There’s no question that untold numbers of people in this country are poor and downtrodden, struggling to survive because the government has ignored them, particularly during the pandemic. Not enough money has been distributed, not enough help has been offered. Desperation is all too prevalent in many areas. Those in charge — of all stripes — promise the moon but deliver pittances. The fact that healthcare is beyond the reach of many, and even a paltry $15-per-hour minimum wage can’t be established, is shameful in a nation said to be the wealthiest in the world. Legislators who actually cared about their constituents, and not their big corporate donors, would have brought remedies decades ago. There is no excuse for the unfathomable inequality in the United States today, when CEOs and owners are compensated at literally hundreds of times the rates of their average employees. I’m not stating anything new here, and for ten months, my heart has gone out to those who’ve lost jobs and healthcare, and who are food- and shelter-insecure.
As we saw during the summer of last year, there were widespread protests following the murders of Breonne Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement. The Black Lives Matter movement made headlines for months, and its name has become standard lexicon across the country. Protesters were frantic to call attention to instances of extreme police brutality, most often directed toward Blacks, quite literally matters of life and death. But the militarization of U.S. police departments and the “us versus them” mindset that has evolved genuinely affects — and can endanger — all of us. By and large, the demonstrations were peaceful. Most violence was meted out by local police and anonymous federal agents deployed against the protesters. Some protesters did commit violence, and some property damage did indeed occur, and in those cases, demonstrators broke the law and certainly should have been arrested and charged.
As of January 6th, however, we’ve seen a different kind of protest, designed to be violent, calculated to inflict fear and property damage, organized by a relatively small cadre of dissidents who worship at the altar of debunked conspiracy theories. These people plot on social media sites geared toward their skewed world views, and quite openly urge mayhem and injury, even destruction: pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails, along with extensive armaments, were found near the Capitol. Moreover, the extremists are already promising to return for the inauguration on January 20th, vowing that this week’s attack was only the beginning.
Aside from the non-stop coverage of the particulars of the breach of the Capitol and the speculation about political fall-out, a number of pundits are warning about an existential crisis in the country, asserting that what happened at the Capitol is the logical extension of conditions throughout the nation. Essentially, they say, the anger, frustration, and anguish was bound to manifest in the type of scenario we witnessed in Washington. That theory would seem to make sense; people who literally have nothing to lose will do what they have to do to better their situations, up to and including breaking the system. Consequently, there’s a school of thought that says, “Yes, the attack on the Capitol was a bad thing, but you have to remember that people are desperate, and it’s been bad for years.”
I don’ buy it. Not for an instant. People who don’t know where their next meal is coming from don’t drive across the country at the behest of a rightwing group or even a President. They can’t afford to make the trip, stay in the D.C. area, buy food, and equip themselves with signs and banners [thanks to fellow blog poster Greg Laxer for the idea here]. They wouldn’t risk their families’ welfare, should something happen to them. No, the fact of the matter is that the mob on Wednesday contained and was guided by business owners, professionals of all types, Ph.D.s, mayors, and dozens of others definitely NOT among the downtrodden, including at least one state legislator. Crucially, well-known extremist leaders were also present and participating. Their rage and determination to wreak havoc stemmed not from their personal situations, but from political convictions and delusions, along with resentment at the supposed erosion of white privilege, particularly male white privilege, as perceived by many, according to analyst Jackson Katz. The rioters who invaded the Capitol weren’t there to demand food or unemployment benefits. As I commented in my last post, their stated mission was to “stop the steal,” meaning to overturn the results of a legal, certified election. Their purpose was to terrorize legislators and that part of the U.S. public who isn’t “with” them, and to attempt to force reinstatement of their Leader, the outgoing incumbent, for another term. The mob did not consist of people pushed into action by deprivation and fear for their and their families’ welfare; no, they bragged and gloated and smashed and graffitied and live-streamed the chaos. They manhandled Capitol security, killing one officer, and counted it a win. And if their social media posts are to be believed, they plan to repeat the rampage in a couple weeks.
Giving these extremists an out, granting them the excuse of straitened circumstances, does disservice all around. First, it vilifies the people who actually are in dire need of help and dilutes the extent to which they’re deserving of assistance. Second, and perhaps most obviously, it gives domestic terrorism a pass; what the mob did is unconscionable, no matter what their situations might be. Sympathizing with a crowd that has morphed into animalistic behavior for no good reason means turning a blind eye on lawlessness. Lastly, superimposing nonexistent mitigating motives on a horde of out-of-control thugs and whackos obscures the true state of affairs. That is, commiserating with the mob leads to the assumption that what happened Wednesday was a one-off event — that the people who broke into the Capitol got the attention they wanted and will now go back to their homes and attempt to keep their poverty-stricken lives together. That’s a very dangerous assumption, particularly when the Proud Boys, QAnon, and other like-minded ruffians have made it abundantly clear that they’ll be back for more. In the very broadest sense, yes, their organizations exist due to the many negative conditions extant in the U.S. If we lived in an ideal world, these seasoned, dedicated insurgents would have no organizing principle, no targets for their anger or their nihilistic drive to “burn it all down.” Let’s not say, though, that a pandemic, high unemployment, and unmet needs everywhere are justification for large-scale vandalism, threats, assault, and murder. Those who have a need for power and domination will find a pretext to act; now, they’re hiding behind a political agenda pushed by a mentally unbalanced, narcissistic jefe. Make no mistake: they’re not looking out for the benefit of the country as a whole. The Proud Boys have been “standing by” for months, having marched and threatened throughout the U.S. in 2020. They, along with groups of their fellow racist, misogynist, rightwing agitators, are not going to give up anytime soon. They and those they’re able to convert to their cult of bloodthirsty fantasy are the ones who threaten the country. In the meantime, the people in line at the food banks are focusing on eating and living indoors. They don’t have the time or opportunity to invade government buildings, and they, like the rest of the sane part of our society, are victims of the extremists, not perpetrators.