Statement of the Peace and Justice Studies Association Regarding the January 6, 2021 Attack on the US Capitol

Statement of the Peace and Justice Studies Association Regarding the January 6, 2021 Attack on the US Capitol

In the wake of the events of January 6, which saw an angry mob’s shocking attempt to seize the Capitol Building, and ostensibly, harm members of Congress who were debating the question of certifying the election of Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris, we, the Peace and Justice Studies Association (PJSA), have concluded we must speak out. We are the US-Canadian affiliate of the International Peace Research Association (IPRA) and the primary academic society for peace and conflict studies scholars and activist in the US and Canada. 

While the insurrectionary action catalyzed by Donald Trump was shocking, it was not surprising. Most citizens willing to listen, observe, and think critically and morally, knew from the beginning of Mr. Trump’s campaign for the presidency that his attempt at leadership would go from bad to worse, and end up in some form of authoritarianism. In our classrooms and peacebuilding contexts, our members have issued this warning from the start. But we do not wish to simply lament the regressive path that led to this mob action, let alone the storming of our nation’s Capitol itself. We want to speak from our unique professional perspective.

The Capitol attacks on January 6 were a loud cymbal crash that followed a long-building crescendo. We do not merely reference the past four years. The fact is, white supremacy and its concomitant white fear, resentment, and anger, have been with us since the founding of the nation and became amplified when Reconstruction failed. The United States has always been a place of gross inequality and grave injustice, and yet ironically, part of the brew of victimology rehearsed in white souls is the fear that this country will be fully shared, rather than controlled by white power. Those persons screaming at cameras, telling the world that their “freedoms” have been lost, or that they are losing “their” country, are not a small minority. One need only visit, for example, the presidential campaigns of Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan to see that the narrative fires of victimhood and resentment have been stoked for decades, precisely in corresponding relationship to the growth of rightwing dominance exhibited in news media, the judiciary, and political culture. Centuries of pain and injustice, and decades of rising white supremacist ideology, have brought us to this moment. Donald J. Trump is as much a consequence, an epiphenomenon, and a symptom of this narrative as he is a catalyst for its inevitable eruption.

As we increasingly try to understand how we came to this terrifying moment, we will need to bring greater acuity and courage to our analyses than we have heard in mainstream venues so far. We must turn to collective self-evaluation that is relentless and vigilant. We must note how the US has a long-held propensity to run from hard conversations and painful truths. One of these, surely, is America’s history of both covertly and overtly installing, shaping, undermining and overthrowing regimes in other countries when they do not serve U.S. interests – not only dictatorial and hostile regimes, but also fairly elected democratic governments (see Chile, Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, to name but a few). Was it not conceivable that this interventionist tradition might eventually come to include and divide America itself? 

We cannot repair and rebuild unless we recognize the truth of our failings and our tendencies to gloss over destructive conflict, rather than transform it into constructive change. We must put our hands to the plow and do the hard work necessary to build peace in this time of tension. As John Paul Lederach puts it, “between the fierce now and the long arc” of the justice that Martin Luther King proclaimed, difficult questions must be confronted. Perhaps our social contract is not merely torn. Perhaps we have never really had such a contract at all. Perhaps there have existed two contracts, one for the rich and powerful, and another for those who have been disenfranchised, distraught, disempowered, and exploited. And perhaps our pathology will grow until a shared contract that guarantees equality and freedom, access to opportunity, dignity and respect, and human security for all is finally written and put into force.

How might we respond to the cacophony, catastrophe, and crisis? How might we respond to ever-louder crescendos and clashing cymbals of violence that will almost certainly come? What might our hard work entail? Let us, at the least, consider these observations. 

We must wrestle with the fear and anger of whiteness as well as the privilege. People of color suffer gross disparities in the United States. The inequality is stunning. If you read the Tricontinental Institute (Vijay Prasad) 2nd Newsletter of 2021 there they say: “Between 1990 and 2020, US billionaires saw their wealth increase by 1,130%, while median wealth in the US increased by only 5.37% (this increase was even more marked during the pandemic).” Yet white folks, and white men specifically, overwhelmingly comprise those ready to use violence in the service of their sense of loss. White folks constitute these aggrieved numbers who believe the government has turned against them. This irony points to what Eddie Glaude, Jr. calls “the value gap”—the fact that in the US, white lives are valued more than other lives. Addressing this moral affront is long overdue. This systemic problem is visible everywhere. As many have already noted, if the persons who made their way to the Capitol Building had been mostly black, brown, and native, they would have been stopped with deadly force. The militarized and brutal response of police to black and brown bodies this past summer is evidence of this. The very week that white fearmongers, operating on a motivational tableau of lies, stormed the seat of national government, a police officer was acquitted from facing charges for shooting a black man in the back seven times in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Others have also noted that in the wake of the carnage, it is mostly brown and black persons we see working to clean up and clear up the detritus, beginning the work to repair the physical space. 

We must hold space for legitimate protest. Democracy demands we do so. But dignified nonviolent protest is something much different than the vandalizing and violent riot of January 6th. Peacebuilding includes a long and powerful history of protest that brings social and political change for justice and freedom. But it is important to distinguish between the elements of such constructive protest against injustice and violence, and riotous violence on behalf of fabricated grievances that are not substantiated.

We must not be afraid of conflict, but rather embrace it with care and courage. Conflict can be honorable and healthy. Conflict is essential to learning. Peace and conflict scholars observe that conflict can be managed and transformed peacefully. Conflict can be turned from destructive modes of expression into constructive modes of operation. Our discipline and profession teach the means to engage in such transformation.

We must take the skills of conflict transformation, peacebuilding, mediation, and reconciliation that are used in “conflict” and “post-conflict” zones outside of the US and apply them here. Many of us, for example, have paid close attention to, and, have had experience with the Northern Ireland conflict and peacebuilding process. We have seen how neighbors, those who share social and political institutions, a religion, a language, and other features of shared social life, turned on one another and conducted a brutal 30-year war rather softly called “The Troubles” (1968-1998). We know how possible it is for conflict in the US to be stoked rather than transformed, built up rather than broken down. The nonviolent skills that have been put into great effect across the globe, in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, must urgently be put to use in the US.

We must immerse ourselves in the methodologies of understanding, a critical part of out work that too often is subverted by disingenuous debate. Those who feel alienated and angry, left out and losing, must be listened to and understood. Some work has begun toward this objective, but we are far from having the sufficient knowledge and the necessary concomitant empathy. Of course, the responsibility of understanding falls on all of us. Those who call for violence against Democrats and Republicans who are seen as traitors to Donald Trump, call for a removal of “the deep state” and for “revolution.” But they have been far from clear as to what they actually want. Perhaps they want good paying jobs, lower taxes, affordable health care, and so-called “conservative” judges. But a revolution is not needed to accomplish these objectives. What do they mean by “the deep state”? What freedoms have they lost? Perhaps these lost “freedoms” could be named more accurately as lost “privileges” formerly linked to specific racialized and gendered identities. We must work much harder to understand one another, but part of this task requires that a concrete set of desires and objectives be presented. 

We must engage not only in a robust program of epistemology—learning to understand one another (and ourselves), but also, we must engage in the peacebuilding, conflict transformation, mediation, and reconciliation methodologies that are successful elsewhere. We need a program that engages in moral courage with all seriousness. This is one area where many religious institutions have failed. Do the churches that support Donald Trump no longer teach the “Golden Rule”? What became of the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, the moral teaching of Jesus and the New Testament?

We must discover, demand, and build democracy. Democracy is built on the foundations of equality. Equality makes justice, freedom, opportunity, and human security possible. Democracy is a moral theory and a moral practice. It is far more than a set of legal and governmental edifices. It is common for US citizens to speak of their country as a democracy, or to lament the democracy that has now been put on life support. One view is that we did not have democracy in the US until black citizens were included in it in the 1960s. The more truthful view is, there has been precious little democracy in the US from the founding to the present. There are a number of staple features of democracy that are still not practiced in the US. Gerrymandering, the Electoral College, and the billions poured into political campaigning and legislating, for example, undercut the possibility that each citizen’s vote counts equally. There are many valuable texts that explicate democracy, but we suggest the reader consult, for starters, the brief essay, Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century produced by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The truth is everything written above is about democracy. The United States has little chance of being a decent society without democracy. Many on the right have feared democracy all along, which is part of the project of white supremacy, and keeping power where power already lies. But the time has come: we call for a democratic future and getting on with the work of bringing it into existence.

This work cannot be entered into without hope. We must hope. Hope is the engine of change. Hope should never be fear-based. Real hope is always an expression of courage. We are living through an all-hands-on-deck moment in history. Clarity of purpose, vision, and resolve are necessary. We must do the work to build an inclusive democracy; a future of justice and freedom shared equally by all. 

Members of the Peace and Justice Studies Association prepare students to carry out this work around the world and we engage in it ourselves. It is time to bring these efforts to the United States of America. Each January we set a day aside to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who taught us these profound truths. Let us honor him and the work of the movement to which he belonged, by also committing ourselves to the democratic and nonviolent work of breaking down barriers, building up communities, equalizing the structures of opportunity, and moving the US toward greater justice. We must embrace the hope and courage needed for this dangerous, yet possibility-packed, moment. 

 – The Peace and Justice Studies Association

January 15, 2021