“Insurrection” Usurped

The January 6th storming of the U.S. Capitol building by a rightwing mob has launched “insurrection” into the center of American discourse, demanding that we reckon with this term and its connotations. As a member of the editorial committee that founded this magazine, I have been asked and have had to grapple with whether or not to double down on our controversial name. But to grant the pro-Trump “insurrection” monopoly over the meaning of the word is, I believe, to declare undue defeat.

The events of January 6th should be taken as an invitation to acknowledge the differences between movements, radicalisms, and insurrections that are neither equivalent nor inherently positive. The “Insurrect!” of our title gives away its own commitments in the “thought” of its subtitle and in our mission statement. We want to inspire and support brave thinking. The directive to “insurrect!” coupled with a headless Columbus statue is an invitation to unseat the national fantasies that many hold dear, to let go of the past as destination and instead to consider it soberly as a guide through which to address present-day inequality, racism, misogyny, environmental devastation , and other forms of injustice and exploitation. 

Our title is meant to evoke the specter that haunted white supremacy from the founding of the United States: the rebellion of the enslaved. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson listed the Crown’s crimes against the colonies, among them the incitement of “domestic insurrections”—the freeing and arming of enslaved people to fight for the British. Written a decade later, his Notes on the State of Virginia articulates what to him was a nightmare vision of a “revolution of the wheel of fortune.” He wrote: “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submission on the other. […] Indeed, I tremble for this country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever” (170-71). The sleeping justice in the mind is what we hope Insurrect! awakens. It is a call cast broadly across centuries, from the abolitionists of the past to those seeking justice in the present, an invitation to “seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger,” as Walter Benjamin once defined the writing of history.

Many progressives are justifiably squeamish about insurrection, since U.S. history provides so many examples of the insurrection of the powerful: the slaveholders and settlers of the Revolutionary War, for example, yelping loudly after freedom, or the “rebels” of the South, who until several weeks ago never managed to fly the bars and stars in Washington, D.C. But we should not make the mistake of drawing a false equivalence between white supremacist “insurrectionists” with their wealthy and powerful co-conspirators and the insurrections of the powerless: uprisings that are conspicuously missing from many textbooks, like the establishment of an independent maroon state in Jamaica by Captain Cudjoe and Nanny in the mid-18th century, later taken up as a precedent for the American Revolution; and the slave revolt in Saint Domingue and establishment of Haiti, news of which rang loudly across the hemisphere and inspired uprisings among the enslaved in the U.S., helping to pave the way for abolition.

If our title unsettles, I consider it a beneficial provocation. As a pacifist on both strategic and ethical grounds, I feel productively unnerved by it, forced to finally confront what justice really is or should be. To denounce the idea of insurrection altogether would contradict Toussaint L’Ouverture, who together with the leaders of the slave uprising in Saint Domingue wrote to the Colonial Assembly: “For too long we have borne your chains without thinking of shaking them off, but any authority which is not founded on virtue and humanity, and which only tends to subject one’s fellow man to slavery, must come to an end.” This was a demand for substantive judgment, a challenge to the very legitimacy of the assembly and not an appeal couched in existing legal frameworks. 

It is, finally, an open question whether the storming of Congress really counts as an “insurrection” at all. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as “the action of rising in arms or open resistance against established authority or governmental restraint.” One governmental authority, then the sitting president, directed a crowd full of militia members to take another branch of the government by force with the support of many elected officials, some of whom were in the mob. It might therefore be more accurate to call the events of 1/6 a failed coup d’etat (OED: “a sudden and great change in the government carried out violently or illegally by the ruling power”). Even more convincing is the case that the siege was really a lynch mob: members of the crowd set up a noose, chanted “Hang Mike Pence,” raised the Confederate flag in the capitol building, and as U.S. representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez chillingly attested, the focalization of violent attention on her and other congresswomen of color resurrected her painful trauma of sexual assault, and a collective memory of misogynist and racist mob violence.

Under the new administration, the repudiation of those “insurrectionists” of January 6th now opens the door to further crackdowns on leftist activism. The rhetoric around the threat of domestic terror from the White House has been conspicuously vague: “domestic violent extremism” and “radicalization” are the targets as the National Security Council considers various ways to expand their purview. The primary outcome of that horrific day seems likely to be a stronger surveillance state, despite the fact that advanced knowledge was not lacking: federal law enforcement knew what the rioters that day had been planning. Some may claim that exempting anti-fascists (Antifa) and certain Black Lives Matter organizers from the category of domestic insurrectionists would constitute preferential treatment and a subjective value judgment. Thankfully, a loud chorus of commentators has already suggested that this is a false equivalence, arguing correctly that the left intends nothing remotely as murderous as the mob of January 6th. The hypothetical question “what if the mob had been Black?” is also moot: as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor points out, a group of Black demonstrators would not even have had the option of being that mob; “they never would have been in the position to lay siege to the Capitol in the first place.” Preferential treatment is being given to white riots, if anything. And there is an unignorable substantive difference between the movement for Black lives and the lynch mob of January 6th: some causes that oppose existing legal frameworks promote human flourishing while others mean to curtail it. The tricky question of moral right and wrong must enter into what is being presented to the public as a question of legality and security. An overreliance on liberal procedure, moral relativism, and longstanding categories of criminality and terrorism threatens to lead us endlessly around the traffic circle of the present. 

Here is where the research presented in this publication may be useful. This is, among other things, a venue in which to grapple with the grounds on which insurrectionists of the past resisted unjust laws. We need vigorous public debate about what constitutes a just movement or even insurrection; what histories of degradation grant a group or people the right to extralegal reprisal; and what has historically given movements, including the insurrectionists of 1776, that legitimacy in the past. As my fellow editor Liz Polcha reminds me, the January 6th mob was underwritten by a white supremacist historical fantasy that will continue to fuel the neo-fascist movement as long as it persists: echoing the white supremacists of 1898, they called this their “1776 moment”and named themselves “patriots.” It is exactly this fantasy that Insurrect! aims to deflate. To the extent that knowledge makes a difference, teachers and researchers can never hope to disrupt this neo-fascist hallucination until we put forward an unapologetically anti-fascist view of America’s past.

Special thanks to Liz Polcha, Efren Lopez and Lila Chambers for contributing ideas and providing valuable feedback.

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