Sunday, January 17, 2021

Capitol Riot Fits History of White Mob Violence

          Hundreds of President Trump’s supporters were rampaging inside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, as Trump’s eldest, Donald Jr., went on to Twitter belatedly to plead with the mob to avoid violence. “This is wrong and not who we are,” Junior tweeted as noted in this account. “Be peaceful and use your 1st Amendment rights, but don’t start acting like the other side.”

            Ten days later, thousands of National Guardsmen are deployed in the nation’s capital this weekend in an effort to safeguard President Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday [Jan. 20] against a recurrence by another pro-Trump mob.

            Junior’s “not who we are” tweet could be understood as referring specifically to his father’s campaign and presidency or, more broadly, to “who we are” as Americans. In either case, he was demonstrably incorrect, as seen in Trump’s conduct as candidate and president and in the long history of white mob violence in the United States.

 Violence and the threat of violence were part of his father’s campaign from the outset and into his presidency, as seen for example when Trump urged supporters at a campaign rally in Iowa in January 2016 to “knock the crap” out of any hecklers.  Trump went on then, and in later rallies, to promise to pay legal fees of any supporters who ended up facing charges for assaulting dissidents.

Junior’s tweet, interpreted more broadly, was also demonstrably incorrect as a matter of American history. In fact, white mob violence in aid of white supremacy has been a recurrent pattern in U.S. history from the slavery era through the post-Civil War Reconstruction and through the 20th century civil rights movement.  In the words of the late 20th century song, Junior “don’t know much about history.”

Here, then, a refresher: the post-Civil War Reconstruction suffered its greatest single setback when white insurrectionists took up arms against the biracial government in majority-black Grant Parish, Louisiana, on Easter Sunday, April 13, 1873. A white mob attacked the parish courthouse  in the Red River Valley town of Colfax in an armed shootout with black Republicans barricaded inside that eventually forced the outnumbered blacks to surrender.

The event is marked by a historical marker erected in 1951 that describes the Colfax Riot as marking the end of “carpetbagger misrule” in the South. An estimated 150 blacks were killed in the episode, many of them execution-style after they had surrendered. Three whites were killed: their deaths are memorialized in an obelisk that stands outside the courthouse and praises them for having died while fighting in defense of “white supremacy.”

            The historian Eric Foner, in an interview with the writer Isaac Chotiner in The New Yorker, saw a parallel between the history of white supremacy violence during the Reconstruction and the Capitol riot more than a century later. “It’s not unprecedented that violent racists try to overturn democratic elections,” Foner remarked, after recalling similar riots that displaced biracial governments in New Orleans in 1874 and in Wilmington, N.C., in 1898.

            The Capitol riot needs to be understood in the same context, Foner explained in the interview. “It was not a fly-by-night operation,” Foner said. “ It was not a misguided group who got a little out of hand or something like that. It was really an attempt to completely subvert the democratic process by violence.”
            The Reconstruction-era white mobs believed that blacks “were incapable of taking part intelligently in a democratic government,” according to Foner, and for that reason believed that they were restoring honest and responsible government by ousting black officeholders and their carpetbagger allies. Foner, a professor at Columbia University and author of Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877, recalls in the interview that high school history classes through the 1960s taught Reconstruction in negative terms consistent with the white supremacist critique of the era

Foner links Trump’s “birtherism” attack on Obama’s legitimacy as president to the same philosophy: “straight-out white supremacy.”  Trump “was pushing the idea that Obama was not really an American and, therefore, could not be president,” Foner recalled. “The idea that Black people are actually aliens in a certain way – that they are not truly American, that the only true Americans are white – that’s been around for a long time in our history.”

            Foner’s narrative in effect forces us to view the Capitol riot through a racial lens. The mob was not only predominantly white but almost exclusively white, despite the role of one black Trump supporter in helping organize the event. But just as in the 19th century, the white mob was trying to prevent the election of a distinctively biracial government, with a woman of color as vice president and a racially and ethnically diverse Cabinet.

            The Biden-Harris ticket won the support of more than 90 percent of the nation’s black and brown voters, according to post-election exit polls. The Biden victories that Trump’s supporters were challenged including four states – Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – where black voters in major cities were critical in flipping the results from the 2016 election.

            Trump carried the majority of the white vote in 2020, according to exit polls, just as he had done in 2016. But a majority of the white vote left Trump more than 7 million votes behind Biden in the overall popular vote.  Trump, it must be remembered, incited the mob to march to the Capitol by saying that they needed to “show strength” to reclaim the country. “You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” Trump said.

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