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Q&A: You know we’re at war, right?

The Jan. 6 insurrection was the first volley in an act of civil war. It has been playing out, policy-wise and politically, ever since, says Harvard’s Cornell William Brooks.

Cornell William Brooks speaks outside the Justice Department in Washington in 2017.Susan Walsh/Associated Press

You know we’re at war, right?

That’s the take of Cornell William Brooks, the Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations and professor of the practice of public leadership and social justice at Harvard University. Brooks says this war began last Jan. 6 when a mob of Donald Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol in an attempt to thwart the peaceful transfer of power.

The violent attempt to keep Congress from certifying the legitimate results of the 2020 presidential election was really the first volley in an act of civil war, Brooks told The Emancipator. It has been playing out — policy-wise and politically — ever since.

“Jan. 6 was much more than a group of hooligans defecating [on], urinating [on], desecrating the Capitol,” he said. “This was literally a violent declaration of intent under the orders of the president with the aid and abetting by members of Congress. We learn more and more about this daily. The notable difference between this and the Civil War is they haven’t gotten around to designing uniforms yet.”

Yet even as demoralizing as this attack has been to people who believe in our democracy — and even though the lack of sufficient accountability has left many Americans feeling powerless — there is a greater role for citizens to play, according to Brooks.

The status quo of citizenship, governance, and engagement must change, he insists. It will involve more than merely showing up to vote every two to four years (for those who bother) and expecting politicians at the local, state, and federal levels to make progress.

I spoke to Brooks about how everyday people need to realize the high-stakes scenario we’re living in and how citizens need to reclaim their power to create the policies needed to save democracy — and thrive. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q. You’re a former US Department of Justice attorney. Tell us about the way the insurrectionists are being identified and prosecuted. How has it differed from the usual way things are done?

A. In the mind of the Republic, what you really have is a tacit grant of leniency based on race. While treason and sedition are difficult to charge and prove, many doubt Black insurrectionists attempting to violently disrupt the peaceful transfer of power would get away with trespass and disorderly conduct convictions. Would a former president and congressional Republicans both deny the crimes of, and serve as de facto character witnesses for, Black insurrectionists? The crimes of the insurrection are being politically minimized, and the insurrectionists, as criminals, are being morally whitewashed by many because they are white — despite the narrow legal charges and the [successful] convictions of federal prosecutors.

Q. What do you mean by that exactly?

A. Here we have largely white people engaged in a treasonous act, people engaged in sedition, people violently, profanely, and very publicly attempting to not merely disrupt an election but to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power, reverse an election, and undermine democracy in one series of acts on a single day. And it’s being treated in so many instances like disorderly conduct, like trespass — as opposed to what it was. Federal lawyers prosecute what they can prove in court. The insurrection, however, was not merely a series of federal crimes that destroyed property and lives, but [a series of] political acts that threatened democracy.

Q. Why is there confusion over that?

A. The insurrectionists’ seditious, treasonous motive has been stripped from the public narrative. Think about it this way: One of the stiffest penalties that’s been handed out thus far has been for five years. How many Black young people have gone away for 10, 15 years for the possession and the assumed conspiracy to distribute a modicum of drugs? We have folks engaged in a criminal conspiracy to undermine our democracy receiving less, an infinitesimally small fraction of the sentences for people who have been accused in the midst of drug wars in engaging in drug conspiracies. And the public seems to be OK with that.

Q. So, where’s the danger in that, if any?

A. This is what I’ll liken it to: The Confederate attack at Fort Sumter, which precipitated the Civil War, was understood to be an attack. The Fort Sumter moment for our 21st-century democracy has occurred, and no one seems to appreciate that the opening shots of the civil war have been fired.

Q. Whoa! That’s a lot. We’re in a war and don’t even know it?

A. This is not politically alarmist. It’s not historically histrionic. Take note of the fact that in a recent Institute of Politics poll of young people, young people cited their fears of an incipient civil war. This is a Harvard Youth Poll of the most idealistic, most hope-filled voters saying, “We believe we’re on the cusp of a civil war.” And older folks seemed to have blinked [in] the moment. Is that clear?

Q. Let’s go back to Fort Sumter in South Carolina, so you can connect how that attack compares with how we have processed the Capitol breach.

A. Leading up to the attack on Fort Sumter, there was a raging debate in terms of the sovereignty, if you will, of the slavocracy, the Confederate states, and their ability to continue to commodify and monetize Black bodies unimpeded and unconstrained by Northern states and border states, and their ability to control their property, namely Black bodies.

The attack at Fort Sumter was certainly a military attack, but it was also a violent declaration of intent, namely the Confederacy. Southern states [were] willing to use military might to preserve their way of life. The attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 was a violent declaration of intent, which is to say this Trumpist authoritarian base that [says] “We are willing to interrupt the peaceful transfer of power. We’re willing to undermine democracy and reverse election results.” Like Fort Sumter, this was literally a violent declaration of intent, and we need to be very clear about this.

Q. If we’re not on a literal bloody battlefield, what does this intention look like?

A. Consider what has happened subsequently: We’ve had state after state after state after state pass voter suppression laws. We have seen this racially digitized cartography, that is to say, gerrymandering, at the hands of very sophisticated computer scientists [and] mapmakers, who are essentially gerrymandering a republic that favors Republicans to the detriment of our democracy.

That our notable post-Jan. 6 Confederate battles are played out as a matter of policy, not as a matter of military, is a testament to their sophistication, not their lack of intent.

Q. This all sounds pretty demoralizing for people who oppose these acts and this strategy.

A. Here’s how we get out of it. Commendably, [radio talk show host known as the Black Eagle] Joe Madison is engaged, for example, in a principled, morally driven hunger strike against voter suppression, as are the young people from Arizona [universities]. They’re also engaged in a kind of guerrilla warfare. They’re upending the script, they’re creating disruption. If that kind of thing grows, it’s like the civil rights movement before [nonviolent, direct-action] strategy became conventional. We saw this with the George Floyd protests, just in terms of the sheer size, and number, and diversity, and the disruption to daily life.

Q. So voting is not enough?

In terms of the citizenry, we really have to engage in disruptive, narratively speaking, disruptive, economically speaking, disruptive, politically speaking — warfare. It’s more than just voting. We literally have to stop business from being done the way it has been done. We have done all we can do coloring within the lines.

Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, the abolitionists of old, couldn’t vote their way to freedom. They had to do a lot more than that. That’s what I’m saying: We’ve got to do a lot more than that.

Deborah D. Douglas is co-editor in chief of The Emancipator, a collaboration between Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research and the Boston Globe.