Experts, speakers and journalists have spoken of the violent storming of the nation’s Capitol on January 6th as a “coup” and “insurrection”. We hear that this episode was an international humiliation for the US, that the whole world watched as our proud beacon of democracy turned against itself and turned towards racist autocracy.
These characterizations of the events of January 6th, which are common today, must be unpacked and queried, as they again pose the danger of disarming a productive understanding and interference in racism or the white supremacy that is dynamic in US culture, society and politics in the USA seem present and historical.
Let’s start here.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shared why she did indeed feel far from being safe:
“There were QAnon and white supremacist sympathizers and frankly white supremacist members of Congress at this extraction point that I believed would reveal my location and create opportunities to be injured, kidnapped, etc.”
If we are to understand an insurrection as an insurrection or an insurrection against an established government or authority, the experience of Ocasio-Cortez undeniably questions whether the term “coup” or “insurrection” applies to this event if the established government itself informs is made up of a powerful white supremacist element.
To call this event a “coup” is to deny that racism is and has been a central element of US culture, politics, and political and economic systems throughout the nation’s history. But now people want to pretend that the US government represented in the Capitol is somehow differentiating itself from US racism? To call this episode a “coup” means buying into these figures of the Capitol as the “hallowed” or “holy” cause of democracy, a historical stronghold against anti-democratic behaviors and ideologies such as white supremacy.
It lets the nation’s main political institution off the hook for the way its business has been linked to a prime culprit who promotes racial oppression and inequality.
We keep starting up conversations about institutional racism and paying lip service to its existence, and then suddenly the participation of America’s leading political leaders and institutions is rejected?
Calling this event a coup is one such act of denial, especially when we’ve all heard a lot of evidence strongly suggesting that the takeover was in part an inside job.
And calling this violent storm a “coup d’état” distracts us from fully recognizing the real revolution that has taken place and the real revolutionary opportunities that lie ahead.
Black voters in Georgia, partly mobilized by groups like Stacy Abrams Fair Fight Action and LaTosha Brown’s Black Voters Matter, were the real revolutionaries leading a coup against the anti-democratic state of white supremacists.
Those who stormed the Capitol in January tried to quell this coup, this revolution. They did not lead a coup themselves, but protected the established government.
If we do not realize this fact, we will not be facing the reality of racism in America and its history.
We heard that when the rioters brought the Confederate flag into the Capitol, it was the first time it was waved in this building.
We must be careful in insisting that the US flag actually represents values that are different from the Confederate flag in terms of racial politics. In this way, we risk projecting the entire history of racist violence and injustice onto the flag that has long shaped the prevailing values and culture of US society as a whole and continues to inform today. In this way we risk making the Confederate flag the scapegoat for our national neuroses and the violent crimes it has committed to date through the initial European encroachment on the area now known as the United States.
Newly-elected Representative Cori Bush, a leading anti-racist activist during the Ferguson uprising against police violence, made the point fairly eloquent in a Washington Post statement:
Many have said that it wasn’t America that happened on Wednesday. You are wrong. This is America that blacks know. To declare this is not America is to deny the reality that Republican members of the US House and Senate instigated this coup by working treacherously to reverse the results of the presidential election. It can be denied that one of my senators, Josh Hawley, did everything possible to greet the white supremacists before their coup attempt. It can be denied that he turned the sign of black power, the raised fist, into a white supremacist salute – a fist he never raised on a march for black lives because he never showed up to be one. It is to be denied that what my Republican colleagues call “fraud” actually refers to the valid votes of black, brown and indigenous voters in this country who are oppressing voters amid a pandemic that is killing us disproportionately Having overcome in all their forms will deliver an election victory for Joe Biden and Kamala D. Harris.
To call the events a coup is to deny Bush’s experience of white supremacy in America. It is to be refused to acknowledge that we cannot yet call the US a real democracy. Racism is not just a defect in democracy that needs to be tinkered with. It is a total denial of democracy.
To call the Capitol storming by white supremacists a coup is to short-circuit the process of empathy that needs to take place so that those hiding in the Capitol and feared for their lives by domestic terrorists will understand what representatives Ayanna Pressley, Bush and Ocasio-Cortez have underlined: As women of color in the US, they are used to facing this type of terror every day.
We should wonder why January 6th was such a humiliating day, rather than January 5th, when the Kenosha District Attorney announced that the police officer who shot Jacob Blake, an African American, in the back was not charged would be. or not so much the day George Floyd was murdered; or any number of days of people of color falling victim to government sponsored murder in America.
Calling the events of January 6th, a coup denies the historic character of U.S. government institutions and threatens once again to distort, if not completely disarm, the understanding of racial injustice in America that racial transformation must inform in order to make America a just to reach.
Tim Libretti is a professor of American literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. As a longtime progressive voice, he has published numerous academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, and the National Federation of Press Women and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.