In hindsight, Virginia was a testing ground and a grim portent of the Jan. 6 insurrection.
On the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in January 2020, theologian Corey D.B. Walker, then a visiting professor at the University of Richmond, was among a group holding a prayer vigil as thousands of firearm-toting folks occupied downtown Richmond during a gun rights rally.
Walker sees a through line from the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville to the Second Amendment gathering in Richmond to the U.S. Capitol riot. The Richmond gun rally turned out to be a peaceful event, though law enforcement had feared the worst — including the storming of the Virginia Capitol.
“That didn’t portend anything good for what would happen January 6, 2021,” said Walker, now the Wake Forest (University) Professor of the Humanities, in an interview on Tuesday. Whether democracy survives that trauma is “an open question we have to wrestle with.
“Democracy is a practice, it is not a declaration. It is not the finished product. It is an ongoing practice,” he said. And if we don’t cultivate it, we could lose the American Experiment.
That loss would not be mourned by a chunk of the nation and one political party. Republican congresspersons — some suspected of being collaborators — are engaged in the cover-up of a crime. And yet, the lingering horrors of a year ago Thursday appear largely unshared — at least to the extent they’d foster unity, vigilance and a sense of urgency.
“I’m concerned that we don’t understand the full depth and range of the problems and challenges we face as a society,” Walker said. “I think we see this as merely cosmetic and not structural and foundational. But you don’t get a coup attempt unless there’s something deeply, deeply wrong in the nation.”
Anyone who has been paying attention knows America is beset with more than a potentially lethal virus as it battles a crisis of identity and values and wages war with itself.
There’s always been a strong minority, authoritarian element in American democracy, Walker said. The New Deal begat a right-wing conservatism headed by the business class; people rallied in New York in support of Hitler and fascism. The Cold War after World War II sparked McCarthyism. And always, Black freedom and advancement inevitably kindled white backlash.
What’s different now, Walker said, is that one political party is openly authoritarian and courts violent extremists to attain or maintain power. “That’s the danger. That is really what we’re facing in this moment.”
This might sound unfathomable to people who view politics through the haze of nostalgia. But, “democracy is always up for grabs. It is always contentious,” Walker said. “We tend to think of democracy as a finished product. But democracy is always a practice; it is always a process.”
We must demonstrate the capacity of democracy to work. But government has become populated by too many people who hate government, oddly, for what it can do for the masses. Our sense of collective possibility has been eroded by the politics of the individual, said Walker, former dean for the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University.
The truth is, our nation has seldom been all-in on democracy. Black men were not granted the right to vote until 1870; women of all races, not until 1920. It took the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to ensure ballot access for all.
The act was arrogantly gutted by a Supreme Court whose Chief Justice, John Roberts, blithely declared victory over racism. Since then, the Republican Party has chipped away at the ballot access of anyone it deems unsupportive. And since the defeat of Donald Trump, this tactic has evolved into the gaming of the election system by giving Republican-controlled legislatures undue power over election results.
“They hate our freedom” was the mantra back in 2001, when this nation was attacked from without. Our response went against what this nation professes to believe in as it expanded its surveillance of innocent Americans, endorsed torture and deployed falsehoods to justify an invasion of Iraq. On that front, the terrorists won.
Today, internal forces have distorted the meaning of freedom, patriotism and verifiable truth. Too many citizens have embraced the cause of sedition, stoked by Trump’s lie of a stolen election. For them and the lawmakers who would further their cause, that insurrection was not an end, but a beginning. They are intent on turning January 6 into the new Fourth of July. They must be stopped.
If you’re unwilling to safeguard the voting rights of your fellow citizens, toss out the fools in Congress aiding and abetting a coup, and fight to preserve our democracy, the insurrectionists win.