On January 6, 2021, as white supremacists ransacked the Capitol building, President-Elect Joe Biden appeared in a televised broadcast from Delaware, doing what President Trump would not. Biden denounced the mob as violent insurrectionists and pleaded with them to stop immediately and go home.
Biden’s words were well-meant, to be sure. He was going through the motions of what a president is “supposed” to do. But in 2021, on the heels of one of the most devastating years in modern memory, his speech had all the force of an elementary school teacher, patiently flipping the lights on and off in a tired attempt to gain control of an unruly class.
“The words of a president matter,” Biden stated, in an obvious reference to Trump’s rhetoric, “no matter how good or bad that president is. At their best, the words of a president can inspire. At their worst, they can incite.”
It should now be painfully clear — if it wasn’t already — how directly Trump’s speech incited this violence. On December 19, Trump himself announced the date of the insurrection on Twitter, encouraging his followers to attend: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” he wrote. “Be there, will be wild!” When Trump finally did address the protestors in the throes of destroying federal property, he spent more time asserting his baseless claims of a fraudulent election and telling the mob that he loved them than he did actually telling them to stop.
In the absence of any moral example from the sitting president, Biden seized the opportunity to denounce the riot. While he did brand them “a mob” and called it “insurrection,” the rest of Biden’s speech fell tragically — and dangerously — short.
“Let me be very clear,” Biden began, “the scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are.”
Ten, or even five years ago, a statement like this would have probably appeased many white, left-leaning, middle-class Americans (such as myself). But that time is long past. After the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude, and so many other Black people at the hands of white law enforcement, we must acknowledge that the law itself is corrupt, that America itself was built on a foundation of racism, and that it has never truly reckoned with its past.
As Roxane Gay said plainly in her New York Times op-ed on the same topic, “This is America. This has always been America. If this were not America, this coup attempt would not have happened. It’s time we face this ugly truth, let it sink into the marrow of our bones, let it move us to action.”
The insurrectionists are American. They are as American as the President. They are as American as the Second Amendment, which quite literally arms them with the weapons they need to follow through on their threats. Their actions of unflinchingly moving forward to take whatever they deem theirs, no matter the wreckage they leave in their wake, is American.
This is the America that Black people and people of color have known, fought against, and survived for so long, and to which white people of all political affiliations have willingly turned a blind eye. That live through the kind of racist vitriol spouted by those in the White House in a manner so convincing that intelligent, well-meaning people write these words off as “not to be taken seriously.”
Back on July 4, 2020, during a period of unprecedented international support for the Black Lives Matter movement, Biden acknowledged that America was on the precipice of important social change: “We have a chance to rip the roots of systemic racism out of this country," he stated. But when the most blatant, heinous display of systemic racism unfolded before the entire world earlier this week, he refused to call it by its name. Instead, he dubbed them “a small number of extremists, dedicated to lawlessness.”
Small number? Over 74 million people voted for Donald Trump less than three months ago. Even though not all of them are planning to take up their pitchforks and storm the Capitol, all of them agreed that they would rather side with outright racism than with the chance for change.
Dedicated to lawlessness? These people walked hand in hand with law enforcement that day. When 35-year-old Ashli Babbitt was shot while trying to force her way into the House Chamber, and later died of her injuries, the officer that issued the bullet was immediately placed on leave and an investigation launched into the case. This is the law functioning exactly how it was intended, protecting exactly who it was intended to protect: white people.
So yes, a president’s words matter. Biden must come forward and label this for the act of white supremacist violence it was and, further still, denounce the law enforcement that allowed it to take place. What a president doesn’t say matters, too. And with his choice to side-step this fact, he’s creating a dangerous gray area of permission for those people he purports to condemn.
Racism can have no place in our government, not through brute force and not through grandfather clauses. We can’t negotiate with terrorists, we must act against them. With the election of Democratic Senators Warnock and Ossoff in Georgia, Democrats have the Senate majority for the first time in nearly 20 years. This is a real chance to affect legislation in this country — to change the letter of the law to make it beneficial for all Americans. To defund the police. To reform healthcare. To reinvent the criminal justice system. And so much more.
This faction of insurrectionists has made it clear they will not stop in their crusade to see their fascist leader reinstated. It is terrifying, but this violence has always been there. It forms the very foundation this country is built on. And now, we must rip it out at the root.
Wake up, Sleepy Joe. It’s time to put in the work.