"This is not who we are," was the rallying cry on social media and on the news after rioters stormed the US Capitol on January 6th. Another common refrain was the disgruntled comparison of the United States with "banana republics" or authoritarian dictators of the "third world". 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 of the country's politics – not just four years of disinformation, corruption and white domination, but centuries of enslavement, genocide and imperialism.
By all accounts, the plans of white nationalists to descend to Washington DC on January 6th were not a closely guarded secret. However, the country, including the DC police force, appeared completely unprepared to deal with the violence. Some video clips even showed police officers either letting people through the barricades without resistance or actively instructing them to move forward. At least one police officer posed for a selfie with one of the intruders, and another helped a woman walk down a flight of stairs. Some off-duty police officers and members of the military appeared to be part of the mob and flashed their badges as they stormed the building.
Many of the rioters were so sure that the police would be on their side that they were surprised by the officers who stood firm. "This is not America," said a woman who was part of the mob, "they are shooting at us. They are supposed to shoot BLM, but they are shooting the patriots.
Across the country, many observers were shocked and incredulous. But not in Black America, which is used to two police systems: one that protects white life and property; and one that takes away black lives and property. Like many other institutions and systems in the United States, policing has its roots in the era of enslavement, when slave patrols controlled and prevented the escape of enslaved persons, and in the era of reconstruction and beyond, when black codes blacked out the physical and economic mobility of Black restricted Americans
Of course, many more institutions outside of the police force are involved in national amnesia. The media descriptions of the woman shot dead and the man who suffered a heart attack during the Capitol uprising are very different from reports of blacks killed by the police. Reportage with photos of neatly groomed, well-dressed people describing their professions and quoting their family members, humanize them in a way that victims of police brutality are rarely offered, even though they have never participated in seditious, violent acts. Social media conglomerates and elite universities are equally complicit in absorbing (and thereby validating) disinformation and racist attacks, as long as this is one of the many legitimate possibilities in public discourse and in political life.
How to move forward is an urgent but annoying question. There are some areas of consensus and others that need further clarification and require informed discussion and consensus
First, while most of the mob were able to leave the Capitol without incident, there is broad consensus that rioters should be tracked down and brought to justice. Since last week, many have been identified from their own social media posts and subsequently arrested. In some cases, they were submitted by family members watching the coverage on television, and in other cases, digital investigators used crowdsourcing to identify those who appeared to be moving through the mob with the greatest aim and who had come to the Capitol with specific goals and communicated with each other as they walked through the crowd.
However, it is a complex question how best to further track down the rioters while restricting the powers of the surveillance state. Organizations like Bellingcat and Citizen Lab play an important role in digital research and communication regarding security concerns. Social media companies need to keep videos, photos, and other posts that can later be used as evidence, even if they are deleted from posters. You also need to be quicker and more decisive in responding to racial arson by outgoing President Donald Trump and his makers – the closure of Trump's Twitter account, while welcome, came at the end of his four-year barrage of lies and disinformation about the elections and racist attacks.
The use of terminology must also be queried. As the events played out on Wednesday, the media and politicians quickly shifted from describing the mob as protesters to what they called terrorists. This language is also problematic and captures the magnet, which grew ever larger after September 11th, and which was mainly directed against Muslim-American communities and black liberation movements. While the January 6th acts were terrifying and certainly fit what we would consider terrorism to be, using a domestic framework for terrorism to hold these perpetrators accountable could strengthen police and surveillance systems funding as well which will further set the color communities back.
Even well-meaning comparisons between the preferential treatment of the white nationalist mob and that of Black Lives Matters protesters are not entirely accurate – it is contrary to an illegal and seditious act to overthrow an election by violent means in order to peaceful protest against dignity and equality to promote . In making this comparison, it subconsciously combines peaceful, legitimate protest with treason.
Many institutions, including large corporations, social media companies, and universities, made statements last summer in support of Black Lives Matter and racial justice. Many of these institutions also supported Trump and his enablers financially, developed products or provided platforms with which racial hierarchies and disinformation could be maintained, or remained “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 relationships or are foregoing the support of Republican-elected officials who backed Trump in his attempt to topple the election. However, public scrutiny must continue beyond that point to ensure that there is no return to previous 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 ahead, President-elect Joe Biden has nominated an impressive group of Justice Department executives, including Vanita Gupta and Kristen Clarke, to deal with the legal issues surrounding the riot. For real change in “who we are”, however, it is up to everyone – public and private leaders, members of the political body – to reflect on what we need to do to build a more just, peaceful and inclusive democracy. A stronger democracy – with trustworthy and inclusive institutions, a peaceful and pluralistic public as well as truth and decency and commitment to human dignity at the center – is hopefully on the horizon.