Argument

All the Capitol Rioters Should be Tracked Down

But not in ways that will only further entrench the surveillance state.

Members of the National Guard patrol outside of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC on Jan 12.
Members of the National Guard patrol outside of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC on Jan 12. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

“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 property. 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:

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Sushma Raman is the executive director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, host of the Justice Matters podcast, and co-author of The Coming Good Society: Why New Realities Demand New Rights. Twitter: @sushmaraman

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