Pundits, talking heads, and journalists have talked about the violent storming of the nation’s Capitol last January 6 as a “coup” and “insurrection.” We hear that this episode was one of international humiliation for the U.S.,that the whole world was watching our proud beacon of democracy turn against itself and devolve toward racist autocracy.
These now standard characterizations of the events of January 6 need some unpacking and interrogation, as they risk disarming, once again, a productive understanding and intervention into the racism, or white supremacy, dynamically at work in U.S. culture, society, and politics in the present and historically.
Let’s start here.
In relating her experiences of being whisked away from the House chamber to so-called “safety,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez explained why she felt, in fact, far from safe:
“There were QAnon and white supremacist sympathizers, and frankly white supremacist members of Congress, in that extraction point who I have felt would disclose my location and would create opportunities to allow me to be hurt, kidnapped, et cetera.”
Now, if we are to understand an insurrection as a revolt or rebellion against an established government or authority, Ocasio-Cortez’s experience incontrovertibly calls into question whether the term “coup” or “insurrection” applies to this event when the established government itself is informed by a powerful white supremacist element.
To call this event a “coup” is to deny the fact that racism is and has been throughout the nation’s history a central of U.S. culture and politics, of the nation’s political and economic systems. Yet now people want to pretend that the U.S. government, represented in the Capitol, somehow stands apart from U.S. racism? Calling this episode a “coup” is to buy into those figurations of the Capitol as the “hallowed” or “sacred” grounds of democracy, an historical stronghold against anti-democratic behaviors and ideologies such as white supremacy.
It lets the nation’s foremost political institution off the hook for the way the business conducted there has been complicit with, indeed, a chief perpetrator, forwarding racial oppression and inequality.
We continually start conversations about institutional racism and give lip service to its existence, and then there is sudden denial of the involvement of America’s foremost political leadership and institutions?
Calling this event a coup is such an act of denial, especially when we’ve all heard a lot of the evidence coming out that strongly indicates the takeover was in part an inside job.
And calling this violent storming a “coup” distracts us from giving full recognition to the real revolution that happened and to the real revolutionary possibilities before us.
The Black voters in Georgia, in part mobilized by such groups as Stacey Abram’s Fair Fight Action and LaTosha Brown’s Black Voters Matter, were the real revolutionaries leading a coup against the white supremacist anti-democratic state.
Those storming the Capitol on January were trying to suppress this coup, this revolution. They were not themselves leading a coup but protecting the established government.
If we don’t recognize this fact, we will not come to terms with the reality of racism in America and its history.
We have heard that when the rioters brought the Confederate flag into the Capitol, that it was the first time that it had been waved in that building.
We have to be careful about insisting that U.S. flag has actually represented values so distinct from the Confederate flag when it comes to racial politics. Doing so, we risk projecting on to the flag the whole history of racial violence and injustice that has long informed and continues to inform to this day-quite obviously-the dominant values and culture of U.S. society at large. In so doing, we risk, then, making the Confederate flag a scapegoat for our national neuroses and the violent crimes they have engendered from the initial European encroachment on the territory now known as the U.S. to the present.
Newly-elected Representative Cori Bush, a chief anti-racist activist during the Ferguson uprising against police violence, made this point quite eloquently in a Washington Post op-ed, writing:
Many have said that what transpired on Wednesday was not America. They are wrong. This is the America that Black people know. To declare that this is not America is to deny the reality that Republican members of the U.S. House and Senate incited this coup by treasonously working to overturn the results of the presidential election. It’s to deny the fact that one of my senators, Josh Hawley, went out of his way to salute the white supremacists before their attempted coup. It’s to deny that he appropriated the sign of Black power, the raised fist, into a white-supremacist salute — a fist he has never raised at a march for Black lives because he has never shown up to one. It’s to deny that what my Republican colleagues call “fraud” actually refers to the valid votes of Black, brown and Indigenous voters across this country who, in the midst of a pandemic that disproportionately kills us, overcame voter suppression in all of its forms to 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 refuse to recognize that we can’t call the U.S., as of yet, a true democracy. Racism isn’t just a defect in democracy that needs to be tinkered with; it’s a complete negation of democracy.
To call the Capitol storming by white supremacists a coup is to short circuit the process of empathy that needs to occur so that those cowering in hiding in the Capitol, fearing for their lives at the hands of domestic terrorists, understand what Representatives Ayanna Pressley, Bush, and Ocasio-Cortez have underscored—that as women of color in the U.S., they are used to facing this kind of terror every day.
We should ask why January 6 was such a humiliating day, and not so much January 5 when it the Kenosha County District Attorney announced that the police officer who shot Jacob Blake, an African American, in the back would not be indicted; or not so much the day George Floyd was murdered; or any number of days when people of color have been victims of state-sponsored murder in America.
Calling the events of January 6 a coup denies the historical character of U.S. governmental institutions and once again threatens to distort if not entirely disarm the understanding of racial injustice in America that needs to inform racial transformation to achieve a just America.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many 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, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.