In a tweet which is now inaccessible, Donald Trump wrote: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”
He was, of course, referring to two things: the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021; and the conspiracy that the 2020 was fraudulent.
But he’s partly right: These are the things that happen when folks believe that they have been cheated and betrayed by those in power, and that they have no recourse but violence. In this CNN video, a rioter yells at a reporter: “What are we supposed to do? The Supreme Court’s not helping us. No one’s helping us!” The mob built a gallows and chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” Why? Because Pence betrayed Trump — and them — by failing to overturn the election.
If any of them broke laws, they need to face justice. Period.
But can we have empathy for them? Yes, I think we should. It’s easy to isolate them as extremists and “not true Trump supporters,” as some are trying to do. Some are trying to place the blame on the Antifa boogeyman. But many — if not most — of these folks appear to be typical Trump supporters whose biggest mistake is placing their trust in Trump. Trump (and his enablers) have been feeding them a steady diet of conspiracy theories in which they are the good guys, and a bunch of very bad, very powerful people have illegally — illegally! — stolen the election from them. The Supreme Court didn’t stop this illegal activity, the RINOs in George didn’t stop it, Mike Pence didn’t stop it. The rhetoric goes further: “This is our 1776 moment” posted a George rep. “Let’s have trial by combat!” said Rudy Guiliani at a rally just before the riot.
These folks have been told for decades that they need to horde guns and be ready to overthrow the government. That they are the only true Patriots, standing against corrupt encroaching liberalism. What are these folks supposed to think and believe and do? How can we be surprised when they take this message seriously and then act on it?
So let’s stop for a moment and look at the demonstrations — and yes, riots — that occurred earlier this year. The protests were overwhelmingly peaceful, and yet a great deal of violence did occur. There was rioting and looting by the protesters, by some bad actors, and also unnecessary violence by law enforcement.
We cannot excuse violence and lawbreaking, no matter who is doing it. Period. (Though we do need fewer, fairer, and more consistently enforced laws.)
But again, as Trump said, these are things that happen when people believe they are being betrayed and oppressed by those in power.
And in this case, there is ample evidence that people of color are badly treated by the justice system in our nation. There are studies that show that incarceration rates are significantly higher for poorer folks than for rich; and even higher for people of color for exactly the same crime. Our so-called War on Drugs has punished users of cannabis, who were overwhelmingly black, even though cannabis is a far less dangerous drug than alcohol. Systemic racism is real, and does not require the racism to be intentional, or the people enforcing it to themselves be racists.
There is, of course, plenty of debate on this topic, with scholarly articles (mostly by white people) debunking the idea of white privilege and systemic racism. But it is impossible to deny that people of color perceive it and believe it.
Great civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis went to great lengths to protest peacefully. And given that people of color are so angry — and have been angry for a very long time — it’s all the more impressive that so little violence occurs. Because these folks are not being handed a conspiracy theory — they are living it.
It’s not enough to disown the “lawbreakers.” They have crossed a line, for sure, but the question is: What has pushed them to cross that line? How many more are really close to that line? If we do not pay attention to this, we will fail to learn anything from these events.
Because we all need empathy, and we all need to have empathy for others. Only with empathy can we create peace.