I was at the Republican convention in 2016 and could see the Jan. 6 riot coming
The scene in Cleveland presaged the attack on the Capitol
If I close my eyes, I can still taste that Shake Shack hamburger. Double patty, lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, ketchup, side of fries and even more ketchup. And, because I was on a diet, I had bottled water instead of soda. I can still hear everything, smell everything, remember everything. I was there at the beginning.
I sat on the steps of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in downtown Cleveland in July 2016. The 126-year-old statue was erected to honor Civil War veterans — a fact that wasn’t lost on me then and definitely not this week as I, along with the rest of the world, watched the president of the United States incite a riot that led to the Capitol being overtaken by domestic terrorists. A mob with Confederate flags, pipe bombs and pistols waltzed through one of the most powerful government buildings in the world, spreading feces and urinating on the steps. I recognized the look in their eyes. It’s the same look I saw in Cleveland almost five years ago.
Back then, they were in Cleveland for the 2016 Republican National Convention and to nominate Donald Trump as the party’s candidate for president. I can replay the scene in my head even now.
Sitting beside me on those steps was a white guy smoking a blunt. Like nearly everyone else, he was wearing that red hat. He asked if I wanted to smoke.
“Nah,” I said getting up and walking away. “I’m good.”
I was born at night — but not last night. For all I know he was an undercover cop. Regardless, getting high with a Trump supporter isn’t my idea of racial unity.
I moved to the other side of the monument to watch the anti-abortion activists. It was ugly, and not just because of the pictures of aborted babies on their signs. I still hear them yelling: “The most dangerous place for a Black baby is a Black womb!”
Fifty feet away was a Second Amendment crowd. They were coming to take their country back, they said, by choice or by force. It seemed like they’d prefer force.
Almost everyone was strapped. Handguns, assault rifles, shotguns, you name it. They were ordering food with guns on the counter, swapping guns and loading guns out in the open. One man told me — he wasn’t asking — to take a picture of him and his friend while they posed with pieces in holsters and their Make America Great Again hats. “Make us look gangster,” he said, with a smirk on his face. It was microaggression, and one intended to get a rise out of me. To which I answered with the same response I gave to the guy who offered me the blunt.
“Nah, I’m good.”
As I walked away, I heard some openly yearn to use those guns. They couldn’t wait for the “hunt” — their words, not mine. They were basking in what I had doubted on the flight there but couldn’t deny now. They were unified, unlike the Democratic Party at the time, which was split between presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. The 2016 election was still four months away, but I knew: Donald Trump was going to be the next president of the United States.
Further down the street were the vendors, mostly Black, selling cellphone cases, T-shirts, pants, underwear — any and everything with Trump’s mug on it, including mugs.
The energy and excitement were palpable that week in Cleveland. These folks weren’t just voting for Trump. They were pledging their lives to him. That was true then, and it’s undeniable now. So, on Wednesday, when Trump unchained his minions, punch-drunk off lies of election fraud, and let them run amok on the U.S. Capitol, I wasn’t surprised. No Black person was, because this was always going to happen. And I’m not saying that in a gloating way. I’m saying it because I saw it coming in the summer of 2016.
Within a 24-hour span this week, Georgia turned bluer with Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff winning its Senate runoff races — in large part to the Black vote spearheaded by Stacey Abrams and the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream. But Kenosha County, Wisconsin, District Attorney Michael Graveley announced police officer Rusten Sheskey wouldn’t face charges for shooting Jacob Blake seven times last summer and leaving him paralyzed. And the president essentially ordered an attack on a government institution because he was fired from his job.
“It’s a ‘f— you’ to every Black person in America who goes through these things,” said Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green. “They wanna show you they have power. They wanna show you, ‘I can say f— you and there’s nothing you can do about it.’ That’s just what this country is. That’s just what this country has been, and like I said before — that’s where this country probably will stay.”
That’s why the phrase “America’s better than this” isn’t just annoying. It’s dangerous. Isn’t this the same America that bombed a city block in Nashville, Tennessee, on Christmas? The same America that can’t deal with the worst public health crisis in a century? That America? Those same rioters this week proclaimed for years that #BlueLivesMatter — and then at least one of them killed a cop this week at the Capitol. That America?
What happened in Washington on Wednesday is as American as the Fourth of July and Monday Night Football. From the rioters scaling the Capitol, Black maintenance workers cleaning up the white mob’s wreckage to the bigotry of law enforcement protocol that led to the Capitol Police chief’s resignation.
There’s one scene that will forever stick with me from Wednesday’s attack. One that’s indicative of what Black people such as Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Colin Kaepernick and the Black Lives Matter movement have been preaching for generations. CNN cameras captured a police officer helping an elderly white woman down the Capitol steps. There’s no need for the comparative analysis because we know. Trump’s army knows, too.
But if there is any poetic justice — if there’s something Black folks are laughing at — it’s this. Two things, actually. First, there’s nothing we need to fix because we didn’t break anything. And second, after the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, Trump signed an executive order that made destroying federal property punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Sirens still soundtrack the streets of downtown Washington. Not as much as Wednesday, but enough to let a person know a domestic terrorist attack took place here this week.
It’s not as if America’s ills began or will end when Trump becomes a private citizen in two weeks. What happened Wednesday comes with the territory. Because the lesson is what it’s always been: America’s not better than this. America is this.