This week has been full of tumultuous events and arguments and frankly the fallout has made many of us emotional and drained. While I don't want to seem like I am avoiding the conflict in its totality I wanted to take a different approach to thinking about The Capitol Riot. It has taken me some time to figure out exactly what I want to say and how I want to say it. I think in general it has taken all of us some time to decipher our feelings about what happened.
I was at work when the riots occurred, completely oblivious to what was going on. I had gotten a text from a friend that asked, “You watching this??” I took a quick peek at the news apps on my phone and saw headlines about a mob that had stormed The Capitol Building of The United States of America. While this story has been dominating the news cycle for the last few days, it has taken me a long time to really figure out what the story I wanted to focus on was. I want to focus on identity. I want those who support the riots at The Capital to identify in their own minds what it is they were opposing and trying to communicate. Is it racism represented by the Confederate flag that was planted in The Capitol Building? Or is it that they feel forgotten, overlooked? Or are they afraid of election fraud, something that should rightly be watched out for, but at this moment has not been found… see this Fox News Article for further reference…
In the car on the way home from work my mother and I make a point to check in on the phone although it is largely her way of making sure her son gets home safely after a long shift ending late at night. It is during this time we often discuss current events, family issues, and deep philosophical debates such as which cookies are best… obviously Chocolate-Chip. It was during one of these conversations that I had the first idea for this letter. I posed it to her in a rhetorical question, but will ask it of you in a literal manner meant for you to actually answer either to yourself or in conversation with friends and family or by responding back here. All in an effort to try and understand why people use the Confederate flag as a symbol of their discontent despite its significant historical meaning.
My question is this: To those at the riot, what message were you communicating when you brought the Confederate flag to the Capitol Building?
This week as pictures and clips of the riot at The Capitol filled my television and my social media feeds I couldn't help but be struck by images of the Confederate flag planted in The Capitol and being carried by rioters throughout the day's events. It must be obvious to you now that I am a major history buff, and just to highlight this point, I think the two best vacations I have ever taken were a family trip to Gettysburg (a famous Civil War battle site) and a visit to a Civil War reenactment camp where my mother took me as a kid. The more I thought about the images of the Confederate flag the more I couldn’t help myself thinking about how dysmorphic and misunderstood “The Confederate cause” is today, compared to its origins and yet it remains strangely similar. In February of 1861 several southern states had seceded from The Union and established The Confederate States of America. This withdrawal from The Union was pragmatically based on economic powers which were deeply rooted in the free labor of slavery. Ultimately, at its base, was the racism of seeing blacks as non-human. This was attached to the prideful sentiment of the “southern man” who felt he didn’t need or want a Washington policy maker interfering with his way of life and has likely spawned the ongoing sentiment and preference for deregulation of business in southern conservative ranks today.
It was during our conversation the night after the riots that I posed this rhetorical question, “What does the Confederate flag mean to those who participated in the riot?” I think this question is an important one to answer and something that does not get enough attention. If it simply means support for slavery, racism and a second class black citizenry, then that is something I cannot understand or support; and no matter what your political beliefs I would ask you to internally reflect on if this is a symbol you can support any more than the swastika of Nazi Germany. If it stands for a rebellious streak and a “can’t hold me down” attitude, then I understand these feelings but do not necessarily agree with the way they were expressed through a symbol that has so many other offensive meanings. After all, you are reading the work of a proud New Englander, the birthplace of our country which was ultimately born of revolutionary ideologies. If it means secession from The Union then I am not certain of my thoughts.
I think it is important to address the strong feelings of those in conservative southern states regarding their abilities to succeed, grow and provide for their families. I think it is important to address that many feel Washington lawmakers do not reflect their best interests and therefore they would largely just prefer it if they stayed out of their daily lives. This sentiment has led to promises to deregulate and “drain the swamp” and was what largely drew many Trump supporters to his campaign and Presidency. Members of my family who support him often say they do so because he promised to do things “differently” and that he can make “real change.” However, he also uses language about losing your current way of life to outsiders, whether it be immigration policy, foreign business practices or the use of “China virus” to describe Sars-Cov-2. I do not think this rhetoric is that far from that of the Confederacy and the fear of a free black man on the impingement of “white opportunity.” Interestingly the majority of those who fought and died on behalf of the Confederacy were not slave owning rich plantation owners but rather poor southern families who were looking to maintain jobs and provide a living for their families. Likely many of whom felt that should blacks have equal rights this would directly negatively impact their way of life as they would have to share in opportunities available to them. I think this is eerily similar to the political climate today.
Rudy Guilliani, Vice President Pence and President Trump, stood before the crowd (pre-mob) and gave speeches rallying their supporters, saying to “March down to the capitol… and we will show strength because you can’t show weakness” (Trump 2021). Their supporters did just this, they broke into and damaged federal property, a Federal crime that may result in serious sentencing for some. However, The President, their leader, was nowhere to be found. Once again the common man was left fighting the battle of their rich conservative leader, some of whom lost their lives as a result. I think it is too coincidental not to draw comparisons to that of the Confederacy. Hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the Confederate army over fears of losing their “way of life,” an economic system that only benefited the wealthy.
I would also pose a question to those in the riot who wanted to put the Confederate flag in The Capitol of the United States and ask if they realize that what their actions really represented was taking violent action against The United States of America on behalf of a foreign nation… The Confederate States of America. I would want to ask that when they say “Make America great again” while carrying that flag, do they mean make their economy and livelihoods better by reinstating slavery again, as can be interpreted by the presence of a flag from a country whose founding was based on the preservation of slavery? If not, simply identifying that the Confederate flag carries significant racist foundations and shouldn’t be acceptable, just as a Swastika wouldn’t be, would make a great start to reconciling the two ends of the spectrum.
I have long said to friends and family that Trump himself does not surprise me. You can’t be upset when you get bit by a lion when you stick your hand in its cage. The people who support a conservative agenda do not surprise me either. They are people who feel forgotten and are looking for a champion, “someone different.” For me this includes many family members with whom I disagree on policy and outlook but can understand where their drive and motivations come from. No, the most surprising and concerning thing for me is the complicitness of our elected officials who supported overturning a vote by the people to go against a President Elect. Never in our history has there been interruption to the peaceful transition of power as there was with the riot at The Capitol. This, along with the rioters who brought the Confederate flag and waved it as a symbol patriotism that they are proud of… This side of my fellow Americans is most surprising.
When preparing to publish this article my editor and I had a lengthy debate about what the “story” was here. We haven’t talked at all about claims that the election was fraudulent. We haven't talked at all about how flawed the electoral college is. What the misrepresentation of the blue and red colored map on election night looks like. How that misrepresentation can easily lead some Republicans to not understand that while a majority of the land area appears red on the U.S. map, they are then told a Democratic or “blue” candidate has won. How this could easily play into their outrage when they are told there was election fraud and that the election was being “stolen” from them.
For me, a historical perspective brings interesting thoughts and feelings to mind. I think it is important not to forget the true identity of our historical symbols, such as the Confederate flag, when we use them to represent modern ideals. This being said, I want to speak directly to the readers who are also supporters of President Trump and feel the actions of the riot at The Capitol were justified. I am not accusing you of being racist, fascist or hateful. I recognize that this letter may seem like an attack on you. It assuredly is not. This letter is meant to try and help better understand you, to not identify you as a “Trump supporter” or myself as a “crazy liberal,” but rather as people who are concerned for their family’s well being. As people who want fair opportunity to succeed. Through this light I wanted to bring about discussion.
Ben Velardi, Author/Founder