NorthJersey.com's Hannan Adely reports
When supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol last week, many Americans responded with shock, saying that this kind of unrest doesn’t happen here.
But for many Black and brown Americans, the notion that political violence is foreign to America is simply wrong. From attacks on protests to voter suppression to discriminatory policing, they see political violence as a common feature of U.S. history.
“Americans say one thing about democracy,” said Nathaniel Briggs, 73, a civil rights activist from Teaneck, reflecting on the Jan. 6 siege. “They write laws and have amendments to the Constitution to create a democracy on paper. They say it, but when it comes to my rights to be a human being, they say another thing.”
American history is littered with examples of intimidation and violence to suppress minorities’ struggles for democratic rights, including mob rampages against abolitionists, attacks on protesters during civil rights marches of the 1960s, and theharsh crackdowns on some Black Lives Matter protests of today.
Briggs’ own family personally experienced the wrath of white rage that often follows Black demands for basic rights when, in the 1950s, they sued their South Carolina school district over the lack of busing for Black students. Their complaint became part of the Brown v. Board of Education case, which led to the landmark 1954 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that separate educational facilities were “inherently unequal.”
The toll of their activism was immense. His parents lost their jobs and his family faced threats. Briggs’ neighbor, a pastor who helped organize the community against segregation, saw his home and church burnt down.
Last week's insurrection, where Trump supporters brought nooses, weapons and zip ties to the U.S. Capitol while calling for the execution of lawmakers, was a striking example of violence for political gain. Five people died in connection to Wednesday's rioting.
“It’s the same type of mentality as the mob violence that got people killed where I come from in South Carolina,” said Briggs, a past president and current third vice president with the Bergen County branch of the NAACP.
All these years later, the sense that police treat people of color differently remains. Briggs has gone to countless protests and marches over decades and has routinely faced militarized police, dogs and riot gear – far from the understaffed and ill-equipped force guarding the Capitol last week, he said.
Samir Hashmi, 32, of Paramus, also questioned the disparate policing on display at the U.S. Capitol. In the early 2000s, the New York Police Department invested tremendous time, resources and manpower to secretly surveil Muslim communities in New Jersey and New York and at 14 Northeast colleges.
The activity included mapping and eavesdropping at schools, restaurants and shops, photographing license plates and monitoring the Rutgers Muslim Student Association, where Hashmi was an officer, from a nearby “safehouse.” Officials admitted later that their spying produced zero criminal leads.
“There was all this police presence in our community and all this intimidation,” Hashmi said. “And here you have police officers that can’t even defend the Capitol building.”
“Democracy is experienced differently. What happened [at the Capitol] displays the white privilege that I always felt was underlying the justice system in America,” he added.
Henal Patel, director of the Democracy & Justice Program at the Newark-based New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said the violence last week was a culmination of efforts by Trump in recent months to try to undermine democracy.
Those efforts have included legal challenges against states including New Jersey to limit plans to make voting more accessible; lawsuits to try to discard election results; and political rhetoric to discredit the vote.
“In some ways, this was a natural manifestation of what’s been happening,” Patel said. “This is just the next part of the ongoing efforts we’ve seen to suppress voters, to suppress democracy.”
“It’s not an accident that Georgia just elected its first Black senator and this happened,” she added. “It’s not unprecedented to have violence when talking about expanding democracy and hearing different voices, particularly Black voices.”
After the pro-Trump crowd stormed the Capitol, many social media and news comments focused on the notion that this happens in “Third World” countries and not in America. The words were invoked by observers ranging from foreign diplomats to a former police commissioner in Boston to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican.
The U.S. has strong checks and balances in government and a free press to protect its democracy that may be lacking in other countries, said Sahar Aziz, a professor of law and director of the Center for Security, Race and Rights at Rutgers University.
But the narrative about other countries is too often condescending or simplistic, Aziz said. It frames people in tropes as “barbaric, inferior and backward as opposed to our supposedly modern enlightened society."
It ignores U.S. history of political violence. And it ignores the fact that the U.S. has at times propped up dictatorships with military, economic and political support in the very nations that are mocked as prone to this kind of political behavior, she said. It also fails to tell stories of democratic success and activity in foreign nations despite great adversity, she added.
Patel said attitudes about foreign countries reflected need for better education.
“It’s a good example of how we do not discuss and study American history as well as we should,” she said. “We spend a lot of time talking about American exceptionalism and not enough time talking about our own issues with democracy.”
Briggs worries people will “wake up a month from now and forget what happened in Washington, that it won’t come up in the history books that people tried to overthrow the government.”
Too many Americans will continue to be blind to injustice if they don’t learn about their struggles with political violence and injustice, he said.
The Black Lives Matter movement has led to a push across school districts to make the curriculum more diverse and more reflective of the history of people of color in the U.S.
Briggs said action was needed to ensure that schools have properly trained staff and that they follow through with lessons that show rocky and sometimes bloody struggles for democracy in the U.S.
Americans should learn about how mob violence works and how it drove the massacre of Blacks in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a century ago and the march to overthrow an election at the Capitol last week, he said.
“The only way you’re going to do that is by putting it in history books,” Briggs said. “Your children and great-grandchildren have to learn it over and over, like the Declaration of Independence. It should be part of your civil learning.”