By Sheeva Azma
The following is an opinion piece I pitched to the MIT Technology Review on January 7, 2021, the day after protestors broke into the U.S. Capitol building. I wrote it as a former Capitol Hill intern and concerned citizen. It was so difficult to watch the events unfold on my television that day. My article was not published in the Technology Review, so I have published it below. Though this piece reflects my raw, unfiltered feelings from that day, I feel that it still remains relevant as we figure out how to end racism as a society.
Why does it seem like we ignore racism until it shows up on our front door? Perhaps we have become desensitized to the various forms of racism we experience and observe each day. We must work tirelessly to create a just, equitable, and safe world for all.
Says @SheevaAzma: Why does it seem like we ignore racism until it shows up on our front door? Our own complacency has led to the violent events of January 6, 2021.Tweet
On January 6, 2021, racism arrived on America’s doorstep — literally. Protestors stormed the Capitol in a violent event that led to the deaths of many people. While I’m still in shock that this happened, I feel that our own complacency has led to this. Is this the United States we envision for ourselves?
The events occurring on January 6, 2021, hearkened back to another tragic day. On 9/11, I had just stepped onto the campus of MIT to start my freshman year. My friend told me to turn on the TV. I saw New York City on fire, and a scene that looked straight out of a war time movie.
I was forced to revisit those terrible feelings as vigilantes stormed the US Capitol, destroying the hallowed halls of our most important legislative body. Vigilantes stormed the Capitol building with symbols of racism and hate.
Sadly, I was not surprised that this happened. I was an intern in Congress at the beginning of the Trump Administration. On inauguration day, there were swarms of Trump supporters at the Capitol, picking up their tickets to the event in person. I was one of many members of Congressional staff that welcomed constituents. While partisanship is notorious in Congress, I tried to make a difference by being personable and friendly despite any political differences we might have had. Those amicable patriots were nothing like the people that attacked our government on January 6, 2021. The terrorist actions of the violent mob prevented the US’s highest legislative body from conducting the official business of certifying electoral votes for the Presidential election.
I do not condone the events that happened on January 6, 2021. Especially as a former Congressional intern, watching the news unfold, I knew that the combination of unruly behavior and a heightened law enforcement presence spelled trouble. The Capitol Police work tirelessly to protect the lives of our lawmakers and everyone else on Capitol Hill, and their brave actions to prevent loss of life was truly heroic, especially in our unprecedented times. Protestors tried to enter the House chamber while the House was in session, which could have been very disastrous indeed.
Beyond the outcome of this violent day, another thing that did not surprise me was the level of racism exhibited by these people. Seeing Confederate flags and militia slogans are a mainstay of my experience living in a red state, but I’ve also seen them driving around the US on road trips. Driving back from my internship experience in DC, I saw a car in suburban Virginia — a pretty Democratic area — plastered with three different confederate flags. Surely, I am not the only one noticing such hate being displayed every day.
For years, we have seen white supremacists mobilize and promote hate — Charlottesville, Unite the Right rallies, even postering university campuses such as my alma mater, Georgetown University. Those recent events don’t even take into account a history of hate and terrorism conducted by extremist groups over several decades. That’s why, to me, the reaction to these events appears disingenuous. Maybe I am just angry that our world seems blind to racism until it shows up in our lives in an obvious way.
If you ask me, the problem is that we do not act on small acts of racism, and then are surprised when it shows up in our lives as it did on Wednesday. In my ideal world, racism — whether small, such as a bizarre comment from a friend or coworker, or large, such as the actions of police officers that murdered George Floyd — would not be tolerated. What would this look like?
Creating an anti-racist world means reporting people illegally selling Confederate flags on the side of the road. Yes, that requires work on your part, but do you really want to live among people who display racist symbols of hate? It means calling people out for posting racist memes on Facebook, instead of rolling your eyes, trying to engage with them, or just ignoring them. It means correcting your friends when they make a statement that could be construed as racist, but they don’t realize it. True anti-racism is tireless and nonpartisan.
For too long, the United States has made itself a safe haven for white supremacy, by its passive acceptance of Confederate monuments and other symbols. Oddly enough, just a few weeks before the violent protestors stormed the Capitol, a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee was on display in the building’s famed Statuary Hall. Nearby, in Virginia, highways are named for Confederate generals. Reminders of racism are all around us and so it seems disingenuous to feel outrage at people bringing racist symbols and flags to the Capitol when, in fact, they still pervade society.
It can be easy to complain about racism on social media, but the difficult part is to work to end the racism. At an activism summit with Yara Shahidi, President Obama talked about the ineffectiveness of taking to Twitter and Facebook to complain about things, without doing anything about them: “If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”
The discussion about anti-racism has divided our entire nation when the solution is truly very simple. It starts at home — with a grassroots component. Talking to friends, neighbors, and coworkers about anti-racism is a good place to start. You don’t have to be an activist to help end racism. In fact, all people must work to end racism. It starts with recognizing and identifying hate, and working on ways to develop community. It means learning ways to talk to your local and federal governments about issues relating to racism, and keeping in contact with them on anti-racism issues.
Everyone, regardless of their political views, can work to end racism. The question is: will we do the difficult, right thing and call it out where we see it — or be lazy and let it fester until it shows up at our front door again?