By David Rovics
January 8th, 2020
After seeing some very strange, amnesiac discussion threads on social media, I have a few words to consign to the screen.
Naturally, social media and the media media are all going nuts since the more or less successful far right siege of the Capitol. There are a variety of talking points that I’ve been hearing that I have some thoughts on.
First of all, in one of Trump’s various post-siege missives, he assured his followers that the “our incredible journey is only just beginning,” meaning his political ambitions, and the future of the far right. He’s getting on in years and evidently not in the greatest health, but if he lives long enough, my guess is he’ll start a TV network, a social media network, and a new political party, which will soon eclipse the Republican Party, and become the main competition for the Democrats. Whoever planted explosives at the headquarters of both the RNC and the DNC during the event clearly agrees with Trump’s coming rejection of the two major parties.
The most relevant historical anecdote in terms of what just happened in DC could be the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. Ten years before Hitler came to power, he and two thousand other fascists tried to seize the reigns of state in Munich, but the police fought them back, and their effort failed, with 16 dead. It was the main event early in Hitler’s career that propelled him to far more widespread recognition, and eventually, to become dictator. Obviously, Trump is already in power, sort of, so it’s a very imperfect historical reflection, but still very relevant.
This was an event that Trump or his descendants will be able to use to their benefit. There weren’t many martyrs, but there will presumably be trials and prison sentences, as there were after the 1923 putsch in Munich, and these will be used to great propaganda advantage. Two different folks I know independently came up with the term Beer Belly Putsch for this one.
On a separate historical note, loads of politicians keep making bizarre comparisons to the torching of the Congress by British forces in the War of 1812, such as Senator Cory Booker. Senator Booker had lofty words about how the last time the Congress was attacked by people with guns, it was the British Navy, unlike this attack, which we brought upon ourselves. But actually, we brought the other one upon ourselves as well.
As with every other war the US has ever been in, with the partial exception of the European theater of World War 2, the War of 1812 was started by the US. The British colony of Canada was harboring escaped African slaves, and the US government, dominated as it was by slave-owners, didn’t like that at all. And so the US sent in their military forces, such as they were back then, to burn down the Canadian city of York (now Toronto). Government buildings as well as residential homes were burned to the ground by the marauders from the US.
Two years later, in response to this cross-border attack, the British Navy sailed down the Potomac River and burned down the Congress, the Supreme Court, and the White House, leaving all residential houses untouched. A very measured military response, you could say. But it was most definitely brought down upon the nation by US policy.
But what seems to be especially dominating the conversation lately revolves around questions of security, or the lack thereof, at the Capitol.
Most of the comparisons being made are between the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer and yesterday’s siege on the Capitol. While these comparisons are definitely relevant, they can be misleading on their own, because they can give the impression that police only crack down heavily, in large numbers, with severe brutality, when the protesters are mostly Black. If your main experience with protests have been from 2014 to the present, and have mainly involved Black Lives Matter, this would be a very sensible conclusion to reach.
So I thought I’d just share a few brief descriptions of protests that I have physically participated in over the years, for a little bit of a broader context than we’re getting on TV.
I’ve been to many protests like one I attended as a teenager, led by Jesse Jackson circa 1982, where we marched around on a permitted route in DC, a diverse group of tens of thousands, mostly people who vote Democrat, where everything was peaceful, no one committed civil disobedience, the police were not numerous and sometimes even nice, basically what you imagine a permitted march is supposed to be like.
The first time I witnessed police brutality was in San Francisco sometime around 1987 at a protest against US support for the rightwing dictatorship in El Salvador. Several hundred mostly white people in our twenties and thirties wanted to shut down the Federal Building for the day through civil disobedience, so the police preempted us by setting up barricades around the building and defending the barricades with clubs. People pulling at the barricades were beaten from the other side of the barricades every second or so. Then we discovered that about 10% of our ranks were actually made up of undercover cops, and people who we thought were fellow protesters began to savagely attack anyone on the street. I saw four cops pulling in different directions on each limb of a young white woman that day. The police were so brutal, the event made national headlines, briefly.
In Washington, DC on April 16th, 2000, tens of thousands of folks associated with the global justice movement succeeded partially in shutting down the biannual meeting of the IMF and the World Bank, by surrounding ninety blocks of the city in a human chain. I saw police vans rev their engines and plow into the human chain, nearly killing young, mostly white college students that made up the majority of the people surrounding the ninety-block area, which the police had fenced off with 10′-high fences.
A few months later in Quebec City, tens of thousands of protesters came to the city, again with the intent of shutting down meetings of the global elite through mass civil disobedience and other tactics, such as launching teddy bears from a home-made catapult. In Quebec City, the police used so much tear gas against us that I had a welt on my eye for six months afterwards. The city had spent millions of dollars to wall off the walled city even more, with a big metal wall around 20′ high surrounding the old stone walls of North America’s only walled city. But they still saw fit to disperse such massive amounts of tear gas that it got into the meetings of the global elite within the walls, and they caused thousands of local Quebec City residents to flee the area. I vividly recall the fear on the faces of the children clutching their dolls, holding hands with their parents, walking down the hill, away from the city center, towards safety.
Two years later in November, 2003, in Miami, they again walled off downtown with high fences in preparation for their meetings. Again, thousands of riot police attacked thousands of people who had come with the perhaps vague idea that they might hope to shut down the meetings, which never had a chance, because of the overwhelming and overwhelmingly brutal police presence. If you did not get hit by a plastic-coated steel bullet or inhale copious amounts of tear gas, you were very lucky. On a tour of the east coast I did after Miami, I saw welts on my friends bodies of every possible size and description.
At an anti-war protest in New York City in 2004, they wouldn’t let us march. Half a million people or more clogged the city streets, penned in by countless steel pens erected by Bloomberg’s cops. Later in the same year, at the Republican National Convention in New York City, they allowed us to march, but not to have a rally. And when several hundred people marched without a permit in the course of the RNC events then I was among them, and barely escaped mass arrest, when the police boxed us in with their netting and held everyone there who didn’t slip out at the right time. I’ve seen many mass arrests of hundreds of mostly white people. Sometimes they hold everyone over the weekend, like they did to 600 mostly white youth in DC on April 15th, 2000. I was there for that, too.
Randomly skipping ahead, there were protests at the G20 meetings in 2009 in Pittsburgh, around ten thousand people in attendance at the peak. At one point a collection of a couple hundred mostly white college students were having an unpermitted meeting on a college campus, outdoors, when for no apparent reason the police announced the campus was locked down, and they began to systematically attack anyone who was there, and not inside a building. The buildings were locked, so anyone who didn’t get in to one in time was running away from the campus for their lives. Police were roving around, randomly clubbing anyone they saw. I saw them knock a white woman off her bicycle very violently. A cop clubbed me in the back and nearly knocked me over, but I kept running. I can still feel the impact of his club on my back, as easily as I can feel the whiplash I got from a car accident I was in several years ago.
These are just a few samples to give a little flavor of how the police mobilize when faced with the prospect of ten or twenty thousand mostly young white people who want to commit acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, for the most part, such as sitting in the street. They spent upwards of a hundred million dollars on security in Pittsburgh. The following G20 in Toronto in 2010, I was there, too, they spent $1 billion on security. And we’re talking about totally militarized security. They had loads of armored vehicles at those aforementioned protests in Quebec City, Miami, Pittsburgh, and Toronto. Total robocop gear everywhere, no badges or faces to be seen, only armor and clubs and amplified voices in armored vehicles to go along with them.
Practices of the police commissioners in charge of running the show at each of these events included little encouragement for people to peacefully protest and exercise their First Amendment rights or any of that bullshit. What they did instead was terrorize their communities, spread fear in the press, and spread fear among the ranks of their officers. They showed their cops videos implying that some of us coming to the protest had killed cops in the past (which was false). They systematically encouraged residents in a poor, mostly Black neighborhood near downtown Miami to freely rob protesters. Instead, people in the Overtown neighborhood went out of their way to help protect us from the police, harboring fugitives, you could say.
I was also in Ferguson in 2014, a couple weeks after Michael Brown was killed, and yes, I saw all the same stuff there in terms of militarized police forces responding to what was overwhelmingly nonviolent civil disobedience, in the form of people marching in the streets. And over the past months I’ve seen lots more of that sort of thing here in Portland, with friends young and middle-aged, white and Black, suffering all descriptions of injuries at the hands of a savage police force.
This is a viciously white supremacist, institutionally racist system, to be sure — it has been since the foundations of this once largely slave-based economy, and systems of racist oppression have continued ever since. However, for the powers-that-be, the enemies are many. The race-based system we have here is set up to divide and conquer the population in so many ways — and it succeeds in this endeavor. The clubs come down against people of color just for being people of color, no doubt. But if you think for a moment that white people are free to commit acts of civil disobedience or violence against the authorities, if you think they just let us do whatever we want if we want to shut down a meeting of the global elite, think again. Usually they are much better prepared than they were on January 6th, 2021, whether the folks trying to shut them down are people of color or not.
The primary difference, in this case, was not that the group of far right protesters, riots, coup-attempters, insurrectionists, or whatever you want to call them, were white, but the fact that they were from the far right. This accounts for the lack of security preparation for this rally, which was planned in advance, like most of the aforementioned meetings of the elite — planned in advance because the joint session of Congress was, too. And it also accounts for the fact that people were engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the police and not getting shot. No group of white anarchists has ever tried to do what they did. If we did, we’d be shot.
And in case I need to explain why the far right get systematically treated with kid gloves, or just ignored entirely, when they want to have a rally in Portland or Charlottesville or Washington, long before this attack on the Capitol?
Because, as we are learning daily with new revelations about who was involved with the Capitol siege, the police largely are already on their side.
David Rovics has been called the musical voice of the progressive movement in the US. Since the mid-90’s, Rovics has spent most of his time on the road, playing hundreds of shows every year throughout North America, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and Japan. He has shared the stage regularly with leading intellectuals, activists, politicians, musicians and celebrities. In recent years he’s added children’s music and essay-writing to his repertoire. More importantly, he’s really good. He will make you laugh, he will make you cry, and he will make the revolution irresistible. Check out his pamphlet: Sing for Your Supper: A DIY Guide to Playing Music, Writing Songs, and Booking Your Own Gigs