For many area community members who protested white supremacy during the summer of 2017, Wednesday’s insurrection in Washington was not a shock.
On Wednesday, rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol building after President Donald Trump called on Americans to fight against Congress’s count of electoral votes.
Local activist Emily Gorcenski said Wednesday’s events had been predicted by activists and extremists as conservative groups openly planned their trips to Washington.
“It was very much in line with what we have seen throughout the entirety of President Trump’s administration, and it was announced and it was planned for weeks in advance, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise,” she said.
In a statement, Chief Steven Sund, head of the U.S. Capitol Police, said the police “had a robust plan established to address anticipated First Amendment activities.”
“But make no mistake — these mass riots were not First Amendment activities; they were criminal riotous behavior,” he said. Later Thursday, he announced that he will resign effective Jan. 16.
Gorcenski, who was pepper-sprayed on Aug.11, 2017, when white nationalists marched on the University of Virginia Grounds, said it’s hard to predict how violent these events could get because it’s difficult to separate the rhetoric from the intention.
“I think that what we have seen time and time again is people underestimating the capacity for violence,” she said. “We saw this in Charlottesville three years ago, when people were saying, ‘Oh, this is just rhetoric; we can’t use this to deny the permit, we have to give them their right to free speech.’ I’m sorry, but these were people who were talking about coming in and cracking Black people’s skulls, and then they came in and they cracked Black people’s skulls.”
In 2017, ahead of the Unite the Right rally, local activists called for the city to prohibit the event, citing threats of violence online. After an attempt to move the rally to another park, a federal judge granted an injunction allowing the rally to be held in the downtown park, saying the city’s decision to move it was based on the content of the organizers’ speech, rather than public safety factors.
Many far-right Trump supporters had posted online about their plans ahead of Wednesday and U.S. Capitol Police were still not prepared, reported ProPublica.
Tim Gionet, who goes by Baked Alaska, and Nick Fuentes, who both attended Unite the Right, were in Washington on Wednesday.
In an interview Thursday, local activist Jalane Schmidt quoted poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou.
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time,” Schmidt said. “They don’t see the danger of it. People of color do, and people who fight for racial justice, we do. We take it very seriously because there’s the whole history here of violence and police don’t see that.”
Don Gathers, another local activist, called Wednesday’s siege “another act in a never-ending play.”
“You can’t ignore that type of mindset and that ideology; that’s what’s driven their growth so much in the last few years,” he said. “… You certainly have to address it.”
Joseph Giacalone, a retired New York City police sergeant and adjunct professor at John Jay College, said Wednesday was “like deja vu all over again.”
“How does law enforcement not learn from mistakes, like we saw in Charlottesville, and how and why are we still making these mistakes?” he said.
Giacalone cited a photo by Getty staff member Win McNamee of a rioter in the Senate Chamber with multiple large zip ties in his hands, typically used by police, as someone who “needs to be found, arrested and debriefed” about his plans.
“There were some bad intentions yesterday, and luckily we didn’t see that part of it happen, but it was going to get a whole lot worse than it actually was,” he said.
Giacalone said there is a backstory that needs to be investigated.
“They seem to have had plenty of time to be prepared for the summer protests, right?” he said. “We saw all the pictures of the National Guard and the cops in riot gear and stuff like that, so you kind of scratch your head about what’s happening behind the scenes here.”
Schmidt said law enforcement should direct their attention toward the threat of far-right extremism, rather than chasing potential “antifa” agitators and local activists. In late 2020, the Department of Homeland Security said in an assessment that violent white supremacy was the “most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland”
“There’s more tolerance, I perceive, among law enforcement for these far-right, elements — they’re not seen as a threat to public order,” she said. “I’ve said this before, that’s because order, as construed in our country, is around white supremacy, so they don’t perceive this as a threat. What they perceive as a threat is someone who is attempting to overturn white supremacy, because that’s the frame within which they’re operating.”
Virginia’s U.S. senators, Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner, and 7th District Rep. Abigail Spanberger, all Democrats, have called for Trump’s removal, while 5th District Rep. Bob Good on Wednesday said he was “proud” of his objection to electoral votes from six states.
On Thursday, a small group gathered outside the Albemarle County Office Building to show support for removing Trump from office. The group will again hold a vigil with signs at 4 p.m. Friday in front of Charlottesville’s federal courthouse.
Gorcenski said that to stop riots from happening again, existing laws need to be fairly and appropriately enforced, contrasting police actions used against Black Lives Matter protesters over the summer versus what transpired Wednesday. She said the media needs to “stop reflexively trying to force a neutrality into a situation where there is no neutrality” and that social media companies need to do more to stop people in power from using their platforms to spread conspiracies.
“We need to realize that these forces, the way that we are consuming information, is making this country sick, and until we actually address that, then we don’t have any chance of preventing the next one of these, much like our failure to address what happened in Charlottesville led to a chain of events that brought us here,” she said. “Until we do that, we’re going to just keep saying this.”
Gorcenski said next time an attack happens, people shouldn’t be surprised, and she thinks that America has “a deeply flawed culture and a deeply flawed society, but one that still has this immense potential to become something better.”
“If we want to become something better, we have to go out and make that the reality,” she said. “I just hope that people are hopeful about those things and would just be more willing to see the person who’s looking back at you in the mirror.”