Posted on January 21, 2021

The Capitol Insurrection Could Be a Bigger Racial Reckoning Than the George Floyd Protests

John Blake, CNN, January 17, 2021

An enraged White man thrusts the sharp point of an American flagpole toward a helpless Black man. A snarling police dog lunges at a civil rights protester. A White police officer presses his knee on the neck of an unconscious Black suspect.

Each of these blistering images from history changed the way Americans talked about race and exposed truths that many had long denied.

The January 6 assault on the US Capitol has added some new entries to that grim gallery. Many Americans are still reeling from seeing images of what’s been called a “White riot” — an assault on Congress by supporters of President Donald Trump, which left five people dead.

It’s been described as “the most dramatic challenge to the US democratic system since the civil war,” but its impact on racial justice has been undersold.


It’s damaged Trumpism in a way that no other controversy has

Consider the impact of last year’s George Floyd protests — what they did, and what they failed to do.

Floyd’s death last May at the hands of a White police officer in Minnesota sparked what some consider the largest protest movement in American history.


But here’s what the protests didn’t do: They didn’t stop Trump from getting 74 million votes six months later in November’s election — more than any president before him.

Trump may be leaving office, but his corrosive influence isn’t going away. {snip}

The fallout from the Capitol assault, though, may cause irreversible damage to Trump’s brand. The House of Representatives impeached him — again — for inciting violence against the US government. Some Republican lawmakers are now openly breaking with him. His approval rating has sunk to its lowest level ever. Corporations and banks are cutting ties with the Trump Organization.


It’s redefined White supremacy as a form of treason

The shame of the Capitol riot will haunt many of Trump’s followers as well. {snip}

It was easier for a segment of White America to deny their racism during the Floyd protests. {snip}

The Capitol riot, though, has made it much more difficult for White Americans to deny our country has a huge problem with White supremacy. It’s forced many Americans to see how dangerous White supremacy is in a way that the Floyd protests did not.

You can see this shift in the language people are using to describe members of the Capitol mob. They’ve called the assault an “insurrection” and a “coup from below” and argued that White supremacy is incompatible with democracy.

Few, if any, described the accusations of police brutality that fanned the Floyd protests in such a stark way.


It could boost international pressure on the US to make changes

The Capitol rioters didn’t just embarrass themselves — they embarrassed the country they profess to love.

The riot occurred as the US is jockeying with Russia and China for global influence. Russia and Iran ridiculed the US on social media over the riot, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose government has been accused of human rights violations, called the mob “a disgrace for democracy.” {snip}


But the Capitol crisis also presents an opportunity for racially transformative change at the federal level. It’s happened before, under similar circumstances.

The US was locked in a global struggle with Russia for the hearts and minds of people when the civil rights movement took flight in the 1950s and 1960s. Civil rights leaders leveraged our Cold War rivalry to help pass sweeping civil rights laws.

The 1963 civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, offered a classic example. Images of Black protesters being attacked by police dogs and sprayed with firehoses were beamed around the world. Foreign governments attacked American leaders for their hypocrisy in preaching the virtues of democracy abroad while hanging “Whites only” signs at home.

White supremacy became a national security issue. The ugly fallout from the protests in Birmingham forced President John Kennedy to propose a bill that became the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed segregation in public accommodations and made employment discrimination illegal.


It could bring sweeping federal legislation

The Capitol insurrection, however, has created the conditions for such potential changes under President-elect Joe Biden.

Consider the political appetite for racially transformative change in a new Congress where both Houses are controlled by the Democrats and the GOP is now in disarray.

Start with voting rights reform. There is no racial issue more important than voting rights. {snip}


Democrats could pass an updated version of what’s now being called the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would block voter purges, ensure easy access to early voting and restore federal supervision of voting changes in states with a history of voter suppression, says Richard L. Hasen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine.

The new Congress could also cite the mayhem at the Capitol building as a reason to crack down on social media platforms where users spread misinformation about voter fraud. {snip}


These potential changes — new federal laws expanding voting rights and regulating social media platforms — aren’t as dramatic as the throngs of protesters that flooded American streets last summer. But they are potentially more racially transformative.

It will force America to choose a vision for its future


Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian-born former Republican governor of California, said it reminded him of Kristallnacht — the “Night of Broken Glass” — an infamous episode in 1938 in which a mob of Nazi sympathizers rampaged through Jewish neighborhoods in Germany, killing Jews and destroying synagogues and Jewish-owned stores.

“Wednesday was the day of broken glass right here in the United States,” Schwarzenegger said. “{snip}But the mob did not just shatter the windows of the Capitol. {snip} They trampled the very principles on which our country was founded.”


How future Americans view the Capitol assault will also depend on what vision of America prevails — Trumpism or the egalitarian principles that Schwarzenegger evoked.

If the forces that drove rioters to ransack Congress gain permanent political power, the notion of citizens choosing their Whiteness over democracy won’t seem so offensive.

But if America fulfills what Kennedy called “its promise,” those images of White supremacists in the Capitol Rotunda will join the shameful gallery of photos that includes the 1963 Birmingham protests.

The rioters will be viewed as symbols of a bygone America its citizens have left behind.