In the summer of 1800, Gabriel Prosser, an enslaved blacksmith, planned a slave insurrection in Richmond Virginia. Information about the rebellion was leaked, and it was thwarted. Prosser and 25 of his followers were taken captive and hanged.
In 2007, in response to a 2006 request from the NAACP, then Virginia Governor Tim Kaine issued an informal pardon to Prosser and his followers, asserting that the goal of the rebellion, “the end of slavery and the furtherance of equality for all people—has prevailed in the light of history.”
The recent storming of the Capitol by overt white supremacists, not to mention the long and seemingly never-ending unpunished—and thus state-sanctioned–police murders of African Americans, certainly call into question Kaine’s sugar-coated reading of U.S. history. It would seem hard to argue, especially given the past four years of Trump’s overt racist governance, that “the furtherance of equality for all people” has, in fact, “prevailed in the light of history.” Hard to argue, indeed.
It’s not at all clear that some kind of insurrection against white supremacy, in which a good portion of the leadership in the U.S. government is complicit, is still necessary.
As Amanda Gorman reminded us in her poem “The Hill We Climb,”
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken,
but simply unfinished.
Finishing the nation, meaning achieving its highest ideals of democracy and equality articulated in its foundational proclamations, would seem to entail continuing the revolutionary, or insurrectionary, process that set the nation on its course of supposedly democratic development.
Precisely because the U.S. nation was founded through insurrection, through revolt against an established government and authority, I have found myself more than a little disturbed that the term “insurrection” has taken on, rather categorically, a pejorative connotation since the white supremacist assault on the Capitol.
From CNN to NPR to The New York Times, the event has been called, in negative terms, an “insurrection.” Even Joy Reid on MSNBC decried, “It’s a riot at a minimum, it’s insurrection . . .”
It would be one thing if the term were qualified when applying it the mob riot of January 6 at the nation’s Capitol—if it were referred to as an “unjust insurrection” or a “white supremacist insurrection.”
But to categorically mark the word insurrection as pejorative would seem to discredit meaningful processes of social change that, arguably, have throughout history been key and necessary vehicles for seeking just social transformation.
Should we discredit Gabriel Prosser’s slave “insurrection”? Or Denmark Vesey’s in Charleston, South Carolina in 1822, or Nat Turner’s in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831?
We must distinguish between just and unjust insurrections, not categorically define insurrections themselves in negative terms.
Moreover, as I’ve argued in previous articles in PoliticusUsa, calling the white supremacist riot at the Capitol an “insurrection” grossly misrepresents it. The rioters were seeking to uphold the authority of the U.S. white supremacist state; they weren’t rebelling against an established authority but seeking to maintain it, out of fear of losing it.
The real insurrection, the real ongoing revolution seeking to finish the nation, to borrow Amanda Gorman’s language, is what we have witnessed in Georgia and around the nation. Black voters, and voters of color more generally, revolted against state-sponsored efforts to deny them the right to vote. Last spring, voters in Milwaukee risked their lives during the coronavirus pandemic because the Supreme Court of the United States refused to grant that the pandemic created special circumstances that warranted altering elections rules to allow for extended mail-in voting. Black Voters Matter and Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight Action continued their revolt against government-orchestrated voter suppression in Georgia to turn their state blue and hand the Democratic Party the presidency and the senate.
These were insurrections against an unequivocally white supremacist state, and we need to understand them as such if we are accurately to understand and portray the reality of political and social power dynamics in our country.
For example, the language most prevalent in the media used to describe the riot at the Capitol is that it was an assault on democracy.
But to call the U.S. a democracy arguably overstates reality. How can we at once acknowledge the powerful existence of institutionalized racism and white supremacy in America, recognize the reality of voter suppression, and still insist the U.S. political system is a democracy? To do so continues to deny reality and to see racism as a defect or flaw in democracy rather than a negation of it.
We often hear talk of “expanding democracy” or “democratic rights,” but this language suggests that democracy already exists.
Is democracy for some really democracy?
It would be more accurate to say we are in the process of working toward, or fighting for, democracy in a currently undemocratic nation, a nation that has not yet achieved true democracy.
Using language in more careful and accurate ways would, I believe, dramatically alter the way we who care about democracy think about the nation and the work we have to do.
As I write this sentence I am reminded of the way Martin Luther King, Jr. asked us to re-think law and order and criminality. King needs us to recognize we don’t live in a just society, knowing that recognition is a premise for real social transformation.
In his speech before the American Psychological Association I 1967, King said:
It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society. When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also demand that the white man abide by law in the ghettos. Day-in and day-out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; and he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services. The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society; Negroes live in them but do not make them any more than a prisoner makes a prison. Let us say boldly that if the violations of law by the white man in the slums over the years were calculated and compared with the law-breaking 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 see more and more that it is necessary to utter the truth in order to deal with the great problems that we face in our society.
Racial injustice has been a hallmark of the U.S. political and social systems, making the nation the antithesis of a democracy.
We must utter this truth to face our great problems and to recognize the need for further and ongoing insurrection. African American leadership is bringing us closer to finishing this revolution and this nation.
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.