As Washington braces for the possibility of more political violence at the "Justice for J6" rally on Saturday, the Black community and its true allies across America await yet another specter of white privilege: the differential threat perception of and accountability for violence by white men.
What happened on Jan. 6, happened despite widely available indicators that laws would be broken (including warnings by the Capitol Police’s own intelligence unit, the Secret Service, the National Fusion Center Association and others). This reality was just as mentally influential, and likely more so, than the actions of the insurrectionists.
In a country where Black Lives Matter remains a controversial, politically charged statement, expectations of equal protection under, by or from the law have always been tempered for conscious Black people. This stance is sadly borne out over and over again, both by the knowledge held within communities and by statistics showing that Black youth and Black adults are both overrepresented in, and more harshly treated by the justice system, from higher rates of criminal prosecution to a seven-fold higher conviction rate, 20 percent longer sentences and less opportunities for pretrial diversion programs. Black youths also comprise 47 percent of all minors who are tried as adults, although Blacks account for just 14 percent of the country’s youth population.
On Jan. 6, the U.S. Capitol wasn’t afforded protection either — at least, not from the men and women attempting to disrupt a free and fair election. For many of us who watched the events of that horrible day and their aftermath, the guys with Confederate flags and homemade gallows were certainly alarming. But arguably more frightening was the systemic failures — or, in some cases allowances — that allowed these attackers to carry out their plan in plain sight.
The unprepared Capitol police were quickly overpowered for the world to see. The criminal prosecutions that have followed have been too slow and too tepid. Meanwhile, the rationalizations, justifications and silence of so-called leaders like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and other members of the GOP — and even some Democrats — pose the greater threat to lives and liberty.
The lack of accountability for not only the insurrectionists but also their instigators following the Jan. 6 insurrection is not merely unfair, it is unsafe. And safety is a foundational element of mental health. Too often, mental health clinicians pathologize Black people’s feelings of disappointment, fear, uncertainty and anger, mischaracterizing them as symptoms such as irrational thoughts, paranoia, anxiety, or cognitive distortions. In reality, these emotions should be viewed as justifiable responses to lived experiences of intergenerational structural violence.
Viral videos of police killings have recently begun to permeate the national consciousness, but countless, often undocumented, manifestations of structural violence that shape — and take — Black lives have burdened the Black psyche for generations. Over the last year, there have been numerous examples of police officers and other law enforcement professionals who crossed the line with Black Lives Matter protesters and supporters. Such inherent antipathy seemed to be a feature of many BLM marches. Meanwhile we watched some police officers step aside and allow far-right activists to enter the U.S. Capitol. As we heard during emotional testimony in Congress, plenty of police were fighting for what felt like their lives on Jan. 6. But we can only imagine what that fight would have looked like — or if it would have happened — had the rioters been Black.
This year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared racism a "public health crisis." Domestic terrorists, especially those motivated by racial hatred, have put the Justice department on high alert. Meanwhile, hate crimes reached a 12-year high.
We are stressed — by racism, by structural violence, by the differential impact of the pandemic on our communities and by returning in-person to racist workplaces with empty, performative DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) “efforts.” This context is fertile ground for hopelessness and marginalization. And it shows. This same year, suicide numbers in the Black community increased at alarming rates.
And so, we will be watching this rally, its speakers, and the actions of its participants.
But ultimately, we will not simply be watching the words and actions of the rally’s participants and enablers, who have already made clear their devaluation both of Black lives and our country’s democratic and legal processes. The silence and tacit complicity of our elected leaders — and our self-professed allies — matters just as much.