In the summer of 1800, the enslaved blacksmith Gabriel Prosser planned a slave revolt in Richmond, Virginia. Information about the uprising was leaked and foiled. Prosser and 25 of his followers were captured and hanged.
At the request of the NAACP in 2006, then-Governor of Virginia, Tim Kaine, informally apologized to Prosser and his supporters, stating that the goal of the rebellion, “ending slavery and promoting equality for all people – has changed in light of history enforced. “
The recent storming of the Capitol by blatant white supremacists, not to mention the long and seemingly endless unpunished – and thus state-sanctioned – police murders of African Americans, calls into question Kaine’s sugary reading of US history. It seems difficult to argue, especially given the past four years of Trump’s overt racist governance, that “the promotion of equality for all people” actually prevailed “in the light of history”. Difficult to argue indeed.
It is not at all clear that some kind of insurrection against white supremacy, in which much of the leadership in the US government is involved, is still necessary.
As Amanda Gorman reminded us in her poem “The Hill We Climb”
Somehow we weathered and seen
a nation that is not broken
but just unfinished.
The completion of the nation, that is, the attainment of its highest ideals for democracy and equality, expressed in its fundamental proclamations, seems to signify the continuation of the revolutionary or insurrectionary process that has put the nation on the path of supposedly democratic development.
Precisely because the US nation was founded by insurrection, by insurrection against an established government and authority, I was more than a little concerned that the term “insurrection” has categorically assumed a derogatory connotation since the white supremacists attacked the Capitol .
From CNN to NPR to the New York Times, the event was negatively referred to as a “riot”. Even MSNBC’s Joy Reid stated, “At least it’s a riot, it’s a riot. . . ”
It would be one thing if the term were qualified in the application of the January 6 mob uprising in the nation’s Capitol – if it were labeled an “unjust insurrection” or a “white supremacist insurrection”.
But categorically labeling the word insurrection as pejorative seems to discredit meaningful processes of social change that have arguably been key and necessary means throughout history to strive for just social transformation.
Should we discredit Gabriel Prosser’s slave revolt? Or Denmark Vesey in Charleston, South Carolina in 1822, or Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831?
We have to distinguish between just and unjust insurrections and we must not define insurrections themselves in a categorically negative way.
Furthermore, as I pointed out in previous articles in PoliticusUsa, the Capitol white supremacist uprising is referred to as an “uprising” which grossly misrepresents it. The rioters tried to maintain the authority of the white supremacist US state. They did not rebel against an established authority but tried to maintain it for fear of losing it.
The real insurrection, the real ongoing revolution trying to end the nation, borrowing Amanda Gorman’s language, we have seen in Georgia and across the nation. Black voters, and color voters in general, rebelled against government-sponsored efforts to deny them the right to vote. Last spring, Milwaukee voters risked their lives during the coronavirus pandemic because the United States Supreme Court refused to grant that the pandemic created special circumstances that warranted changing electoral rules to allow for expanded postal voting. Black Voters Matter and Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight Action continued their uprising against government-orchestrated electoral repression in Georgia to paint their state blue and hand over presidency and senate to the Democratic Party.
These were uprisings against a clearly white supremacist state, and we must understand them as such if we are to fully understand and represent the reality of the political and social dynamics of power in our country.
For example, the language most commonly used in the media to describe the Capitol uprising is that it was an attack on democracy.
But calling the US a democracy is exaggerating reality. How can we immediately recognize the powerful existence of institutionalized racism and white supremacy in America, see the reality of voter suppression, and yet insist that the US political system is a democracy? Doing so continues to deny reality and sees racism as a defect or flaw in democracy rather than a negation of it.
We often hear talk of “developing democracy” or “democratic rights”, but that language suggests that democracy already exists.
Is democracy really democracy for some?
It would be more accurate to say that we are in the process of working towards or fighting for democracy in a currently undemocratic nation, a nation that has not yet achieved real democracy.
More careful and accurate use of language, I believe, would dramatically change the way we, who are interested in democracy, about the nation and the work we have to do.
As I write this sentence, I remember Martin Luther King Jr. asking us to rethink law and order and crime. King needs to recognize that we are not living in a just society, knowing that recognition is a prerequisite for real social transformation.
In his 1967 speech to the American Psychological Association I, King said:
It is undeniable and unfortunate that negroes committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of white society. When we ask the negroes to obey the law, we also ask that the white man obey the law in the ghettos. Day after day he breaks the welfare laws to rob the poor of their meager allotments. he openly violates building codes and regulations; his police make fun of the law; and it violates equal employment and education laws and civic services regulations. The slums are the work of a vicious system of white society; Negroes live in them, but make them a prison no more than a prisoner. Let’s say boldly, if the white man’s violations of the law in the slums were calculated over the years and compared to the violations of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man. These are often difficult things to say, but I have come to realize more and more that it is necessary to speak the truth in order to face the big problems we face in our society.
Racial injustice was a hallmark of the US political and social system and made the nation the opposite of a democracy.
We need to speak this truth in order to face our great problems and see the need for another and ongoing uprising. The African American leadership is bringing us closer to ending this revolution and this nation.
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.