To prevent more events like the deadly U.S. Capitol insurrection, the violent rioters and those who inflamed the mob—including former President Donald Trump—must be held accountable for their actions and their rhetoric on social media, Northeastern experts said this week.
The call for vigilance and consequences come as Senate Republicans indicated that they’re unlikely to convict Trump for inciting violence against the government. Only five GOP senators voted against an effort to dismiss Trump’s impeachment trial Tuesday, which leaves Democrats far from the 17 Republican votes needed to earn a conviction. The Senate trial is scheduled to start Feb. 9.
The GOP schism, and the influence Trump continues to wield, echoes a theme of deep division across the country.
“Our gravely fractured nation is at a crossroads once again and does not have the luxury of waiting,” says Rod K. Brunson, a Northeastern criminology professor and Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. Chair of Public Life.
Brunson added, however, that President Joe Biden’s vow to root out racial injustice “offers a critical opportunity for change.”
Brunson was one of four Northeastern faculty members who discussed the Capitol siege and the ideological forces behind the insurrection at an event titled, “White Supremacy, Insurrection, and U.S. Democracy.” The Tuesday evening event was part of “Conflict. Civility. Respect. Peace. Northeastern Reflects,” the university’s educational series on civic sustainability.
Other panel members included Patricia J. Williams, university distinguished professor of law and humanities; Brooke Foucault Welles, associate professor of communication studies; and Costas Panagoupolos, chair of the political science department. It was moderated by Richard L. O’Bryant, director of the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute and political science professor.
“These individuals and these views are not gone from our society. They remain there, festering under the surface,” Panagoupolos warned. “We have to ensure that these are not actions that are tolerated in our society, and that we have a national conversation about the things that gave rise to them and to be explicit in our condemnation of them.”
Newly released video shows the crowd at Trump’s Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally yelling “Storm the Capitol” and “Invade the building” in the moments before a mob marched to the building and did just that. The resulting insurrection—which left five people dead—included recognizable symbols signaling white supremacy, such as a sweatshirt reading, “Camp Auschwitz.”
While watching the frantic energy of the mob, Williams says she was struck by the confidence of the rioters despite the lack of facts to support their claims that the election had been stolen.
“I saw these people really excited and they’re all hopped up, and at the same time they’re not quite sure where they’re going or what they’re going to do,” said Williams. “But they are just so certain that they own this moment.”
Williams said the racial makeup of the mob and its ability to storm the Capitol with little law enforcement pushback highlights the different reality that Black and brown Americans face every day. She recounted a conversation she overheard in a restaurant, in which a father was happily discussing his daughter’s antebellum-themed wedding held on a southern plantation.
“I remember sitting there with my chowder growing cold and all I could think was, ‘They’re dancing on graves,’” said Williams, adding that the father would likely have reacted with hostility if she had shared her perception of the event.
“This interconnected history of Black and white families is an ongoing trauma that exists between us and the pain of it echoes across generations,” said Williams.
Law enforcement officials have identified and arrested more than 100 rioters since the Capitol breach. Several social media corporations also banned Trump and others from their platforms.
Foucault Welles said those platforms must continue to ban hateful organizations and speech if they want to prevent events like the Capitol insurrection.
“I’m going to advocate for the power of de-platforming. As of today Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and Reddit have all made small but significant moves to remove extreme content and prevent future coordinated attacks,” she said.
“When we ban these kinds of people and this kind of language, it removes the content from networks in general,” said Foucault Welles. “If we want to reduce the chances of this happening again, platforms must choose or they must be compelled by policy or social pressure to do that.”
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