For a few hours (but it felt like days), I watched mostly white men and women ransack the Congress. They climbed walls. Broke doors and windows. Shouting that they were the true patriots. Someone filmed a police officer in riot gear, holding the hand of an older white woman in a camel-haired coat with a red, white, and blue ribbed pom beanie hat with TRUMP emblazoned on the front, as she carefully walked down the steps. She was one of the many who stormed the Capitol building and who simply walked away from the act.
There were no tanks or militarized weapons. No police in army fatigues. No bullhorn warnings to the assembled crowd. As these white men and women engaged in insurrection, no one shot rubber bullets, few police rushed into the crowds to arrest anyone. It was a glaring example of the different quality of their citizenship: that white lives, at least those who claim to be patriots of this sort, matter more than others.
James Baldwin once said, and it was a statement meant to unsettle the listener, that “for Black people in this country there is no legal code at all. We’re still governed by the slave code.” It is a startling image, which, at once, characterizes a form of policing as well as the thinking behind it. In the United States, Black people are meant to be disciplined, corralled and contained, and the violence of police is all too often the primary mechanism by which they are kept in their place.
The point here is not to suggest that Black people are still slaves and that police are slave catchers; rather, Baldwin captures with the image the logic behind why Black people are treated so. The slave code brings into view a host of assumptions about who is valued and who is not, about who has standing in this country and who can be treated, to echo the sentiment of the Dred Scott case, with a generalized sense of disregard.
To be sure, the bacchanal of grievance and hatred on January 6, 2021 exposed the clear and present danger that Donald Trump represents. The mob made concrete the threat of white nationalism to the nation. President-elect Joe Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and others are right to demand that all of those involved in the insurrection and those who incited it should be held to account.
But I have to say, and America’s history is my witness, that impeaching Donald Trump or invoking the 25th amendment will not get us very far. Nor will prosecuting those who sacked the Capitol address what I saw on January 6th. Both should happen, mind you, but they should be understood as just a beginning of sorts. The expression of that different quality of citizenship by the mob and their treatment by the police—the form of dissent with impunity and without fear of consequence—is rooted in the belief that this country is theirs alone and that only their votes count. (One can imagine this thinking shaped Trump’s conclusion that he won by a landslide. He did among white voters.) In order to uproot this sentiment, which has haunted the nation since its birth, we have to do something much more dramatic and sustained than getting rid of Donald Trump, democratizing who we call “thugs,” and prosecuting the criminals who threatened the Republic.
What then ought we to do after this?
In January 1871, Congress held hearings and took testimonies about the atrocities of the Ku Klux Klan throughout the south. Reading the transcripts is a horrifying endeavor. The level of cruelty and barbarity in response to black people exercising the right to vote astonishes the reader. But what becomes immediately clear is that Congress had decided that enough was enough. They aimed to destroy the KKK, and with the passage of The Enforcement Acts, which aimed to protect Black people as citizens from white violence, they succeeded for a time. Of course, the nation’s betrayal of radical Reconstruction and its assent to the “Lost Cause” occasioned the return of the Klan and the horrors of the world that sanctioned their existence. But, for a moment, they proved that, in fact, America could be otherwise.
I believe in January 2021 Congress should hold hearings, covered live on cable news, about the threat of white nationalism to this country. These hearings should expose the workings of white supremacy groups, create the conditions for the eradication of organizations like the Proud Boys, and lay the groundwork for legislation that will, once and for all, banish these groups from the body politic. America can no longer afford to coddle these organizations and the people who join them. Political parties and politicians can no longer seek to leverage their resentment and hatreds for their own political gain. I know this will be difficult, because many of these people are your loved ones. We treat them with the gentleness of the officer who helped the white woman down the Capitol steps. But we have to finally put to rest the politics of white resentment that has fueled so much of American life, especially since the mid-twentieth century. The attack on the Capitol showed us what awaits if we don’t.
President-elect Biden should direct his Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland to develop a detailed plan to rid the nation of these groups. That will involve a widespread investigation of the scope and extent of the penetration of white supremacists into law enforcement throughout the country and a plan to purge police departments of these elements. I suspect the failure of the Capitol police may be, in part, that some agreed with the mob and that they did not perceive them as a threat.
In the end, we cannot respond lightly to what has just happened in this country. And we cannot place the blame solely on a small number of rogue individuals, a few power-hungry members of Congress, and on the obvious madness of the President. America faces a crisis that has its roots in what caused the Civil War and what led us to turn our backs on the promise of the Civil Rights Movement. We have never really faced those demons. Our response has been to tinker around the edges, hide our faces beneath the covers when the darkness descends, and continue to make money no matter the costs. Herman Melville comes to mind: “But not yet have we solved the incantation of this whiteness, and learned why it appeals with such power to the soul.”
Politicians must step up, but they will inevitably disappoint. We have to act, too. Americans will have to do the hard work of living our way through this crisis and learning how to trust one another. That will involve close to the ground civic action, holding each other accountable—especially in our own families—and tending to the needs of our neighbors, and declaring, once and for all, that no one can claim this place as uniquely their own.
Broken though it may be, America is ours, and together we can make this place anew, if we are finally honest with ourselves about the ugliness that has the country by the throat again. We will need the help of our poets to imagine a new language for a new America. They will need to write about what happened on January 6th. Perform what we saw and what we know to be the root causes of the mayhem. And with that new vision of who we can be, like the voters and organizers in Georgia, we can enact a new America shorn of the haunting hatred of those who refuse to let the old one die.