In the wake of supporters of President Donald Trump storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, commandeering the meeting place of Congress for hours while clashing with law enforcement, Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers asked a rather poignant question about the mostly white men laying siege to the federal building.
“Could you imagine today if those were all Black people storming the Capitol and what would’ve happened?” Rivers, who is Black, said to the media.
“That to me is a picture worth a thousand words for all of us to see. It’s something for us to reckon with, again, no police dogs turned on people, no billy clubs hitting people. People peacefully being escorted out of the Capitol.
“It shows you can disperse a crowd peacefully, I guess.”
Rivers, who once had his Orlando, Florida, home burned down for committing the “crime” of miscegenation, perfectly encapsulates the Black experience in America: watching white people not be held accountable in the eyes of the law.
It’s why Rivers and scores of other Black people in the sports world were not surprised by the events in Washington.
Racism and the systemic oppression it birthed were what drew former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick to kneel against police violence. It was what drew Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James to fight voter suppression and what drove WNBA star Maya Moore against racial inequalities within the criminal justice system. It’s why Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to march, why “Black Lives Matter” was painted on the court in the NBA bubble and why the Milwaukee Bucks refused to participate in a playoff game.
“In one America, you get killed by sleeping in your car, selling cigarettes or playing in your backyard,” said Brown. “And then in another America, you get to storm the Capitol and no tear gas, no massive arrests, none of that.”
But for much of America, this was apparently breaking news.
Multiple cable news pundits across the ideological spectrum expressed shock and horror upon seeing the rioters breaking into the Capitol, uttering some form of, “How could this happen here?”
That noise you hear is Black people collectively breaking the fourth wall to stare directly at the camera.
This is the country that enslaved Black people for 250 years. This is the country that forced Japanese Americans into concentration camps. This is the country that committed genocide against the Indigenous and stole their land. This is the country that, in the last 20 years, has fought to prevent Muslims and Mexicans from entering the country, to say nothing about denying them the same rights as others in this country.
“How could this happen here?” This country was made for it to happen here. The coddling of white grievance for centuries only ends in insurrection and sedition. Black Americans have been subjugated and had their bodies plundered since 1619; we have an idea of freedom but have never actually experienced it.
White Americans can rush through two sets of barricades outside of what should be one of the most heavily guarded buildings in the country, fight with Capitol Police, including spraying officers with the same sort of chemical agents law enforcement used against Black Lives Matter protesters this summer, and be allowed to do so.
For Black people, militarized police forces brutally crack down on them for marching down the street while simply asking for equal rights.
Black people would not have been allowed to get past the first barrier, let alone inside the Capitol, without first being shot. Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton was killed in his Chicago home in 1969 because the Illinois government assumed he was planning violence against the government.
“We live in two Americas,” James said a day after the siege. “And that was a prime example of that yesterday, and if you don’t understand that or don’t see that after seeing what you saw yesterday, then you really need to take a step back – not even just one step, but maybe four or five, or even 10 steps backwards and ask yourself how do you want your kids, or how do you want your grandkids, or how do we want America to be viewed as. Do we want to live in this beautiful country?”
The evening before the siege took place in Washington, I was in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley had announced on Jan. 5 that his office would not be pursuing charges against Rusten Sheskey, the officer who shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, seven times while responding to a domestic violence call in August. The shooting, which has left Blake paralyzed from the waist down, led to a brief work stoppage in professional sports, spearheaded by the Bucks refusing to play in a playoff game against the Orlando Magic.
The day before Graveley’s announcement, the Kenosha city council passed an emergency declaration “regarding potential civil unrest,” as did Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers also authorized the deployment of the National Guard to the city in anticipation of possible unrest following Graveley’s decision.
“For the people who were calling for justice, I think it’s a story that is not at all unfamiliar,” Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who advised the Bucks during their protest over the summer, told The Undefeated by phone on Friday, referring to the reaction to the Blake decision. “And when that theme is as familiar as it is, you know the ending of this movie. It’s like the same exact plot, just different characters, different actors … different settings.”
I arrived at the Kenosha County courthouse around 7 that evening, and it was almost as if I had driven straight into an occupied war zone. Humvees and other armored vehicles lined the streets of Kenosha, with heavily armed soldiers wandering around. Police cars sped through the streets, and officers set up impromptu roadblocks. What can only be assumed to be snipers were perched atop the courthouse building.
All of this for maybe 50 protesters marching across the city being followed by a dozen cars. There was no looting, no violence, nor were there weapons brandished or buildings damaged. But because the protesters were marching against state violence and for racial equality, they were viewed as dangerous threats to society.
When the marchers confronted some of the National Guard at the courthouse, the soldiers set up a loose perimeter around them. Some even had their fingers near the trigger of their assault weapons as protesters yelled and jeered at them.
Now compare that with the Capitol Police. When the insurrection began, there were no armored vehicles, no tear gas and no violent beatings of the rioters. Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser had asked days earlier for the National Guard to be deployed in anticipation of this white violence, and her request was denied.
All because whiteness isn’t inherently viewed as a threat the way Blackness is.
While looting and destruction have happened at some Black Lives Matter protests, there has rarely been what could be considered violence directed at state actors. Black protester anger is a symptom of the violation of the social contract between members of society and the government, and even then their anger should be considered rather tame for folks who were once considered property by this same government. White grievance has nothing to do with the social contract; it’s about preserving white supremacy only.
This episode exposed many things about America: the unchecked powers of the office of the president, the propensity to violence of white people, the lack of preparedness of the nation’s police in reaction to said violence, the naked ambition of politicians to retain power, so on and so forth.
But what it may have exposed the most is what Kaepernick brought to light some five years ago.
In August 2016, Kaepernick refused to stand during the playing of the national anthem to bring attention to police brutality and the systemic oppression of Black people in this country. Kaepernick did this by hitting America at the core of what it holds closest to its heart: patriotism.
Americans, mostly of the white variety, claim to believe in freedom, democracy and equality, yet many Black Americans, including Kaepernick, understand those values are contingent on the person being white. Black Americans have only been free in this country for just over 150 years. The country has only truly been a democracy since 1965. Black people have never received true equality, down to last week, when the marchers in Kenosha were met with militarized force while the insurrectionists in Washington posed for selfies with police and were gently escorted out of the very building they had just infiltrated.
So Kaepernick, by himself, at least in the beginning, simply decided to not participate in the pageantry – or, one could argue, propaganda – of standing for an anthem that includes the lyrics: “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Whose land? Whose home?
And for that one gesture, Kaepernick was ostracized from the NFL entirely and had threats made against his life, all for asking the country to live up to its supposed values. He was condemned by the very people who encouraged and defended the actions of the rioters in Washington last week. Trump. Conservative cable news, such as Newsmax, One America News and Fox News. Conservative politicians such as Sens. Ted Cruz (“rich spoiled athletes who dishonor our flag”) and Lindsey Graham (“If you’re looking for racism in America, Mr. Kaepernick, look in the mirror”).
Here’s a peaceful protest: never buy another shoe, shirt, or jersey of rich spoiled athletes who dishonor our flag. https://t.co/GrGPYX8HCh
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) September 12, 2016
Kaepernick, like many Black athletes, never called for insurrection or sedition; he never even mentioned secession, as some Florida Republicans have in the wake of the presidential election. He simply pleaded for equality. Equality to not be shot and killed by law enforcement. Equality in the criminal justice system (which he now supports the abolishment of). Equality in being a human being.
But that appears too large an ask in America. Blackness, in every form, is to be viewed with caution while white sedition – from the American Revolution to the Civil War to Jim Crow-era violence against the civil rights movement – is accepted as a means to an end to America’s values.
As Rivers said, none of this was surprising to those of us who have been paying attention.
Black Americans have never been more free than they are today. The events on Jan. 6 were about the threat of diversity and progress in this country. An entire administration built on “drug dealers, criminals, rapists” and “s—hole” countries and “law and order” was just white supremacy and racism with a new coat of paint. There’s no surprise a Confederate battle flag was spotted in the hands of one of the rioters.
The white people who stormed the Capitol were always going to be allowed to do it. Law and order wasn’t designed to apply to people who looked like them. New York Magazine reported that a New Hampshire police chief was one of the Trump supporters in the Capitol on Jan. 6. Ashli Babbitt, the woman who was shot and killed by Capitol Police inside the building, was an Air Force veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Capitol Police seen surrendering their posts or declining to restrain the rioters once they entered the building didn’t have a sudden breakdown in protocol. Because what’s the protocol of controlling your own kind?