As we approach the anniversary of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, we would do well to study the language of the rioters for what it reveals about history and the problems facing us now as a nation and as a world.
The words used by the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrectionists threatening a Black police officer who was standing in their way may seem incidental, hardly the most important aspect of what happened that dark day. Yet, if we examine them in the context of the U.S.’s history of imperialism, these “excited utterances” — a legal term for words spoken in the heat of the moment trusted to carry a high degree of candor — what emerges is a connection, or an echo from history, that we need to take seriously as we reckon not just with what has happened, but will happen next. As a professor of Ethnic Studies and English, I am interested in examining the power of words for what they bring to light.
The July 27 testimony of Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn before a Congressional panel investigating the failed, yet bloody attack stands out because it exposes a hidden connection not just to racism but to imperialism as well, specifically the U.S.’s own somewhat-hidden history of conquest.
“We expected any demonstrations to be peaceful expressions of First Amendment freedoms, just like the scores of demonstrations we had observed for many years,” Dunn told the panel.
Instead, Dunn found himself as part of a flimsy line of defense against a bumbling attempt to overthrow a democratic election, one instigated by outgoing President Donald Trump.
Dunn, who is Black, recalled for the panel a series of statements that reveal that this attack was not just an isolated episode, but symbolic of the continuum of our country’s history.
First, Dunn was called the “n-word” by multiple members of the mob, something other officers of color who testified recalled hearing. There is no doubt that virtually every adult in the U.S., in this day and age and in this context, understands its power. Since some flew the Confederate flag, one of the most potent symbols of white supremacy, this may not be surprising.
At the same time, Dunn recalled one rioter telling him: “We’re doing this for you” as the rioters attempted to trample Dunn and make their way downstairs to the lower west terrace of the Capitol building. This interaction is key to understanding imperial attitudes and actions.
Stephen Kinzer’s book Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq tells us that 123 years earlier, in 1898, U.S. President William McKinley agonized over whether or not to officially colonize the Philippines, which was one of the U.S.’s coveted new possessions won during the Spanish American War, Cuba being the grand prize. Although a late-comer compared with older empires like Britain and France, a cursory glance at U.S. history demonstrates it was (and is) indeed an imperial power.
McKinley claimed that God spoke to him, and moved by providence, ultimately decided “there was nothing left to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos and uplift them and Christianize them.”
The phrase “commercial opportunity” also drew a mention in a later speech to a team he sent to Paris; this is another important key, one that helps unmask imperialism’s real motive. McKinley certainly understood the economics of conquest very well –– legalized theft is immensely profitable. He was also well-versed in the racist language and attitudes of imperialism — its stereotypes –– which were used to justify this “legal” theft. But what he didn’t know stands out because it reflects the ignorance, willful or not, behind the statement “we’re doing this for you.” He didn’t realize most Filipinos were already Catholics, courtesy of the nation’s former colonizer, Spain. He admitted he didn’t know “where those darned islands were within 2,000 miles.” Similarly ignorant, or bigoted, senators in support of the plan agreed it was the United States’ duty to civilize the backward Filipinos.
This was a very common racialized argument: So-called inferior races couldn’t rule themselves and were in need of Western enlightenment. In other words, “we’re doing this for you.” Those who would be the beneficiaries of this largesse did not share that opinion. But as is almost always the case with imperialism, McKinley wasn’t offering. Those lucky Filipinos didn’t have a choice.
Officer Dunn, caught up in the fight of his life, is subjected to a type of racial abuse, similar, yet evolved from imperial language and attitudes, and he is told “we’re doing this for you” as he and other officers are trampled, chased and beaten, all to overthrow the election results instigated by a president refusing to accept his loss. The language used by the Capitol rioters was racist, yes, but their words and the way they were used, were drawn from the playbook of imperialism and its twin, fascist politics, in which racism plays a very important part. This “close reading” of Dunn’s experience and the language levelled at him is alarming to say the least, but enlightening as well.
If we are to heed Dunn’s closing statement, that “we can never again allow our democracy to be put in peril as it was on Jan. 6,” it is imperative that we take language and actions seriously, connect them to the histories, attitudes, statements, words and actions –– globally and locally –– that led up to the events of Jan. 6 and beyond. Connecting the dots in this way is a first step towards addressing, and perhaps solving, some of the existential crises we now face.
Christopher Ian Foster is a professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Oregon.
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