Thank you, Dr. Fehler, for inviting me here and thank you, Dean Tilton, and Dr. van Erve, for your introductions. I also thank all of the Texas Woman’s University community for being with us this evening.
I acknowledge and honor the Wichita and the very land where I now reside as a newcomer to Fort Worth, Texas. The Wichita call on us to be better stewards of the land; I also hear that call as one that compels me to recognize my unique role as a descendant of enslaved Africans to disentangle white settler colonization from my imaginations and life-purposes.
I start by letting you know that I’m going to read my comments this evening. I have posted these comments on my blog for better accessibility. Parts of this text are also weblinked here if you want a closer look at the sources and events I discuss.
While there is much for us to think through and problematize about the white supremacy that we witnessed in the violence at the Capitol this past January, I want to focus here on the ways that white mob violence is a LONG-STANDING central praxis of white supremacy and is always anti-Black and anti-Semitic. These are always co-functioning this way so it should “make sense” to us that the Capitol rioters costumed themselves in things like Camp Auschwitz garb and nooses, both of which are the most iconic symbols of the mass murder and violence against Black and Jewish peoples.
And while there was considerable conversation about the differences in the responses to white mob violence and Black peaceful protest, that is just part of the story. White mob violence is specter— and I say specter in the sense that it is truly a kind of reoccurring haunting. It is often represented as a kind of merely unfortunate, albeit awful, historical event, so that overall white innocence can be maintained. If you were shocked by what you saw at the Capitol, it means that you have ignored the historical record or have been lulled into thinking these were bygone days by dogma that presents whiteness as innocent. Meanwhile, Black suffering is spectacle— the thing we are used to seeing as if it is just another segment on the nightly news (which most times, it is). [These circulations of white supremacy are so much more than merely a set of hypocrisies in relation to the over-policing, surveillance, and militaristic responses to Black protest.]
To get at some of what I mean, I want to look at Bruno Cua today and then step back and look at one specific historical incident of mass violence and voting, namely the 1920 Ocoee Massacre in Florida.
Though it is just one of many examples, I want to highlight the current case of the 18-year-old Capitol rioter Bruno Cua from Metro Atlanta Georgia. His parents are still pleading with a judge to release him from custody while he awaits trial; they are simply embarrassed that they believed what Trump was telling them about voter fraud. That is literally the defense—that they are deserving of mercy and forgiveness because Bruno was naïve and they are all now embarrassed. I’ll come back to this point about shame and embarrassment so just keep that part in mind.
The stories seem to all point to these events: Bruno’s parents took him to D.C. for the rally where Bruno stormed his way inside and shoved a police officer out of his way to get into the Senate chamber. Bruno described clearly in social media posts what would happen on January 6. After leaving the capitol, he posted again the next day on January 7, even boasting that the tree of liberty was thirsty for the “blood of tyrants,” namely those people he had singled out at the Capitol, and that he would not give a warning shot the next time around. The next day, on January 8, he was still posting, this time proclaiming that everyone in Congress deserved a public execution.
Bruno is amongst the youngest to have charges brought against him, if not the youngest. It should go without saying here that every young Black man in America is profiled, harassed, imprisoned, and murdered with impunity for so much less than Bruno’s offenses. And while I don’t believe that the cage and shackle system of our criminal justice system is helpful in the service of justice, it will remain interesting to see just how innocent, forgivable, and deserving of mercy Bruno becomes.
It is particularly interesting to see how Bruno is depicted as an isolated, naïve white teenager when the fact of the matter is that Bruno is from the Metro Atlanta area, a central Black, critical hub that overturned the white Republican face of Georgia’s politics with record Black voter turn-out in favor of a Democrat president and vice-president, a woman of color to boot, and the first Black and Jewish senators, all organized by Black women activists. Bruno was not naïve and simple; he was deliberately acting from a place of whiteness that insisted did not need to believe or accept Black agency.
In fact, this entire election was decided, in large part, by Black voters and Black women organizers in major cities like Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Atlanta. The white rallying cry that depicted Black voters and Black cities and towns as thieves who had stolen American Democracy has been the same rallying cry for white supremacists since Reconstruction, including in these very same cities.[ I remind us here of the Black activist, Octavius Catto, who was killed on his way to vote in 1871 in Philadelphia; his murderer was never charged and the violent rampage against the Black vote and voice there were, in fact, aided by police.] If you were shocked by what you saw at the Capitol, it might mean that you have ignored the historical record or have been lulled into thinking it was all just an unfortunate historical accident within the terms of a master narrative that presents whiteness, as a whole, as innocent.
I also want us to remember the Ocoee Massacre in Florida in November 1920 which remains the largest election-related massacre. [There are, of course, multiple examples of this in relation to voting but sometimes just for living like this and this.]
The entire Black community of Ocoee was forced to flee the town when a prosperous Black farmer, Mose Norman, organized Black people to vote and went to vote himself in the national election in January of 1920. When civil rights organizations called on Congress to investigate the massacre, they refused. The FBI also refused to act. The leader of the white mob became the mayor. After forcing all of the Black residents to leave town, these white insurrectionists stole the properties from this Black community which are collectively evaluated at ten million dollars today. There have been no reparations to these families.
In this 1920 white mob violence, white supremacists massacred what we think might be at least 50 Black people for voting, just 35 miles south of where Trayvon Martin was murdered making white men’s unpunished behavior merely the specter of Zimmerman’s (also judiciously-sanctioned) murder of Trayvon Martin.
I point out here that the insurrectionists at Ocoee celebrated their victory as has steadily been the culture of white mob violence, especially in relation to lynch law. My connection to lynching if both literal and historical here since the insurrectionists erected a gallows to hang then-Vice President Mike Pence; lynchings were also a prime tool to block the Black vote and white people who deliberately intervened were threatened with death too.
We need to remember that lynching of Black Americans functioned as more than mere execution. These were forms of entertainment, like the circus had just come to town. These were often large, festive events where white mobs often even erected stages with theater-styled seating. There were exciting advertisements beforehand; photos and postcards were sent to family and friends. You’d be hard-pressed to find images of white lynch mob members looking ashamed or embarrassed about what they were doing: they are posing for the camera, often in special pre-planned attire, as whole family units. They took trophies to commemorate what they stole on these “great days” and “wonderful evenings” (these could include chopped off body parts like breasts and phalluses). These were, in sum, open and very public celebrations and were called acts of JUSTICE. We have to ask ourselves here: why was it so easy, almost automated, for the rioters at the capitol to look, sound, and act so much like a typical lynch mob from a century past? It is telling here that for Bruno’s parents, and maybe even for much of America and the criminal justice system, their expression of regret and embarrassment, even when inauthentic, is treated as an extraordinary feat since it would be the one cultural practice different from the lynch mobs of 100 years ago.
If we go back to the massacre at Ocoee in 1920, we see that these were white folx who had lived next to Black folx as neighbors for 30 years, but that didn’t stop them from brutalizing and stealing Black folx’s votes and homes. So, as a way to wrap up here, I want to return to the fact that Bruno grew up in Atlanta and yet his defense, the commentary from seemingly everyone around him, and much of the public rhetoric right now, is that he had just never known anyone or anything else. BUT…..He. Lives. In. Atlanta….. Metro Atlanta. That’s a little over 6 million people and yet the salience of the deeply depressed, easily manipulated, rural white male loner is such a chronic trope of white supremacy that it can be called up anytime and anywhere to convey white innocence. If you listen to these accounts about Bruno’s isolation, you would think I am just acting like the little boy in that 1999 movie, The 6th Sense, that stars Bruce Willis as a child psychologist to a child patient (Haley Joel Osment) who can talk to the dead. The child is absolutely bewildered by his ghostly talents and so whispers to the psychologist: I SEE DEAD PEOPLE. In my new 2021 version of the movie, I am the main child character who sees Black people in a sixth sense, like a great secret, where I have to walk around whispering “I see Black people”** because no one can see us, like Metro Atlanta ain’t even right there. Though I might be making arguably an inappropriate joke here, it really is this absurd to me to act like Bruno didn’t understand the world around him and wasn’t acting within the terms of a white racist response to the political successes of a VERY Black Atlanta! If we center Bruno as a misguided loner, we are in fact merely re-committing what we saw in 1920 Ocoee: no serious investigation, no commitment to act against white violence, an outpouring of forgiveness and understanding, open pathways to future success for leading agitators, and no acknowledgement of Black suffering.
These new circulations of white supremacy at the Capitol this January will set off new legacies. Our responses to this moment will put cultural practices in place that activists fifty years and one hundred years from now will have to agitate to undo, like we are doing now… about the 100 years before us… unless we seriously address AND REDRESS the spectacle of Black suffering that is so commonplace to us now as the specter of white supremacist mob violences continually haunts.
**PLEASE NOTE: Secretive whispers of “I see Black people” are something that I learned from Todd Craig in places like 4Cs, the writing center where we once worked, and all other kinds of academic spaces. This is his line, not mine, and so I give FULL CREDIT.