“This is not who we are,” was the rallying cry of many on social media and in the news after rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Another common refrain was the chagrined comparison of the United States to “banana republics” or “third world” authoritarian dictators. But for Black Americans and for millions of people in the global South, this is, indeed, who America is, and it is the direct product the country’s politics—not just four years of disinformation, corruption, and white supremacy, but centuries of enslavement, genocide, and imperialism.
By all accounts, the plans of white nationalists to descend on Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 were no closely guarded secret. Yet, the country, including police in D.C. seemed completely unprepared to deal with the violence. Some video clips even appeared to show police officers either allowing people through barricades without resistance or actively directing them to move forward, with at least one police officer posing for a selfie with one of the intruders and another helping a woman walk down a flight of stairs. Some off-duty police officers and members of the military were apparently part of the mob, flashing their badges as they stormed the building.
So certain were many of the rioters that the police would be on their side that they were taken aback by the officers who stood firm. “This is not America,” cried one woman who was part of the mob, “They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots.
Across the country, many observers were shocked into disbelief. But not in Black America, which is used to two systems of policing: one that protects white life and property; and one that takes away Black life and pr0perty. Like many other institutions and systems, policing in the United States has its roots in the period of enslavement, when slave patrols controlled and prevented enslaved persons from escaping, and the Reconstruction era and beyond, when Black codes limited the physical and economic mobility of Black Americans
Of course, many more institutions are implicated in the national amnesia beyond the police. Media descriptions of the woman who was shot and the man who suffered a heart attack during the riot at the Capitol are sharply different from coverage of Black people who are killed by police. Reportage including photographs of neatly manicured, well-dressed people describing their occupations, and quoting their family members, humanize them in a way the victims of police brutality are rarely offered, despite their never having participated in seditious, violent acts. Social media conglomerates and elite universities, too, are equally complicit for accommodating (and thereby validating) disinformation and racist attacks for so long as one of many legitimate possibilities in public discourse and political life.
How to move forward is an urgent but vexing question. There are some areas of agreement and others that need greater clarification and need for informed discussion and consensus
First, while most of the mob was able to leave the Capitol without incident, there is wide agreement that rioters should be tracked down and held to account. Since last week, many were identified by their own social media posts and then arrested. In some cases, they were turned in by family members who saw the coverage on television and in other cases, digital sleuths used crowdsourcing to identify those who appeared to move through the mob with the most purpose, who had come to the Capitol with specific aims and were communicating with each other as they made their way through the crowd.
But how best to continue tracking rioters down, while also limiting the powers of the surveillance state, is a complex question. Organizations like Bellingcat and Citizen Lab play an important role in digital research and communications around human security concerns. Social media companies must preserve video, photo, and other posts that may later be used as evidence, even if they are deleted by posters. They must also be quicker and more decisive in their responses to racist incendiary posts by outgoing President Donald Trump and his enablers—the shutdown of Trump’s Twitter account, while welcome, came at the end of his four-year barrage of lies, disinformation about the election, and racist attacks.
Even the use of terminologies must be interrogated. As events unfolded on Wednesday, the media and politicians quickly shifted from describing the mob as protestors to some calling them terrorists. That language is also problematic, capturing the post-9/11 ever-expanding dragnet that mostly targeted Muslim American communities as well as Black liberation movements. While the acts on Jan. 6 were terrifying and certainly fit what we would think of as terrorism, the use of a domestic terrorism framework to hold these perpetrators accountable might strengthen and expand funding for policing and surveillance systems that will set communities of color back further.
Even well-intentioned comparisons between the preferential treatment of the white nationalist mob versus that towards Black Lives Matters protesters is not entirely an accurate one—it contrasts an illegal and seditious act to overthrow an election using violent means to peaceful protest demanding dignity and equal treatment. In making that comparison, it subconsciously links peaceful, legitimate protest to treason.
Many institutions, including major corporations, social media companies, and universities, issued statements in support of Black Lives Matter and racial justice last summer. Many of those institutions also financially supported Trump and his enablers, developed products or provided platforms that have been used to perpetuate the racial hierarchies and disinformation, or have stayed “neutral” in the face of injustice and violence. Many companies, from the PGA to Hallmark to Deutsche Bank, are now severing ties with Trump and his business dealings or eschewing support for Republican-elected officials who supported Trump in his attempt to overturn the election. Public scrutiny needs to continue, however, beyond this moment to ensure there isn’t a return to past practices once the collective gaze turns to other concerns.
It is clear that Trump must be removed from office immediately, even if there are only a few days left. Looking to the future, President-Elect Joe Biden has nominated an impressive set of leaders at Department of Justice, including Vanita Gupta and Kristen Clarke, who will take on the legal questions around the riots. But for a true shift in “who we are,” it is incumbent on everyone—public and private leaders, members of the body politic—to reflect upon what we need to do to build a more just, peaceful, and inclusive democracy. A stronger democracy—with trusted and inclusive institutions, a peaceful and pluralistic public sphere, and with truth and decency and commitment to human dignity at its core—is hopefully on the horizon.