Yesterday in Los Angeles, a “Stop the Steal” march — in support of the mob overrunning the Capitol — erupted in violence. White men surrounded a Black woman walking near the gathering, macing her at close range and punching her in the face. Other protesters crowded in on her, carrying signs that read: “This is our 1776!”
The self-important sign of the American Revolution, coupled with the racist violence that unfolded beside it, emblematized the ongoing movement to overturn the 2020 election. Militia groups and other members of the far-right fringe are obsessed with this era, making kitsch out of the Founders and Constitution. One of the most well-known national militia groups, the Three Percenters, is named after an apocryphal statistic that only 3 percent of the American populace took up arms against the British. On Wednesday, Three Percenter flags were spotted flying near the Capitol as a chaotic far-right legion bum-rushed the building, broke its windows, and laid siege to lawmakers seeking to certify the election vote. These people saw themselves as heirs to the American revolutionaries of the 18th century, but in reality, the tradition they were upholding has little to do with the birth of a new republic. In seeking to uphold an authoritarian, white supremacist president, and to solidify his hold on power through violence, they had much more in common with another tradition of American violence. As the coup attempt unfolded, only hours after Raphael Warnock was elected to become the first Black senator from Georgia, it recalled another era a century after the revolution: the petty malice, and undisguised violence, of white-supremacist coups d’état that overthrew a nascent, multiracial democracy in the South during Reconstruction.
It’s difficult to overstate the violence of that era, enabled by a covert agreement in Congress which saw the installation of Rutherford B. Hayes as president in exchange for a shameless withdrawal of federal troops from the occupied South in 1877 — and an abandonment of a just-freed Black populace who were beginning to acquire their due measure of civic participation in elected office, civil society, and beyond. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, as the first Ku Klux Klan arose in earnest, statehouses were mobbed and Black elected officials driven from their offices by intimidation, violence, and murder, ushering in the long, dark night of Jim Crow.
This culminated in the only fully successful coup d’état in United States history. In 1898, Wilmington, North Carolina, was a fairly racially integrated city — three of the ten city aldermen were Black, and Black citizens served in the judicial system and as civil servants such as firefighters and policemen. Determined to reestablish white men’s rule, a former Confederate lieutenant colonel named Alfred Waddell used an editorial in a Black newspaper as pretext to whip up a mob of enraged white citizens; hundreds signed a “White Declaration of Independence” saying they would never be ruled again by anyone Black. The following day, an armed mob of 2,000 burned the newspaper building to the ground and set about attacking Black residents, with the aid of local infantrymen. On the same day, they invaded the chambers of the local government, expelling the duly elected mayor and aldermen, and installed a white-supremacist government handpicked by Waddell. As Gatling gunfire pulsed through the streets, Black citizens fled, and the consolidation of a new, tyrannical order was complete.
The fractures in a new and fragile just democratic order were so total that even now, we are still picking up the pieces; and those who seek to carry out a coup d’état in the name of white supremacy seek to abolish even the small progress we have made, year over year. Even as they envision themselves as noble revolutionaries against tyranny, they are its agents; among them are those who wear Nazi symbols and carry Confederate flags. Wednesday we saw the forces of retroversion assert themselves with terrifying force.
Just before the sprawl of Trumpists broke into the Capitol on Wednesday, a man in camouflage gear gave a journalist a flyer. “A national militia is being organized on Capitol Hill to defend the Constitution and the Republic,” it read. At the bottom was a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” At the core of the far right’s fetish for the American Revolution is the belief that they are the fighters of tyranny, not its enforcers. But we need a realistic assessment of just who forms the coalition of tyranny in this country. It is tempting to issue pat statements when encountered with racist violence: “This is not America,” “This is not who we are.” But the terror of the “Redemption” (as white vigilantes and officials who snuffed out the fragile beginnings of racial justice with a reign of violence called it) is just as American as the Revolution, and we are still living with its consequences. If we have learned any lessons from the barbarism of 1898, a forceful response must come from all of us in 2021, in the government, the streets, and the courts. It must be unequivocal, as passionate as the passions of autocracy and its adoring masses. It must be swift, and ours.