Congress convened Wednesday to perform the largely ceremonial counting of Electoral College votes and to declare Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election. Donald Trump countered with a rally that he had been planning for weeks. “Big protest in DC on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
“Let’s have trial by combat,” Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s disgraced personal lawyer, crowed from the rally podium. “Stand up and fight!” Trump’s son Don Jr. shouted, as he threatened Congressional Republicans unwilling to support overturning Biden’s election: “We’re coming for you and we’re going to have a good time doing it.”
After President Trump’s speech, he directed the raging crowd to march on the Capitol, where the counting of votes was underway. Trump’s mob swarmed the Capitol, overwhelmed police, then smashed windows and breached heavy, locked doors.
With Trump and Confederate flags waving, the violent insurrectionists rampaged through the halls. Both the House and the Senate, debating the challenge to Arizona’s certified Electors, abruptly recessed as chaos descended on the heart of American democracy. Congressmembers grabbed gas masks from under their seats as teargas was deployed (it’s unclear if any of the staunch Trump supporters in the House refused to don the masks). Soon after Senators fled, marauders flooded their chamber. Guards barricaded the doors to the House in an armed standoff with Trump’s insurrectionists.
Capitol Police shot and killed one of the intruders, 35-year-old Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt of San Diego. Her social media posts suggest a strong belief in the fringe QAnon conspiracy theory. Three others reportedly died in DC of unspecified “medical emergencies” and several dozen were arrested.
The Capitol’s minimal security, with the entire Congress and the Vice President present, was shocking. Videos circulated showing a handful of Capitol Police briefly resisting the marchers, then opening the security perimeter, admitting the angry crowd. Inside, several police officers posed for selfies with the domestic terrorists who were taking control of the building.
The violence was predicted. It had already erupted at an earlier Trump protest, on December 12th, where several people were stabbed. When the head of the violent group The Proud Boys was arrested in DC Monday, he was carrying high-capacity ammunition clips for semi-automatic rifles. DC Mayor Muriel Bowser made an unheeded request to the Pentagon to deploy the National Guard this week
Compare Wednesday’s lax police presence to the major, militarized mobilization in response to this summer’s protests against systemic racism, police brutality and in defense of Black Lives. Then, no expense was spared to garrison the Capitol with fully armed police, SWAT teams, and National Guard troops. Trump’s former Attorney General Bill Barr ordered a Pentagon-coordinated assault on peaceful protestors to clear the streets, so Donald Trump could pose with a bible before a church. One can only imagine what would have happened if thousands of people of color and BLM supporters rampaged through the Capitol during a Joint Session of Congress.
The law specifying Congress’ counting of the Electoral College votes passed in 1887, following the controversial 1876 election that pitted Republican Rutherford Hayes against Democrat Samuel Tilden. Tilden won the popular vote, but Hayes engineered an Electoral College win by agreeing to withdraw federal troops from Southern States. On the floor of the Senate, after Trump’s violent mob had been removed and proceedings recommenced, Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin invoked the memory of that devastating Compromise of 1877:
“The senator from Texas [Ted Cruz] says we just want to create a little commission. Ten days, we’re going to audit all the states…and find out what actually occurred. It’s parallel to 1876, Hayes and Tilden. Don’t forget what that commission achieved: It was a commission that killed Reconstruction, that established Jim Crow, that even after a Civil War which tore this nation apart, it re-enslaved African Americans, and it invited the voter suppression we are still fighting today.”
Throughout his life, Trump has fanned the flames of white supremacy. He owes his one-term presidency in large part to his cynical exploitation of racism and fear. Yet, as Trump’s followers attacked the Capitol, the final U.S. Senate race was called for Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff. The other Georgia Democrat, Reverend Raphael Warnock, won his Senate race hours earlier, becoming the first African American Democrat elected to the Senate from the South. These victories return the Senate to Democratic control. They were the result of years of grassroots organizing, painstakingly registering Georgia voters and overcoming generations of violence, Jim Crow voter suppression and massive voter purges.
Trump will soon be gone, but will the cancer of Trumpism remain? Look to the lessons of Georgia for a glimmer of hope, that the power of grassroots organizing can overcome racism and hate.