Saturday, January 9, 2021

Three Phrases We Can Stop Saying about Riots in D.C.

The U.S. Capitol on a peaceful, sunny day.
Photo: Cynthia Levin

There are three phrases I'm tired of hearing this week in the aftermath of rioting insurrectionists who violently breached the U.S. Capitol. I've heard them from TV pundits, fellow citizens processing the event, and sitting members of Congress. Look, I know that people need to say whatever they need to say when they're shocked by a horrible event. But as we move ahead, here are three sentences we could do without...

#1 "No one could have predicted this."

This is an example of choosing not to believe what people tell you they're going to do. President Trump could not have been more obvious in encouraging people to gather in DC on January 6 to protest the results of the election precisely when Congress would certify the states' electoral votes. It wasn't a secret that he'd been using language that encouraged violence for years. The insurrectionists were invited. Their orders came straight from the presidential bully pulpit. It doesn't take an extraordinary amount of prescience to draw a straight line from a speech to an armed march, especially when the last public speech happens minutes before the action.

(Side note: When President Theodore Roosevelt coined the term "bully pulpit" to refer to the president's advantageous position to speak, he meant "bully" as in "wonderful" as the word meant in the early 1900's...not an actual bully like the man using it now.)

I could see friends in D.C. on social media talking about the possibility of violence days before January 6. I saw friends from other states warning friends in D.C. to stay home for safety. If my commonplace, non-psychic friends with no specialized security access nor communications with right-wing extremist groups suspected that there would be an attempt to breach the Capitol, I promise you that someone in power could have predicted it and acted to prevent it. A person who claims no one could have predicted the event just doesn't want to admit they were ignoring the red flags or simply not paying attention.

#2 "We could never have imagined this happening."

I heard this one straight from the mouths of senators the night after the riots. It's been repeated hundreds of times over. This statement reminds me of one of the most eloquent phrases from the NASA investigation hearings after the Apollo I disaster: "a failure of imagination." Those words have described other historic disasters, too, from the Titanic to Pearl Harbor. But it's the job of Homeland Security, the Capitol Police, and the Sergeant-at-Arms to imagine exactly such a worst-scenario. At best, it was lazy complacency combined with white privilege blinding decision makers to threats that let the intrusion get so far. At worst, it was white supremacy and complicit help aiding the rioters who put our members of Congress in jeopardy. (For supporting data, see this FiveThirtyEight article with data about DC police response to protestors citing that "between May 1 and November 28, 2020, authorities were more than twice as likely to attempt to break up and disperse a left-wing protest than a right-wing one.")

Everyone wants to believe our Capitol and our democracy are secure. Heck, I want to believe it every time I surrender my belongings for x-ray and step into a building on Capitol Hill for meetings as a constituent! But to say we couldn't imagine it is selling ourselves short.  

Frankly, I'd be shocked if our senators and representatives never imagined it. Each time I sit in a synagogue, I check my proximity to doors and consider what I would do if violent intruders attempted to harm us. My children vividly imagine gunmen taking hostages in their school. And we're just ordinary people with neither power nor prestige, unlike the 535 people who run our government and all sit in a couple of rooms together a few times a year. If any members of Congress or their staff would like to talk about how scary it was to hide from armed intruders and what to do about it in the future, they would find a welcome conversation with any Moms Demand volunteers around the country. 

#3 "This is not who we are."

Even President-Elect Biden said a version of this in his attempt to cool the nation with a speech even as the mob was still on Capitol grounds. It sounds quite comforting said from a podium, but this is a pretty lie white people tell each other to feel better after something exposes white supremacy for everyone to see. People of color know better. I preferred Kamala Harris' words in her response to the rioting when she said, "We know we should be better than this."

Americans and our elected officials need to come to grim terms with the fact that this really is an ugly part of who we are before we can make things better. It's not just vile thoughts living in one powerful man. We live in a country where violinists, including children, were dipsersed with tear gas and rubber bullets by a SWAT team at a music memorial for Elijah McClain, a Black man killed by police, this summer. (I mean, how bad does it have to be for Classic FM radio to cover violence at a peaceful protest?) 

We don't like to admit it. But the white supremacy and privilege brazenly on display in D.C. this week are not just part of the ideology of some of our fellow citizens. They persist in our law-enforcement system and were even baked into our government policies for centuries when white, male, land owners set the stage for our fledgling democracy. Our country has been fighting it ever since. 

No, it's definitely not part of the American ideal. It's not who we should be. But it will continue to be who we are until we acknowledge it and take action to dismantle inequality in both government policies (like redlining practices in housing and voter suppression) and personal behaviors (like micro-aggressions and voting). 

So...What Do We Do Now?

Cover of "How to Fight Inequality and
Why that Fight Needs You"
Here are just three of many, many actions we can take to bring us closer to a more perfect Union. Don't stop with these! Please leave more suggestions for others in the comments.