White Supremacy Created the Capitol Assault
The Trojan horse of racism put democracy’s enemies inside its walls.
U.S. President Donald Trump has committed sedition in broad daylight and incited a violent attempted coup that had the unintended effect of disrupting a political one. Both attempts failed for many reasons, but the question is how they even got that close. The answer is simple. The invaders were not Black.
While many of the police present made heroic efforts to protect the people inside the halls of the Capitol building during the mob attack on Jan. 6, and one gave his life doing so, they were hampered by leadership that did not see the real threat that the mob posed, by law enforcement posing in selfies with the attackers, but most of all by the assumption of white innocence and the years of white supremacist infiltration into police forces across the country. It is commendable that the police tried to show some humanity and attempted to keep the situation from escalating. But the juxtaposition of the images from the police response in the Capitol and to Black Lives Matter protests is telling. Had the Capitol rioters been Black, the police would have been ready with tanks.
White supremacy and, with it, the presumption of white innocence explain how in the 2014 Ferguson protests, the National Guard arrived in overwhelming numbers, and even peaceful Black protesters were deemed “enemy forces.” It also explains why federal law enforcement underestimated the size of Trump’s “Stop the Steal” protest by over 20,000 people and kept their presence too small and too far away to react. According to the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, they were afraid of the optics of an armed confrontation with citizens and wanted to avoid a “Tiananmen Square moment.”
This is strange, as both the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI have known for some time that right-wing white nationalists are the top domestic terrorist threat to the United States. Observers of sites and apps like TheDonald.Win and Parler sounded warnings about the coming armed confrontation, as users declared their intentions, believing that they were in a “post-legal phase.”
In a recent interview, Democratic Rep. Cori Bush told Rachel Maddow that, “As someone who has been to hundreds of protests from the Ferguson uprising, it was strange because it was almost as if there was this call to not use force. I’m not used to that. … I’ve been tear gassed so many times … unconscious on the ground … I’ve been brutalized by the police. Stomped.”
The media and governmental leaders initially had great difficulty in deciding what to call the people who broke the barriers, and they still haven’t quite settled on a term. They were protesters, Trump supporters, alleged Trump followers, insurgents, conspiracy theorists, terrorists, patriots, a mob. Very special people. Few would call them by the most accurate name: tacitly sanctioned white supremacists.
Simply labeling them as terrorists is dangerous. It makes it easy to disassociate and separate them from the people you see on the streets every day. These were not just scary men in masks with neo-Nazi tattoos brandishing the Confederate flag. There were elderly men and women, teenagers: ordinary white Americans. Ashli Babbitt, the woman fatally shot by Capitol Police, was ex-military. She owned a business. Her family shares her fears of the “coming multiracial democracy.” White supremacy is so normalized, the police thought they knew them. They thought they had them under control. They didn’t want to make a scene. It felt more like a familiar dispute than a true uprising or national crisis, until suddenly it was.
To some extent, the involvement of Donald Trump also confuses the issue. The presidency has always had a powerful symbolic pull. It concentrates certain aspects of American culture and pulls them closer to the center of the narrative Americans tell about themselves. Americans’ feelings are focused on the president, for good and bad. So there are many who want to lay the blame solely at Trump’s feet. It is certainly true that he has done what former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke could not, and what no president has successfully done since Woodrow Wilson: legitimize the actions of white supremacists at the highest level.
Yet the modern conservative movements have always been a safe space for the privileges of white rage. Even Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, cited often for his courage in the face of Trump, has made convenient use of it when it suited him, as have many Republicans. And if we’re being honest, so have Democrats. Redlining Black Americans into substandard, segregated neighborhoods like Ferguson was a bipartisan effort at all levels of government. Trump is a particularly virulent expression of white rage, but he’s not its creator.
[To read FP’s ongoing coverage of the aftermath of the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol, click here.]
What happened on Capitol Hill was not an accident. It wasn’t an act of God. This wasn’t an aberration; it was part of a pattern. It was apparent in the standoff at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where armed white militia seized a federal center five years ago. It was visible again with the armed protests in Michigan last year. For years, white supremacists in power have nourished their communities on fears of nonwhites coming to take their democracy and told them to attack. The internet made it easier to escalate, but not so easy to control. It is hard to say who was more shocked last week when things went south—the dog that bit, or the hand that fed.
It’s visible online how quickly the more extreme elements have reacted viciously to the seeming betrayal of the president and his ilk as Trump signals he will agree to leave the White House on Jan. 20, and they have made it clear they have no fear of the police. This isn’t over, neither in the short term nor the long. There is still the inauguration, and there are promises of attacks being made online on right-wing forums right now.
And yet, while white supremacists laid siege to the Capitol building, Georgian voters were saving America a second time. Most white Georgians voted for the Republican Party in the Senate runoffs even after the blatant attack on the elections, backed by the Republican candidates. But Black voters, other people of color, and a minority of white voters overwhelmed a system put in place to ensure white power. They proved again that Black lives do matter, now more than ever.