Carole Levine January 12, 2024
It is hard to be that person who raises the difficult question that no one really wants to ask. It’s difficult to have everyone’s eyes on you as you say no to something that almost everyone else has agreed to. And it is uncomfortable to be the person who gets ostracized for your views that do not align with those of the majority. And yet, it has become more and more important for those who do not reflect the views of what seems to be the majority to speak up and speak out. The loss of those voices may result in losses for even greater numbers of people.
In the past year, we saw an example of this at the state legislature in Tennessee, when two state legislators were expelled for participating in an anti-firearms rally after a mass shooting. Both were young, outspoken and Black, representing minority districts in the state. And both were almost immediately returned to their State House of Representative seats by their constituents who were asked to vote on who should represent them since their elected officials had been expelled. The choice was clear. It seems that the voters in these two districts felt strongly that they had already chosen the right people to represent them, and they chose those same young men again. This caused much embarrassment of the leadership of the Tennessee House of Representatives and great pride for the voters in the districts of Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson as they resumed their seats in the Tennessee House of Representatives.
We are facing more and more of these kinds of situations in our lives that challenge us to either take a stand or to step back into the shadows. How often do you see crowds of people demonstrating for something you have strong feelings about? And how often do you join that demonstration? How often does a request to sign a letter or petition on an issue that is controversial and needs your support show up in your inbox? Do you sign it? Or do you let it pass? We are constantly challenged to step forward (even if it is just to add our name to a list) or to just remain in the background. There are many reasons for our hesitancy and our silence. Our actions impact our lives and could have ramifications for our work or on other members of our family or community. Stepping up may mean that we are making commitments that we are not sure we are ready to make. And while one may agree with a protest or an online letter, the physical act of participation is a commitment that could have consequences. That could account for one’s silence.
And the question that now hangs in the air, it seems, is just what will define patriotism. And an addendum to that question is why is this important? In the past week, Donald Trump has consistently referred to those who have been arrested and convicted as insurrectionists in the January 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol as “patriots.” Having watched the insurrection unfold that day, I would have a hard time agreeing with Trump. Historian Heather Cox Richardson aligns with me and writes as follows in her column Letters from an American:
Indeed. The insurrectionists at the Capitol were not patriots. They were trying to overthrow the government in order to take away the right at the center of American democracy: our right to determine our own destiny. Commemorating them as heroes is the 21st century’s version of erecting Confederate statues. (January 6, 2024)
Those who on January 6, 2021 stormed the U.S. Capitol were motivated by the idea that that the 2020 election was stolen and that they needed to stop Congress from certifying the outcome that would make Joe Biden President of the United States. The only way to do this was to disrupt and stop the certification process and that was their goal. People died and were injured in the melee that consisted of a crowd of more than 10,000 people, of whom more than 2,000 actually entered the Capitol. According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), five people died during this attack including four protesters and one police officer and 140 police officers suffered injuries. More than $2.9 million worth of damage was done to the Capitol. Rioters brought firearms, knives, hatchets, pepper spray, baseball bats and other improvised weapons to the Capitol grounds and prosecutors say many of those weapons were used to assault police. The Federal Bureau of Investigation considers the attack an act of domestic terrorism. In response, the Department of Justice launched the largest criminal investigation in U.S. history.
With the help of many citizens who have identified those who appeared on the tapes and videos of the attacks on the Capitol and its police, arrests and trials have been ongoing. According to the DOJ, approximately 640 defendants have been charged with entering or remaining in a restricted federal building or grounds, which is a misdemeanor. More than 225 accused rioters have been charged with the more serious crime of assaulting, resisting, or impeding officers or employees, according to the DOJ, with 75 of them facing charges of using a deadly or dangerous weapon or causing serious bodily injury to an officer. Additionally, 40 individuals have been charged with conspiracy, according to the DOJ. These numbers will continue to grow until the statute of limitations lapses for many offenses on Jan. 5, 2026. It is unlikely that everyone involved on January 6th will be indicted.
Many have commemorated this event during this past week, with many different perspectives. Some have reflected on this as a time when our nation teetered on the brink of an insurrection and when the peaceful transition of power seemed to be in jeopardy. Others saw it as a failed attempt to prevent the installation of leadership in what they wanted the nation to believe was a “stolen election” (and still believe this). The current news cycle seemed to swirl around this as the 2024 election looms large.
We have here two examples, one in Tennessee and one in Washington, DC, of forms of protest, with very different outcomes. In Tennessee, the two elected officials were expelled from office for joining a peaceful anti-gun protest and the people who elected them chose to return them to their elected offices. In DC, thousands of protesters disrupted the US Congress’s proceedings to certify the 2020 Presidential Election. In doing this, these protesters caused damage to a public building, caused injury to security officials and threatened elected officials. The differences between these two were stark. At the end of the day on January 6, 2021, Congress was able to complete its work (actually early in the morning of January 7th), and many of the protesters from that day are now serving prison time for their actions. Yet, the motivations for each of the these two protest groups – the Tennessee anti-gun protesters, and the January 6th Capital protesters – were clear to those who were there. They believed in their causes and joined the protest to support it.
Circling back to the idea that I started off with – that of stating your views or remaining in the background – we find ourselves with choices. Like the anti-gun protesters and voters in Tennessee, and like the January 6th protesters, and like so many of us now, who look toward the 2024 election with trepidation and concern, we have a few choices. We can voice our opinions and take stands on problems and get involved in campaigns and issues. Or we can bemoan the situation and/or just remain silent. I would suggest that our silence changes little and our whining only drives others from engaging with us. But taking some time to work on an issue or work for a candidate that might help to stabilize some of the chaos that seems to be ever-present in our world, might just make each of us feel a bit better about the future. Win or lose – we can at least say we tried. I challenge us all to do this.
As Vice President Kamala Harris said to a group this week, “[A]t this moment in history, I say: Let us not throw up our hands when it’s time to roll up our sleeves. Because we were born for a time such as this.”