Black Americans react to the pro-Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol
On the morning of Jan. 6, many Black Americans celebrated the news that the Rev. Raphael Warnock had defeated Sen. Kelly Loeffler in a runoff election to become the first African American U.S. senator from the state of Georgia. A Democrat and the senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, Warnock talked in his victory speech about his rise from poverty.
“My mother, who as a teenager in Waycross, Ga., used to pick somebody else’s cotton,” Warnock said. “But the other day, because this is America, the 82-year-old hands that picked somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator.”
In no small part, Warnock’s victory was made possible by support from historically Black colleges and university alums, as well as former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who laid the groundwork to get people to the polls. But it resonated beyond Georgia.
Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes, a pastor at Double Love Experience church in New York and a fellow HBCU alum, smiled as she spoke of Warnock’s victory. “I was just so proud to be Black in that moment,” she told Yahoo News.
But just hours later, President Trump addressed a mass rally of his supporters in Washington, D.C., exhorting them to head to the U.S. Capitol to make their displeasure known to lawmakers who were set to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Andrew Wilkes, Gabby’s husband, an Atlanta native and former executive director of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Drum Major Institute, said Trump’s speech was a culmination of his commitment to “stoking white identity politics.”
“President Trump and his allies have mainstreamed and made that kind of violent white nationalism socially respectable [as] a means of airing grievances that their stakeholders have,” Wilkes told Yahoo News. “We’re going to need a little more than convenient acknowledgment of the problems that we face in America.”
Like the Wilkes family, many of the Black Americans who had been celebrating Warnock’s victory watched in horror as a predominantly white, violent mob laid siege to the Capitol, some carrying Confederate flags, others erecting makeshift gallows fitted with a noose.
Gary Anderson, a retired principal and Army lieutenant colonel and a 1974 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, said he was brought to tears as he witnessed what he considered to be an attempted coup.
“People who can say that the election was ran and held, because ‘our guy’ didn’t get elected, we are not going to accept the outcome of that law. That’s a privileged type of idea that you can determine for your own self how the rules are to be applied and enforced,” Anderson said.
Tina Watkins-Quaye, a general manager of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee — a nonprofit that her grandfather started after fleeing from Mississippi to Los Angeles’s Watts neighborhood to escape a lynch mob in 1937 — said seeing a noose on the Capitol grounds “means something very specific.”
“At some point after slavery was curtailed by the 13th Amendment, we saw a period of time where the Ku Klux Klan formed, where vigilante justice developed and Black people were being lynched, and there was a public message behind it every time that it happened,” Watkins-Quaye said. “It’s an act of terrorism to show those images. We know that the Confederate flag was treasonous and anti-American. The people who were a part of the Confederate states wanted to form a different country so they could keep people like me and my family enslaved.”
The Rev. Dr. Lucious Wright, a pastor at Fellowship Greater Jehovah Baptist church in Philadelphia — this author’s grandfather — was a young Black man in the Jim Crow South of Bennettsville, S.C. He migrated north for a better life after seeing images like the Confederate flag proudly flying in his home state’s capitol of Columbus. Wright called the Jan. 6 Capitol attack “a disgrace to America.” According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 94 percent of Black Americans agree and oppose the insurrection.
“I’ve never seen anything like that. They had no control of themselves, and there was nobody there to control them. Five people wound up losing their lives. Then there was a delay getting the National Guard down there,” my grandfather told me.
The Capitol Police guarding the Capitol building were simply overrun. President-elect Joe Biden has criticized law enforcement’s lack of preparation for the riot and called the disparity in the response to what was seen during the Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd “totally unacceptable.”
In the days that followed the riot at the Capitol, it was revealed that the Pentagon had denied multiple requests to send the National Guard to D.C. and that the FBI had amassed intelligence in advance of the storming of the Capitol. “We get our president or we die,” one message stated.
Twenty-one-year-old college student Ryah Taylor, who participated in small Black Lives Matter protests last summer near her home in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., said she was upset by the double standard of the police response.
“The fact that these people that came and were treated so compassionately by the police and with such kindness, most of them were not injured or body-slammed like we can compare at the Black Lives Matter protests. It really just shows us that it’s only really OK to protest when you’re not Black or brown,” Taylor said.
During Trump’s impeachment hearing in the House on Wednesday, Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., was booed by Republicans for calling the outgoing president a “white supremacist … who incited a white supremacist insurrection.” Trump, meanwhile, told reporters on Tuesday that he thought his speech at the Jan. 6 rally before the storming of the Capitol was “totally appropriate.”
Even though some Republicans resumed their challenge of the Electoral College tally after the pro-Trump rioters were dispersed, some lawmakers say they have since come to understand why Black Americans were so appalled by that electoral opposition.
“What I did not realize was all of the national conversation about states like Georgia, Pennsylvania and Michigan was seen as casting doubt on the validity of votes coming out of predominantly Black communities like Atlanta, Philadelphia and Detroit,” Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., wrote in a letter on Thursday to Black residents of Tulsa. “After decades of fighting for voting rights, many Black friends in Oklahoma saw this as a direct attack on their right to vote, for their vote to matter, and even a belief that their votes made an election in our country illegitimate.
“I can assure you,” Lankford continued, “my intent to give a voice to Oklahomans who had questions was never also an intent to diminish the voice of any Black American.”
But for many African Americans, the meaning of Jan. 6 is all too clear.
“It was encouraged by the president of the United States and an entire political party … undermining the sense of e pluribus unum — that out of many folks with different backgrounds and different cultures, we can be one nation committed to equal justice under the law,” Andrew Wilkes said. “For those principles to be real, we have to be real about the corrosive white nationalism that is pervasive in our U.S. political culture.”
For Watkins-Quaye, as traumatic as the events of the past week have been, the silver lining may be that a deep-rooted white supremacist ideology has been laid bare.
“For generations, harm has been done,” she said. “The things that would have to be done to make a true impact would have to look like generational wealth building. In the very least, this country owes it to the people on whose backs the nation was built and our superpower status throughout the world was built.”
Even with all that has transpired since Warnock’s win in Georgia, Double Love Experience church’s Cudjoe Wilkes is still optimistic.
“I think wins like in Georgia — it was important that those things happened on the same day because at the same time that we’re seeing this attack on our democracy, we’re also seeing what’s possible when everyone rallies together and uses their voice,” she said. “So I think the only way that we can move forward towards democracy is to truly define what it is and go after it.”
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