"I came to see that it was perhaps one of the only images of that day that gave people some hope," Kim tells PEOPLE

By Diane Herbst
January 13, 2021 01:10 PM
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In the hours after pro-Trump rioters attacked the U.S. Capitol, New Jersey Rep. Andy Kim was so horrified and heartbroken by the chaos and destruction left in their wake — the broken glass and garbage, the cigarette butts and broken benches — that he grabbed some trash bags and helped clean up the wreckage.

Moving photos of his work, captured by an Associated Press photographer, soon went viral.

"This is a building that deserves and demands our  respect," Kim, 38, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. 

"As I stood there, looking at the rotunda, my heart was broken," he says. "I just felt compelled. It wasn't something I planned to do. I just saw this room that I love so much, and it was in such disrepair and I wanted to fix it. For the first time that day, I had a mission and my mission was cleaning."

New Jersey Rep. Andy Kim cleans up debris and personal belongings strewn across the floor of the Capitol rotunda in the early morning hours of Jan. 7, after protesters stormed the building the afternoon before.
| Credit: Andrew Harnik/AP/Shutterstock

The AP's Andrew Harnik photographed Kim on his knees, cleaning the debris from that violent day. Harnik happened to spot the second-term Democrat in the Capitol rotunda and, 30 minutes later, cleaning another section of the Capitol by himself. 

"That," Harnick tells PEOPLE, "was something."

Kim had no idea the pictures were resonating with strangers until his wife called the next morning, he says: "She said that a colleague of hers sent her the photos and that colleague had gotten it from her aunt. I didn't even tell my wife that I had done this." 

Then, on Friday, he received a call on his cell phone with no caller ID. The caller, a man, would not identify himself but was emotional.

"He said he felt compelled to call me and just say 'thank you,' " Kim says. "And he was just in tears. He was bawling on the phone. He said it was just very restorative and that my quiet act stood out to him. I said thank you."

"I came to see that it was perhaps one of the only images of that day that gave people some hope," Kim tells PEOPLE.

He has continued the gestures of goodwill after last week's mayhem: This week, he brought coffee for members of the New Jersey National Guard stationed outside the Capitol.

Kim's love for America and its institutions began as a child when his parents, immigrants from Korea, visited the Capitol with him. "I remember them taking me to this building and talking about it, and they were so proud that they could show it to me," he says. 

"My mother and my father grew up at the tail end of the Korean war," Kim says. "My dad grew up in an orphanage, my mom to a single mother. My dad was a polio survivor and was able to get an education in America. My dad ended up getting a PhD in genetics here. "

"This country," he adds, "means so much to us. And we treat it with such respect."

During the deadly insurrection last Wednesday, Kim felt fearful for his colleagues, he says — "just total panic and fear. My imagination ran wild, and I came up with so many nightmare scenarios because we were just in uncharted territory."

With time to process the violence, Kim grew more despondent, what he calls "really deep sadness for how bad are things in this country that we've gone to this moment?"

Through tears, he tells PEOPLE: "It's just like this feeling of just like, 'Oh, how could people have done this? And what kind of mindset are you in that you could come in and just smash down the door of America?' "

The sadness has since transformed, however, "into a renewed sense of purpose and a heightened patriotism," he says.

"I know exactly what my job is right now, which is to do everything I humanly can to restore some decency and some kindness and some civility back into our politics."

With reporting by WENDY GROSSMAN KANTOR