Last week, the U.S. presidential inauguration occurred while thousands of troops occupied Washington, D.C. — to defend democracy from its own citizens.
This militarization of D.C. was, of course, in response to Trump supporters storming the U.S. Capitol on January 6, in hopes of overturning the presidential election results. I found it alarming that much of mainstream and social media supported these undemocratic measures for Joe Biden’s inauguration. More concerning is how much seeming support there is amongst liberals for domestic terrorism laws that would give the U.S. security establishment even more power to spy on its citizens and restrict civil liberties. As more than one American journalist has observed, the political climate right now is eerily similar to the 9/11-era.
This is not to say that the reality of right-wing extremists attacking the Capitol isn’t scary. Believe me, particularly as a Jew, I take these people seriously. But government expansion of power is just about the worst way to go about protecting ourselves. Rather, from my experience protesting white nationalists in the U.S., I believe our best defence against the far right is the people, not the state.
In the summer of 2019, I participated in a protest against a Ku Klux Klan rally in Dayton, Ohio, about an hour’s drive from where I lived at the time.
Although the KKK claimed their rally would number in the hundreds, there were less than ten of them and hundreds of us — a racially diverse coalition of protesters. This isn’t to say our protest — rather than the relatively proportionate police presence — is what kept the KKK rally so small. But I’m looking at the bigger picture in the fight against the far right, and the message we sent, by protesting, is the one that truly resonates most with white nationalists: “there are more of us than there are of you.”
The story that emerged from the KKK rally that day was summarized nicely in a Time Magazine headline: “9 People Showed Up for a KKK Rally in Dayton, Ohio. They Were Drowned Out by 600 Protesters.” The article included celebratory photos of the protesters — with the pathetic Klansmen barely visible in the background. This narrative and accompanying imagery contrast heavily with last week’s militarized D.C., which can only further the right-wing extremist story (and recruitment tool) that they are heroic Davids defending democracy against the Goliath of “the deep state.”
Of course the riot at the Capitol was far more violent and dangerous than that KKK rally in Ohio. I don’t want to downplay the readiness of that mob to attack democratically elected lawmakers and their specific intention to overturn an election result. I’m also not suggesting protesters could have confronted that MAGA mob with relative safety. Given the utter failure of the Capitol police, it wasn’t safe. However, the logical conclusion of a policing failure in D.C. isn’t to push America closer to becoming a police state.
As often happens, American political trends find their way across the border. Earlier this week the House of Commons passed a motion to designate the far-right Proud Boys — whose U.S. counterparts took part in the Capitol riot — a terrorist entity. The person who will make the final decision about this designation is Public Safety Minister Bill Blair. You may recall Blair was Toronto’s police chief during the G20 policing debacle, which Ontario Ombudsman André Marin called “the most massive compromise of civil liberties in Canadian history.” I don’t want people like Blair or the FBI — who until last year considered “Black Identity Extremists” (in other words, Black Lives Matter activists) a terrorist threat — deciding who we can associate with.
So while it‘s important to take the Capitol riot seriously, it‘s equally important not to become reactionaries in a fight against reactionaries. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer compared the events of January 6 to Pearl Harbour — which would presumably call for a war-like response. A more accurate — and level-headed — comparison is the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when neo-Nazis marched through the city, assaulting people, while the police did basically nothing. Before the day was over, a white nationalist drove his car into a group of protesters, injuring several people and killing one.
I recognize a major difference between Charlottesville and the Capitol riot — in that the latter targeted the democratic process, with Trump directly inciting the violence. But it wasn‘t a declaration of war or any other terms meant to scare people into giving up their rights.
When it comes to the Capitol riot, we ought to look to the lessons of Charlottesville, not 9/11 or Pearl Harbour. The people of Boston did just that, when about a week after the mayhem in Charlottesville, white nationalists held a rally in Boston. Police had to provide some security to the city because of their failure in Charlottesville. And more importantly, thousands of ordinary people showed up to protest the white nationalists — who ended up cowering in a gazebo, protected by the police. Such protests are a more enduring message to the far right than a massive crackdown on civil rights, not to mention a more democratic one too. It was the protest in Boston that made me feel a sense of obligation to protest white nationalists when they came to my backyard.
What I would like to have seen at the presidential inauguration was ordinary people ready not to act violently, but to stand their ground against any would-be white nationalist actions. I‘m sure in such a scenario the people would greatly outnumber the white nationalists, showing them loudly and clearly: there are more of us than there are of them. But since the newly elected “leader of the free world“ was sworn in while surrounded by troops, with hardly a citizen in sight, that wasn‘t possible.
Jacob Scheier, a citizen of both the U.S. and Canada, is a published poet, essayist, journalist, and activist. His articles and op-eds have appeared in The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and NOW Magazine, among other publications.
Image credit: The National Guard/Flickr