At first, yesterday seemed like a beacon of hope. The grassroots momentum that started off as a quiet rumble demanding change had grown into the roar of getting it done. It was no small feat to unseat Republican Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. Multicultural coalitions, helmed by Black organizers and including AAPI and Latinx leaders, showed what is possible when you fight voter suppression and invest in bridging communities instead of dividing them.
The labor of love from organizations like Fair Fight Action, New Georgia Project, and so many others just gave President-elect Joe Biden the best conditions he could have hoped for: a fighting chance in the Senate and congressional control should the Democrats remain aligned. This is monumental, and we aren’t the only ones who realized that. So it was no surprise to anyone who is a student of history when a group of white people—mostly, but not exclusively, men, and some armed—stormed the Capitol building in Washington D.C. and at several state capitols around the country. What we’re witnessing is an attempted coup and a lashing out in response to recent Democratic victories. And it isn’t new.
Racial progress in this country has always been followed by an uptick in violence. Following the end of the Civil War and emancipation, this nation embarked on a project for reconstruction that led to a surge in Black political participation and economic advancement. But this project would become short-lived, and one of the most violent times in U.S. history would follow. In response to the progress toward undoing the legacy of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan was founded and Jim Crow would become law.
Then, following the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Republicans and Democrats alike expanded mass incarceration and over-policing, which has only continued into the present day. Nearly 50 years later, America’s first Black president was followed by one of the most blatantly white supremacist leaders we’ve seen in some time. This is what we are up against. Those who are shocked at the violence we’ve seen throughout the Trump administration should do a deeper dive into the history and legacy of white supremacy as a systemic and regenerative ideology. White supremacy and institutional racism are continually recycled and reborn as different movements. Yesterday’s mob is another manifestation of that pattern.
So what can we do? Let’s first be intentional with our language. The way we talk about what is happening right now will frame the urgency we feel around addressing it and the solutions we look toward for disrupting the cycle. First and foremost, stop saying, “This isn’t us.” President-elect Biden tweeted yesterday, “What we are seeing is a small number of extremists dedicated to lawlessness.” This myth is what has allowed these highly organized groups to continue to grow power under our noses.
According to the Associated Press, over 74 million people voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 election. On December 30th, Trump tweeted calling on his supporters to travel to D.C. and rally on January 6th, the day that election votes were scheduled to be certified by Congress. He would continue to promote the march, on what he called a “historic day”. He and his supporters didn’t know then that they’d also be facing the loss of the Senate, but their plans to lay siege on the city were premeditated and encouraged by the sitting President of the United States. For years, activists, organizers, and politicos have been warning against white supremacist organizing on digital platforms. Now we are seeing what Malcolm X called the “chickens coming home to roost.” Trump’s Twitter account was temporarily locked, but we are already past the point of no return.
This brings me to my next point of clarity. Some pundits have commented on the slow security response and police inaction in protecting the Capitol. Again, let me be clear: As someone who has been arrested during acts of unarmed civil disobedience inside of the Capitol twice, the building is no soft target. The grounds are heavily guarded with several checkpoints and protocols for quickly getting people out. Miriam Carey was an unarmed Black woman driving with her young daughter when she went the wrong way near the Capitol and was killed by police and Secret Service. It was later concluded that Carey posed no threat to the nation’s security, and yet she became collateral damage anyway. What we saw yesterday was state-sanctioned violence as domestic terrorists laid their claim.
This shouldn’t be surprising considering that police unions were some of Trump’s donors and endorsers. Some videos circulating online showed terrorists pausing their rampages to take selfies with Capitol police. That is the behavior of officers committed to protecting and serving their own interests, which is everything abolitionists and activists have been saying for centuries.
This is the product of “stand back and stand by.” This is what happens when elected officials sworn to defend America against “all enemies, foreign and domestic” attempt to thwart peaceful transitions of power. Each of the 12 Senate Republicans who originally planned to challenge vote certification are culpable and should be held accountable as such. Many used their platforms and legitimacy to sow discord, signaling support to those who took up arms.
This is also why no comparison should ever be made to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. Occupying federal buildings, threatening congressional members and staffers, and destroying state capitol buildings nationwide on the day of election certification is not the same as protesting in the streets following police brutality. Even when buildings or cars were destroyed or burned, those actions weren’t part of a terrorist attack on a newly-elected government body. False equivalencies like these are dangerous and ignore the ways Black people have been treated for far less.
Besides talking about it, what can we do? More specifically, how can this country protect against continued violence, which will no doubt target Black and other marginalized communities hardest? The Biden/Harris administration, our new Senate Majority Leader, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have been dealt the best hand they could have asked for. Now that they have the control, there are no more excuses. Reining in this country’s police state and the white supremacists that they protect must be a priority. It’s time to cement the monumental shifts we are making by passing The BREATHE Act, drafted by The Electoral Justice Project of the Movement for Black Lives. The bill, which aims to divest federal resources from policing and invest in new approaches to community safety, is something we can all lobby our senators about and champion as the 21st civil rights bill we desperately need and deserve. As Dr. King said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” We fight bigotry by not backing down.
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