The Capitol Riots: 6 months on

This morning I watched the New York Times report on the January 6th riot. It’s very hard to watch, but everybody who was patriotically barbecuing and watching fireworks last Sunday for Independence Day should watch it and take a moment to reflect on the state of the union.

Rewatching the events of that day, brought together so seamlessly in this report, I felt that same sense of shock and horror. It was surreal. If I didn’t know that it had actually happened, I wouldn’t think it was possible for people to breach the Capitol building. I’ve never been inside it, but I’ve been through security at the National Archives–it was airport-level scrutiny, with armed guards, metal detectors, and x-ray machines. A normal, law-abiding, sensible person would not think to try to breach it or attack it or “take it back”.

I was struck by the way they chanted “treason” while they were, in my eyes, committing treason. It reminded me of the classic discourse analysis example, one man’s “terrorist” is another man’s “freedom fighter.” In their eyes, they were there to fight the “treason” of a “stolen” election–a great injustice had taken place, and they (somehow?) thought they would stop it by taking over the Capitol building. It’s so hard to be empathetic and see January 6th from their perspective, because their perspective is counterfactual. How can you have a dialogue with them?

Looking at the sea of angry white faces waving Confederate flags, I was also reminded of the Civil Rights era and the aggressive crowds protesting school integration. So little has changed since then.

Crowd that attacked a Freedom Riders bus in Alabama on May 14, 1961

This anger and hatred didn’t go away with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. It didn’t go away when we elected a Black President. We see it in the counter-protests that meet Black Lives Matter demonstrations. We see it in daily miscarriages of justice, in persistent inequalities, in casual racism and overt racism.

Investigating what happened on January 6th is about more than Trump. He’s a symptom of a larger problem. It’s about a whole system that made these people feel they were the ones who had been wronged, that they were fighting “treason” (rather than committing it), and that they had the right (and even the duty) to breach the Capitol and stop the Constitutionally-mandated process of certifying an election that their own party’s officials had declared was secure, free, and fair.

I’m sure in the Civil Rights era it felt like American was hopelessly divided and there was no way forward, just as it does now. Things have improved in the past 60 years, even if we still have a long way to go.

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