On January 6, 2021, our nation witnessed an event nearly unprecedented in our history. A group of protestors, some of whom were armed and wearing military gear, knocked down barricades, drove back the Capitol police broke windows and forced their way into the capitol. Five people wound up dead including one of the defending policemen and won of the protesters who was shot breaking through a door. The invaders interrupted one of the most sacred duties of our democracy where the Congress meets to count the votes of certified electors and announce the official determination of the next President of the United States.
We have had many protests and riots over the years. In the War of 1812, the British army conquered Washington, D.C. and entered the Capitol, mirroring a previous U.S. invasion of Canada. Last summer an openly armed group marched through the Capitol of Michigan. Members of that march were later found to be plotting to kidnap the Governor of Michigan. And police violence against Black people triggered ongoing protests in most states for practically the whole summer. But this was the first time a hostile group of our own citizens had invaded the Capitol and blocked their own government from performing its Constitutional duty.
Most Americans and many people around the world were surprised and horrified by this event. Many in the media, practically all Democrats and even many Republicans condemned it. But a lot of the condemnation from the Republican side was couched in terms that implied the other side was hypocritical in condemning this assault on our democracy because it had not sufficiently condemned, and perhaps even supported the protests the previous summer.
One of my Facebook friends gave this quote: “One side of the story has consistently voiced that violence is wrong. Another side has spoken when politically convenient.”
At a minimum, this implies that you have to somehow earn the right to condemn a specific instance of violence. No one needs to earn the right to use their freedom of speech to condemn violence. Although it would be better if people across the political spectrum would show more empathy for the other side and be evenhanded in condemning the many forms of violence that happen in our country (and elsewhere) every year.
It could also be a rhetorical diversion known as Whataboutism.
I read and sometimes participate in many discussions of medical care and disease prevention online. Sometimes one person will complain that our country is doing a poor job of protecting our inhabitants from a raging pandemic that is killing thousands of people ever day in the U.S. Another will respond by asking “Yes, but what about all the starving people in Africa and Asia? Millions of people starve to death every year. Why haven’t you done something about that?”
This shifts the subject from the topic at hand without providing a direct response. So I thought I would express my ideas and feelings about violence by members of our government and those protesting against it.
First I will provide some background. I grew up in Pawhuska, Oklahoma and was just entering second grade when the NAACP recruited Hazel Bryan and eight other black students to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. After they were blocked at the doors by the Arkansas National Guard called out by Governor Orval Faubus, it took an intervention by President Eisenhower and the 101st Airborne Division to allow them to attend classes in accordance with the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka.
A few years later in fifth grade, I was riding in the back of a car to a meeting where I would read an essay I had written when I heard one of the women in the front seat say, “Well, you know they are different.” She didn’t say, but I could make a pretty good guess about who “they” referred to.
So, even though there were only a handful of black students in my classes until I got to college and relatively few even then, I know I had strong sympathy for the cause of Rev Martin Luther King, Jr. And I respected his advocacy for nonviolence in response to the often violent resistance to integration and the quest for equal justice under the law.
Another advocate of nonviolent protest was Mahatma Gandhi, who died before I was born and may have been a bit of a racist.
But protest and violence can get caught in an ongoing feedback loop, which seemed to happen for most of the summer of 2020. It’s been 30 years since Rodney King was beaten by LA Policemen after being chased down for a drunk driving arrest. And their acquittal led to massive riots the next year. In the coverage of those riots you can hear the slogan “No Justice No Peace” chanted and that slogan was echoed all last summer.
I didn’t wear black and stand in front of one of the courthouses in Albuquerque or Dallas. But I inwardly cringed each time I learned of another incident of violence. When it involved the police, I thought “Oh no, guys. Couldn’t you have done this without killing them?” When it involved protestors fighting against other protestors or an altercation between police and protestors, I mourned whoever was hurt or killed and wished that the spirit of King and Gandhi would prevail.
I mourned when an Albuquerque policeman was killed by an escaped convict. I mourned when a homeless mentally ill man was killed by Albuquerque policemen. I mourned when a mentally ill man turned violent and killed two people. And so I was glad when the Albuquerque Police Department began a major reform process several years ago supervised by the Federal Government. I knew it would be difficult to complete and would possibly cost money that could be spent on other community programs or require a tax increase. But I truly hoped that it would help the police do their job better and perhaps make the streets safer for the ordinary people who walked along them.
I probably grew up in a comfortable bubble of being a white boy or man in a mostly white community. But I was a big baseball fan and read about the integration of major league baseball. And I cheered for Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Ozzie Smith just as much as I had cheered for Mickie Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford. I read about the problems black people were having just buying a nice house in a nice neighborhood. And I saw that in practice throwing my paper route where the two blocks close to the river were mainly owned by black families and were flooded in a major rain storm. The next two blocks had a lot of Hispanics and were also affected. But I guess enough of it sunk in that when I went to college I was chosen to be big brother for the first black man to pledge our chapter of Farmhouse Fraternity. I regret that I graduated before he actually moved into the frat house and I didn’t have the chance to really get to know him.
I could laugh at a comedy routine about our president, who signed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, but had trouble correctly pronouncing the word Negro. But after a few years in the Air Force, I was required to attend a racial sensitivity training session. In that session, we were supposed to think of words, epithets really, that were used to disparage those people who now prefer to be called Black. I knew most of those words, but just listened while other people made suggestions. I guess it was supposed to make us more aware and sympathetic to those of other races. But I kept silent because I knew those words were hurtful and had always tried not to use them.
A few years later I married my wife, who is Chinese. She was, and still is, warmly accepted in my family. But she also helped me be more aware of some of the silent and less obvious discrimination that was happening around me. A couple years ago we attended a film festival about the history of the Chinese in the U.S. And I learned that a “Chinaman’s chance” wasn’t worth much when Chinese were legally barred from testifying in court against people of other races, in particular whites.
Some time in there I remember watching The Birth of a Nation at a college film festival. It was a technically well made film. But its caricatures of black Americans and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan were upsetting even then. I am very glad that William Allen White, who ran a newspaper not far from where I lived, ran a successful campaign in the 20’s to bar the Klan from the state of Kansas.
I was naive, and probably still am. But I knew that when a policeman was injured or killed on duty, it could have been one of my cousins in California who served in the police. And when a Black man was shot in the back while walking to his car to leave a disturbance or choked to death after being accused of passing a fake $20 bill, I was aware that it might easily have been one of my sons.
My knowledge and perception are far from perfect. But I try to have empathy, to do things better the next time, and treat everyone regardless of their race, sex, religion or whatever as I would like to be treated myself. And when Black men and women were elected to the House and Senate as Republicans as well as Democrats, and when Black men were promoted to the rank of 4 star General and successfully led our armed forces in combat, i celebrated the progress. When a Black man was elected President of the United States, I thought perhaps better times truly were coming.
But much of that was a veneer that concealed the ongoing currents of racism in America. And 5 years ago, Donald Trump’s campaign peeled away that veneer of tolerance and even acceptance. The first real sign was his acceptance of the endorsement by David Duke, the head of the KKK. But his leading chants about his opponent to “lock her up”, his open invitation to Russia to hack into the Democratic Party’s files, and his continual disparagement of people of other races and religions were completely unacceptable. So I hoped that one of his Republican opponents would win the nomination. And then I hoped that Hillary Clinton, who had served honorably as Senator and then Secretary of State, would defeat him. But those hopes were dashed, so the best I could hope for was that he would accept good advice and rise to the challenge of this most important office. And that was also not to be.
As I said, I was naive. I had never heard of Antifa until August 12, 2017, when they showed up to confront a march protesting the removal of statues of Civil War figures in Chancellorsville, Virginia. You can watch a video of those events with some disturbing images here.
This so-called Unite The Right Rally involved a diverse group of members of the far-right and included self-identified members of the alt-right, neo-Confederates, neo-fascists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and various right-wing militias. One of those militias, the 3-Percenters, had symbols on display and apparently some members participating in the storming of the U.S. Capitol This rally occurred on August 11-12. Other groups organized a separate protest that was intended to be non-violent. And some members of a broad collection of Anti-Fascists called Antifa showed up ready to fight back if and when the protests clashed with each other. which in fact happened. A right wing sympathizer drove a car into the crowd of protestors killing one woman. Two policemen died when their helicopter crashed. At a press conference about a separate matter on August 15, President Trump spoke out against the violence.
Initially, he did condemn the violence.
“As I said on — remember, Saturday — we condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence. It has no place in America. And then it went on from there. Now, here’s the thing –“
But then he diverted into casting aspersions on the press, bragging about his economic record and claiming not to know that David Duke attended the protest. After a lot of back and forth with the reporter, when it was pointed out that the incident started with neo-Nazis showing up in Charlottesville for the protest, President Trump responded with his much quoted remark.
“Excuse me, excuse me. They didn’t put themselves — and you had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.“
10 days later, The Atlantic published an editorial by Joe Biden.
We have fought this battle before—but today we have a special challenge.
Today we have an American president who has publicly proclaimed a moral equivalency between neo-Nazis and Klansmen and those who would oppose their venom and hate.
We have an American president who has emboldened white supremacists with messages of comfort and support.
This is a moment for this nation to declare what the president can’t with any clarity, consistency, or conviction: There is no place for these hate groups in America. Hatred of blacks, Jews, immigrants—all who are seen as “the other”—won’t be accepted or tolerated or given safe harbor anywhere in this nation.”
And this contrast of both language and viewpoints was revisited in the Presidential debate and many times on the campaign trail last year.
Fast forward to last summer and i will focus on Portland, Oregon which had some of the longest running protests.
This article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette seems almost prophetic, so I will note a few quotes.
“For more than 90 consecutive nights, protesters in Portland have denounced police brutality and racial injustice. The protests were spurred by the killing of George Floyd in May and gained steam after last weekend’s police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin.”
For much of the summer, President Trump deployed forces from a variety of Federal agencies to defend Federal properties. But he did very little to address the underlying issues of police violence and the concerns for the safety of all U.S. citizens but especially the lives of Black people.
Biden warned about becoming “a country at war with ourselves” and noted:
“”Donald Trump has been President for almost four years. The temperature in the country is higher, tensions run stronger, divisions run deeper. And all of us are less safe because Donald Trump can’t do the job of the American president,”
And “Mr. Biden said on CNN that Mr. Trump is “absolutely” rooting for violence for political purpose because it allows him to claim a “law and order” mantle.”
That violence for political purpose reached its pinnacle after an hour of rooting by President Trump when he sent the group he had invited to Washington, D.C. on this day to march down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol.
President Trump may have claimed not to know who the Proud Boys were when asked to condemn right-wing violence in a debate and he told them to “stand back and stand by”. But they seized on his recognition and were ready to provide boots on the ground when he tweeted in December about the rally on January 6, “be there, will be wild”.
It will take many months for the facts and evidence about who was involved and helped organize what in the Capitol break-in. But President Trump’s divisive rhetoric, ongoing flirtation with violent elements of the political right wing, and ultimately his refusal to accept the duly certified results of the November election mean that he is at least morally culpable and responsible for the violence that resulted event if he did not specifically plan and order it.
He spent months sewing the seeds of division and on January 6, he reaped the fruits of his labors.
It will not be easy for our nation to heal from the wounds of the last four years. And we may need to clean out those wounds to allow them to heal. It will require a renewed respect for facts and evidence even if we don’t like them. It will take a commitment to justice for all, regardless of race or religion, wealth or political status. We will need empathy for those who differ from us. And we must forgive those who are willing to admit their mistakes and change.
Donald Trump’s greatest fault, I think, is that he can do none of those, especially recognize his own faults and admit his mistakes.
I am very hopeful that President Biden will be different in that.