Last year on Jan. 6, the entire country watched from our phones and televisions as hundreds of mostly white men rushed the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. In the fracas and its immediate aftermath, five people — including four protesters and one police officer — died. Then, after hours of destroying property, brawling with police, and trespassing, this white mob was asked, very politely, to please go home.
Since then, the government has brought criminal charges against more than 700 people who participated in the riot. These charges range from assaulting an officer with a deadly weapon to entering a restricted government building. In October, the chief judge of the federal court handling these cases criticized prosecutors for offering the rioters deals that allow them to plead guilty to “the most minimal of federal charges” in exchange for light punishments, including $500 fines or probation. In December, Robert Palmer of Florida was sentenced to more than five years in prison for assaulting police officers during the riot – the longest sentence a Jan. 6 rioter has received. All of which raises the question: What is “justice” for those who participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection?
After the attacks, the Chicago Project of Security and Threats collected data documenting the demographics of the rioters (mostly white), while news outlets noted how the treatment of the rioters differed from the way peaceful protesters had been treated in the summer of 2020.
These data points demonstrate Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s observation that there exist “two Americas.” In one America, an insurrectionist is granted permission by a judge to take a trip to Mexico with charges pending. In the other America, the National Guard is deployed in response to Black Lives Matter protesters organizing at the Lincoln Memorial. One group’s humanity is seen and validated, while the other group’s humanity is ignored and questioned.
It surprised approximately zero percent of Black people that many of the rioters were treated with kid-gloves by police and politicians; the racial discrepancy in how different groups are treated by law enforcement and the justice system is part of the United States’ racist history. As scholars and activists like Michelle Alexander, Alex Vitale, and John Pfaff have explored, if you are a Black or brown person in the U.S., the likelihood of the legal system treating you fairly is abysmal.
This stark racial injustice has led many of us to advocate for the abolition of the U.S. carceral system. But racism is just one of many reasons to reconsider our belief that the best response to crime is incarceration. For one thing, prison and punishment don’t work to curb criminal behavior. Similarly, harsh policing tactics lead to an increase in violent crime. And prisons often act as hubs for violent gangs — especially white supremacist gangs.
For those of us who support the abolition of this unequal system, this makes the question of appropriate consequences for the Jan. 6 insurrectionists quite awkward: Are these privileged, financially secure, white folks going to be the first recipients of the grace we are demanding?
Breaking into the Capitol building to stop election results from being certified is clearly illegal and harmful to democracy. But while it might be a punishment to send Capitol rioters to prison, if they are then recruited into deeper streams of white supremacy, is this justice?
I would argue that if more leniency was given to a group that already benefits from the current system, then it becomes impossible to consider justice from an abolitionist or restorative perspective. The reason for this is that restorative justice and abolitionist paradigms prioritize justice for those who are disproportionately punished by the current system. Last year after the insurrection, writer and activist Kali Holloway raised legitimate concerns about applying abolitionist principles to the insurrectionists. Why should these people be given leniency, she argues, when the system already works in their favor?
So, what if we’re asking the wrong questions? Instead of asking about the proper consequences for the Jan. 6 insurrectionists, what we should be asking is: Why not put resources, effort, and time into undoing the damage that the carceral system has wrought on Black and brown communities? In other words, why not redirect all the effort and resources being expended to prosecute the insurrectionists into acquitting victims of the “war on drugs”?
Prioritizing these Black and brown victims is an essential strategy of abolitionist praxis. Though the ultimate goal of these advocates and activists is to establish a restorative justice model for all people, no matter their identity, abolition requires, first and foremost, advocating for and protecting the people who have been most harmed by the carceral system.
As I see it, in order to use a functional abolitionist framework, we have to be willing to wrestle with all kinds of harm — including our deeply embedded cultural compulsion to hurt people who have wronged us. Yes, even the white supremacist insurrectionists.
But at the same time, it is antithetical to abolitionist praxis to prioritize the question, “What should the consequences be for the Capitol rioters,” as the people who participated in storming the Capitol are not the ultimate victims of the carceral system.
When we advocate for abolition, the people who are the most at risk must be the highest priority. To approach this issue from any other paradigm reinforces white supremacy and perpetuates the disparities between the two Americas.