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This MLK Day, his message is as poignant as ever after Capitol racism, N.C. leaders say

UPDATED: Sun., Jan. 17, 2021

Martha Quillin The News & Observer

RALEIGH, N.C. — In what is sure to become an iconic documentary photo, rioters climbing the west wall of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in their jeans and winter coats are starkly silhouetted against the building’s pale gray stone.

As the siege played out for hours on laptops and TVs, many Americans who watched couldn’t help but see another glaring contrast: the relative ease with which hundreds of mostly white supporters of President Donald Trump were able to illegally occupy the building that serves as the heart of American democracy on the day Congress planned to affirm the victors of the 2020 presidential election.

Similar numbers of protesters who gathered in Washington last June to demonstrate against the killing of George Floyd were met by federal officers who sprayed them with chemical agents and rubber bullets. But the pro-Trump crowd, displaying white nationalist and evangelical Christian symbols, was able to overpower police and hold the Capitol for hours while members of Congress hid in darkened rooms and texted grim messages to their families.

Five people died during the attempted insurrection, including a police officer.

Slain Civil Rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birth and life will be honored on the annual federal holiday on Monday, would not have condoned any violent protest. In his lifetime, King came to believe that non-violent protest — refusing to cooperate with an evil system — could be the most effective tool in bringing about social change.

The Rev. Dr. Anthony T. Spearman, president of the N.C. NAACP, recognized the zip ties that one of the insurrectionists at the Capitol had in his possession when approached by police.

“Plastic handcuffs,” Spearman said in an interview with The News & Observer. “I know them all too well from the Moral Monday Movement, from having them placed on my wrists at least three times.”

Between 2003 and 2008, police made more than 1,000 arrests at Moral Monday events, when protesters came to the N.C. Legislative Building in downtown Raleigh to push for changes in laws seen as oppressive or discriminatory. Some protesters were charged with trespassing with such regularity they knew some of their arresting officers by name.

Riveted to live coverage of the Jan. 6 siege in Washington that followed a speech by President Trump at a rally of his supporters, Spearman was outraged, he said.

“One of the things that was infuriating each time I heard it was when a reporter would refer to those people as protesters,” Spearman said. “That’s not protesting. That is straight-out terrorism.”

Spearman has heard the comparisons to protests held by followers of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer. According to the U.S. Crisis Monitor, there were more than 7,750 demonstrations across the U.S. linked to the BLM movement, which rose up against police brutality and racism. Violent or destructive behavior was associated with 220 of those protests, the research group found.

“How dare you?” Spearman asked. “How dare you frame what was happening (at the Capitol) as protest? That’s trying to understand it as something that was allowable or permissible. To me, to even say the words ‘armed protest’ is a dichotomy. What do you mean, ‘armed protest’? If people are armed, it’s terrorism.

“This is the divide that we are seeing play itself out.”

For further proof of racist double standards, Spearman said he has to look no further than Cumberland County, where he has deep family roots through both parents. He believes some of his ancestors likely were sold as slaves at the Market House, built in 1838 and still situated at the center of downtown Fayetteville.

Two men, one Black, one Latino set fire to the building last May during a Black Lives Matter protest. They were arrested on federal charges and pleaded guilty in November. They are expected to be sentenced this month to a minimum of five years in prison each.

So far, many of the charges against rioters who breached the Capitol are misdemeanors.

“I would love to say that we’re moving forward on racial equity,” Spearman said. ”But the reality to me is that … until we can come to terms and move off of the table some of the policies that are in place that prevent us from really taking a long, hard look at our capitalistic structure and racist infrastructure, we are going to continue to be in a holding pattern, thinking that we are making progress but really making very little at all.”

The Rev. Chalice Overy knew Congress planned to argue on Jan. 6 over challenges to the validity of election results in several states before ultimately affirming the election of Joe Biden as president and Kamala Harris as vice president.

She didn’t care to watch.

“I was really trying to ignore it because I really just did not want to give the president and those who support him any more energy, in light of the fact that a new administration is coming in,” Overy said. “I wanted to give energy to looking ahead, imagining new possibilities.”

So she was working on plans for a Zoom meeting that night with some members of her congregation at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh when senior pastor Nancy Petty texted to ask, “Do you see what’s going on?”

When Overy tuned in, she said what she saw was the release of anger that began welling up with the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, his reelection in 2012 and the fanning of racist resentment throughout the four years of the Trump administration.

“There is really no other explanation for the reason why all those people would feel comfortable enough to scale walls, knock down barriers and walk into the Capitol at a time when some of the most important work of democracy was taking place,” said Overy, a programming coordinator at Pullen. “Attempting to derail that and believing that ultimately they would be OK — not fearing the repercussions that might come — that is white supremacy.”

Some of what was on display during the riot, Overy said, “was some people’s reaction to feeling that something is slipping away from them, and I believe that is white supremacy, the ability to legislate in a way that is unjust.”

It is hard to watch, she said, but it might portend something better.

“ I believe that’s an indicator that more substantial change is taking place, that what we will see in the future is better outcomes for all people, even for some of the people who were at the Capitol and who are poor and disenfranchised themselves.”

Normally, Pullen would hold a joint worship service with Raleigh’s Martin Street Baptist Church to honor MLK Day, and participate in the Triangle Martin Luther King Jr. Committee’s annual Interfaith Prayer Breakfast and the MLK Day march. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be no march and this year’s prayer breakfast will be a virtual event from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Monday. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church will speak on the theme, “Love is the Way.”

Overy said she believes that the reemergence of blatant racism and a lack of compassion for the lives of Black and Brown people indicate the U.S. has gone backward on issues of racial equity over the past four years.

Her hope in moving forward again lies less with the new administration than with other people of good will, including some, she said, who might have been Trump supporters but were appalled by the extremism of the Capitol attack.

“My hope lies in the capacity of many people to lead, in the philosophy of (human rights activist) Ella Baker: that strong people don’t need strong leaders. All of us can make an impact.”

America should not have been shocked by the actions of the angry mob that attacked police officers and vandalized the Capitol on Jan. 6, or by the visions of violence against elected officials they shared online beforehand, Rev. William J. Barber II said.

“It has happened before,” he said: to Native Americans, Blacks, Chinese immigrants, labor organizers, civil rights workers and others. Most often, Barber said, mobs have moved against groups they have been deliberately led to believe are a threat to their way of life. The crowd at the Capitol moved on the belief — refuted in dozens of state and federal court cases — that a record turnout of voters of every race and background had stolen the presidential election from Donald Trump and upset Republicans’ majority in the U.S. Senate.

Barber, a co-founder of the national Poor People’s Campaign and pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, said it would be a mistake to blame the siege only on Trump, who encouraged thousands of supporters at a rally to march to the Capitol, saying, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

Barber said the president was using the time-worn political strategy of dividing Americans against each other, using racial or economic differences or claims of socialist or communist beliefs as a way of controlling them. Lawmakers and their consultants are complicit in fomenting the divisions, Barber said.

“The minds of people become so septic, and they commit not just in their imagination to words at a rally, but there are signals and signs to go forth and do violence,” Barber said. “It’s almost like when the body gets septic with illness and it starts kicking and jerking.”

Organizers for the Poor People’s Campaign have canceled in-person MLK Day “marchavans” planned in various states, because of threats of violence in the wake of the Capitol attack. But Barber will preach Monday during a virtual interfaith service that will begin at 1 p.m., focusing on a line deep in King’s last speech, given the night before he was assassinated in Memphis, when he was tired and discouraged but told an audience, “Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point” in the struggle for change.

Because of its extremism, Barber said, the riot in Washington provides a moment in which America is considering where it is as a society.

“In the pain of this moment,” Barber said, “it is important in the Kingian tradition that we don’t just fast-track impeachment. We’ve got to do that. But we’ve also got to fast-track a moral agenda that deals with injustice. We don’t want to just arrest the people in the mob. We want to put forth an agenda that arrests the attention of the nation.”

When she was in high school in Louisiana in the late 1970s, Lucy Dinner and a classmate went to visit a Ku Klux Klan bookstore in New Orleans as part of a social studies class. Dinner, now rabbi of Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, and her friend were struck by the cartoon imagery being sold as literature and truth on the store’s shelves.

“Who could possibly believe this stuff?” Dinner said she asked her friend as they looked at the book covers featuring Blacks and Jews as devils.

In a few minutes, she said, a young boy walked into the store, about 7 years old. He was out of school for the day and joining one of his parents, who ran the store. Suddenly, Dinner said, she understood how someone could come to believe the pamphlets’ propaganda.

Today, Dinner said, America is like that 7-year-old being bombarded with hate such as what she saw on display during the riot in Washington Jan. 6.

“How we respond to the hate being propagated in our country right now will shape this generation.”

Video and photos from the Capitol siege feature a man from Virginia in a T-shirt emblazoned with “Camp Auschwitz,” and other references celebrating the Holocaust, during which Nazis murdered 6 million European Jews and at least 5 million prisoners of war.

It would be easy to be discouraged by the rise in racism and in anti-Semitism, which Dinner said children in her temple have experienced in recent years.

“But I’m an optimistic person by makeup,” Dinner said. On this MILK Day, she said, “I believe very deeply the theology that love will rise. And that love can and will conquer hate. That gives me hope.

“It doesn’t necessarily translate into change in this moment, in this year or even in this decade,” Dinner said. “But in the long run, I believe that justice and love will rise and that people will come to understand that they and their families and our world are in a better place when we live by love for all and respect for all and justice for all.”

Borrowing a phrase from modern writers discussing the legacies current generations will leave for those to come, Hope Morgan Ward says she hopes “to be a good ancestor” to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

When they read about the Jan. 6 siege at the U.S. Capitol, she wonders, “What will our grandchildren say of our witness to the world? What do we want to teach them? What do we want to embody and model for them?”

Ward, bishop of the N.C. Conference of the United Methodist Church, which serves Eastern North Carolina, said she hopes that future generations will see that this one did not sleep through a revolution, as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put it in a sermon at the National Cathedral in March 1968.

In the sermon, King was referring to Rip Van Winkle, who in the legend went to sleep when King George III ruled America and awoke when George Washington was president. King said there were several revolutions happening at the time: in human rights, technology and weaponry.

Ward said some people have been ignoring the resurgence of white supremacy in America.

“The signaling language is sufficiently shrouded that it’s possible for white people to sleep through it,” Ward said. “It’s possible to sleep through what’s happening now, even with it on our TV screens.

“There is a willfulness to it, whether that is conscious or unconscious,” she said. “As humans,we naturally hold at a distance that which is uncomfortable, which demands something from us. But we are called to do the work of waking up.”

Ward said she hopes that the images of the violence and vandalism during the Capitol attack will be enough to shake some people, “So that we who are human are awake to what is hard and ugly and hurtful and harmful, so that we can create a world of abundant life and safety and joy and peace.”

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