What’s the difference between protesters and mutineers? Skin color, evidently.
While I’m no advocate of violence, nor am I a member of the Black Lives Matter movement, it has become abundantly clear that if a swarm of angry Black and brown armed vigilante protesters had stormed the Capitol, as a pro-Trump mob did Wednesday, there probably would have been a bloodbath caused by law enforcement, who would have cited their right to protect our lawmakers and public institutions.
However the sheer brutal, insistent violence we saw from Trump supporters serves as a visual typification of the ugliest part of 2020′s white privilege at its finest.
There’s a scene in one of America’s most notorious films, 1915′s “The Birth of a Nation,” in which Black people are depicted as uncivilized as they overrun the US Senate chamber. The scene depicts rowdy Black men on the Senate floor eating snacks, drinking wine, putting their bare feet on Senate desks, and even chomping on a chicken leg. It conjured up the worst stereotypes of Black people, then and now.
This was, of course, fiction. When Black Americans did get their fair shot at interracial democracy from 1865 to 1877, according to historian Eric Foner’s “Freedom’s Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction,” there were a significant number of successful Black officerholders, including: 1,510 state officeholders, two ambassadors, 14 US representatives, 11 deputy marshals, three US Treasury agents, four superintendents of education, and 43 postmasters.
Yet compare the make-believe scene from “The Birth of a Nation” with the real-life embarrassment at the Capitol Wednesday.
The irony is not lost on us.
For those who claim that violent protest never works, they’re only partially correct. Black violent protest has never worked, but white violent protest is the key to getting at least some of your demands met or, at the least, your voice heard without recourse.
When Black Americans were succeeding as equal citizens during Reconstruction, the lynch mobs that perpetrated murder door by door in Black communities did it for many years with complete immunity. These atrocities were committed in protest of Black voting rights, which held the promise of swinging the vote in favor of justice and equity.
Although yesterday’s atrocity held a different context, it didn’t feel much different to many Americans of all colors and political persuasions who sat at home watching in terror, feeling as if we were stuck in a dystopian horror version of ”The Hunger Games,” where the white rebels succeed in overthrowing law and order and place all those who oppose them in chains.
I’m relieved that large numbers of American civilians weren’t gunned down by law enforcement under the guise of protecting the symbols of freedom and democracy. However, I’d be remiss not to mention that those Trump supporters who barged their way into the Capitol and took an armed stance were being protected by an invisible bullet-proof vest called white skin.
Although indiscriminate violence did not win the day, those who would have their country burn to the ground rather than acquiesce to the democratic process did retain the small, albeit significant, victory of expressing their rage and angst to an extreme degree and toward the highest level of government without much punitive outcome. In an America where, just two weeks ago, a Black man, Andre Hill, was shot down in a driveway by police, in Columbus, Ohio, while dropping off Christmas money to a friend, this is a huge problem.
Although Trump must be held at least partially responsible for yesterday’s travesty, at this point we’re beyond laying blame on any one individual. It takes a village to cause this kind of anarchy. The question remains: How do we heal from this? What is President-elect Joe Biden inheriting? When does civilized thinking and right action take flight?
As a religious man, rather than putting my hands up in surrender or even using them to smash and burn, I will clasp them tightly, pray for human decency to prevail, and then get up and go do my part in holding together this fragile democracy.
Imam Taymullah Abdur-Rahman was the Muslim chaplain at Harvard University from 2015 to 2017. He is founder of Young Merchants Club, a youth enrichment program.