It’s November 10th, 1898.
The office of an opposition newspaper is burned to the ground. The newly-elected government is forced to resign at gunpoint. Prominent dissenters are put on a kill list and detained throughout the city. This is just the beginning of the repression.
The city is Wilmington, North Carolina. The putschists are armed white landowners who call themselves “Red Shirts”. Their founding covenant, the “White Declaration of Independence,” calls for the total disenfranchisement of the Black population. Their target would be the Black educated class.
The mob of reactionary fury stormed into a city with an ascendant 55% Black majority, intent on deposing the Republican state government. Wilmington would be so thoroughly brutalized that two years later, in 1900, only thirty-two voters in the city would cast ballots against the (then explicitly white supremacist) Democratic Party. By sunset, as many as 300 people were killed. Most of them were Black.
Despite their lynchings, their bloodshed, and their open disdain of popular sovereignty, whenever the Red Shirts are mentioned in history textbooks — if they are mentioned at all — they are called heroes.
It’s January 6th, 2021.
Thousands of reactionary right-wingers flood Washington, D.C. – a city that is 50.7% Black – intent on deposing a democratically elected leader before he even takes power. Unfortunately, Biden is no radical. But to the crowds of zealots, even the mildest, most basic concession to the humanity of the disadvantaged is unacceptable. A genetic violation of the American compact. Above all, though, in the burning eyes of the well-heeled mob, it was an abomination that had to be annihilated. That day, five people would die.
The U.S. mainstream has seen worse, and objectively so. Every day, more people die preventably to covid than died in 9/11, and it weighs on the establishment’s conscience as heavily as a feather. But the spectacle is undeniable. The symbols of U.S. republicanism and its inviolability were set on fire for the entire world to see. And the supposedly-neutral Capitol Police, its guardians, weren’t simply “overwhelmed” – they opened gates, lifted barriers, and did all in their ability to enable a reactionary coup against the U.S. government.
To the MSNBC pundit and the New York Times writer, the day’s events seemed impossible. Sacrilegious. A violation of sense. As though the crowds of pickup truck driving contractors, hair salon owners, and private jet enthusiasts had just materialized out of thin air — maybe from the same shadowy crevices from which Antifa and Russians and all sorts of boogeymen spring forth fully-formed from the social fabric. January 6th, however, wasn’t unpredictable. It wasn’t even unexpected.
January 6th happened because the white petite bourgeoisie did what they always do when they feel the neglect of wider society; when their envy of the haute bourgeoisie chokes their throats; when their aspirations and their anxieties meld into a whirlwind of rage. The nation’s enterprising small business owners marched on the government, terrorized the weak, and reinforced their will through abject disregard of humanity.
This isn’t a new phenomenon in the U.S. The enforcement of racial hatred by the strong against the weak is a common occurrence in this country’s history. Occurrence, though, is too incidental a word. It implies a simple deviation from a divinely-derived progression of events; one where, with just a little tilting of the cart, the country can hop the track and restore its status as a beacon of liberty. Nothing could be further from the truth. The white insurrection is endemic; it is genetic; it is formative for the very concept of a United States of America.
American rebellion is not the cry of the oppressed, but rather the shriek of the oppressor.
It’s September 19th, 1676.
Nathaniel Bacon has seemingly rallied the outcasts of the Chesapeake into one united force against the colonial government of Sir William Berkeley, appointed by King Charles II of England. The first united front against power in colonial U.S. history, supposedly, marches into Jamestown, Virginia and burns the city to the ground. Hundreds perish with the city. It would never again play a major role in colonial politics.
This is Bacon’s Rebellion – a predecessor to the American War of Independence to some and the first multi-ethnic coalition against power in U.S. history to others. Some unity of the oppressed, specifically between white indentured servants and Black slaves, did occur. However, an analysis of Nathaniel Bacon as an individual complicates these perceptions.
Nathaniel Bacon was a small landowner living on the fringe of the Virginia colony. Clashes between colonial smallholders and Indigenous nations broke out around the Chesapeake region in 1675, almost always at the instigation of the former. In one instance, a militia from Maryland would murder 5 chiefs after an invitation to parley during a siege.
This violence was turned against the colonial administration as Sir Berkeley advocated for a policy of mere containment. For this stance, he and his government were pillocked by Bacon for being “too soft” on their Indigenous problem. Cruel words advanced into crueler action when in the summer of 1676, Bacon’s militia marched on Jamestown. The much-touted popular front, in essence, was an opportunistic struggle for freedom by the indentured and the enslaved themselves.
Bacon’s Rebellion, in aims, was not liberatory. It was a reactionary assertion of the will of an imperial upper-middle class. And it would end up setting a pattern in American history.
It’s July 4th, 1776.
The Declaration of Independence is ratified by representatives of the colonial white upper-middle class in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Fourteen of fifty-six are plantation owners. Forty-one of fifty-six own slaves. They have the benefit of Enlightenment philosophy, a literate base of support, and the backing of Britain’s greatest rival to justify their seizure of power.
Enlightenment thought — supposedly the basis of the U.S.’s casus belli (i.e. its basic reasoning for war) — was really more of a means to an end. While the nascent democratism that would erupt in France nearly 25 years later was well-known among the urban intelligentsia, this wasn’t a qualitative factor in the separation. What mattered, in deciding whether the U.S. ought to separate from Britain, was that colonial smallholders felt threatened by the Crown.
Taxation – the oft-cited singular spark – restrained colonial landowners, but other factors were more pressing. These were the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the Quebec Act, and the rise of abolitionism in Great Britain.
The Proclamation and the Quebec Act imposed upon what the colonial yeoman and plantation owner needed to survive – a constant, ever-expanding supply of land. The former reserved all lands west of a boundary through the Appalachians for Indigenous nations in 1773, and the latter expanded the border of French Catholic Quebec through the Ohio River valley. The yeomanry, who relied on an ever-increasing supply of land to survive as a class, were galvanized against London.
Abolitionism in Britain proved decisive. While much of the South was staunchly pro-Britain in the early 1770s, in the metropole the first “freedom suits”, legal challenges to slavery had been heard since the 1750s. And in 1772, Somerset v. Stewart won. Within a few years, Southern will to actively defend British rule evaporated.
It’s not coincidental that the birth of the United States was concurrent with the material frustration of a colonial gentry.
The United States was born in the crucible of white insurrection. It experienced it before its birth. It experienced it when it was born. It experienced it in 1898, when white supremacy snuffed out the last political breaths of Black Reconstruction. And it experienced it on January 6th, when the nation’s white upper-middle class quixotically tased itself in the hallways of the Capitol.
In a country that sanitizes its history as much as the United States, it’s easy to think that the storming of the Capitol was a fluke. A historical aberration. A hiccup in the system. But it isn’t – this is a result of the system working just as it should. White insurrection, in the United States, is a common phenomenon that serves a common purpose. That purpose is to reassert the interests of the white petite bourgeoisie just as their interests seem under threat. It is an in-built stop-gap measure, and it directly benefits the most reactionary people in the country.
January 6th happened in response to the past summer’s risings for racial justice on the streets of every major city in the U.S.; in response to an unprecedented number of people uniting to struggle against the status quo; in response, generally, to a galvanization of the popular mind. And in the face of such a brilliant force, those reactionaries – the very same brokers and business owners who would scale the Capitol walls – were horrified.
While 21st century reaction’s first wave has receded, its attendant ocean of systemic hate can – and if threatened, will – spawn another. It could be 4 years. It could be 40. But fascism becomes strongest when popular consciousness burns hottest. That consciousness was demonstrated at the Minneapolis Third Precinct last summer, just as it’s demonstrated every single day by those who continue to fight for a future that could be. Through that struggle, a new solidarity is born. And under the weight of the contradictions of this still-new millennium, it will solidify into a diamond.
It’s important to keep in mind: night is always darkest before dawn.