Was the attack on Congress un-American? Yes and no, historians say

In the minutes after pro-Trump rioters breached the halls of Congress, members of Congress and other elected officials took to social media to express their disappointment in the pro-Trump demonstrators’ actions. 

“America is so much better than what we’re seeing today,” President-elect Joe Biden said in a tweet. The tweet has more than 1 million likes. 

U.S. Rep. Mark Green tweeted “This is not who we are. This violence is unacceptable and un-American.” 

While Wednesday’s events were unprecedented, this isn’t the first time Americans have demonstrated in opposition to the results of a presidential election. On the first full day of Donald Trump’s presidency, Jan. 21, 2017, millions of women around the world participated in the Women’s March. The demonstration is still considered the largest single-day demonstration ever recorded. 

Millions more have participated in marches and protests against police brutality since the Black Lives Matter movement started in 2013. 

While protests, rallies and demonstrations at government buildings are part of American history and culture, historians say the riot at the Capitol is distinct from civil rights and women’s rights protests held in the past. 

“I think what was un-American (about Wednesday’s event) was the willingness of American citizens to sack the Capitol in an attempt to overturn an election that by every possible measure, has been demonstrated as being legal, fair and just. That’s un-American,” said John Giggie, associate professor of history and Director of the Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama. 

Giggie cautioned against comparing civil rights protests and Trump supporters breaching the Capitol during the certification of the electoral college results. 

“I think we have to really focus on what’s being protested about. You look at the Civil War matters of either slavery or, afterwards, segregation. That’s a demonstrable evil that at its very existence, its core, hollowed out the Constitution and America’s promise of democracy. The grievance now was one of frustration that a candidate was falsely not elected. But again, every means we have to assess that complaint has proved invalid,” Giggie said.

Manisha Sinha, Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut, said some of the comments from leaders asserting the attack on the capitol was un-American come from a hope that Americans had moved beyond mob rule and trust our democratic processes to bring effective change. 

“In a way, those who say ‘This is not who we are,’ are actually saying, ‘Let’s not go back there,’” she said. 

Sinha, who wrote “The Slaves Cause: A History of Abolition,” pointed to the prosecution of Ku Klux Klan members during the Reconstruction era after the Civil War. 

“The mobs, the domestic terrorists we saw attacking congress, were not attacking just the building, but attacking our democratic process. Those people knew exactly what they were doing and I do think that we need to actually go back to Reconstruction and make sure they are subject to the weight of the law,” she said. 

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Giggie said choosing language to describe the events of Jan. 6 is crucial, especially when choosing how and when to use the term “riot.” In this case, he said “riot” is an acceptable term to use. However, historically “riot” has been used to delegitimize causes. 

An example of this is the Tulsa Massacre, where white mobs burned black-owned businesses in the Greenwood community, resulting in the death of more than two dozen people. 

Still, both Sinha and Giggie said the issue of the Capitol attack is complex. 

“There’s a lot of social media posts of people saying this is not American and others saying it is. Both those answers are a little crude,” she said.

The Reckon Report.
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