What I couldn’t believe was the tepid response from the Capitol Police and the sprawling network of law enforcement agencies that generally are in tactical formation well ahead of such threats. Our collective rearview mirror still has the National Guard in full military gear, the helmeted police on horseback, the rain of rubber bullets and the clomp of jackboots during the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer. The reasonable conclusion after this week is that White lives matter more.
While the entire world was watching, America just doubled down on its centuries-old double standard.
There has been open talk of civil war for months now, open threats about “reclaiming America.” When President Trump gently urged the insurrectionists to go home, after much of the damage had already been done, he said, “There’s never been a time like this where such a thing happened, where they could take it away from all of us, from me, from you, from our country.”
Although he was talking about “me” and “you” and “us,” a lot of Americans did not hear themselves in that grouping. Those who did understood the code. It wasn’t just about the election — still deemed as fraudulent in his mind despite no evidence to back up the claim.
The United States’ yawning cultural, political and racial divides were there for all to see on Wednesday, in the composition of the crowd, in the way they were accommodated by police and in the ideology that fueled their rage.
There is a discomfort in talking about the racialized nature of the riot because of the fear that good people might be marked by too broad a brush. Yet it’s clear that a river of rage and anger runs from Jim Crow America to the tiki-torch protests in Charlottesville to the mobs this week that were willing to break doors, barricades, windows and laws on the day Joe Biden was certified to take Trump’s place. Something is being snatched from them and it’s not just money or jobs or security or even the White House.
The common refrain is a fear of an America where white privilege is challenged and whiteness as the gold standard of beauty or power or value or provenance is no longer the automatic default.
I can tell you with great confidence that a large percentage of Black Americans were shocked but not surprised by Wednesday’s events. Black people, and perhaps most people of color in this country, are conditioned to take mobs of White men at their word when they make repeated threats. We have our long history of racialized terror to thank for that instinct.
Others ignored or played down the warnings that have been sounding all year. When those crowds stormed the statehouse in Michigan, when groups wearing camouflage and toting long guns began holding demonstrations around the country, when the president mounted a campaign of misinformation to convince his followers that he was robbed of an election — we should have known it would end this way. It could have been worse, and still can be.
So now, we must face this question: Is our country far too tolerant of the menacing behavior of too many White men? There is a whole “boys will be boys” vernacular that bevels the hard edges of this rebellion, in part, because America has always mythologized the tough guy willing to stick it to the man.
As the tragedy unfolded on Wednesday, the people originally labeled as protesters and rowdies were finally given their proper names: rioters and insurrectionists. They left on their own, some pumping fists, some vowing to return with weapons, some carrying stolen items hoisted like trophies. By nightfall, there were reportedly only 52 arrests.
We must be honest: If that mob had been Black, participants would have been called savages, thugs, hoodlums . . . and eventually inmates. There would have been no fist-pumping parade out the door. Looting would not have gone unpunished. The day would have concluded with handcuffs and mass detention. We would likely have seen tanks in the streets. We would almost certainly have seen more bloodshed.
I am going to set aside the police response for now with the hope that there will be an aggressive investigation in short order. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) owe the country that much. More important to note today is that the pictures, the videos, the chants and the behavior all make clear that insurrectionists see themselves as warriors fighting to hold on to their version of America, on behalf of a president who told them explicitly to march to their Capitol.
That building belongs to all of us. This country belongs to all of us. This national shame now stains all of us and, until it is brought under control, the ideology that fueled the storming of our Capitol will pose a continued threat to America.