“Unity” is the word that white people use when they want to accommodate and appease the forces of white supremacy. It’s what made antislavery whites in the North compromise and unite with rapists and murderers who held human beings as farm animals, in order to have a Constitution. It’s what made Abraham Lincoln, the so-called Great Emancipator, offer “charity” instead of “malice” to the violent insurrectionists he had just beaten. It’s the word white people invoked when they advocated the imprisonment of “outside agitators” like Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis during the civil rights era. “Unity” is what oppressors always call for when they seek amnesty for their actions.
The calls for unity from House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, Senator Marco Rubio, and any number of Republicans who have enabled and emboldened Donald Trump for years are nothing more than a veiled threat: Accept the violence already committed, or risk additional violence against you.
We must not bow to the threat. Trump and his band of insurrectionists must face justice. It’s not a coincidence that the people who seem most clear-eyed now about what must be done to hold Trump and Republicans in Congress accountable are women, especially women of color. They understand what kind of “unity” the Republicans are truly offering, and they are the ones who are having none of it.
Representative Cori Bush, freshman congresswoman from Missouri, is calling on the House of Representatives to expel the members of Congress who tried to overturn the will of the people by overthrowing the election. We can argue around the edges whether every single member who voted to block the certification of the Electoral College results, all 139 members of the House and eight members of the Senate, should be thrown out of the body. Personally, I think they should be. The foundational reason for the attack on our democracy, and the proximate cause of the siege of the Capitol, was the core claim that the votes of Black people who gave Joe Biden his margin of victory in swing states should be rejected. I do not see how you can be a representative of our government if you so openly believe that the Black people living under this government shouldn’t count, that their votes are illegitimate, and that the electoral will of 81 million people should be summarily rejected because 74 million people disagreed.
Still, I suppose we can, at least, debate the issue of what should happen to the 147 members who gave comfort to the insurrectionists. But there can be no debate about what should happen if any House members are found to have directly aided the attack on the Capitol. The attempted coup has scarcely been investigated, and you can’t indict someone based on amateur reconstructed time lines—but those reconstructed time lines are certainly alarming.
Representative Mikie Sherrill says she saw members of Congress give “reconnaissance tours” to rioters ahead of the attack. Ali Alexander, one of the principal organizers of “Stop the Steal,” claims that Representatives Andy Biggs, Mo Brooks, and Paul Gosar helped him plan the protest-turned-attack. Representative Lauren Boebert tweeted out that Speaker Nancy Pelosi was being moved during the attack, even though she was instructed not to and her tweet at the very least told the people hunting for Pelosi where not to look. And Representative Ayanna Pressley reported that she discovered, mid-siege, that the panic buttons had been removed from her office.
Meanwhile, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told her followers in an Instagram Live chat that she had such grave concerns about her Republican colleagues’ sympathies that she feared they would lead the rioters to her so they could do her harm.
Most people have heard all of these stories by now, as the details of the Capitol attack dribble out, one harrowing anecdote at a time. But I think, as we once again try to hold Trump responsible for his criminal actions, the focus on Trump fails to appreciate the scope of the threat we face, the broad extent of the guilt: It is possible that some of the people elected to serve in the US government may have aided and abetted a plot to force Congress—through threats and acts of intimidation, violence, and vengeance—to declare Trump the winner of the presidential election.
You do not “unify” with those people. You do not wave to them across the aisle or smile at them in the elevator. You find them, whether they go back home to their districts or flee to Argentina, and you hold them accountable for their crimes. That is the only way to move forward safely.
If any congressperson is found to have aided the rioters with information, they must not only be expunged from office and prevented, through Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, from ever holding office again; they must also be charged and tried for conspiracy. It’s not divisive to hold such people accountable; it is divisive to let them walk free.
You know what else isn’t divisive? Holding accountable those congresspeople who turned themselves into biological weapons by refusing to wear masks while sheltering with dozens of colleagues during the siege. On January 12, Representatives Bonnie Watson Coleman and Pramila Jayapal put forward a resolution to fine members of Congress who refuse to wear masks as a precaution from Covid-19. Later that evening, after the resolution passed, Nancy Pelosi implemented it. As she should have.
Coleman and Jayapal both contracted Covid-19 after being forced to shelter with unmasked Republicans. So did Representative Brad Schneider and Pressley’s husband. Coleman is a 75-year-old immunocompromised cancer survivor. How can we have “unity” with people so committed to an anti-science, “objectively pro-Covid” stance that they won’t take minimum precautions to protect their own colleagues? Republican members of Congress turned the attack on the government into a super-spreader event.
Republican indifference to health, logic, and life shows why Republican feelings cannot be consulted before holding them accountable for their actions. The Republican Party refuses to acknowledge the basic factors that put lives at risk. There is no other job in the country where people are allowed to put the lives of their coworkers at risk as blatantly as Republicans do when they refuse to wear a mask. What is the appropriate “collegial” response to a coworker who willfully takes steps to infect you with a deadly disease? What is the appropriate censure for a colleague who does the 2021 equivalent of spitting in your lunch?
And the Republicans aren’t just careless about Covid-19. There is no measure of workplace safety they feel compelled to respect. After the violent attack on the Capitol, the House sergeant at arms ordered that metal detectors be put in place to screen Congress and staff before they headed to the floor. Republicans not only objected to this; some of them allegedly pushed past the security forces—after triggering the magnetometer’s alarms—and entered without going through the metal detector.
The Capitol Police didn’t shoot them or restrain them (as they would have done to any Black person who tried to evade a congressional metal detector). Instead, they just let them go.
And this is why Republicans continue to act out. Republicans behave like spoiled children who have never been told “no” because they are spoiled children who have never been told “no.” The members of Congress threatening the government are people who do what they do because they expect to get away with it. They don’t expect to be caught, tried, and convicted for any of their actions. They don’t expect to be expelled and removed from Congress. They don’t expect to lose an election. They don’t expect to be fined or reprimanded. They don’t even expect to be given a time-out.
Republicans expect to win. Whether that “win” means overthrowing the government or killing a 75-year-old colleague or bullying the Capitol Police, they expect to get away with it.
And if they lose, they expect unity. They expect others to “reach across the aisle.” They expect their violent, extremist, dangerous conduct to be forgiven, forgotten, and ignored in the spirit of “moving forward” and “bipartisanship.”
We can move forward. But we can and should move forward in the spirit of justice, as demanded by the women of color in our government. Justice is the goal, safety its reward. Bush and Jayapal and Coleman understand this. We must listen to them.
To do anything less than hold these Republicans accountable would restart the cycle of violence. And it only ever gets worse.