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What the Capitol Attack Says About America

Rioter approaching police
Trump supporters gesture to U.S. Capitol Police in the hallway outside of the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Washington. Doug Jensen, an Iowa man at center, was jailed early Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021 on federal charges, including trespassing and disorderly conduct counts, for his alleged role in the Capitol riot. (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo)

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump incited extremist members of his base to storm the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to interrupt the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral victory. 

Painting depicting 1814 breach
An illustration of the 1814 British march on D.C. from the 1816 book, The History of England, from the Earliest Periods, Volume 1 by Paul M. Rapin de Thoyras. (Source: Library of Congress)

The event marked the first time the U.S. Capitol was forcefully breached since 1814, when British forces marched into Washington D.C. and set fire to the White House and Congress. But the 1814 burning of Washington was not the only violent event in history evoked by the riot.

Historians VPM spoke with say last week’s breach of the Capitol signals a boiling point in American politics that the United States has reached before. While for some it felt unprecedented, for others, the riot marked just another installment of unaddressed racist violence in the country’s history.

An overdue reckoning with white supremacy

Kidada Williams, a professor at Wayne State University who researches African Americans' experiences of racist violence, said the pro-Trump mob’s occupation of the Captiol was secondary to the ideas and sentiments the predominantly white rioters brought with them. Rioters touted white nationalist and antisemitic iconography on shirts and flags, and held nooses, an allusion to the lynchings of Black Americans.

Williams says the incident was most reminiscent of the Red Summer of 1919, which saw the lynchings of hundreds of Black people by mobs of white supremacists in over a dozen cities, including Norfolk, Virginia, and Washington D.C. 

In the case of D.C., mobs were incited with rumors of a sexual assault of a white woman by a Black man. The woman was the wife of a naval employee, and the riots included hundreds of white soldiers and sailors provoking a race war on the streets of D.C. 

“None of the white perpetrators were ever held to account,” Williams said. “And so I think part of the reason why the violence would get to a city like D.C. is that the people who had conducted white rampages earlier in history had never been held accountable. So why not continue to use violence in the name of white supremacy?”

Williams explains the 1919 lynchings were justified soon after by the white conservative lawmakers and white conservative media of the time, who either made excuses on behalf of the perpetrators or turned a blind eye. 

“Those were the games they played, and the larger society, because of their investment in whiteness, was willing to go along with that,” Williams said.

On Wednesday night, only hours after lawmakers regained control of the Capitol, conservative legislators baselessly tried to shift blame for the violence away from Trump’s base. In Virginia, a state senator took to social media to peddle conspiracy theories that muddied public understanding of what had taken place.

"I think part of the reason why the violence would get to a city like D.C. is that the people who had conducted white rampages earlier in history had never been held accountable." -Kidada Williams

Right-wing news outlets like OANN and Newsmax echoed those conspiracy theories, insisting that the riots were actually orchestrated by left-wing “infiltrators.” On Fox News, pro-Trump host Tucker Carlson called for sympathy towards the “deeply frustrated” extremists who stormed the Capitol yelling slogans like, “Hang Mike Pence,” a call for lynching the Vice President.

Williams says this is a familiar tactic that has been used throughout history to reinstate the status quo of white political control and shift the narrative away from holding perpetrators accountable.

“Think about the ways that lynchings were reported. The media essentially acted as stenographer for police. They never investigated,” she said. More recently, she says news outlets echoing police statements to report on incidents of police brutality against Black Americans exhibited this same pattern.

On that note, Williams says the Wednesday attack on the U.S. Capitol highlighted a historical discrepancy in how state officials regulate protests by white Americans, as opposed to those by non-white people. She listed several examples, from the government crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, to the more recent Black Lives Matter protests.

“We saw that in the Capitol this summer with a peaceful protest. We saw what happened. They had helicopters brought down on them. They were herded in a specific direction. They had tear gas, they had all of this other stuff,” she said. “And what we saw in the Capitol this week, it really goes to show that there are two completely different standards.”

A contentious transfer of power

Stephanie Arduini, deputy director of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, says physical violence on the floor of the Capitol is rare in U.S. history, but not unheard of.

One event she recalled was a 1954 incident where a small group of Puerto Rican nationalists stormed the House of Representatives. Unlike on Wednesday though, their intent was to challenge white supremacy, not to embolden it. Seeking independence for the American colony, they shot five congressmen, critically wounding one. All would recover.

Illustration of caning of Sen. Charles Sumner
An anonymous lithograph of the caning of Sen. Charles Sumner. (Source: Boston Athenæum)

Other incidents were rooted in support of slavery, such as the caning of Sen. Charles Sumner. In 1856, Sumner was almost beat to death with a walking cane by a fellow congressman for having criticized slavery. The attack took place in the same Senate chamber that the president’s supporters occupied last week.

“The example of Charles Sumner from the 1850s was well known because it was so extreme, and because it was so sensational and emblematic of the deepening divisions within the United States at the time,” Arduini said.

She pointed out that a portrait of Sumner can be seen in one of the most circulated photographs from Wednesday’s events. The image shows a man holding a Confederate flag inside the Capitol. Facing him is the painting of Sumner, and behind him, one of John C. Calhoun, a staunch defender of slavery.

Arduini says she found the image, and the contrast in those background portraits, particularly striking.

“It's embodying those ideas from the 19th century. It also shows just how present those same ideas are with us today,” she said.

The focus of the photo — an insurrectionist bearing a Confederate flag inside the Capitol — depicts something Arduini says didn’t happen even during the Civil War. The armies “never seriously got tremendously close to the city,” she said.

Trump’s refusal to concede and the riot also raise questions about the legacy of peaceful transfer of power in the United States.

“Is this the most contentious transfer of power that we've had in our country since the Civil War?” she asks.

If so, she says looking back to the election of 1876 may present us with an idea of how the country will move forward. About 11 years after the Civil War, the results of that election were disputed in the Supreme Court. SCOTUS granted abolitionists the presidency, but appeased Southern lawmakers by withdrawing all federal troops from the South, ending the period of Reconstruction.

“[The compromise of 1876] feels like a failure... Especially when it came to the way that our country has abandoned the civil and human rights of marginalized populations within the country.” -Stephanie Arduini

“By 1876, you saw more people compromising with former Confederates, and more former Confederates who were slowly working their ways back into local, state, and sometimes even national politics,” Arduini said.

She said the effort to return to status quo with this compromise had long lasting effects.

“It feels like a failure,” Arduini said. “Especially when it came to the way that our country has abandoned the civil and human rights of marginalized populations within the country.”

An exceptional legacy in question

America has long projected an image as the ‘bastion of Democracy.’ The siege on the Capitol undermined that image, and had many looking at other nation’s histories to make sense of what happened.

While many pundits jumped to Latin America for their comparisons, Antonio Espinoza, professor of modern Andean history at Virginia Commonwealth University, says there are significant differences. 

“Historically in Latin America, coups have generally had the participation of the military,” he said. “The other important difference is that historically, the U.S. government or U.S. interests have been involved in a coups in Latin America.”

On Wednesday, the Associated Press actively discouraged news organizations from describing the event as a “coup,” except for when quoting sources, citing a lack of “conclusive evidence that the protesters’ specific aim was to take over the government.” Terrorism was also considered but rejected, as was protest. Media organizations have largely agreed it was an attempt to subvert the government, leading to an internal NPR memo that read, “We won’t be calling the people who stormed the Capitol ‘protesters’—they are ‘pro-Trump extremists’ and what they are doing is ‘insurrection’.”

The highly contentious Bolivian elections of 2019, which resulted in the ousting of incumbent president Evo Morales after days of unrest, have been a touch point for many commentators. 

In Bolivia, an intergovernmental report that detailed several electoral irregularities led to  Morales resigning under pressure, giving way for the military-backed political opposition to rule Bolivia, and inciting protests by his supporters. Still, Espinoza says it’s not a great comparison, pointing to key distinctions between 2019 Bolivia and D.C. last week. 

Military marching in streets
Military police advance on backers of former Bolivian President Evo Morales as they try to reach Cochabamba, Bolivia, Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019.  (Photo: Juan Karita/AP Photo)

There was no foreign military intervention, for one.

“Again, as far as we know, there was no involvement of the U.S. military… And pretty much all governments in the world have recognized the validity and the legitimacy of the election of Joe Biden,” he said. Trump’s claims of voter fraud have been widely debunked by state courts, the intelligence community and members of his own administration.

Espinoza says it’s reasonable to resort to images seen in other countries to grapple with the “shocking and painful” nature of the images seen on Wednesday, but he says this instinct signals a tendency to view U.S. history as “exceptional,” and to see political violence as a foreign phenomenon. 

“I think what is important to realize is that actually, there is a history of political violence in the U.S.. It's not exclusive of Latin America or other parts of the world,” he said.

An insurrection?

Soon after the president’s supporters breached the Capitol, news outlets resorted to describing this incident of political violence as an “insurrection.”

In fact, Arduini says insurrections have taken place in the U.S. before. 

She recalls two: First, the Whiskey Insurrection of the 1790s, an armed protest of a tax on whiskey, and second, the Harpers Ferry raid of 1859, where enslaved people took up arms to challenge their enslavers and topple the institution of slavery. 

Illustration depicting Whiskey Insurrection
An illustration of the Whiskey Insurrection from the 1882 book Our first century: being a popular descriptive portraiture of the one hundred great and memorable events of perpetual interest in the history of our country by R. M. Devens. (Source: New York Public Library)

Arduini says “insurrection” --  “an attempt to challenge with force some sort of power or authority.” -- may be an accurate way to describe the Capitol riot. But, she says it would be inaccurate to liken previous historical insurrections to the event on Wednesday, which she says may be the first of its kind.

“We've never seen that happen and threaten a core part of our government at the Capitol like that, though. That was different,” she said. “This was deliberately designed to challenge the House of Representatives and the Senate from performing their constitutional duty.”

Williams argues that the term “insurrection” does not go far enough in accurately describing and documenting Wednesday’s events. Without directly addressing the rioters’ sentiments of white supremacy, she says “insurrection” can mislead future generations into granting the Capitol mob an essence of undue martyrdom, as was the case with the Confederacy’s “Lost Cause.”

“I feel like the media using that sort of cushioning language of ‘insurrection’ is playing a dangerous game with the future of the nation, with our democracy, and with the lives of the Black and brown people who will be the people who are most hurt by its failure” she said.

Like Williams, Espinoza urges an explicit and overt condemnation of the antisemitic and xenophobic rhetoric that was seen on display last week. He says the terms “riot” and “mob” may be most effective in describing the event.

“If we really want to understand, and especially if we really want it not to happen again, or to deal with it in a proper manner, I think it’s important to try to more accurately classify it, and to more accurately name it,” he said.

Editor's Note: Kidada Williams, a professor interviewed for this story, is working with VPM on a forthcoming podcast.