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Jan. 6 was not a riot. It was an insurrection.

Language that downplays the violent US Capitol breach is trying to rewrite history that was witnessed live by millions.

Left: Two armed men walk away from burning buildings during the June 1, 1921, Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Okla. Right: Insurrectionists attempt to breach the Capitol after storming the building in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021.Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa via AP/Bloomberg Finance LP

In American history, the word “riot” is deployed as a shield for this nation’s violent truths.

For nearly a century, what was known as the Tulsa Race Riot — if anything was known at all — should have been called the Tulsa Race Massacre, as it is recognized today. It was intentionally mischaracterized as a sudden eruption of bloody chaos between races. Calling it a riot meant insurance companies were absolved from paying damage claims to Black victims, wiping out generational wealth. It also concealed that the only provocation for the murderous white vengeance that took hundreds of Black lives was the existence of a thriving community hailed as “Black Wall Street.” It was a coverup for orchestrated violence.


That’s happening again with Jan. 6, one of this nation’s most heinous events. What exploded one year ago Thursday was not a riot. It was an insurrection.

It’s infuriating whenever someone in the media or a pundit insists on calling Jan. 6 a riot. What millions witnessed live at the US Capitol was not a protest spurred by passions that spontaneously combusted. Long before the first insurrectionists breached the Capitol, a coup was plotted by President Donald Trump, members of his Cabinet, and dozens of Republicans in the House and Senate to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory and overthrow an American election.

There’s no ambiguity here — only the intentionality of language dulled to diminish the sting of facts.

It’s not unlike all the reticence that too many wrestled with in calling the lying former president a liar or the unwillingness to recognize that Trump ran for the White House not to ease economic anxieties but to stoke racism and protect white supremacy. Every media refusal to speak that truth helped Trump garner power and perpetuated his lies.


Never let it be forgotten that there were two insurrections on Jan. 6. The first was the violent breaching of the Capitol that left five people dead and injured about 140 police officers. The second came hours later, also in the same hallowed space, when 147 Republicans voted to overturn the election. That, too, was an attempted breach of democracy and the peaceful transfer of power.

Republicans could have repudiated the Big Lie; instead, it’s become a GOP version of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” A recent national University of Massachusetts Amherst poll found 71 percent of Republicans still denounce the legitimacy of Biden’s victory. They also blame Democrats, Antifa, and the Capitol Police for the insurrection. And, of course, they want investigations into the lead-up to Jan. 6 to stop. In a Washington Post/University of Maryland poll, one third of Americans, including 40 percent of Republicans, said violence against the government is sometimes justifiable.

Meanwhile, the GOP is doing what has happened so often in American history — burying the truth in unmarked graves. That continues with how this planned anti-democratic assault is being discussed as a riot. It was bad enough last May when Republican Representative Andrew Clyde of Georgia compared the insurrection to a “normal tourist visit.” But Mike Pence, the former vice president targeted for assassination by those who built a gallows and chanted “Hang Mike Pence,” continues to portray anything about Jan. 6 as some kind of vengeful partisan folly by Democrats.


This is no longer about a political divide between red and blue states or right and left. Republicans aren’t just fighting Democrats; they’re fighting against democracy. They’re taking pickaxes to the foundation of this Republic, and act as if no one can stop them because so far no one has.

During a recent appearance on MSNBC’s “The Sunday Show with Jonathan Capehart,” Michael Beschloss, the esteemed presidential historian, said, “If we lose our democracy this year, we are unlikely to get it back during our lifetimes.” Think about that. Lessening the insurrection is flinging open the doors to authoritarianism and ushering in the death of all we claim to hold dear. America dodged nothing on Jan. 6; the brickbats are still flying. The next insurrection is already here.

As the Tulsa Race Massacre sought to decimate Black self-actualization, this insurrection may dismantle democracy. Branding either of them as just a riot serves only to neuter narratives about the brutal long game of white supremacy. In Tulsa, it worked for nearly a century. How those lies are taking root again in history’s marrow is no less of an atrocity than the insurrection itself.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.