by Kristiana de Leon, ASEO Board Member and City Council Member in Black Diamond, Washington
When I think of the harrowing and traumatic events that have marked the psyche of our nation, those “where were you when…” moments that transform our collective national story, I do not have confidence that the January 6 insurrection—or a similar attack on the Governor’s Mansion in my state of Washington—will be one of them.
I’m a Millennial. The 9/11 attacks, the day when we watched looming skyscrapers burn and tumble to the ground as first responders rushed into the scenes that everyone else fled, mark my generation’s collective psyche. For the subsequent years afterwards, 9/11 was everywhere. The insignia of NYPD and FDNY became fashion statements. It was used to justifiy declarations of war on the other side of the world (remember “If you’re not with us you’re with the terrorists?”). 9/11 literally governed every thought and decision we made as a nation. To this day, every year, we’re reminded to “never forget.” The assassination of JFK and the attacks on Pearl Harbor marked the generations earlier. If we go back even farther, I imagine this is what it was like when the bombing of the British ship Lusitania was led the United States into World War I. School House Rock made ditties about “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” that spurred the Revolutionary War.
While these historic events typically galvanized Americans,the anniversary of January 6 was marked with little more than a shrug and a whimper. The number of people taking this fascist and nearly successful assault on our democratic institutions is consistently dwindling and being vilified as nothing other than partisan “gotchas,” even though the calls to “Hang Mike Pence” were just as strong as the excitement to murder AOC in cold blood.
Immediately after the January 6 attacks on the Capitol in 2020, mycolleagues in City Council all shared the same sentiment of disgust over what happened. There were calls for us to do better, be better, and—strive for unity. (And yes, I do find it’s worth noting that these same groups also calling for unity after January 6 also called for the, although when I saw their calls to execution of elected officials)., so I have to wonder if “unity” meant who was standing around the scaffolds.) The hopeful signs that we might have a national reckoning with ze January 6 in a similar way that we had for 9/11 were all there last year.
Except it didn’t happen. Bipartisan support for real accountability faded away. The moment of silence in Congress only had one Republican Congresswoman in attendance (and her father, the Vice President from the 9/11 years). For me personally, I was the only one in my elected position to make a statement about January 6, and even still, I wondered if such a commentary would similarly be seen as “partisan.” My local Republican party is led by people who were at the insurrection. Most television programming carried on like business as usual, with the most heavy-hitting coverage left more to either vapid soundbytes or to intellectual discourse. We are not asking “where do we go from here?”
We’re not learning our lessons as a nation. On January 6, 2021, I was at home, quarantining from a COVID scare. January 6, 2022 rolled around, and Omicron has made COVID cases surge to unprecedented heights as our pandemic-fatigued society has largely exchanged slowing the virus in favor of a semblance of “returning to normal.” We’re not learning, and not even pretending to #thoughtsandprayers our way out of this.
Reflecting upon previous events that rallied us as a nation, the common denominator is an “otherised” villain. 9/11 was met by unprecedented spikes in hate crimes against Muslim and Sikh Americans. Pearl Harbor spurred villainization of Asian Americans and the creation of Japanese American concentration camps – the kind of demonization that made the COVID-19 pandemic and further assaults on Asian Americans even more painful. The JFK conspiracy theories were not exempt from heavy dollops of racism and xenophobia. Even the start of World War I caused German Americans to stifle speaking their language while anglicizing their names, while the Declaration of Independence rallied American colonists to fight the British as a proxy against the “merciless Indian s*****s.”
January 6 is different for this very reason. To #NeverForget the insurrection is to hold a mirror up to power in America as we’ve known it, since its inception. Since Europeans first planted flags on once-foreign shores in the name of God, Gold, and Glory and trafficked human beings as slaves because the indigenous people died “too quickly” from the pandemics that the Europeans brought along. The January 6 insurrectionists were overwhelmingly white, male, largely white collar, English speaking, able-bodied…and practitioners of the Trumpian denomination White Nationalist religion. Their Christian beliefs justified their attack on our democracy , just as the generations before them also committed unspeakable violence against their neighbors in the name of Jesus. The memorializing of January 6 (or lack there of) echoes the way we have papered over the history of genocidal tragedies and equally traumatic events on U.S. shores and abroad that we’d prefer forget.Rather, as we saw in school board elections throughout 2021, there is an active movement to quell any attempt to honestly reckon with the truth of our history. As a nation, these realities make us uncomfortable.
Where do we go from here? I don’t know. I asked that very question when I commemorated January 6 as a councilmember. I chose to serve my community for a variety of reasons. Almost all were as practical as it gets—I cared about the safety of our roads and about the future of our environment and green spaces in my city. Another overarching reason was because I was horrified to see the increase in overt hate crimes and hate speech in my community, from racist and transphobic slurs on park fences to neo-Nazi recruiting posters downtown, and I wanted to take action. As I learned after choosing to run for office, the opponent I was challenging was a leader in a state 3% group, a group that long rallied for the same kinds of “civil wars” and other violent actions that we later saw play out on January 6.
These groups have long been rallying their members to run for these local offices to build their legitimacy.Given what I’ve witnessed since I was elected, January 6 was not so much a shock to me. It’s what inevitably happens when you put a lid on a pot of boiling water..
For me, as it is for so many of us secular and allied elected officials, I want to do the very work of governance that people in local office are expected to do, the kind of “business as normal” that the job description of local office entails. Fill the potholes. Build the sidewalks. Ensure the water is drinkable. Zone for parks. Make sure someone can put out the fires. And yet, here we have fires going on all around us, as the religion of white nationalism was only told to “go home” as they were “very special.” While it is good that some of the insurrectionists are being held accountable through the justice system, their actions have only further opened Pandora’s box. The movement continues to rally and reconfigure. The same people who rallied for violence are continuing to seek and win offices at all levels. Simply rejecting white supremacy is seen as partisan, and it shouldn’t be.
So, where do we go from here?
I am still not sure, but one thing is for certain—we need to double down on empowering more diverse communities, including the atheist and humanist community. Since January 6, I became more overt and intentional about how I speak about being an out secular official. The secular movement must be front and center in how we move forward from January 6. With the increasing rise of the “nones,” I want to see more people either in elected office or contemplating jumping in who not only do not affiliate with white Christian nationalism, but who are actively looking for better alternatives to “business as usual.”
The atheist and humanist community needs to increase its political clout to help build a safer, more just, and more mindful America that is inclusive and that values our diversity of gender, race, ethnicity, religion (including lack thereof), sexual orientation, language, ability, and more. One of the reasons the pushback has been so violent is because a small but powerful portion of the population feels threatened. They know their power is waning and that our movement, when organized, is a force to be reckoned with. The insurrectionists may have destroyed the gates to the Capitol and continue to gatekeep our institutions, but it is up to us to break down those metaphorical gates to build a government that actually reflects and represents all of us. We might be on the precipice of collapsing into fascism, but…this is still a democracy, if we can keep it.