Robert Azzi: Inauguration: A nation where all are created equal

For the Monitor
Published: 1/19/2021 6:20:05 AM

On Election Day 1920, “A white mob massacred some sixty black people in Ocoee, Florida … burning black homes and businesses to the ground, lynching and castrating black men, and driving the remaining black population out of town, after a black man tried to vote, ” Isabel Wilkerson wrote in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.

On Election Day 2020, as Joe Biden was about to defeat President Donald Trump by 74 electoral votes, a more sophisticated iteration of political lynching emerged as Trump attempted to disenfranchise millions of mostly Black voters, in selected urban centers, by lying about their legitimacy.

It is, perhaps, who we are.

In 1921, in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as America’s “Black Wall Street,” white residents, in one of the most horrific racist massacres in American history, killed hundreds of people and burned and razed 35 city blocks – including a hospital, school, and several churches – all because its residents had committed the unforgivable sin of being both Black and successful, for the sin of being uppity.

It is, perhaps, who we are.

In 2021, for the first time since 1814, in an insurgency incited by President Trump, the U.S. Capitol was breached, sacked, and desecrated by feces and urine excreted by white supremacists.

The United States Capitol – sacred space to many – is not only a powerful symbol of our democracy but the place where, since Henry Clay, Americans have paid tribute to many of its heroes – from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Rosa Parks, and Rev. Billy Graham to Abraham Lincoln, JFK, and Ronald Reagan; from John R. Lewis to Unknown Soldiers of world wars and many others – heroes who have lain in state or in honor after serving their country.

Today, we recognize Capitol Hill as the place where, on Jan. 6, 2021, Americans died as the result of lies and incitement by an American president, perhaps assisted by members of Congress or security forces – a place where, according to some Justice Department prosecutors, “Strong evidence … supports that the intent of the Capitol rioters was to capture and assassinate elected officials in the United States government.”

A place where a gallows with a lynching noose was erected on Capitol grounds, where a Confederate battle flag was paraded through sacred halls, where Vice President Mike Pence was threatened with death, where sedition, treason, and insurrection rent America’s fragile fabric.

It is, perhaps, who we are.

Columnist Karen Attiah suggested, in the Washington Post, that if the insurrection had happened in a foreign country, here’s how Western media would have covered it: “Political violence and rioting exploded in the United States on Wednesday as extremists loyal to right-wing leader Donald Trump stormed the legislative building in the nation’s capital, Washington, forcing lawmakers to go into hiding in secure locations.”

On Jan. 6, 2021, as Washington was under siege, state officials even had to evacuate several states capitols to protect against local mobs incited by an autocrat who believes in the supremacy of one group over others, who “nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge [Asimov],’ ” believes only white votes matter – that if only white votes were counted he would win by a landslide.

It is, perhaps, who we truly are.

The Capitol attack was a successor event to the Civil War, to Ocoee and Tulsa, to the assassinations of MLK and Medgar Evers, to sundown towns and red-lining, to the murders of Tamir Rice, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake – a successor event to the Ku Klux Klan, to Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, to the Oklahoma City bombing, to Birtherism, to the slaughter at Mother Emanuel Church.

The attack reminded us that white supremacism is alive and well.

The attack affirmed that the seditious and treasonous criminals who attacked the Capitol were Trump followers acting not just on his lies about alleged voter fraud in 2020 but on generations of racially based resentments and grievances based on a historic mythology of white supremacism and exceptionalism – which Trump had exploited for years.

Today, what matters is to affirm, without apology or caveats, that an insurrection erupted in Washington and that we need to hold the perpetrators responsible, starting with the impeachment and conviction of President Trump for incitement.

“Let me be very clear: The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America,” President-elect Joe Biden said. “Do not represent who we are.”

It wasn’t chaos, Mr. President-elect; it was an attempted coup d’état and if you are to move the nation forward you need to recognize that the insurrectionists’ goal was to overthrow the government by denying the franchise to Americans whom they perceive to be unlike themselves.

Today, in America, we live in a nation where myths persist, where lies are embraced, where tens of millions of Americans are willing to use violence in order to deny to many Americans Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

It is time for a new vision.

On Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 1961, Robert Frost, to honor John F. Kennedy, recited his poem, “The Gift Outright,” which begins: “The land was ours before we were the land’s… Such as we were we gave ourselves outright (The deed of gift was many deeds of war) …”

Frost’s poem, a carefully crafted tribute honoring American exceptionalism and white privilege, was empty of acknowledgement of slavery, genocide, colonization, exploitation, and hundreds of years of marginalizing non-white, non-privileged peoples.

Frost’s “ours” and “we” – words today extolled by supremacists in national discourse, evoke an emptiness of history, emptiness unresolved to this day.

Such emptiness has too-long sustained our myths.

On Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 2021, President Joe Biden must affirm to the nation that the days of emptiness and myth are behind us and affirm that what we have been, what we may be, is not who we can today become – a nation where all are created equal.

(Robert Azzi, a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter, can be reached at His columns are archived at


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