Six days into January 2021, roughly 30,000 supporters of President Trump gathered at the Save America March in Washington, D.C. Speaking to the thousands gathered, President Trump encouraged his supporters to walk down to the Capitol and take back the country with strength, not weakness. Trump's attorney Rudy Giuliani, at the same rally, encouraged protesters to "have trial by combat."
And so, they did. In the most riotous attack on the U.S. Capitol since the 1814 burning of Washington by the British Army, a bizarre cast of far-right extremists united under President Trump led an insurrection that left five people dead, one of which was a Capitol police officer who was beaten to death with a fire extinguisher. For more than three hours, white supremacists, anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists illegally occupied the Capitol without any police reinforcement or national guard response.
When help did arrive, the response was nothing short of accommodating. No batons, no rubber bullets, no dogs, few arrests. Insurrectionists, with weapons and stolen items in hand, were simply asked to leave and calmly ushered off the Capitol grounds. A stunned Van Jones, responding on CNN to the mayhem and the de-escalated response, asked viewers to imagine what would this have looked like "if Black Lives Matter dropped 30,000 Black people on the Capitol and laid siege to the seat of power ... [or] if Muslims dropped 30,000 Muslims on the seat of government in the middle of a joint session of Congress?"
To restore peace and confidence, many leaders, including President-elect Joe Biden, insist that "This is NOT America." But is it not? Between 2000 and 2016, white supremacist groups were responsible for more murders than any other domestic extremism group. In 2019, FBI Director Christopher Wray stated, "the majority of the domestic terrorism cases that we have investigated [this year] are motivated by white supremacist violence" (NBC News, 2019). This past year, 14 men with ties to white supremacists groups were arrested and charged with a domestic terror plot to kidnap Michigan's governor. The Department of Homeland Security's 2020 annual report stated white supremacy was the "most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland."
The historic insurrection at the Capitol and the accommodating police and military response are just the most recent manifestations of a white supremacist culture that is baked into the very fabric of this country. This has always been our America. From the founding period when Blacks and Native Americans were enslaved, raped, massacred and forced to assimilate to the hundred years of Jim Crow, which was a form of legal apartheid reinforced and sustained by terrorism. White supremacist ideology has been promoted, institutionalized and condoned for more than 400 years.
None of us should ever forget the images from Bloody Sunday when police dogs were loosed on peaceful protesters, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Galway Kinnell, Amelia Boynton, future Congressman John Lewis and so many others, while they marched for civil rights in Selma, Ala. Today, the excessive police force experienced by unarmed Black men and the demonization and violence used against Black Lives Matter protesters is simply an extension of the same white supremacist ideology. Despite the historic oppression experienced by non-white and indigenous communities in this country, none of these groups ever attempted to take control of a federal building in our nation's capital.
A statement like "This is not America" let's the nation off the hook. And in the process, it diminishes our opportunities for healing and meaningful progress.
Many people of color have for decades wondered when there will be an acknowledgment about our shared white supremacist history. When will white Americans see the radicalizing effects of white supremacist ideology on "good white people" that resulted in the acts we all have seen on video? Denial and lack of accountability will only prevent the very unity that many are calling for right now.
In 1968, Dr. King expressed that, "Responsible leadership and decision-making require honest assessments of where you are before determining where you want to go and how you are going to get there." Fifty-two years later, the challenge of making an honest assessment has never been more important.
If we continue to deny our American reality, I fear that we may face the death of our democracy by ignorance or willfully choosing to ignore the most prevalent threat standing in front of us.