For equal justice, throw the book at Capitol rioters and inciters
Watching images of mayhem at the U.S. Capitol took me back to the time years ago when I was a congressional page.
My chair was considered unlucky because my head rested against a filled-in bullet hole in the wall from another violent attack on Congress. The memory of that bullet hole, and the realization that things could have ended far more tragically on Jan. 6, strengthen my belief that planners and perpetrators who committed crimes related to the siege on the Capitol must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Yet until yesterday, when reports emerged of more serious charges possibly in the works, there was a stark contrast between the treatment given to the Jan. 6 rioters and the perpetrators of the event that caused my “unlucky” bullet hole. That hole was a remainder of a 1954 attack by four Puerto Rican nationalists who shot and injured five members of Congress in the House chamber, as part of an attempt to draw attention to their fight for Puerto Rico’s independence.
Thankfully, no one was killed that day. According to accounts, the four attackers were firing wildly and at random; the group’s leader claimed she had no intention to kill anyone. Nonetheless, the four were sentenced to decades in prison on charges including attempted murder, assault and seditious conspiracy.
Meanwhile on Jan. 6, five people lost their lives, including a Capitol Police officer, and many rioters were allowed to walk free. Among the many deeply disturbing images from that day were Confederate flags being displayed in the Capitol and a gallows and noose being erected on its grounds. The FBI is investigating whether some people stormed the Capitol with the clear intent to lynch, assassinate or otherwise harm members of Congress whom they considered to be traitors for not giving in to President Trump’s demands to return him to power.
These images were searing to me as a Black man and a civil rights activist. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that this rage has erupted in a moment when we are seeing the first Black woman vice president — or the first Black senator from Georgia, whose election flipped the balance of power in Washington.
It is encouraging to read reports that federal prosecutors are finally considering sedition and conspiracy charges. But let’s be clear: while the FBI, with the help of citizen activists, continues to identify people responsible for the violence and destruction and to make arrests, we are still far from justice being served. So far, the charges have been for crimes such as disorderly conduct, violent entry and theft of property. Charges related to conspiracy and sedition may take longer to bring, but it’s essential that they are brought and pursued vigorously.
And we can’t stop with front-line perpetrators in the mob. Responsibility goes straight to the top — to Rudy Giuliani and Trump. These men whipped up the crowd and should be investigated and, if appropriate, charged. Law enforcement should be investigated as well, since the threat to the Capitol was no secret to anyone paying attention to right-wing rhetoric and online organizing. Many of us were outraged at how poorly defended the building was on a day on which our nation’s leaders were gathered to carry out the constitutional task of affirming the results of the presidential election and facing clear threats.
As a teenager absorbing the workings of Congress, I had a hard time imagining the Capitol being shattered by violence. Today, it is all too real. I am also painfully aware that the white mob that wreaked havoc and death recently has yet to face the punishment faced by the Latinx attackers of decades ago. That is untenable, and our long history of lynchings and other racist violence teaches us that if terrorizing political violence is not punished, it will continue.
So the imperative to hold people accountable must not be brushed aside, nor minimized in favor of some false unity. We can be patient, for a while, while the wheels of justice turn after Jan. 6. But we can’t wait forever.
Ben Jealous is the former national president & CEO of the NAACP. He is currently president of People For the American Way in Washington, DC. He is a partner at Kapor Capital, working as a tech investor and is a Visiting Professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.