Okot Nyormoi, Editor

Riot at the US Capitol“Attempted Coup d'état In Washington”, “Insurrection In US Capitol”, “US Capitol Riot”, “Mob Attack On US Capitol”, “Democracy Under Siege”, “Assault On US Democracy”, were some of the screaming headlines of newspapers and social media all around the world. This followed the violent mob attack on the US Capitol by President Trump’s supporters after he urged them in a speech to march down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol saying, “And we fight. We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore”.

Sure enough, Trump’s loyalists took him at his words and marched to the Capitol and literally scaled walls, battered down ornate doors, and smashed windows to get into the sanctum of American power. They vandalized the office of Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, searched for Vice President Pence to be hung with a noose waiting outside. They also desecrated the place by doing some unimaginable things. They reportedly defecated and smeared human excrement on walls. Though they did not find the Vice-President and members of Congress they had targeted to be captured and punished, when it was over, five people were left dead: A Capitol policeman beaten to death with a fire extinguisher by a rioting fire fighter, one attacker shot dead by a Capitol policeman, one demonstrator stampeded to death and two other demonstrators died of apparent heart attacks.

Though President Trump told his listeners that he would march to the Capitol with them and fight like hell to prevent the certification of the electoral vote, true to his form, he instead marched to the safety of the White House where he watched on TV the ensuing riot at the Capitol. It took him hours before he commanded his rioting loyalists to go home and assured them that he loves them.

All these things happened on a day when congress was scheduled to certify the electoral votes for Joe Biden, the President-elect, and Kamala Harris, the Vice-President-elect. Conventionally, such a day would have been nothing but a ceremonial exercise, a step toward a smooth transition of power on January 20, 2021. No! It was anything but ceremonial.

To those who admire American democracy without critical eyes, what happened on January 6, 2021 came as a shock. Messages of lamentation and empathy poured in from all over the world, expressing disbelief, grief, disappointment, embarrassment, and astonishment. However, there were also some messages which were gleeful that such an incredible event occurred in the USA of all countries since Americans always lecture other countries on how great and exceptional American democracy is.

For their part, many Americans disavowed the riotous invasion of the Capitol. They were embarrassed and swore that what happened in their Capitol is not what America is. They vehemently repeated the all too familiar refrain, “This is not who we are” or “we are better than this”. Unfortunately, such reactions simply reflect the failure to distinguish between the aspirational ideal America and the real everyday America. They also fail to realize that acknowledging the existence of the blemishes on America is a necessary step in eliminating them.

Should the world have been shocked at what happened on January 6th in Washington D.C.? Certainly not. The elements which made the riot inevitable existed long before it happened. Mob riots based on conspiracy theories are as American as apple pie. The United States was born of a violent rebellion against the British monarchy in 1776. The rebels alleged that “the king of Great Britain was conspiring to establish “an absolute Tyranny” over the colonies. It sparked a war of independence that the British monarchy lost. Since then, America has fought a civil war due to rebellion of Southern states over the issue of slave ownership.

Of course, native Americans know too well how they were not only massacred by European settlers but also colonized and marginalized in their own land. Enslaved Africans also suffered immensely at the hands of white mobs even long after they were emancipated. The Tulsa, Oklahoma race massacre of 1921 and many others in which one hundred or more black people were massacred by white mobs are examples of mob violence. Individual lynching and murders are too numerous to mention. In cases of massacres of black people, white mobs were often, if not always, incited to riot by false accusations of black men threatening white “womanhood” by as little as looking at them, or of accusations of sexual assaults.

The Klu Klux KlanNative Americans and African Americans have not been the only victims of white mob violence. Women, immigrants, Jews, Catholics, and other religious groups have been terrorized at one time or another by white supremacists. All such violent attacks have been guided mainly by the ideology of white male Protestant Christian superiority. Clearly, such ideology did not start with President Trump’s Make American Great Again (MAGA) campaign slogan. White supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), have been around since the end of the American civil war in 1865. New ones such as the Proud Boys, American Freedom Party, and Oath Keepers have sprung up more recently. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are as many as 450 white supremacist groups in the USA.

Just as the fear of alleged alliance between Native Americans, Spain, and Britain to surround the Union that sparked the formation of the militia, the “Negro Rule" or black men’s threat to white “womanhood” were easy triggers for rioters against black Americans in the past, Trump’s constant lies about rigged election sparked the January 6th riot at the Capitol. The actual reason appears to have been what President Biden said he was going to do with his administration; make it reflect the diversity in America in terms of ethnicity, religious belief, gender orientation and national origin. Joe Biden’s victory with an Asian-Black American woman as his Vice-President, his nomination of transgender, gay, black, Asian, Arab, Hispanic, Caucasians, etc. in his cabinet must have sent a signal to white supremacists that they were losing their grip on power and their privileges. Thus, they became completely receptive to President Trump’s repeated false claims of massive electoral fraud and were easily inspired to literally break down the doors and windows of congress while attempting to prevent the certification of President Biden’s election.

Undoubtedly, the riot at the Capitol was an assault on democracy. One of its fallout is that dictators around the world were quick to reprimand American diplomats that they should stop lecturing them about the greatness and exceptionalism of American democracy. However, we must not be fooled by such assertions. Real election riggings which are routine in many autocratic regimes must (see the article on Uganda in this issue of the Nile Journal) not be conflated with Trump’s fake claims of massive election frauds, not based in fact but delusion. Besides, in autocracy, it is the ruling party that rigs the election whereas here, it was the incumbent President who falsely claimed that the opposition party as well as his own rigged the election.

To be fair, flawed as it is, American democracy has many good things about it that do not exist in dictatorial regimes. Therefore, neither Trump’s false claim of a stolen election nor the riot he inspired  can be used to justify state violence in dictatorial regimes which do not even allow peaceful demonstrations and freedom of the press.  

The take home lessons from the mob violence at the US Capitol are that democracy is fragile, its gains must be carefully guarded, and that it is still a work in progress even in countries which sometimes carelessly claim to have achieved the ultimate democracy.