White supremacist violence at Capitol was anything but unprecedented

White supremacist violence at Capitol was anything but unprecedented. Convict Trump to stop the cycle
5 min read
12 Feb, 2021
Comment: To ignore the US' historical precedent of violent white insurrectionists is to leave the door open to it happening again and again, writes Zaina Ujayli.
The majority of Republicans already planned to acquit the former president [Getty]

The only thing perhaps more shocking than the disturbing videos shown during former President Trump's impeachment trial this week, has been the disregard paid to the trial by Republican Senators and Trump's defense team. 

Former President Trump's defense team used only three of the sixteen hours allotted to them to make the case against the prosecution today. Of those three hours, they took time playing a video spliced with multiple Democratic representatives and journalists saying "fight" - a video that had both Democrats and Republicans in the room laughing.

The lawyers' amusing evidence, their decision to use so little of their allotted time, as well as the general incomprehensibility and disorganisation of their statements, testifies to their disregard for the proceedings.

But why should they have put in the effort, when they knew they'd won before the trial even began?

The majority of Republicans planned to acquit the former president before even hearing the evidence. And so it's unsurprising that Republicans demonstrated so little respect during the trial. Senators ignored videos, walked out of the proceedings, and some skipped the trial altogether. Even as they criticised the defense's poor showing, they still planned to vote in their favour. 

Angry white mobs storming government buildings are not flash bangs in American history. They were not unprecedented in 1898, and they certainly aren't today

Their woeful disregard for the proceedings, in large part comes down to the fact that they do not take the January 6 insurrection seriously. Their argument is that an angry white mob storming the Capitol is an exception, a historical flash bang, unprecedented and never to be repeated. Claims to the contrary, they say, are "political theatre".

However, that argument has no foundation in American history. Just because the January 6 mob was denied the chance to stand before our elected officials with guns in hand, does not mean that mobs like them have not succeeded in doing so before.

Here is a historical precedent many of us don't learn in school: America's only successful coup d'etat ever happened in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898, when white supremacists forced democratically elected members of Wilmington's biracial government to resign at gunpoint. 

Preceding the insurrection, Wilmington had a majority black population and prominent black members of the community served in elected office - North Carolina even sent four black members to Congress. After Democrats lost elections in 1894 and 1896 to a biracial Republican government, they built a platform on white supremacy.

Furnifold Simmons, the 1898 Democratic Party Chair, summarised their agenda: "North Carolina is a WHITE MAN'S STATE and WHITE MEN will rule it, and they will crush the party of Negro domination beneath a majority so overwhelming that no other party will ever dare to attempt to establish negro rule here." 

After stoking racial fear and tension, the Democratic party allied with local white militias on November 8, 1898 to stop black and Republican voters from going to the ballots. They succeeded, however, the Wilmington Republicans remained in power. And so, the Democrats mobilised a mob of 2,000 angry white men and staged an insurrection on November 10, 1898.

They destroyed black businesses, massacred over 60 black Wilmington residents, and sent others into hiding in swamps and graveyards. During the violence, the Democrats forced the Wilmington mayor and other elected officials to resign at gunpoint and elected new members to replace them. The events on November 10, would be, and remain, the only successful coup d'etat in American history.

While there are substantial differences between the January 6, 2021 insurrection and the November 10, 1898 coup d'etat, they both have in common the decision of a group of angry white men to storm a government building to protest, and attempt to unseat a democratically elected government. 

I revisit the 1898 Wilmington coup d'etat to highlight that angry white mobs storming government buildings are not flash bangs in American history. They were not unprecedented in 1898, and they certainly aren't unprecedented today. We cannot dismiss them as exceptions to the norm, dramatic events to be studied in isolation. 

No, the actions of angry American mobs contesting democratically elected representatives have had lasting historical consequences on our political fabric as a nation. Where the January 6 insurrectionists failed, the November 10 insurrectionists succeeded. After 1898, many of Wilmington's black residents fled and the city lost its majority black population. A White Declaration of Independence was printed in the local paper and the city's first racial hierarchy laws passed.

North Carolina wouldn't send another black representative to Congress until 1992.

To vote to convict a former president is not about merely punishing one man for his words, but to set the precedent in our democracy

The danger of this historical precedent is what makes the willful and gross negligence of several Senators during the impeachment proceedings so disturbing. If this impeachment trial ends with the defense receiving the acquittal they expected after a laughable trial and incomprehensible arguments, proving that the Republicans would cast their votes regardless of the evidence shown, we have a problem in our government far more pressing than this case.

It tells us that our legislative bodies are so partisan that they would willfully ignore the danger of their actions. 

And, if history has taught us anything, it is that dismissing white mobs has been a dangerous precedent in American history. To vote to convict a former president is not about merely punishing one man for his words, but to set the precedent in our democracy that inciting violence and crying "stop the steal" is not a permitted response to losing a democratic election.

As the prosecution appealed, this impeachment trial isn't only about Trump. It's about precedent - both the history that led us to this moment, and the lesson we give to the future of how we recognise, confront, or ignore political insurrection. As Representative Diana DeGette said: "Unless we take action, the violence is only just beginning." 

And when it starts, none of us can say we did not see it coming.

Zaina Ujayli is an MA student at The University of Virginia focusing on nineteenth and twentieth century Arab and Arab American writers.

Follow her on Twitter: @zainaujayli

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.