The events of January 6th were extremely disturbing. A mob of white supremacists, egged on by President Trump and dozens of Republican lawmakers, stormed Congress and multiple state capitals in a coordinated attempt to overturn the election results. But the real danger of this event lies in our response to it; many of the emerging narratives about the event will not prepare us to deal with future events like this. Particularly dangerous are suggestions to increase funding for Capitol Police, pass a new domestic anti-terrorism bill, or heal the divide with bipartisanship and unity. With more pro-Trump actions planned before Joe Biden’s inauguration, it is crucial we address the real shortcomings of Capitol Police: their sympathy towards and involvement in white supremacy.
First, let us tackle the narrative that the coup attempt got as far as it did because there were not enough police and that they need more funding to prevent future attacks. Washington, D.C. is the most policed metro area in the country. The Capitol Police alone, with a staff of 2,300, has a budget of $460 million—nearly half what D.C. spends on public education. Further, police at the event were seen opening gates to let the mob in, directed rioters to Chuck Schumer’s office, denied backup from the National Guard six times, posed for selfies, and even participated in the riot on their day off.
What makes more sense is that police have a long history of sympathy toward and involvement in white supremacy. Policing in the United States South started as slave patrols, only later expanding to include protection of private property. From there, police functioned to return fugitive slaves in the North, enforce Jim Crow and segregation, suppress the Civil Rights movement, infiltrate and dismantle social justice organizations, and disproportionately arrest and murder people of color. Indeed, this ideology has changed little up to the present, with widespread infiltration of the police force by white supremacist groups and up to 84 percent of police officer support for President Trump. This ideological alignment is evident through the contrast in brutality with which police handled the almost exclusively peaceful George Floyd civil rights protests and their reactionary, often armed white supremacist counter-protests.
In short, it is very difficult for police to see the types of people who stormed the Capitol as enemies or criminals. Increasing Capitol Police funding does not address the root of the problem and will only increase the contact police have with oppressed groups, contact that is often harmful. To better secure our capital we need to investigate and dismantle the ties between state security forces and white supremacy.
Second, let us unpack the idea that these were terrorists and what we need is a new domestic anti-terrorism bill. Many have pointed out that the term terrorism has racialized origins intended to reinforce the domination of people of color; expanding the useage of this term to include white supremacist violence is unhelpful at best and seriously harmful at worst. We already have a word to describe people who enact violence in the name of white supremacy: Nazis. Many who were present explicitly identified this way. Plus, one could argue these rioters were not acting against the interests of the state, as terrorism implies, but rather trying to preserve it, since they were acting at the behest of the president and elected officials.
Further, using this event to pass another domestic anti-terrorism bill, as Biden suggested the day after the coup attempt, is problematic because this would expand and deepen domestic surveillance. As mentioned earlier, the government has a long history of using domestic surveillance to crush social justice movements. Government surveillance and intelligence agencies also frequently target and exploit minority groups; many of the anti-ISIS cases prosecuted in the United States were concocted, facilitated, and funded by the FBI to entrap young Black men, many of whom were mentally ill and were coached on a violent interpretation of Islam by the FBI itself. Previous anti-terrorism measures criminalized tens of thousands of innocent people in America, mostly Muslims. This on top of the troubling implications more surveillance has on the constant erosion of everyone’s privacy.
Expanding and deepening the national security apparatus will not neutralize the threat of white supremacist violence but instead hand it to the state. What we need to do instead is target and dismantle white supremacist organizations while critically reconfiguring the role government agencies have in this process.
Finally, we need to stop conflating accountability with the cries for bipartisanship from disgraced members of the Republican party. Almost 150 of them—including two-thirds of all House Republicans—voted to discredit the election results after the coup attempt, the culmination of a years-long process of sowing doubt in elections that Democrats win. To call for unity without accountability is to bring these anti-democratic behaviors into the fold, to legitimize them. Nothing could be more dangerous. Accountability means taking responsibility for the violence these anti-democratic actions provoke.
An analogous event that might shed light on our situation is the 1898 coup in Wilmington, North Carolina. Just after election day, a mob of hundreds of white supremacists, led by a congressman, killed at least 60, burned down the nation’s only Black daily newspaper, forced prominent Black residents out, and overthrew the biracial local government. Instead of standing up to this violence, North Carolina conceded to it. The event was deemed a “race riot” instigated by the Black residents, and the white rioters were cast as heroes until the 1990s. Charles Aycock, an agitator of the riots, was elected as governor of NC just three years later on a platform of white supremacy, replacing a pro-Black Fusionist government. A building on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus was named after him until June, 2020.
To overcome what started on January 6th, we need to start by naming clearly what happened and why: white supremacists stormed the Capitol because Republicans told them they could change the results of the election. They got in and largely avoided severe treatment because police sympathized with their cause and let them through. This will happen again because neither of the previous two conditions have changed.
To prevent future events like this, we need those responsible for instigating this violence to be held accountable, and we need to confront the white supremacy that lies at the roots of our nation’s security agencies and police. We need to kick all of the rioters out of the Capitol.