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Supporters of President Donald Trump protest in the Capitol Rotunda on January 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

Supporters of President Donald Trump protest in the Capitol Rotunda on January 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Saul Loeb/ AFP)

New “Day of Infamy,” Centuries Old White Supremacy

Were Wednesday's events really that "unbelievable"?

Judy Rohrer

The far-right siege on the U.S. Capitol has been called “unbelievable,” “shocking,” and “beyond imagination.”  And let’s not forget the attacks on statehouses around the nation and all the symbols hate deployed (guillotine, hangman’s noose, confederate and Nazi iconography), though they received far less coverage.  I admit I felt shocked, glued to the coverage, waiting for some sort of intervention.  It never materialized, five people died, dozens were injured, hundreds feared for their lives for hours under lockdown (calling and texting loved ones in desperation), and millions across the country were terrorized.  Senator Chuck Schumer said January 6, 2021 is a new “day that will live forever in infamy.” 

While what happened was outrageous and wrong in every sense, was it really “unbelievable”?  Should I/we be shocked, especially those of us in the academy?  There are echoes here of Trump’s 2016 election when white leftists like me were stunned and BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) colleagues shook their heads responding simply “Welcome to the empire.  Where did you think you were living?”  But you don’t need to have BIPOC friends to wake you to the clear and present danger.  The Department of Homeland Security and FBI have been identifying white supremacy and far-right ideologies as the greatest threat facing the U.S. today.

People are expressing concern over “security failures” and lack of preparation by multiple police forces in D.C.  Some suggest the police were “overwhelmed” and “caught flat footed.”  Really?  I’ve been arrested a number of times in D.C. and elsewhere in nonviolent civil disobedience actions.  If there’s one place where there are processes and protocols for mass mobilizations – especially those widely publicized ahead of time (this time by none other than the President of the United States) – it’s D.C.  March routes are diverted, perimeters are established, massive blockades are deployed, surveillance and militarized presence is everywhere (in the sky, on rooftops, on horseback, in marked and unmarked vehicles, in riot gear).

When planning a march or demonstration in D.C. you always have to pay attention to thinking through complicated, usually coordinated, jurisdictional powers.  D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser could request National Guard deployment.  She did that at least three days prior and again on the day, but because D.C. isn’t a state (and that has everything to do with racism), she doesn’t have power to make it so.  So, her Metropolitan Police were left to sweep up after Trump’s “wild” and deadly party.

Additionally, any number of activists, press, and politicians including President-Elect Biden, have been calling out the enormous disparity between the militarized state violence unleashed against Black Lives Matter protests this summer in D.C. and the gentle treatment of the people who violently stormed the U.S. Capitol.  After emerging from lockdown, newly elected Representative Cori Bush, said “had it been people who look like me… Black and Brown people… we wouldn’t have made it that far, we wouldn’t have made it up those steps.  We would have been shot, tear gassed, [hit with] rubber bullets.” 

Similarly, MSNBC commentator Joy Reid told us if those who participated in the insurrection had been Black, they would have been “shackled, arrested en masse, or dead.”  Instead, what we witnessed were domestic terrorists seemingly invited in, allowed to posture, live-stream, and destroy things for hours, and then escorted gently out to “tailgate” when they got hungry. 

In explaining the nonchalance exhibited by the insurrectionists, Reid said they’re not afraid of the cops: “in their minds, they own this country, they own that capitol, they own the cops… And people who look like me have no damn right to try to elect a President… they get to pick the President.”  Rep. Bush said, “Let’s call it what it is, it’s white supremacy.”  Biden’s pick for Associate Attorney General, Vanita Gupta, accepted her nomination the day after the siege, reminding us that the U.S. has a long history of “white supremacist violence, mob violence.” 

This IS what white supremacy looks like – it’s nonchalant, banal, mundane – hidden in plain sight for white people because we are inured to it.  It’s a cop with one hand in his pocket kneeling on the neck of a Black man pleading for his life.  It’s bureaucrats calmly rationalizing how detained migrant children don’t need toothbrushes or soap.  It’s unlicensed rent-a-cops unleashing dogs on Indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock claiming trespass and threat to machinery.  It’s picnics with the whole family at the latest lynching, and the souvenir postcards of the event circulated afterward. 

It’s way past time for those of us who are white to stop being surprised at how the state perpetuates and supports white supremacist violence.  It’s way past time for us to stop expecting the state to intervene in that violence.  Whether the multiple branches of law enforcement in D.C. were told to stand down, had political affinities with the insurrectionists, or simply saw themselves reflected in the terrorists and acted accordingly, the result was the same.

What happened on January 6 is not unbelievable because it is embedded in the DNA of this country—Indigenous genocide and dispossession, African enslavement, state violence against immigrants, and institutional advantages for white people.  The danger now is that the white supremacist far-right is emboldened.  As Joy Reid said, they believe they own this country, and feel it is being taken away.

Those who know report, “Trump’s Internet is Celebrating.”  This is a dangerous and scary time, but it is not the first, and won’t be the last eruption of the white supremacist violence we experience.  Let’s not get fooled thinking the 25th Amendment, Impeachment, prosecutions of insurrectionists and/or those in power who incited violence/sedition will end this.  Historians are rightly making connections to the civil war, including declaring “the confederacy finally stormed the Capitol.”  But white supremacy goes deeper than the civil war, pre-dates slavery – it is foundational to the U.S. settler state.  Instead of being shocked, this time, let’s learn our history and let’s start showing up for racial justice.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Judy Rohrer

Judy Rohrer

Judy Rohrer is a scholar-activist and has written previously about whiteness, racial politics, and settler colonialism for both academic and popular audiences.  She is currently the Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Eastern Washington University.

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