Guest Columnist John M. Connolly: No false equivalence

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Published: 2/1/2021 4:11:49 PM

Joe Biden is now president. Donald Trump has left the White House in disgrace after instigating the insurrection on Jan. 6. But his apologists are busily trying to whitewash that event by claiming an equivalence between it and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests last summer. They also accuse Democrats of hypocritically reacting hysterically to the insurrection, but not objecting when some BLM protests turned violent.

These claims are false. Further, their use by Trump supporters is an example of institutional racism, a form of communitywide twisted belief that expresses itself in certain oft-repeated themes.

The United States Capitol was invaded at a moment when the Congress was engaged in performing a solemn constitutional duty. The mob’s intent was to thwart that performance and force the overthrow of a free and fair election.

No such thing had ever before happened in the 232-year history of our presidential elections. Even more monstrously, the insurgent mob was called into being by President Trump and his allies; he himself told the mob to “fight like hell” for his mendacious cause, which its members proceeded to do. This was sedition bordering on treason.

Did the BLM protests seek to overthrow an election, or to thwart the Congress’s performance of a constitutionally mandated function? Of course not.

Although much went awry in the tumult, the overwhelming majority of the thousands of BLM events were an entirely peaceful exercise of First Amendment rights.

Above all, their purpose was not to support a big lie, but to implore our nation finally to acknowledge a simple truth: that the lives of our Black fellow citizens matter, are precious, too.

There were a huge number of BLM protests following the police murder of George Floyd and others, more than 7,750 by one count. The great majority — 93% — of the U.S. demonstrations were entirely peaceful. Nonetheless, as Time magazine reported, a substantial minority (42%) of (largely Republican) Americans believe, that “most protesters are trying to incite violence or destroy property.”

The fact is, out of some 2,600 locations in our country where protests took place, fewer than 220 reported any violence at all, where “violence” covers everything from defacing a monument to serious mayhem.

Yes, regrettably there was violence: statues of Confederate leaders and others were pulled from their pedestals, stores were looted or burned, and worst of all, some 25 people were killed either in direct connection with the protests or in events that may have been connected to them. Some were killed by police, others by store owners, and an apparent majority by white vigilantes, according to The Guardian, Oct. 31.

Is it true that Democrats failed to condemn this violence? No. Joe Biden was among the first to denounce it, along with Nancy Pelosi, James Clyburn, and a whole host of prominent Black leaders nationwide. This claim and the exaggeration of “violent protests” are simply false, as can be easily verified. So why are they widely repeated and believed by Republican politicians and their supporters?

I believe it is because they echo a theme that goes back to the days of slavery in the Old South: that Black people are so dangerous and unruly that they must be kept in their place by force. This belief has been central to neighborhood and school segregation.

Trump’s own real estate organization was sued by the Justice Department in 1973 for refusing to rent apartments to African Americans. His 2020 campaign warning to “suburban housewives” of the peril of a Biden victory, sounded that theme as well as another, more vicious trope: that white women are in grave danger from Black men.

In fact, Donald Trump’s whole career is a veritable lexicon of such themes: his demand to execute the (subsequently exonerated) “Central Park Five,” the “birther” allegation against Obama, the labeling of Mexican asylum seekers as rapists and murderers, the Muslim ban, calling African nations “s------- countries,” speaking of the Charlottesville White supremacists as “very fine people,” etc. All of these are racist themes meant to evoke deep-seated fears and antipathies in whites.

Donald Trump and his support structures (i.e., the Republican Party, the rightist media, the white evangelical churches, etc.) are echo-chambers for these themes. This system constitutes an important and increasingly malign part of the complex web of institutions that make up our country.

The Jan. 6 assault on the Constitution was a wake-up call to America. A first step in a return to health for the body politic would be a Senate conviction of Trump and his permanent ban from public office. Then we must emphatically reject “false equivalence” and start to recognize the real threats to our becoming a “more perfect union.”

As Amanda Gorman said in her superb Inauguration poem, “The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be in it.”

John M. Connolly is a Sophia Smith Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Smith College.


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