Op-ed by George Payne
In the bloody wake of an insurrection on the Capitol by hordes of armed white supremacists and naive Trump supporters, the President-elect issued the following statement on Twitter. “No one can tell me that if it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protestors yesterday that they wouldn’t have been treated very differently than the mob that stormed the Capitol…We all know that’s true — and it’s unacceptable.”
Although Mr. Biden has every right to condemn how law enforcement responded to the seditious ransacking of the Capitol, these type of comparisons are not altogether fair or accurate. Without noticing he is doing it, Biden posited that Black Lives Matter would want to commit such an act of treason in the first place. He did not say that with his words, but the hypothetical served to make the possibility more plausible than it should be.
As a movement, BLM is founded on the principles of nonviolence and social justice. They have never advocated armed insurrection against the government, nor have they indicated that they would do so if given the opportunity. It is not the overwhelming presence of police that prevent BLM from committing domestic terrorism. It is their values as an organization and the staunch commitment to strategic nonviolence exemplified by their leadership.
Portland and other cities where revolts have taken place are not counterexamples. For starters, the violence in these places is primarily attributable to the anarchic group Antifa and the militarized tactics of police and other law enforcement agencies. Have individuals committed acts of violence while claiming to represent Black Lives Matter? Absolutely. But does that make BLM violent even when they denounce those acts and do everything in their power to prevent them?
The reality is that African Americans have never attempted to overthrow the government, create massive social upheaval through political violence, or lay siege to a federal institution such as the Capitol. In fact, acts of violent sedition have, by and large, been perpetrated by white Americans-often with racist motivations. The origins of the Civil War is of course the most famous and dramatic example.
Here’s the bottom line. What happened at the Capitol is not about Black Lives Matter or how badly BLM would be treated if they acted the same way the rioters did. They did not behave that way, and there is no reason to suspect that they would if presented with a way to do so. Even to insinuate that there is a comparison, is to engage in moral false equivalency.
I do not believe Mr. Biden meant to suggest a connection between political violence and black power. But that is what he did. The implicit bias at work here is the undergirding assumption that BLM is essentially seditious but held in check by an overwhelming show of force by the establishment. Why not ask what the police would do to a large group of disability activists storming the Capitol walls? Or climate activists, or Parkland teenagers protesting guns? Is it because they would never do such a thing or because these groups are primarily white? Or both? More to the point, considering that 90% of BLM activities are peaceful and nonviolent, why are they viewed by the power structure as extremists, inherently violent, and potentially seditious? President-elect Biden, in this situation-as with many other well-intentioned commentators and allies of BLM- has given credence to that propaganda. Without putting words in his mouth, what the conversation is missing is the acknowledgment that not only have African Americans never perpetrated the crime of sedition as the world witnessed on 1/6, but they have done more to protect American democracy than any other group in our nation’s history. Black Lives Matter has inherited a rich and powerful legacy of social progress and nonviolent resistance to injustice. They would not storm the gates of the Capitol and commit murder against their fellow citizens because that is not what they believe in and fight for. Let’s talk about the real problem and stop deflecting blame-a tactic that white liberals and supporters of Trump are all too familiar with.
George Cassidy Payne is a poet, social worker, theologian, and adjunct instructor of philosophy. He lives and works in Rochester, NY.