OPINION: Accountability for Insurrectionists is an act of unity

Julie Mazzei Guest Opinion Writer

The insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol Building on Jan. 6 were white supremacists acting at the behest of the President of the United States. Their Confederate flags and anti-Semitic garb make their racism clear. Their chants, zip cuffs and weapons are evidence of their intent. Their ability to gain entry and occupy the Capitol was secured by long-standing impunity.  

Many have argued that our democratic system cannot be protected if insurrectionists are not held accountable. Accountability for the insurrectionists — from those who broke through the doors of the Capitol, to those who legitimized the action through the media and in legislative halls, to the man who instigated and gave permission for it all — is critical for the furtherance of democracy in this county not only in that it protects the institutions of the state but even more so in that it advances the dismantling of white supremacy by withholding impunity from those who seek to protect it.

The most important resource for violent movements aimed at protecting a system of exclusivity and privilege is impunity. Weapons, numbers, ability to travel and organize, those are all important, too. But if one believes he will be penalized, if there is a high cost of insurrection, mobilization will be far more difficult. When one believes he acts with impunity, that his actions are legitimate and he will not be held accountable, the risks are lower and action facilitated.

The very different and not-at-all militarized response to the insurrectionists when compared to Black Lives Matter protestors is, as many have highlighted, a clear manifestation of the legacy of racism in the U.S. But it was not only a reflection of what has been and what is. It was a promise for the perpetuation of that system. It was an offer of impunity.

Accountability for those who broke the law on Jan. 6 directly challenges the norm that permits white riotous disorder and represses Black peaceful protest. It rejects calls for “unity” and “healing” with the white supremacist minority who undermine genuine democracy and instead facilitates unity with those who pursue racial justice. And in doing so, it advances our pursuit of democracy.

This is a critical step, because our system is not yet democratic; rather, it is racist in norm and in practice. Our history is marked by those critical moments when we have chipped away at the edifices of white supremacy and moved towards the “more perfect union” to which we aspire. We must choose to make this another of those critical moments.

The insurrection against the United States government should be of no surprise not only because it was organized in online forums but because it is consistent with the reaction of far-right-wing populations throughout history. Such groups often resort to violence when they anticipate impending reform. And their efforts are, in many cases throughout history, effective because they are protected from culpability. 

#BlackLivesMatter. #MeToo. Standing Rock. The 2020 election. The far right knows their safe haven is being dismantled and is desperate to preserve it. 

The perpetrators of the insurrection clearly believed they would enjoy impunity. Self-assuredness oozes out of social media posts — the smiling marauder carrying the Speaker’s lectern, the smug face in a Member’s office chair, slow bodies half-interestedly poking through Senators’ papers in the Chamber, a white man unashamedly carrying the flag of secession. There is no fear of punishment in the “HEAVE … HO” of the crowd throwing their collective physical weight to shove through the police. Those who attacked a journalist, beat a police officer, yelled through the halls of the Capitol in violent pursuit of the Vice President of the United States did not shy away from cameras. They believed they were protected. The legislators who gave them voice and their leader similarly believes they are immune from the law.

We are at a potential watershed moment in the advancement of democracy and erosion of white supremacy in this country. Protecting the democratic gains we have made in the past and continuing our growth towards a “more perfect union” requires holding those who have long enjoyed the privilege of impunity accountable.

-Dr. Julie M. Mazzei

Dr. Mazzei is an associate professor of political science and faculty affiliate with the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Kent State University, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. Contact her at [email protected]