On January 6, 2021, my housemate took a break from watching TV and told me “There’s a revolution in the nation’s capital.” I knew not to trust her words. She’s 85, has memory loss and also suffers from dementia. Some of the pundits who called the dramatic events in Washington, D.C. that day “a coup” could not be excused for lapses in judgement on the grounds of dementia. Other pundits have been so angry that they’re eager to tar and feather the demonstrators as wanna-be “coupists,” if there is such a word.
Spoken word artist, Gil Scot-Heron, famously observed, “the revolution will not be televised.” In Washington D.C. on January 6, the uncouth uncoup was televised. We got to see the faces and the costumes of the rioters. We saw right-wing Americans in action.
Language matters greatly to me. I like to be precise about the words I use, though at times I’ve wanted to show off my verbal pyrotechnical skills and have exaggerated and embellished. The word “coup” doesn’t seem to accurately fit the events of January 6, 2021. To learn more, I emailed my Chilean pal, Cristobal Dahm in Santiago and asked him what he thought. He knows about coups in his own country and elsewhere. Cristobal emailed back, “It wasn’t a coup attempt.” He added that in Latin America coups have usually been engineered “via military forces of a country.”
The U.S. military did not intervene on January 6. Surprisingly, nor did the police until after the protesters were inside the capitol. Some have suggested collusion between cops and the rioters. That’s possible, but we will have to wait and see what’s revealed.
Professor Eric Foner reminded me that “two strands of the American experience” were apparent on January 6, 2021. One was the pro-Trump rioters who aimed to prevent the counting of electoral votes for U.S. president. The other was the fact that in Georgia, a state wiith a long history of racism, anti-Semitism and lynching, an African American and a Jew were elected to the U.S. senate.
Foner also pointed out that there’s a history of bloody coups in the U.S. In fact, in Louisiana in 1873 armed whites murdered scores of Blacks who belonged to a militia and also deposed the legally elected Black officials. In North Carolina in 1898 armed whites ousted members of the biracial local government. If the past is a guide, it seems likely that there will be more armed whites who will aim to overturn democracy, suppress the vote and create a white supremacist state.
Cristobal spoke directly to this last point. “It’s highly possible that incidents like yesterday are going to scale and the white supremacist fascist are going to continue the effort to create chaos, so that they can justify putting military in the streets,” he wrote. He added, “If Trump doesn’t have the support of the military there is not going to be a coup.”
The problem with calling the events of January 6 a coup is that when there is a coup for real and pundits sound the alarm, segments of the population won’t believe them. One ought not to cry wolf when the wolf isn’t actually at the door.
The value of the events of January 6 is this: they surfaced a partially submerged movement, showed what its members are capable of and educated the rest of us. We know in large part more about what we’re up against than we did a short while ago. If it was a coup, the rioters wouldn’t have gone home, peacefully for the most part.
Forty years ago, I took part in an attempted coup in Washington, D.C. Tens of thousands of us showed up in the nation’s capital. Many camped along the Potomac River. Our slogan: “if the government doesn’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.” We rioted in the streets and overturned vehicles. (I didn’t, but many of my friends did. I had been there and done that, often). Police helicopters dropped teargas on demonstrators. More than 12,000 people were arrested, many of them placed behind a chain-link fence at RFK Stadium. That was closer to a coup than what happened January 6.