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Storming the U.S. Capitol may be new to Americans, but the violence is a familiar theme

Wednesday's violence at the U.S. Capitol horrified many. But the violence is a pattern through American history.

The mob tries to break down the door of the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.
The mob tries to break down the door of the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Even living in a time of isolation, the shock waves that spread across the nation Wednesday were seismic. After insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol, the first breach of its kind in more than two centuries, an insistence also arrived that the events were like something from another country.

“This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic — not our democratic republic,” said former President George W. Bush in a statement.

“Let me be very clear: The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America. Do not represent who we are,” tweeted President-elect Joe Biden.

But if we look back through accounts over time, the social struggles and cultural tensions that underscore and drive the times in the United States today are all there. Americans besieging the U.S. Capitol is new, but the destruction was ever familiar. The insurrectionists tapped into a centuries-old extralegal tradition of American vigilantism.

Thirteen years before the Civil War began, Abraham Lincoln, then a 28-year-old serving as a representative in the Illinois statehouse, expressed concerns about this. In an 1838 speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, he argued that should extralegal violence continue, the cost could be the U.S. government.

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“Alike, they spring up among the pleasure hunting masters of Southern slaves, and the order loving citizens of the land of steady habits. Whatever then, their cause may be, it is common to the whole country,” said Lincoln, later adding: “Whenever this effect shall be produced among us; whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity; depend on it, this Government cannot last.”

There are parallels between the insurrection Wednesday in D.C. and the Wilmington (N.C.) coup of 1898, for example. In 1898, the attackers, angered by election results in Wilmington that featured a mixed-race group of winners, killed roughly 60 to 250 Black people, forced more than 100 Black government officials out of their posts, and caused another 100,000 residents to flee for safety. This year, following a yearslong effort to combat Black voter suppression, the attackers at the Capitol challenged the presidential election results, hours after Georgia voters decided for the first time to send a Black man and Jewish man to the U.S. Senate.

There are notes that echo from the civil rights movement. Kwame Ture, the Black Panther organizer and Pan-Africanist human rights activist, said this of the white right, in a 1989 talk on “Lessons from ’60s.” “Where they disagree with busing they burn buses, where they disagree with abortion they bomb clinics,” he said. “They themselves have come to demonstrate the use of violence as a potent force in arriving at a political objective.”

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Many of the themes of Wednesday’s events, and the Trump era in general, were outlined in the 1975 book Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism.

“Much American violence has related not only to the structure of community, but to the substance of the American experience,” historian Richard Maxwell Brown wrote in the book. “Group hostility has often escalated to the level of violence in white-Indian wars, white-black confrontations, ethnic rivalries, religious vendettas, agrarian uprisings, and the struggles of laborers against industrialists.”

Brown, perhaps agreeing with Ture, described violence as a tool to restore the attackers’ notion of social order. Brown noted: “Established groups have been quick to resort to violence in defense of the status quo they dominate.”

Strain of Violence raises the question Is violence as American as apple pie? Kidada Williams, a Wayne State University historian who studies violence, would say yes.

The trend toward vigilante violence that runs through the insurrection, back to 2017 events of Charlottesville, the massacres at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh and Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, back to the neighbors who harassed and attacked Black students through the ’60s and ’70s, back to the mobs over centuries who terrorized racial and ethnic minorities in cities, can be traced back to the founding of the country.

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“Some scholars have argued that slavery and settler colonialism are the down payment of the Revolution; they’re the down payment on American success,” said Williams in an interview with The Inquirer Thursday. “If you’re able to achieve significant success using violence, why would you use any other tactics?”

Williams, who is writing a book on Black families who were attacked by the Ku Klux Klan amid Reconstruction, said the insurrection reminded her of the Civil War: The rebels were upset over election results, white progressives responded as a matter of preserving the country. The level of surprise this week at the attack at the Capitol, she said, reflects a deep belief in American exceptionalism that sidesteps our history of violence to focus on victories. America, she explained, erases its body count.

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In his 1975 book, Brown called the U.S. a nation “conceived and born in violence.” The Revolutionary War provided “a grand model,” what would follow, including, Brown explained, an inclination toward violence for “any cause — law and order, for example — deemed good and proper.” Americans would turn to unsanctioned forms of violence when they sensed “a grave menace to social stability” in cities and on the frontier. And moreover, communities welcomed violence at the hands of police to achieve those same ends.

People of color and the social movements they’ve created, Williams added, do not have access to this American tradition as white people do, because they do not have the benefit of being perceived as nonthreatening. The American experiment, she said, recasts violence from white residents and from the state, as something other than violence, as something justified.

The double standard leads to more Black and brown people dying, but also, a lack of recognition for the threat of domestic terror, she explained.

“The federal government is expert at destabilizing movements that it perceives as a threat,” said Williams, who pointed to the American Indian Movement and the Black Power Movement. (A 2018 New York Times investigation, for example, reported that U.S. law enforcement overlooked a mounting crisis of far-right extremism for almost two decades.) “The White Power movement has only recently been seen as a threat.”