Quite a number of years ago, I joined with some students who had taken over the administrative building of their college. I wasn’t at the takeover when it happened, but I was asked to come speak to the people who had. It was a very odd thing, from my point of view. I was new to the campus and honestly didn’t understand the specifics of the grievances that led to the takeover, but I had been invited as a guest lecturer specifically because the student body trusted me and wanted my opinions on various topics related to feminism, anti-racism, queer liberation, trans liberation, and disability. Several of those were implicated, most prominently feminism and racism, and I think it made sense to the students to have a competent facilitator for certain discussions related to them, but also to have a facilitator without baggage, without a history at the college. I had something of an educator’s patina, but no relationship to the administration or its past choices. Thus I was invited, and thus I went.
This isn’t about those conversations though. This is about how orderly the demonstration was. In many ways it was a classic sit-in, as you might have heard described from the 1960s or early 70s. As far as I know, nothing was stolen (though certainly some things could have been without my knowledge). Certainly while I was there, people were attempting to preserve the work environment in a reasonable state. In the President’s office someone had scattered papers onto the ground, but they had all been subsequently picked up and stacked. They had been restacked out of order, but this was the result of a conscious decision on the part of the occupying students: they made a choice not to read the papers lest there be any confidential information about any other student included in them.
While conversations about justice were constantly cycling, other students involved were taking money donations, getting food, working clean-up, or even taking a break to go to class. The occupation of the administration building lasted more than a day. Two and a half, or so, if I remember correctly. But there were no threats, certainly no efforts to damage the building.
I also helped organize a storming of the Oregon Capitol. In that event Lesbian Avengers rallied and chanted outside the building, then presented themselves to admittance to the building, were lawfully admitted like any other private citizens who might wish to speak to a legislator, and marched through halls chanting (at a quieter volume, but still more than loud enough because of the echoing marble) the same slogans. There was an invitation to meet with the legislator that had sponsored the heterosexist, sexist bill that sparked the protest, but it didn’t last long. Told to leave, all Lesbian Avengers left. There was no doubt, however, that the protest dominated attention in the capitol building for as long as it lasted. To that extent, it was disruptive, and intended to be so.
I have, in short, been part of storming one center of power or another at various times, in various ways over the course of my lifetime. I’m even of the opinion that such things probably don’t happen often enough. The upshot of this is to say that as a result, I imagined the Washington insurrection entire wrong. I filtered it through my experiences of dramatic but peaceful protests. Protests in which we spoke in advance about what we would do if the police showed up, and the answer was always, always that we would submit to the peaceful exercise of lawful authority if that should happen. We imagined ourselves like Thoreau, who first gave the world the concept of principled civil disobedience, who told us that under a government which imprisons people unjustly, the place for a woman of conscience, a just woman, is also inside prison.
It was also colored by my experience of the protests this summer, which did not involve occupying any seat of power, but did involve much larger groups than the school sit in, or the Lesbian Avenger protest in Salem, Oregon. There were outlier persons at this summer’s protests that punched other protesters or that threw firecrackers towards the courthouse.
In short, I imagined that there were thugs present at the Capitol insurrection, but that most of the people present were not thugs, were not violent and had no wish to create fear, damage property, or harm others. I think if you read what I’ve been writing of these events, you’ll see that these assumptions did not cause me to take the attempted coup less than seriously. But I still imagined that it might be possible for someone to experience something like I did at the college sit-in, where one came to the Capitol Building late and had no reason to think that anything bad had occurred.
As more and more video has emerged, however, it’s impossible to continue to believe that. If there were any reasonable people there, anyone whose perspective paralleled that of my Lesbian Avengers group in only seeking to be heard, but determined to keep everyone safe, not to break the law, and to obey law enforcement, then those people were the rare outliers. It was the opposite of Portland, where two to four protesters ripped plywood off of a courthouse window & then dragged it 50 feet away to set it on fire in a safe corner, surrounded by concrete, while three thousand sang songs, danced, ate food, and tried to find an open bathroom.
In the Capitol, you had mass action to harm officers and force them back. The officers standing aside to let the insurrectionists in weren’t the norm: another officer was dragged to the ground and beaten by a crowd. Fifty or more people at another entrance timed their surges to push officers back so as to force their way into the Capitol. A living mass of people formed that battering ram, and caught another officer in a door during their efforts, crushing him repeatedly. Groups of people were roaming the halls looking for Nancy Pelosi and chanting her name.
As juvenile and counterproductive as setting off bottle rockets or firecrackers might be, when they were lit outside the courthouse in Portland, this was done when cops weren’t present and there was no real possibility for injury to anyone save perhaps someone who was holding one while it was lit and before it was thrown onto the sidewalk in front of the building. I can’t say exactly what I would have done had I witnessed any assaults on police officers or any attempt to actually enter the courthouse (much less a successful one) because I didn’t witness anything remotely of the sort. I can tell you that I saw cops arrest one person involved in pulling plywood off the courthouse window and I said nothing and did not interfere: in the Thoreau-inspired philosophy, when you break the laws of an unjust state you cheerfully submit yourself to its twisted notion of justice specifically so that people can see the contrasts a protester is attempting to highlight. I wouldn’t have dreamed of denying that person their opportunity stand up in court and make whatever argument they intended (perhaps: “If they can arrest me without killing me when I am literally tearing at a monument to their conception of justice, then they don’t need to shoot Breonna Taylor to death for having an ex-boyfriend who sells drugs”).
But this thing in Washington was something very different. Mass violence occurred multiple times that we know of. The woman shot in the throat was climbing through a window specifically to get to legislators that she and others had expressed a desire to punish, even kill. A cop was killed by someone slamming a fire extinguisher into his head. The man who tased himself to death did so while taking a portrait of a former Speaker of the House off the wall. One officer was chased up the stairs and around corners (there’s reporting that when he pushed the leader of the group chasing him that he knew that would do more to provoke than stop the mob, but that he wanted just that to distract the mob from an unsecured door that might lead to a location senators were hiding).
Even for those remaining on the outside of the building groups were smashing in windows to gain access to the building, then climbing through. Scaling the walls was common enough and highly visible. And throughout there were threatening chants, at least one screen printed “Camp Auschwitz” shirt (or sweatshirt), other Nazi symbols and slogans, and even a gallows.
It would be impossible for someone attending to be unaware of the ubiquitous, loudly chanted threats. It would be impossible to be unaware that thousands and thousands had illegally breached the barriers around the Capitol Building’s grounds. It would be impossible to be unaware that hundreds if not thousands had gained access to the Capitol Building itself.
Any one of those things would be disturbing. The only night I witnessed plywood being torn from covered courthouse windows, I was certainly very uncomfortable. But context matters, and pulling down the plywood when the building is dark and the judges are absent and there are no chanted threats is a very different thing than if the group had been chanting for the execution of traitor judges, had erected a gallows across the street, and were ripping down the plywood during the day, while judges were in the building attempting to do their jobs.
Although I have known that this was different than the many protests of which I have been a part, it has taken some time for me to assess just how different. Along the way I have had some sympathy for people present at the Capitol insurrection who now may be villified. Some I felt no hesitance in judging, for I had enough information. But others? Ones merely million about on the Capitol grounds? I was wondering if labeling them insurrectionists might be a double standard, when I would not have had every person million about before Portland’s federal courthouse, or me and my fellow Lesbian Avengers labeled so. I would be happy to have the person pulling plywood off the courthouse arrested but I would not be and have not been so sanguine about calling the Portland protests violent or destructive in some general way.
And I would not be the only one: at that college, with the Lesbian Avengers, and at Black Lives Matter protests in Portland, there were constant discussions about justice and what it looks like. At every turn we were unified in stating that justice is not violence, and that mob violence could not give us justice. From the beginning of 1/6/2021’s march on the Capitol, even had the people I have known and with whom I have shared nights of protest most fervently agreed with the underlying cause, the prominent insistence on capturing politicians and bringing them bodily to justice would have repulsed us. The BLM organizers, the college students, the Lesbian Avengers simply could not have been a part of such an action.
Nonetheless, perhaps because I have known so many who were moved to public action but positioned resolutely against violence (in fact often moved because of the presence of violence and the need to end it), I have held back some judgement of the crowd as a whole, especially of those who never entered the Capitol Building itself. I can, after all, imagine myself moved enough to stand unlawfully on the grounds of the Capitol Building. Perhaps, then, I have questioned myself, there were some people there, some with whom I disagree vehemently on politics, whose actions and choices on that day do not deserve condemnation. Perhaps some exhibited reasonable ethics, perhaps some were truly non-violent, non-threatening, willing to be arrested and use their participation in the processes of justice to highlight some injustice they have witnessed, in a manner of which Thoreau would have approved
But now, to my great sadness, my questions are being answered and my uncertainty has been progressively stripped away. I will not judge so harshly those who attended Trump’s rally and then left before the march to the Capitol (whatever judgement they deserve, they did not participate in the actual insurrection), but I have seen enough and read enough to be certain that even for those on the Capitol grounds outside the building, I am not vilifying them to call them villains. Their own embrace of a violent, murderous crowd, a crowd embracing literal Nazism, a crowd intent on lynching, a crowd determined to use their threats of violence to direct the recipient of presidential power, a crowd contemptuous of our government, our vote, and our constitution: that choice made villains of them, not anything I have thought or written. To willingly make oneself part of a crowd shouting threats of violence is to willingly magnify the fear those threats induce.
At this point there may still be someone illiterate and deaf who knew nothing about Nazi slogans or chanted threats. Such a person may have remained so peripheral and distant that they knew nothing about how entry to the Capitol was achieved. But at this point the evidence is so high that I am content to prosecute every single person who entered onto Capitol ground beyond the barriers. Let them have good representation and if they are found innocent, so be it.
But let the charges be nothing less than menacing for those outside the building, and nothing less than riot and insurrection for those who set a single foot inside. The evidence is piled too high: I can simply no longer believe that anyone present believed themselves to be part of a non-violent protest. If we now refuse to call the villains villains, we will be engaged in the same willful denial that brought us President Trump in the first place.
Let their names be known. Let their actions be condemned. Let justice be done.
Alan Robertshaw says
That distinction you point out is reflected in the law here.
Trespass per se isn’t a criminal offence. So if one merely occupies a building then it’s a civil matter. If the owner wanted to remove people then they would have to obtain an injunction. (Although you can also use reasonable force to physically remove them. Like how you can throw an intruder out of your home.)
However there is a criminal offence called *aggravated* trespass. That’s where someone occupies property (or land adjacent to property) with the intention of impeding a lawful activity.
So really the difference is; does your occupation actually have a purpose behind merely being there.
Stopping the work of a government body would of course fit the elements of aggravated trespass.
johnson catman says
Here is a story on WRAL news of the Wake County NC Republican Party Chairwoman, Donna Williams, denies that Trump supporters were responsible for the attack on the Capitol: https://www.wral.com/wake-republican-party-chairwoman-responds-saying-trump-supporters-not-responsible-for-attack-at-capitol/19465071/
Even if there were “professional agitators”, they were Trump supporters. And the biggest agitator of all was The Orange Toddler-Tyrant himself. This chairwoman is like too many republicans: willfully ignorant and in denial.
This is a very good post and I agree with you – huge difference in how the protests went down. You have had some amazing experiences and it’s fascinating to read about them.
One tiny point: the man who now is “infamous” for trying to steal a painting and accidentally tasering himself, did not actually die that way. He died outside the building, on the phone to his wife, when he had a sudden massive heart attack. His wife says he died instantly. There was a reporter near him, who says medical personnel immediately rushed in and tried to revive him, to no avail. You can read it here: https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/capitol-riot-taser-death/ Although, the made up story is hilarious etc. As one person put it, all the religious people believe in a mystical imaginary being without any evidence, so they said this story is going to be that one weird thing they believe in with no evidence. Fair enough, I say.
In between the student protests you mention and the fascist coup last week, there are prison riots. They may be violent, but they’re usually a last resort (and sometimes even justified) because attempts at legal means of recourse (i.e. what the students did) haven’t worked and were ignored. The same goes for resistance by people under occupation by a brutal regime (e.g. Palestine).
The attackers at the capitol are clearly in a separate category. They were not an oppressed group whose rights were in danger, and they had legal recourse (i.e. future elections).