capitol insurrection

American Amnesia

Photo: CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

I am rarely sincerely moved by politics, but on Wednesday morning, I broke down and cried when I found out the Reverend Raphael Warnock, a first-time candidate and the pastor of Atlanta’s iconic Ebenezer Baptist Church, won his Senate race. Of course, those emotions did not last long.

Wednesday began with organizers in Georgia realizing a decade-long mission to register and mobilize voters from marginalized communities, delivering the Senate to Democrats. That accomplishment’s joy was short-lived. Within hours, all eyes were on Washington, D.C., as a ceremonial congressional session to certify the election results ended with a Donald Trump–encouraged white militia invading the U.S. Capitol, forcing its way into the chamber and inciting insurrection with the hope of overturning the 2020 presidential election. The morning’s tears dried, and a blood-boiling anger took their place.

Despite the very American efforts to obscure past pain every time there’s progress and treat horrific events as one-offs, there is no amount of change that can wipe our memories or the slate clean. We witnessed this process at its absolute apex on January 6, a day that will live in infamy unless we do our American thing of pretending as if the worst parts of us are a fringe.

Wednesday’s insurrection was not a singular event in our history. It was the result of a decades-long plan for white nationalists to wreak havoc on the U.S. government. With the encouragement of a sitting president, they did exactly that with little consequences. Five people died. The majority of the insurrectionists left the U.S. Capitol unscathed. There were no tanks to greet them, no militarized police force with batons at the ready, no eagerness to push them to the ground, break their bones, and leave them traumatized. Of course righteous anger spread on social media. There were mumblings about removing Trump from office. The very senators who encouraged the violence, including Missouri senator Josh Hawley and Texas senator Ted Cruz, released statements condemning it. Once the Capitol Police finally dispersed the crowd and cleared the building, Congress restored order and continued its procedural vote — allowing representatives and senators who helped incite the insurrection to still object to specific election results in specific states — and business continued as normal. Because it always does.

This kind of whiplash is as common in the United States as mythmaking exceptionalism and double standards in policing. America was built on violent theft, enslavement enforced through brutality, and congressional leaders manipulating the levers of power to suppress the vote, but whenever there’s perceived progress, including Barack Obama being elected to the presidency and Warnock becoming the first Black Democratic senator from the South, we’re asked to bury all of the ugly history. We’re at a new dawn, so we should pretend as if the darkness never existed — until we’re forced to face the next tunnel.

On January 6, we witnessed progress followed by violence followed by congressional leaders claiming that loving our neighbors could prevent similar insurrections in the future. Trump is still the president today, though Facebook, Instagram, Twitch, and Twitter have limited his access to their platforms. Very few people have been arrested for participating in a seditious act. Congress has adjourned until January 19. Once again, we’re asked to treat white-nationalist violence as an anomaly unworthy of further discussion — a disruption in the American experiment rather than a defining feature.

We are not so exceptional as to be exempt from corruption, greed, hypocrisy, oppression, tyranny, and, eventually, decline, especially when our history bears out whom our terrors most impact. When we allow our leaders to suggest on the floor of the U.S. Senate that this week’s attempted coup is a singular event in our history, we overlook how that same violence precipitated the ushering in of Jim Crow laws in the South after Reconstruction, which led to the voter suppression that organizers in Georgia and around the country are still attempting to undo.

We can’t allow political amnesia to overcome our better instincts. We can’t allow white supremacists to terrorize this country into submission. Not this time. So while we celebrate the ushering in of a new president and a Democratically controlled Congress, we must also mete out consequences for the redawning of insurrectionism in our country. We can cry. We can feel the joy of a new dawn. And then we must get back to work.

American Amnesia