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NBC News – Behind the viral photo of Rep. Andy Kim cleaning up at midnight after riots

Rep. Andy Kim, the first member of Congress of Korean descent in the Democratic Party stayed until 3 a.m. to help clean up debris after Capitol riots.


“It’s a room that I love so much. … It pained me so much to see it in this kind of condition,” the New Jersey Democrat said.

Image: Andy Kim

Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., cleans up debris and personal belongings strewn across the floor of the Rotunda in the early morning hours on Jan. 7, 2021, after a mob stormed the Capitol.Andrew Harnik / AP

Unlike many of his congressional colleagues, Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., was in his office in a separate federal building when President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday afternoon. So he didn’t actually see the damage live until nearly midnight, after the House had voted down the last challenge to the presidential election result.

When he finally did walk around the rotunda — his favorite and arguably the most storied room of the building — the disarray left him speechless. Water bottles, broken furniture, tattered Trump flags and pieces of body armor and clothing were strewn on the marble floor as if it were an abandoned parking lot.

“It’s a room that I love so much — it’s the heart of the Capitol, literally the heart of this country. It pained me so much to see it in this kind of condition.”

“I was just overwhelmed with emotion,” Kim, 38, told NBC Asian America. “It’s a room that I love so much — it’s the heart of the Capitol, literally the heart of this country. It pained me so much to see it in this kind of condition.”

So for the next hour and a half, he crouched down and filled a half dozen trash bags with debris. When he finished cleaning up the rotunda, he began working on the adjacent rooms, including the National Statuary Hall and the Capitol crypt downstairs.

Then he returned to the House floor to debate Pennsylvania’s vote count, a session that lasted until 3 a.m. By Thursday evening, he’d been awake for more than 36 hours.

On a day in which video of mayhem and bloodshed inundated social media, a widely shared photograph of Kim, alone on his knees, picking up the final pieces of garbage in a nearly empty rotunda, was a radical break from — and rejection of — the violent impulses that drove the country to the brink of collapse. Many people labeled him a “true patriot.” While Kim said he didn’t dwell much on the symbolic heft of his actions, the term was on his mind.

“I feel blessed to have this opportunity as a son of immigrants to be able to serve in Congress,” he said. “Democracy to me is this place of opportunity that is affording me a chance to do something extraordinary.”

“I feel blessed to have this opportunity as a son of immigrants to be able to serve in Congress,” he said. “Democracy to me is this place of opportunity that is affording me a chance to do something extraordinary.”

Andy Kim speaks during a debate in Newark, New Jersey, on Oct. 31, 2018.
Andy Kim at a debate in Newark, N.J., on Oct. 31, 2018.Julio Cortez / AP file

In 2018, Kim became the first Asian American to represent New Jersey in Congress, flipping a predominantly white district that voted for Trump in 2016 and did so again in 2020. (Kim won re-election in November despite voting to impeach the president last year.)

The irony of a history-making Korean American lawmaker dusting up after a white supremacist riot is not lost on Kim. But he also pointed to the progress that’s been made.

“I represent a district where the vast majority of people do not look like me,” he said. “But they’ve voted for me twice now to be their representative, and that’s a beautiful thing. There are others who seek to make me seem like an ‘other’ whether it’s because of skin color, or gender, or sexuality. But that’s not what this is about. We’re all Americans.”

A former national security aide under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Kim recently spoke about how simmering ideological tensions can become dangerous during presidential transitions. But while he expected the hate and anger that defined the Trump era to escalate in the aftermath of the election, Wednesday’s events still shocked him. In the roughly six hours he spent sheltered in his office, he worried about the safety of his colleagues and staffers as the pro-Trump mob ransacked the Capitol.

At one point, he recalled receiving a security alert that Capitol police had lost control of the building.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in Afghanistan and Iraq, I’ve been in war zones where I’ve had to shelter in place, but I never would have imagined that this would happen here,” he said, noting that he didn’t know at the time whether the rioters were armed. “It was a terrifying experience.”

Bridging the deep racial and ideological chasms in this country, Kim said, will require legislative action to rein in the radicalization of white supremacists and the proliferation of disinformation.

At the same time, he said, there must also be profound shifts in the way Americans treat one another on a personal level.

“The depth of the divisions that we have isn’t something any single law can wipe off the face of our planet,” he said. “We also need to recognize that how we get through that is by seeing the humanity in each other. There are ways we can have debates and disagreements but not resort to violence.”

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