Robert Azzi: America: A nation that defaults, still, to whiteness and privilege

For the Monitor
Published: 1/10/2021 6:10:32 AM
Modified: 1/10/2021 6:10:15 AM

I felt very unsafe this week. I didn’t feel unsafe in 2001 when the Indian Parliament was attacked by terrorists belonging to Pakistan-backed Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, or in 2010 when three Chechens attacked Parliament in Grozny, Chechen Republic.

I didn’t feel unsafe in 2013 when Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew – with U.S. and Saudi support – the government of President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected leader; or when followers of Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr invaded Baghdad’s Green Zone and entered parliament.

Such things don’t happen in America, I’ve always told myself – we’re safe here – we’re that shining city on the hill, beacon to the nations of the world of the virtues of freedom and democracy.

We’ve been sold a myth, a myth contradicted, in brutal honesty, by Nobel laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Toni Morrison in 2016, shortly after Donald Trump was elected, who wrote that, “So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength.”

This week, just two weeks after a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was removed from Statuary Hall in Congress and two weeks before Joe Biden will be installed as America’s 46th president, domestic terrorists – perhaps with the complicity of some federal elements – attacked the U.S. Capitol, attacked the foundation of our democratic republic.

In Trump-incited acts of insurrection, Proud Boys, Boogaloos, 3 Percenters, Oath Keepers, QAnon supporters and other allied neo-fascist, anti-Semitic, white supremacist, militia-like groups attacked and attempted to sack a building – built mostly by African Americans, enslaved and free, who quarried the stone and provided most of the labor – that for over 200 years has stood as one of our enduring national symbols.

They were not protesters – they were seditious terrorists differing only in degree from those in Grozny, Cairo, and Baghdad.

The Trump-incited mob also targeted the press. As reported in the Guardian, “Murder the media” was written on a Capitol door and at one point the insurrectionists attacked reporters and their camera equipment while yelling, “F--- the mainstream media.”

“We are the news now,” said one of the rioters.

Trump’s attempted coup d’état wasn’t patriotism – it was terrorism in a world where white privilege and power trump law and order, and it played out on a global stage where the entire world watched, horrified and shocked, as the violence and chaos played out for hours.

Watched as the insurrectionists, some bearing Confederate flags, KKK tattoos, and wielding iron bars were – after desecrating the legislative center of our nation and killing a police officer – permitted to leave unimpeded, many in a festive mood, some with illegally acquired trophies.

This week, in an act of insurrection incited by the same president, racists and white supremacists were allowed to leave without restraint.

Permitted to leave, as was Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old who killed two men and wounded a third in Kenosha, who was then released so he could sleep in his own bed.

Permitted to be as free as Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey, who got a pass for shooting African American Jacob Blake seven times in the back.

Terrorists permitted to be free because they were white, some even pausing for selfies with Capitol Police as they were leaving, because their privilege – in a building built by enslaved labor – trumped their seditious acts.

Terrorists who should’ve been zip-tied and shuffled out of the U.S. Capitol in a slow-moving coffle so that all America could see who the perpetrators were; criminals – faux patriots – whose prejudices and bigotry have been coddled too long and who should face the full force of the American justice system.

Unlike the more than 300 people arrested – journalists and peaceful protesters – in Washington’s Lafayette Square last summer where police and federal agents attacked protesters with smoke canisters, flash-bang grenades, and rubber bullets so that President Trump could have a Bible-waving photo op in front of St. John’s Church, only 52 people were arrested in the attempted coup – 47 of whom were arrested for curfew violations.

President Trump, who incited his followers to march on the Capitol (he told them he’d join them but was too much of a coward to follow through), Rudy Giuliani, who told the terrorists, “Let’s have trial by combat,” and others were the immediate provocateurs, but they aren’t alone in their seditious behavior.

All of America should feel unsafe right now, not just because of the terrorists’ depredations but because of how it was permitted to happen, how it organically evolved – from 2011 when Trump embraced birtherism, to Jan. 6, 2021.

How it evolved from 2015 when he ran on a platform of white supremacism and racism, ran on the caging of children and diminishing of rights and protections of the weakest and most vulnerable among us.

How those who enabled him – from Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, and Josh Hawley to Ben Sasse, Lindsey Graham, William Barr, John Kelly, Jim Mattis, and others in government – to white evangelical leaders, to hedge fund profiteers – even to governors who claim, “I’m a Trump guy, through and through.”

They have all empowered Trump’s seditious acts and this week we – and the world – witnessed who we truly are: a nation, removed hundreds of years from its birth story, that still defaults to the “innocence” of whiteness and privileges of power.

ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said: “The fact that President Trump and his followers didn’t succeed [with overturning the national election] doesn’t change the core fact: Members of Congress who wanted to set aside the Electoral College slate and agitators who stormed the Capitol were both involved in a failed coup attempt. We shudder to think how police departments would have responded had Black and brown individuals stormed a government building to protest police brutality. These are not protests – we know protests. . . . These are acts of violence meant to overthrow the legitimate outcome of a democratic election.”

Wednesday, as Trump’s insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, 3,915 people died of COVID-19, a record high for America, and a record 251,646 new coronavirus cases were reported.

Too many victims, too few sanctuaries, in Trump’s America.

Last week we witnessed, too, a promise of what we might become.

Last week, in light and hope, in a grassroots expression of delicious irony, the people of the once secessionist-Confederate state of Georgia repudiated Trump and Trumpism, repudiated the politics of resentments and fear, repudiated Donald Trump and the racism and anti-Semitism embedded in his vile appeals to his base, to elect two Democratic senators, the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, the first Black and the first Jew ever elected to the Senate from Georgia.

That makes me proud.

That makes me feel a bit safer.

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


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