Will Harris, a junior University of Georgia international affairs major, spent much of the summer at home in Atlanta while Black Lives Matter protesters marched down the street near his house. At the time, Harris’ mother urged him not to participate for fear of facing serious injury from the tear gas and rubber bullets repeatedly used by law enforcement on peaceful protesters. In both Atlanta and Athens, police tear-gassed protesters while the National Guard was deployed.
Conversely, videos of Wednesday’s insurrection in the U.S. Capitol showed police retreating and refusing to use force while dozens of domestic terrorists strolled through the Capitol. The insurrection interrupted Congress’s confirmation of the Electoral College’s vote declaring Joe Biden as president-elect.
“And now here we are with, I guess you could call them sore losers, storming the nation’s Capitol, a federal building, being met with such little resistance,” Harris said. “It really makes you think, does your Black life, does your Black voice just not even matter that much?”
The attack on Wednesday afternoon began shortly after a joint session of Congress had separated to deliberate objections to the certification of the Electoral College vote in Arizona. The mob had attended a Trump rally down the street, where President Donald Trump encouraged them to go to the Capitol to express their anger at the results of the election.
The insurrection took roughly four hours to quell and resulted in the death of four rioters, severe property damage and a six-hour delay of the Electoral College certification. The National Guard took hours to arrive at the Capitol on Wednesday due to Trump’s initial refusal to order their deployment. Vice President Mike Pence eventually made the order.
Many in the UGA and Athens communities drew comparisons to the dramatically different government and police responses to the BLM protests in Athens last summer.
“Race plays a part”
On May 31 in Athens, 19 peaceful BLM protesters were tear-gassed and arrested at the Arch for breaking a 9 p.m. curfew that was instituted at 9:45 p.m. the same night.
“With the protests in Athens, these were again largely peaceful demonstrations and they get tear-gassed for literally no reason, even when there are Athens-local politicians among the crowd, it doesn’t even matter. They just see this as something that needs to be contained rather than a group of people that need to be listened to,” Harris said.
This stood in stark contrast to Trump’s swift deployment of the National Guard to a June 1 BLM protest where chemical agents were used on protesters in D.C. to clear space for Trump to take a photo in front of a church. Harris’ tweet highlighting this discrepancy garnered attention amid the conversations about race brought on by Wednesday’s unrest.
Imagine being black and seeing what’s happening in DC right now versus the way BLM protestors were treated over the summer. Peacefully protesting in your own city is met with more violence than literally storming the nation’s capital. Can’t help but feel that race plays a part.— Will 🏡 (@suburban_will) January 6, 2021
One of the organizers of the May 31 protest was Athens-Clarke County Commissioner and UGA doctoral candidate Mariah Parker. Parker organized several of the Athens BLM protests and marches over the summer, and felt risk accompanied her participation.
“Everytime we took to the streets, I was fully prepared to lose my life or go to jail at the hands of white supremacists, violence or the hands of the police,” Parker said. “Psychologically, that does a number on a person. I definitely live with a heightened awareness of my security and safety these days.”
“I don’t feel safe when I see the police because I know that things like what happened [Wednesday] versus what happened to my friends on the night of May 31, that’s the reality.”
- District 2 Commissioner Mariah Parker
Watching history unfold
Savanna Nolan, a UGA School of Law instruction and faculty services librarian, was already watching Twitter when news of the insurrection started filling her timeline. She compared those early moments to how she felt on Sept. 11, 2001.
“There’s the moments before you kind of fully understand what’s going on, and it happened this way with 9/11 too where you’re just trying to figure out: how big and how bad is this actually?” Nolan said.
After graduating from UGA Law School in 2013, Nolan moved to Washington, where she regularly witnessed peaceful protests at the Capitol, but she said that watching Wednesday’s insurrection felt different.
“But this, seeing it on the TV, there were just so many more people and they were so close to the Capitol and so that was the first sign that something was quite big and quite wrong. It’s just surreal. It’s very surreal,” Nolan said.
Major news outlets reported images of rioters using flagpoles and riot shields to smash the outer windows of the Capitol as the attack began. Dean Matthew Auer of UGA’s School of Public and International Affairs characterized the images of the conflict as deeply disturbing.
“To see the windows of the Capitol smashed, it’s heartbreaking. It’s so upsetting. I mean these are the symbols of our deepest held political values,” Auer said.
“The sacredness of democracy in many ways is embodied in that rotunda.”
- Dean Matthew Auer, School of Public and International Affairs
Auer thinks the insurrection could force politicians to take a hard look in the mirror and reevaluate the rhetoric they used that may have contributed to their constituents' decision to lay siege to the Capitol.
“To see these events, I think is deeply disturbing and it might be just that kind of scared straight moment that encourages some better behavior from the parties post-Jan. 20,” Auer said.
Thursday morning, UGA released a statement by President Jere Morehead that responded to Wednesday’s attack and the certification of the Electoral College vote. The statement expressed UGA’s plan to “preserve these fundamental tenets of a democratic society” moving forward.
“Together, at the University of Georgia, we will continue our work to help build a more perfect union,” Morehead said in the statement.
The statement has already faced severe backlash on social media from students, faculty and alumni. Alumnus Alex Rowell urged Morehead to outwardly condemn the actions of several other UGA alumni currently serving in Congress.
Instead of empty statements, maybe President Morehead can try to educate UGA alumni who voted to reject the certified choice of the voters last night:— Alex Rowell (@AlexRowell) January 7, 2021
Rep. Buddy Carter
Rep. Andrew Clyde
Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene
Leaders from both parties have condemned the violent acts of the mob. In a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp called the insurrection a "disgrace" and "un-American."
At a local level, Parker sees Wednesday’s events as a chance to use policy, not just rhetoric, to bring a divided people together.
“There’s a lot that we need to get done, not just in the way we talk to one another, but how we prove to one another through policy that we care deeply for one another that I think can heal the divides that came to a head [Wednesday],” Parker said.
Parker is also calling for the removal of Georgia’s 10th District representative, Jody Hice, from office following a since-deleted Instagram post that professed his belief that the insurrection was a “1776 moment.”
“The fact that he identified with the insurrectionists, has condoned violent fascist takeover of our country’s Capitol, in addition to trying to undermine the results of the November election is unacceptable for someone who represents the people of the 10th District,” Parker said.
Beyond better political behavior and critical analysis of media, Harris hopes Wednesday’s attack will be used as a case study in white privilege in the application of justice.
“I think what mostly everybody wants in pointing out the hypocrisy in this is justice reform — to see the law applied equally to everyone,” Harris said. “Because this is probably one of the biggest examples of white privilege you’ll ever see, and I think that people are looking for an equal application of justice, especially coming from the party that’s supposed to be the party of law and order. There was no law and order [Wednesday] at all.”