember the case of Ray DeMonia, the vaccinated Alabama man who died in September following a cardiac emergency after he was turned away from 43 hospitals in three states that were overwhelmed by unvaccinated patients. His daughter, Raven, remembered her father as many things — an auctioneer; an avid fan of “Antiques Roadshow,” Alabama Crimson Tide football and the music of Kiss; and a great dad.

She told me through tears how he held out hope that enough people would get vaccinated to allow him to one day safely shake hands and talk antiques in person: “Dad would just want everything to get back to normal.”

It was the second-to-last line of the pool report that I quickly filed after we evacuated the Senate on Jan. 6, with about 200 people (senators, staff and press) who had spent the past 15 minutes huddling inside the chamber as rioters were just outside the doors: “As they rushed away, Senate parliaentary [sic] staff grabbed hold of the boxes containing the electoral college certificates.”

The quartet of aides, led by Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough and her senior assistant, Leigh Hildebrand, didn’t realize that the rioters would find a door left unlocked on the third floor above into the public gallery, allowing them to enter the chamber and rappel down, opening other doors. The rioters then rifled through senators’ desks, looking at papers and taking over the dais.

Had those electoral college certificates from 50 states been left behind, the rioters almost certainly would have found and destroyed them.

A little past 7 p.m., security officials gave the all-clear to return to the Capitol, and the press led the caravan walking underground back to the Senate. But soon we realized that an important group was coming through: those same staffers who saved the certificates. They led the way into the Capitol, and many hours later, President Donald Trump’s defeat was sealed.

All the usual trappings of a monumental Supreme Court argument were missing on Dec. 1 as the justices considered the case of Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban, the most substantial challenge to abortion rights in a generation.

The court remains closed because of coronavirus precautions, so there was no long line of lawyers trying to wrangle a seat in the grand courtroom, no sidewalk campsites for members of the public who wait for days in hopes of seeing history being made. The chants of demonstrators outside could not penetrate marble walls and velvet curtains. A small group of reporters and the justices’ law clerks were spaced out in the pews usually reserved for dignitaries. Jane Roberts, the wife of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and a former official of Feminists for Life, watched from the side. Nearby was Joanna Breyer, whose husband Stephen G. Breyer wrote the most recent decision affirming abortion rights.

Everyone listened intently whenever Justices Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett spoke. They sit at opposite ends of the mahogany bench because of their junior status, but their views are crucial. The outcome is months away, but as everyone filed out nearly two hours later, the long-held dream of abortion opponents to overturn Roe v. Wade seemed within reach.

Heading into her second Olympics, Simone Biles faced extraordinary pressure in every competition and had criticized USA Gymnastics for failing to protect athletes from Larry Nassar’s abuse. Her dominance despite such obstacles made her seem superhuman.

Then, during the July 27 team final, Biles got lost in the air during her vault. Moments later, as I saw her exit the arena in Tokyo with a medical staffer, I knew this could turn into one of the most significant moments in the sport’s history.

Biles would withdraw from the event, citing the need to prioritize her mental health. When she returned to the sideline to watch, she hugged her three teammates, who were initially stressed and in tears, and then cheered them on as they filled the unexpected void on each remaining apparatus on their way to a silver medal.

Biles dropped out of other finals but won a bronze on balance beam. Her time in Tokyo became a high-profile demonstration of an athlete valuing her well-being over medals, and in the days that followed, I realized how gymnasts of all levels felt as though Biles’s experience validated their own struggles in this dangerous sport.

On Jan. 28, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) met with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago to pledge fealty to the former president and enlist his support in helping Republicans retake the House majority. Despite being impeached on a charge of inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Trump was popular enough with Republican voters that McCarthy decided to effectively kiss the ring.

The meeting established a power dynamic by which Trump reigned over his party, turned his supporters against avowed GOP foes, such as Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), and stood in waiting as the 2024 presidential nominee. It signaled that his “big lie” about election fraud would not simply endure, but dominate Republican politics in the year to come.

For three days in June, a heat dome hovered over Portland, Ore., sending the mercury spiking to a record-shattering 116 degrees. The air was so hot, it seemed to scour my lungs and scorch my skin. At a homeless encampment on the city’s east side, I met a woman whose overheated body could no longer produce sweat. Someone else collapsed while walking to the bus that was supposed to take them to a cooling center. Emergency departments were so overwhelmed that doctors had to treat patients in hallways and cool them in body bags filled with ice.

But staying inside was still more dangerous. Trapped in broiling conditions with no access to air conditioning, more than 1,000 people in Oregon, Washington and Canada died of heat stroke — most of them in their own homes.

Even in a year of fires, floods and catastrophic storms, the Pacific Northwest heat wave stood out. It was further proof that humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions — primarily from burning fossil fuels — have so drastically altered our environment that once-unimaginable disasters are now possible.

There’s a cliche on Capitol Hill that Congress works at two speeds: lightning-fast and not at all. When it came to making Juneteenth a federal holiday, it was both. A years-long grind that appeared nowhere near a resolution evaporated in an instant, in a mostly empty Senate chamber, late on a Tuesday, just days before the yearly commemoration on June 19 of slavery’s end in the United States.

All it took was a public statement from one senator, Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who had previously blocked the bipartisan bill over fiscal concerns — allowing Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to quickly pass the bill by unanimous consent before Johnson changed his mind. Very few lawmakers and aides even knew it was going to happen before it was already over. A few other reporters and I received just a few minutes’ warning.

There was no fanfare in the chamber, no cheers, no chants. All of that would come later, at a White House signing ceremony and at celebrations across the country on Juneteenth itself. But not for Johnson: He got jeered after showing up at a Milwaukee event.

I had not even fully unpacked my suitcase for what was supposed to be a two-week vacation with my family when President Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan started to go south. As I watched the harrowing images flicker across my television and social media in mid-August — a jarring juxtaposition from the tranquil New England beach town where I’d just arrived — I called my editors back in Washington and said I wanted to return to work.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan was Biden keeping a clear campaign promise. On certain issues, once Biden’s mind is made up — in this case, it was a decision he’d come to years before, as President Barack Obama’s No. 2 — almost nothing can dissuade him. Even though the withdrawal was popular, for some voters it undermined one of the key arguments for his presidency: that he would be boring and competent, unlike his predecessor.

As I booted up my laptop and sent my family to the beach without me, I could sense a pivotal moment of Biden’s presidency was unfolding, even if I didn’t fully appreciate the magnitude at the time.

I arrived in Surfside, Fla., a day after the partial collapse of Champlain Towers South reduced dozens of homes to rubble in June. Walking to the yellow police tape blocking the beach in front of the building, I was struck by the contrast of the scene. It was a beautiful day, the sun peeking through the clouds and waves lapping at the shore. And in that otherwise idyllic setting, unfathomable disaster.

Those with loved ones missing in the wreckage stood outside the police tape, keeping silent vigil and whispering prayers. One, a college student fresh off an early-morning flight, pulled up cellphone images of his dad’s condo unit and asked me whether I thought he could tell rescuers where to search. He just wanted to know “if my dad is okay. I’m waiting for a call that may or may not come.” I thought of him and the other families when authorities announced there would be no survivors beyond those found in the early moments.

Election 2020 is over and Joe Biden won. Many Americans do not believe or accept this. Why?

I found one answer in Phoenix, where the Arizona Senate seized nearly 2.1 million ballots and handed them over to a private firm, which was conducting an audit that elections experts assessed as unreliable and unprecedented. I traveled there in May and met two Arizona activists, Shelby Busch and Steve Robinson, who were pro-audit and pro-Trump. “I understand why you wouldn’t trust this audit,” Shelby told me, as if I were Arizona’s Democratic secretary of state. “But can you understand why we don’t trust your election?”

This audit. Your election. There was my answer.

The March 16 Atlanta-area spa shootings rattled the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community at a time when so many were already on edge from fear of attacks. During an hour-long memorial service in front of Gold Spa, attended by more than 100 members of Atlanta’s Korean American community, faith leaders invoked the murder of George Floyd and the fight for racial justice. They also emphasized the need to speak out about the rise in violence aimed at the AAPI community and other minority communities nationwide.

It was an incredible sight, with terms and phrases I rarely hear coming from the Korean American Christian community, which is an important but socially conservative part of the Korean diaspora. The fact that their churches across the country were rethinking their roles revealed how tragedy and xenophobia have spurred a growth in political activism and have led to a deep and nuanced understanding of race, solidarity and equality in the AAPI community.

The Rev. Ralph Huling stayed up all night, watching the results of Georgia’s Jan. 5 Senate runoffs come in. On a phone call with his fellow pastors, they prayed for America’s well-being, and that one of their own, the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, would become the state’s first Black U.S. senator.

Huling compared the moment to enslaved people in Confederate states gathering in churches on New Year’s Eve in 1862, praying for the deliverance of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Early the next morning, he was excited about what Warnock’s victory meant for the country and what it said about the power of Black voters when mobilized and fired up. They had spent months watching Republican ads criticizing Warnock as a “radical” angry preacher — but many Black voters saw the campaign as an attack on their identity and a distortion of their religious and cultural tradition.

Our conversation that morning about the possibilities of democratic participation made the day feel even more surreal as I watched the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol unfold while filing my story.

“Mr. President,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said with a nod as he got into a Senate elevator.

No, Joe Biden wasn’t on the Hill to sell parts of his agenda to Congress; Romney was riding with a different Joe: Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).

“It was tongue-in-cheek,” Romney would say later, but the joke worked because in an evenly divided Senate, everything Democrats wanted to accomplish needed the stamp of approval from the gentleman from West Virginia. From the start of the year to the end, Manchin has proved to be one of the most powerful people in Washington, sinking Cabinet-level nominations, casting a deciding vote on a big infrastructure bill and keeping America guessing for months about the fate of Biden’s signature spending bill — until dropping a final “no” right before Christmas.

Manchin has turned his home, a houseboat on the Potomac, into a floating West Wing — a place for a quiet meeting with the White House chief of staff, as well as raucous bipartisan gatherings. He calls the boat Almost Heaven, but some Democrats worry it’s where their agenda goes to die.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/interactive/2021/year-review-moments-events/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=wp_lifestyle Perspective | The enduring moments of 2021, as told by Post reporters

Linh

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