Ida Martinac was a teenager in Croatia decades ago when she watched with horror as Albanian lawmakers were dragged by the neck out of legislative chambers.
Her family had just finished seeing the movie “The Exorcist” when the news came on.
“I swear, the news was just so terrifying that ‘The Exorcist’ just paled — it evaporated,” Martinac said.
That memory came flooding back to the 51-year-old now living in San Francisco, first when she learned that Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania had removed their Democratic lieutenant governor from presiding over a session. Then again a few days later as the shocking scenes of the insurrection at the Capitol unfolded.
For many Bay Area residents who moved to the U.S. from countries that have suffered under dictatorial and totalitarian regimes, the violence that shook the country on Wednesday sparked painful reminders of life without democracy.
“When I read about Pennsylvania, it drew an immediate parallel,” she said. “And then the storming of the Capitol — I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around what happened.”
On Wednesday, a mob incited by President Donald Trump breached the Capitol, attempting to overturn the democratic election of President-elect Joe Biden so Trump could remain in power. The mob was eventually dispersed and Biden’s election was ratified despite continued protests from some Republican lawmakers.
The violent melee left five dead, including one Capitol police officer killed by a pro-Trump mob, and millions of Americans grappling with the fallout of an assault at the seat of Congress. But while the scene was saddening for many Bay Area immigrants, it was not surprising.
“What’s left of our democracy is this very precious gem,” said Martinac, who fled from Zagreb in modern-day Croatia in 1990 before the Yugoslav Wars broke out the following year. She said that losing democracy at the hands of a mob could also mean losing the right to free speech.
“As somebody who could literally go to the gulag for saying the wrong thing, I really feel that the right to speech is a hill worth dying on. Without it — I feel like nothing much really matters anymore,” she said.
Paula Tejeda, who came to the U.S. from Chile as a teenager, said no one thinks an overthrow of government will happen in their country — until it does. In Chile, Gen. Augusto Pinochet ruled as a dictator for 17-years after a U.S.-backed coup overthrew the democratically elected President Salvador Allende.
“People in Chile said, ‘We’re never going to have a dictatorship,’” Tejeda said. “Even the people who supported the coup thought it would only last one year.”
She wasn’t surprised at all when she saw what was happening in the U.S. Capitol. Trump, she said, had pointed at very real frustration with economic inequality in a rapidly changing world, and used it to blame immigrants, people of color and Democratic lawmakers as a way to maintain his own power.
“What we saw Wednesday, I saw as something that had been building from the moment Trump was elected,” she said.
For Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian studies program at Stanford University, it was a clear reminder that no democracy is ever completely safe. The attack on Wednesday was unlikely to succeed, he said, calling rioters “a gang of hooligans.” But, under slightly different circumstances, things could have gone differently.
“That’s the lesson,” he said. “American democracy is more resilient than its facile foes have assumed but it’s more fragile than the defenders think.”
Iran itself was rocked by a sudden revolution in 1979 when the shah was overthrown in a popular revolt. The country is now a theological republic with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as supreme ruler.
The Wednesday riot failed to stop the certification of Biden’s election, and there has been some talk of consequences for the instigators and participants of the failed insurrection. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has threatened a second impeachment if Trump isn’t removed and some Republican legislators are under pressure to resign for their role in the affair. Capitol Police arrested about a dozen people the day of the breach while D.C. police arrested around 70. Since then, the U.S. attorney’s office for D.C. has filed 17 cases in federal court and at least 40 others in the Superior Court by Saturday, mostly covering curfew violations and gun crimes.
Defendants facing federal charges include Richard Barnett, the Arkansas man photographed with his boots on Pelosi’s desk, Adam Johnson, a Florida resident photographed carrying Pelosi’s lectern, and Jacob Anthony Chansley, who was filmed in the Capitol shirtless, wearing a fur hat and carrying a 6-foot spear with a U.S. flag tied below the blade. Additional cases remained under seal Friday, authorities said, and dozens of other people were being sought by federal agents. U.S. attorneys in several states, including Kentucky, Ohio and Oregon, said people could face charges in their home states if they traveled to Washington and took part in the riot.
But experts and residents who’ve witnessed political repression said the civil strife brought on by Trump and efforts to undermine American democracy will likely linger for years, even if Biden clamps down hard on right-wing militias.
“What you’re going to get out of this is a culture of deceit with a myth of a stolen election,” said Lawrence Rosenthal, chair of the Center for Right-Wing Studies at UC Berkeley and an expert in American and Italian right-wing politics. “And that culture — no matter how much the Biden administration manages to put people in jail, et cetera — that is going to persist for a long time.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.