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Published — January 8, 2021

Words matter: Was the attack on the Capitol a rally, protest or insurrection?

A mob of President Donald Trump supporters breaks into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The question remains how history will record the events that resulted in mayhem at the U.S. Capitol. 


What happened at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6?

Depends on whom you ask. To some, the attack by hundreds of mostly white men and women was an insurrection. To others it was a coup. 

The participants billed themselves as patriots, even as they paraded the hallways with the Confederate battle flag and took down the stars and stripes and replaced it with a Trump campaign banner; to leaders of Congress from both parties, they were domestic terrorists. 

And the question remains how history will record events that resulted in the interruption of Congress’ certification of the presidential election, the occupation and ransacking of Congressional chambers and offices, and the deaths of at least four people. Was it a rally that got out of hand, a protest or an insurrection? How will history remember a president who urged them on in a campaign to overthrow the results of a valid election that he lost by more than 7 million votes?

Were the men and women who breached the building demonstrators or seditionists?

“Words like insurrectors, rioters, a mob are not typically words that we would use to describe white supremacist rallies or pro-Trump rallies,” said Danielle Kilgo, a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota. “It was different to see that kind of description — an accurate description — for these kinds of protests that are usually shrouded in privilege. It’s not a privilege that Black Lives Matter protests tend to enjoy because of their almost automatic association for the potential for violence and rioting.”

Not 24 hours passed from when Georgia, dominated by Republicans for decades, made history by electing the first Black Democrat to the U.S. Senate before the mob rushed the U.S. Capitol and desecrated the country’s center of power, a space built by slaves centuries ago and largely led by wealthy white men today.

“People recognized that there was going to be a turning the page in American history and they were not going to be a footnote,” said Bobby J. Donaldson, associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina. “The president encouraged them to let your voice be heard and they took him seriously.”

Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser called Wednesday’s insurgency “textbook terrorism,’ while reading the legal definition during a press conference Thursday afternoon. 

Acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin said Thursday that his office may consider Trump’s remarks prior to the riot in its investigation.

In the run up to Wednesday’s riot, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas cited the 1877 Compromise as reason to delay Senate confirmation of Joe Biden’s presidential win. It is infamous for ending Reconstruction after the Civil War and leading to the disenfranchisement of Black people for generations.

Reconstruction was an experiment in interracial democracy, and it was deliberately undermined at the hands of terrorism, voter suppression and mob violence, Donaldson said. 

Even after Wednesday’s violence interrupted the certification of the presidential vote on Wednesday, Cruz was joined by five other senators and 121 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, all Republicans, in objecting to the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the first woman and first Black woman to ever be elected to the vice presidency.

In this charged moment, “words have power. The rhetoric matters,” said historian Michael Landis, author of Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis.

“Both sides are claiming the side of freedom and liberty and patriotism,” Landis said. “Each side gets riled up with that rhetoric and those words. They have impact. But they’re devoid of meaning, especially if you’re not thinking about it. Are you fighting for the country that was or the country that will be? Which patriot are you?”

Jamie Smith Hopkins contributed to this story.

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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