When Protest Becomes Insurgency

Since violent insurgents stormed the US Capitol on January 6th, myriad accounts of what happened have been reported. It is clear that what many believed would be a peaceful protest that was legally permitted by the National Park Service, turned into something altogether different. In contrast to some claims that the actions of January 6th were unexpected (and that is why the Capitol police were so ill-prepared), expectations of violence had been reported far and wide prior to the events last Wednesday. For example, here is a detailed report from the day before the event in the Washington Post.

The distance between peaceful protest and violent confrontation that can turn into an insurgency is smaller than you might expect but it is not a spontaneous process–it involves significant planning and coordination. When we look back over the past 8 months, there were many signs that pro-Trump groups were radicalizing, in terms of the targets of their grievances and the tactics that they were considering. Look back at the ways they responded to COVID restrictions and organized counter protests to Black Lives Matter events in cities for clear signs.

As I noted less than three weeks ago, the current moment is the product of normalizing hate, legitimizing untruths, and emboldening misinformed Americans to challenge the legitimacy of the US government and take up arms in the streets. Yesterday, I published a new piece in Business Insider that asks: How do we stop an insurgency provoked by the President of the United States? How do you douse the flames of hatred, mistrust, and deliberate misinformation that creates a false reality?

The piece ends by noting how differently participants in the insurrection at the US Capitol last week were treated than protesters have been treated at events I have observed while studying protest for the past 20+ years. Although law enforcement is now rounding people up, there’s an enormous difference between escorting people out of the building to go back to their hotels and arresting everyone who breached the building. A clear message was telegraphed on January 6th that Pro-Trump supporters can incite violence, threaten elected officials, and occupy federal buildings with no recourse. We are now seeing some of the participants facing consequences, but I worry that this type of post-hoc response is not sending a strong enough message as groups prepare to return to DC this weekend and stay through the inauguration next week.