To talk about the attempted Capitol coup, I must make frequent use of the word “rage.” Not the entitled white rage of the insurrectionists, which I and many others have already talked about enough. I’m referring to my own anger—the rising rage I felt over hours of watching, in real time, white supremacists not so much laying siege to the national seat of government as strolling unbothered into the building. Thousands of white terrorists were allowed to spend a whole afternoon just hanging out on the Capitol lawn, chilling on its stairways, waving fascist flags from its terraces, a spectacle of menacing whiteness just doing its carefree thing.
Black folks like LaQuan McDonald and Freddie Gray were murdered for looking at cops the wrong way, but here I was watching police hand-holding white terrorists down the Capitol stairs. Police fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice for having a toy gun and being Black, but the white folks on my screen with real guns were allowed to shut down the government, brawl with cops, and walk out unscathed. Apparently, the white supremacist state prefers white supremacist terror to Black anti-racist resistance, even when that terror leaves a trail of broken police bodies and dead cops in its wake. The Capitol insurrection may have, at least for now, failed as a coup. But it succeeded in reminding the rest of us that American whiteness is American freedom.
My anger over all this has tested my ideals. In particular, my commitment to prison abolition. And as of this writing, I’m failing that test miserably.
Let me say here that I still believe we should be working toward a society without prisons. The state offers incarceration as the sole remedy to every criminal harm, falsely conflating retribution with justice. This cycle of eye-for-an-eye revenge has put 2.3 million people behind bars—more than any other country in both raw numbers and per capita—with millions more living under correctional surveillance through parole and probation. We know Black and brown people are disproportionately targeted by a racist carceral system rife with physical violence, sexual abuses, and psychological torture inflicted by solitary confinement. And yet, study after study proves locking people up doesn’t reduce crime—in fact, mass incarceration has destroyed countless families and communities, yielding the very conditions that produce crime. I believe there are humane alternatives to imprisonment that, instead of perpetuating violence and trauma, seek to heal the harms done and address the structural issues that lead people to commit crime in the first place. No one, whatever their crime, is irredeemable. And by the same turn, no one deserves the brutal and dehumanizing treatment that’s endemic to our carceral system.
Yet I still want every lawless white-supremacist Capitol insurrectionist to be arrested and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Intellectually and morally, I know nothing good will come out of a continued national reliance on the corrupt racist for-profit prison-industrial complex. But viscerally, my gut is seduced by the statist myth I’ve been steeped in of jail as a route to justice. Not because I think revenge will yield a satisfying end, but because I want white-supremacist violence to be treated, perhaps for the first time in this country’s history, as a serious crime that demands accountability. And on this, I’m not alone.
Writing at The Atlantic, prison abolitionists Neal Gong and Heath Pearson note that in “response to law enforcement’s hands-off approach to the storming of the Capitol on January 6, some on the left have demanded harsher policing of right-wing extremism to match the often-brutal treatment of Black Lives Matter and leftist protest. That is, the very people who supported police reform or outright defunding over the summer seemed to want a crackdown.”
In other words, like me, there are plenty of people who believe that increased criminalization isn’t working—but who want consequences for those criminals who never seem to be handed them. Part of me wants Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis cop who bore down on George Floyd’s neck until long after he had choked him to death, to spend the rest of his life in a prison cell. That same part hopes all three men who took part in the execution of Ahmaud Arbery—who spat the words “fucking nigger” at Arbery as he lay dying—to never experience freedom again. I have wished that Donald Trump and his adviser Stephen Miller, the architect of the administration’s cruelest immigration policies, were jailed in cages just like those they filled with migrant children. I’ve hoped that Kyle Rittenhouse, the white 17-year-old who murdered two Black Lives Matter protesters in August and more recently flashed white-power signs in pics with Proud Boys, will grow into an adult behind bars. And I have fantasized about George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin’s murderer who sued the teen’s bereaved parents for “ruining” his reputation, suffering a lifelong prison sentence. That’s just a partial list.
The only truly immutable law of this land is that Black life has no value to white America, an estimation that denies Black folks justice as both victims and offenders. Again and again, Black folks witness how a biased criminal system—from its cops to its courts—delivers systematically unfair outcomes. What results is a kind of desperation for any semblance of fairness or justice. Michelle Alexander, pointing out how the state presents imprisonment as the one and only response to crime, writes that “when we ask victims “Do you want incarceration?” what we’re really asking is “Do you want something or nothing?” And when any of us are hurt, and when our families and communities are hurting, we want something rather than nothing…. The only thing on offer is prisons, prosecutors and police.”
Black folks are rarely given even that binary choice. And so the conflict between my ideals and my rage is the desperate want to see America’s white-supremacist criminal system—which is, by design, unequipped to punish white supremacy for its harms—finally work for Black folks. That is, I want something rather than nothing, just this once.
And I want white-supremacist violence to be treated like the danger it is. Black folks have been warning about the increasing threat of white terrorism since Barack Obama’s election, and the fears of his assassination by white racists that accompanied it. America’s intelligence agencies have known that white terrorists are the greatest threat to national security since at least 2015, and that only became more true when an open white supremacist became president. But still there was no real response. When the state views peaceful Black protest as more of threat than armed white terrorism, it’s clear white supremacy is the goal.
Yet somehow I foolishly thought that armed white supremacists swarming the Senate chambers to stalk politicians who disagree with them might trigger a self-preservationist response. Instead, a complicit Republican Party is seemingly ensuring an attempted coup will be followed by a successful coup. Recently, The Washington Post reported that, behind closed doors, Justice Department officials are debating waiving charges against some of the Capitol terrorists. And while authorities have since denied the report, most of the white insurrectionists who were apprehended have been allowed to await trial at home. The majority of the estimated 800 Capitol invaders were never even arrested.
Meanwhile, historians compare the Capitol attack and the culture of election lies and conspiracies around it to Germany’s “Stab in the Back” myth that led to the rise of Naziism. German historian Michael Bremmer urges that everyone who “precipitated and carried out the attempted insurrection…must face swift and severe consequences for their actions.” Princeton historian Rhae Lynn Barnes writes that “slavery, Jim Crow and Reconstruction’s failures to prosecute treasonous” Confederates ultimately led to a strain of white-supremacist terror that continues with the Capitol insurrection. Using history as a lesson, both scholars now caution that prosecution and prison is the only way to ensure democracy and national security. And honestly, that message reverberates with me right now.
I know the fear and vengeance that fuel my desire to see Capitol insurrectionists in jail is a reaction to the same systemic abuses that make prison abolition necessary. Of course, American law enforcement, an institution that evolved in part from “slave patrols,” fulfilled its long-standing role as the protector of white supremacy. It’s also no surprise that members of a terrorist mob who spent months openly declaring their intent to kill lawmakers and occupy the Capitol are being undercharged with “misdemeanor trespassing” by federal officials, even as some Black Lives Matter activists face decades in jail for bringing umbrellas to a protest.
But putting those folks in cages would most likely only make them more vicious and violent, and more likely to externalize that violence toward Black people and other nonwhite folks. An abolitionist framework would attempt to locate the underlying and long-standing societal problems that encourage white-supremacist terror to thrive. This is not to absolve any of the full-grown adults who chose to commit multiple crimes, the very least of which was breaching the Capitol, and in some cases included brutal acts of violence and murder. But without question, the Capitol attack is a symptom of a disease in a white settler colony founded on genocide and enslavement, a sickness that was always lethal. If only we were actually committed to addressing the long-standing conditions that permit American fascism to grow, we could transform society in ways that would preclude future white-supremacist insurrections. What’s more, this unfair racist criminal punishment system cannot be trusted to provide equal justice. When, out of desperation, we lean into this corrupt and primitive system, we cosign its abuses and validate its crimes across the board. That’s why decarceration—not just selectively, but for everyone—is the only way to ensure this treacherous system can longer inflict harm.
I recognize that truth, and yet, in this moment, find it hard to square so much else with its overwhelming logic. The orgiastic celebration of white power we saw at the Capitol, on the heels of so much white grievance in recent years, has made me look to the only system I know for answers it cannot provide. For everyone also struggling to reconcile the irreconcilable, I see you right now. I have a lot more work to do to bring my anger into alignment with my desire for things to be better. That will ultimately mean wanting abolition even for those I see as the worst.