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On Two Protests
That day, my wife woke me from a nap to tell me protestors had stormed the Capitol. I knew there’d been a big demonstration in Washington, but figured it wouldn’t amount to much. Just some angry speeches and Trump declaring everything was rigged and unfair while across town Congress would certify the vote, and that would be that. I didn’t think people would die that day. In retrospect, I’m kind of surprised more did not.
I remember thinking at the time it was just a bunch of yahoos who got out of control, an ad hoc burst of mob activity that somehow involved a shirtless dude in a furry horned hat. I didn’t think it was an “insurrection” in the sense that it was an organized attempt to take over the government. How would such a thing even be possible? Don’t you need keycards for that?
The summer before, Black Lives Matter protests had taken place all over the country. According to a study by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, the vast majority of these protests (93%) were peaceful. A few did turn violent, although “violence” does not necessarily mean violent against people. It can include property damage and even the toppling of Confederate statues.
This statistic runs counter to the narrative I see from a lot of J6 defenders who mistakenly compare the events of that day to the Black Lives Matter protests, alleging that Capitol rioters are being selectively targeted while violent BLM protestors were never charged with anything.
In fact, according to the Department of Justice, 300 people were charged with criminal activity during those protests, with charges ranging from “attempted murder, assaulting a law enforcement officer, arson, burglary of a federally-licensed firearms dealer, damaging federal property, malicious destruction of property using fire or explosives, felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition, unlawful possession of a destructive device, inciting a riot, felony civil disorder, and others.” The charges against those BLM protestors look similar to the chargers against the Capitol rioters, for which around 1,100 people have been charged. Yet the narrative seems to be that one side faces repercussions for their actions while the other does not. Why is that?
Maybe because of the high-profile nature of many of the J6 defendants and the fact that the protest occurred in the nation’s capital, as opposed to a disparate number of protests that happened all over the country. More likely, though it’s because the narrative works better if those who supported the events that day believe they are being selectively persecuted for their political beliefs while the other side is not.
These same people insist that the election was dirty and that Trump won. The January 6th protest, therefore, was not only morally justified but a necessary antidote to this injustice, despite dozens of court cases across dozens of jurisdictions overseen by dozens of judges appointed by both Democrats and Republicans who found no evidence to support this assertion. In their minds, the events of that day are equivalent to the Black Lives Matter protests, in which millions took to the streets over the course of several months to protest the actual killing of actual people at the hands of police.
A couple years removed from that day, I feel less sure today what any of it was all about. Was January 6th merely a bizzarro “White Lives Matter” protest that got out of control? Was it an “attempted insurrection,” as prosecutors have alleged? Was it a “largely peaceful protest” as many others claim? Was it organized or spontaneous? What was its purpose? What would have happened if, for example, they had found Vice President Mike Pence? What would “success” have looked like for those who participated? How do we place January 6th in the larger context of American history?
Similarly, how do we place the Black Lives Matter protests? What was their goal? Did they achieve it? How do we view their efficacy? Have we seen incidents of police violence against Black people decrease since then? In 2022, Black people were still “twice as likely as white people to be shot and killed by police officers.” Multiple lawsuits alleging fraud have been filed against Black Lives Matter executives. The promise of the BLM movement seems to have sputtered. Why? Maybe it's because a charismatic leader hasn’t emerged to lead the next chapter of organized (and peaceful) protests. Maybe because Americans can’t sustain that kind of passion for very long without getting distracted. I don’t know. I don’t know how to place the BLM protests in the larger context of American history than I do the January 6th riot.
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I do know that Enrique Tarrio, the former “chairman” of the Proud Boys got sentenced to 22 years yesterday for his involvement with January 6th, despite the fact that he was not there that day. Found guilty of seditious conspiracy, Tarrio received a shorter sentence than the 33 years prosecutors sought. Is this a fair sentence for his involvement? I have no idea, but I’d be lying if I said anything other than I’m happy that shitheel is off the streets.
I have no idea about any of this stuff; the more I go through life the less certain I feel about anything. How much of what we believe is the product of propaganda and confirmation bias? It’s easy to look at “the other side’s” belief systems and find holes, less easy to call bullshit on your own. I don’t know how to be confident about anything I believe anymore, other than general assertions: “violence is bad,” for example. Which is meaningless. Is that any different from nihilism? And is nihilism the desired outcome from those who would have us distrustful of everything and everyone? It’s a nice thought, but the longer I live the less sure I am that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don’t even know what justice means.