OPINION: Fort Sumter Redux

by Geov Parrish

Neo-Confederates have wanted to re-litigate the Civil War for generations. Yesterday, they lost again — but their privilege protected them in the effort.

Tuesday night, we learned that even in the Deep South, the political power that flows from white privilege can no longer be assumed. One hundred and sixty years ago, that fear of losing political power— then inspired by an incoming, abolitionist-supported Lincoln administration — sparked the shots fired on Fort Sumter that began the Civil War.

Wednesday’s insurrectionists fancied themselves in this mold, red-blooded patriots fighting to save their country from radical leftists, proudly uniformed in pre-printed shirts emblazoned with “MAGA Civil War January 6, 2021.” Actual events more closely resembled what one wag has dubbed “Y’all Qaeda.” 

Three seditionists died from “medical emergencies” in the chaos. One woman, an apparent QAnon adherent from San Diego, was shot and killed under unclear circumstances. Multiple explosive devices were found on and near the Capitol grounds. But, by and large, the self-styled defenders of democracy and pursuers of fantasy election fraud were too busy taking selfies and engaging in petty vandalism to pose any real threat to the republic.

Nonetheless, the signs that this was an explicitly neo-Confederate affair — at least for some — were everywhere. The guy who led rioters into the sacrosanct Senate chambers — where he promptly put his feet up on the dais, posed for photos, and scratched his balls — has been identified as Jake Angeli, a prominent QAnon supporter and white supremacist. Seditionists carried large Confederate flags through the halls of the Capitol; somebody scaled scaffolding outside one of the Senate office buildings to hang a giant Confederate flag. Somebody else brandished the flag of Georgia. Unfortunately, it was Georgia the country, not Georgia the state. (Moral for would-be revolutionaries: always check your Amazon order before purchasing…) And out on the Capitol’s West Lawn, scaffolding with a giant noose was erected. The intent of the message was clear, and the racist undertone of the symbolism was no accident. 

These were, in Trump’s famous formulation, very fine people.

But vivid as these searing images were, I kept coming back to different, contrasting images as I watched them unfold. On May 2, 1967,  a mere two dozen Black Panthers with long guns marched perfectly legally into the state capitol in Sacramento, prompting a national freakout and immediate changes in the law. Wednesday, the fact that shots were actually fired inside the U.S. Capitol — and that armed insurrectionists also attacked state capitols in Olympia, Washington and Salem, Oregon, as well as (from what I know so far) Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Utah, at least — barely registered as part of the story. Of course, the armed seditionists, as in D.C., were almost entirely white.

I remember Miriam Carey, a Connecticut Black woman who was in Washington on Oct. 3, 2013, and breached a checkpoint, apparently accidentally, at the U.S. Capitol. After a car chase across Washington, Capitol police shot her to death with her one-year-old daughter in the car seat next to her. But it was the year before Ferguson. Few protested her death except her family and friends.

And, of course, I remember the hundreds of hours of #BLM protests and marches I watched this summer, streamed from across the country. The mass arrests. The chemical munitions. The rubber bullets and pepper balls. The heavily militarized cops, in some cases ignoring court orders to attack unarmed, peaceful demonstrators with impunity. The hundreds and thousands of arrests, mostly for minor or no reasons.

Sixty-eight people were arrested in D.C. as of Thursday. Sixty-eight. Think about that. And a woman was shot to death inside the U.S. Capitol.

The white supremacists rioted because they fear losing their privilege (and because their cult leader, the most powerful man in the world, encouraged them to). Yet they have no idea — NO idea — how much privilege they still have. Ask Miriam Carey’s family.

A majority of appalled Americans watching Wednesday’s debacle intuitively understood this. Hopefully, by putting their privilege on full, ugly display, these white supremacist seditionists set back their cause a long, long way this week.

Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based writer and political strategist.

The featured image “Shell at Fort Sumter”  is attributed to Ron Zanoni under a Creative Commons 2.0 license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).