The fallout from the Capitol is a stark reminder that our notion of justice remains steeped in white supremacy.

By Sarah Sanders-Messmann, Ella Baker Center Communications Intern

After last Wednesday’s white supremacist insurrection, many people––myself included–were quick to point out the obvious, glaring discrepancies between the way in which law enforcement responded to white supremacy vs. the peaceful Black Lives Matter protests over the summer. What happened at the Capitol provided a jarring, but succinct image of this nation’s continued investment in and protection of white supremacy. Peaceful protest by Black people is met with violent force, and a violent white mob is met with…well, nothing.

In the aftermath of the event, many said that had the group been composed of Black people they would be dead and/or brutally and swiftly arrested and incarcerated. The Black Lives Matter Global Network tweeted, “Make no mistake, if the protestors were Black, we would have been tear gassed, battered, and perhaps shot.” Former First Lady, Michelle Obama released a statement on her Instagram saying, “What if these rioters looked like the folks who go to Ebenezer Baptist Church every Sunday? What would have been different?” Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist tweeted, “White privilege is on display like never before in the U.S. Capitol. If these people were Black….well, we all know what would be happening right now to them.” From mainstream media outlets to Twitter, the rhetorical question on everyone’s mind was: what would have happened if it had been Black people? 

The Insurrection at the Capitol vs. Black Lives Matter: A False Equivalency

While I understand the point of this comparison, I’ve found myself thinking that this sets up a false equivalency. The protests over the summer are not the “far-left” equivalent of the white supremacist mob. In fact, this comparison semantically legitimizes the mob’s actions at the Capitol as protest and/or supports the idea that the Black Lives Matter protest was nothing more than a violent mob. These two events are incomparable. This is important because words carry weight. Our choice of words and when, how, and where to employ them matters.

Immediately after the insurrection, social media was awash with people calling for the arrest and swift conviction of the insurrectionists. Debates started popping up surrounding what exactly to call these white supremacists. Were we to call them insurrectionists? Rioters? Domestic terrorists? This choice has consequences. Black freedom groups––like the Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter activists, today––have been labeled domestic terrorists. Comparing Black activist groups to white supremacist groups has a historical precedent as well. The FBI and J. Edgar Hoover created a false comparison alleging the Black Panther Party was the Black radical version of the KKK and Nazis. This equation was then used as part of the justification for the creation of COINTELPRO: a program created for the murder of Black Panthers and political prisoners–dubbed “domestic terrorists.”

Moreover, I came of age in post 9/11 America. We’ve all been socialized with a particular image of what a terrorist is supposed to look like (hint: not white, unlike the vast majority of the people at the Capitol). President-Elect Biden already said that passing a law against domestic terrorism is now one of his priorities once sworn into office, there’s an increased use of surveillance measures tied to social media, WIFI, and facial recognition to aid in capturing the insurrectionists, and Republican lawmakers are using this moment to push for stronger legislation against protesting.

White Supremacist Systems Won’t Eradicate White Supremacy

We don’t need this. These are all the same apparatuses used to criminalize and indict the peaceful protestors this summer. The system that enabled the insurrectionists, and buoyed Trump’s presidency, is the same system that murders Black and brown people daily, which is the same system that made Joe Biden the palatable alternative to Trump. And it is the very same system people are now calling upon to enact justice with regards to the insurrectionists. White supremacy is as American as apple pie, suburbia, and indoor malls. It is inseparable from this nation’s past and present, and unless we start dreaming beyond the narrow confines of what we’ve been taught to think of as “justice,” it will be our future, too. As adrienne marie brown writes, “it is the founding wound.” The sooner we collectively recognize that, the sooner we realize that white supremacy does not begin and end with a Trump presidency, the closer we are to actually getting somewhere.

The language of criminality deliberately uses phrases that appear to be racially neutral but are meant to invoke images of people of color––think super-predator, thug, and yes, terrorist. Even if in this instance who we’re calling a terrorist happens to be white, the creation of a domestic terrorism bill will disproportionately impact Black and brown people. It won’t revamp the image of a “terrorist.” We don’t need to use this event as an excuse to beef up law enforcement under the guise of protecting democracy and combating white supremacy. All we’re doing is reinforcing a system that inevitably and indubitably harms communities of color.

We Need to Redefine Our Conception of Justice

On some level it’s understandable that people lean heavily on conceptions of justice that rely on the carceral state. I can’t say that I didn’t feel a bit of satisfaction looking at videos of insurrectionists apprehended and dragged out of airports after being placed on no-fly lists.  Holistically, we haven’t been given another image of what justice could look like. As a slogan like “Defund the police” becomes more mainstream, the actual message behind it seems to diminish. In an ironic turn of events, people simultaneously call for the defunding of law enforcement while also celebrating the domestic terrorism bill and advocating for increased surveillance by big data. Ultimately, increasing our criminal “justice” system isn’t going to solve the problem. Arguably it only creates and perpetuates the problem of white supremacy. After all, systems designed to uphold white supremacy aren’t really the systems we can rely on to combat it.

So, what should we do? Zach Norris’s Defund Fear points to an answer. Using a restorative justice framework, Norris redefines what actually keeps us safe. He argues that white supremacy is a harm to the community, which means justice is focused on what heals the community (27). By redefining safety as a care-based, community-based practice rather than a “fear-based” practice, we’d be able to address the immense systemic deficits within our nation rather than merely perpetuating them. Defunding white supremacist institutions means we need to give our conception of justice a makeover. It is long overdue. Abolition is an imaginative practice. We need to allow ourselves to dream.