Trauma Histories and Futures: STAR’s Response to Recent and Ongoing Political Violence

Last week, as our staff returned to work after the holidays with hopes of a better year to come, we were instead faced with the reports of a violent mob storming the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, January 6th. As arrests, investigations, and political responses continue to unfold, threats of violence remain. The FBI is warning of armed protests being planned at all 50 state capitols and the U.S. Capitol leading up to the presidential inauguration on January 20th. 

As shocking and upsetting as last Wednesday may have felt, it should not be surprising. What happened at the Capitol was the culmination of months of disinformation campaigns to incite violent insurrection to disrupt the certification of election results, years of dehumanizing and violence-supportive rhetoric from the sitting President targeting minority groups, and centuries of white supremacist ideology that has permeated our society and never been rooted out of our institutions of power. The attempted coup carried out last week was planned and known about in advance, yet not sufficiently prepared for. Why not? 

The Trauma Context

As an organization centered around the prevention and response to trauma, we must acknowledge this as a traumatic event. It was traumatizing (read: terrifying, life-threatening) to those who were present in the Capitol. Five people died as a result of physical injuries sustained that day, and at least one more has died by suicide since. And though people of all races at the Capitol that day were traumatized, people of color had more to fear given the white supremacist ideologies held by those storming the Capitol. These planned, coordinated actions will cause many people to suffer from diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma symptoms for months and years to come. 

It was also traumatic to many watching via the news and social media, with many Black people in particular deeply affected and harmed by witnessing a police force that was insufficiently prepared to control the crowd, despite police forces consistently showing up in full force against protests in support of Black lives throughout the summer of 2020. Certain members of the U.S. Capitol Police were documented engaging in friendly, cooperative interactions with members of the mob after they broke into the Capitol building–interactions which stood in stark contrast to a long history of hostile, violent and forceful actions of police against those protesting racial injustice. This has sparked internal investigations and suspensions of specific members of the U.S. Capitol Police in the days since. 

All of this has taken place in a context where the earliest police forces in the South were established as slave patrols, where police forces later enforced discriminatory and oppressive Jim Crow laws, and where police forces have historically initiated violence and/or responded with excessive force at protests against racism and racial injustice. In 2006, the FBI warned of the threat of white nationalists and skinheads infiltrating police, yet no substantial action has been taken to respond to this warning in the years since. 

This is also in the context of a presidential administration that has shifted anti-terrorism resources to focus specifically on anti-Islamic terrorism, all while there has been a documented rise in right-wing and white supremacist extremism over the past five years. The safety concerns of Black Americans and those of other groups targeted by white supremacist groups, and the simple demands for the right to live and to see accountability when injustice claims their lives, continue to go unacknowledged and unaddressed. We continue to heap traumas upon traumas, with no end in sight. This is, and always has been, inexcusable. 

A History of Voting-related Violence and Voter Suppression

As people working to advocate for survivors of sexual violence and to eliminate sexual violence, we often bear witness to the impacts of violence that most people deny happened. We are called to acknowledge violence and the trauma it causes when it has been committed interpersonally or within a family. We are also called to acknowledge violence and the trauma it causes when it has been committed historically and on a large scale to maintain power and systems of oppression for the benefit of a dominant group. Today, we specifically want to acknowledge the violence that has been carried out to restrict voting rights and access in our country throughout history, and question the conspicuous absence of anger about these facts in the minds of members of the mob.

From the Constitutional Rights Foundation

As a result of intimidation, violence, and racial discrimination in state voting laws, a mere 3 percent of voting-age black men and women in the South were registered to vote in 1940. In Mississippi, less than 1 percent were registered. Most blacks who did vote lived in the larger cities of the South.

By not having the power of the ballot, African Americans in the South had little influence in their communities. They did not hold elected offices. They had no say in how much their taxes would be or what laws would be passed. They had little, if any, control over local police, courts, or public schools. They, in effect, were denied their rights as citizens.

Attempts to change this situation were met with animosity and outright violence. But in the 1950s, the civil rights movement developed. Facing enormous hostility, black people in the South organized to demand their rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. They launched voter registration drives in many Southern communities. This set the stage for great changes in the 1960s, but not without tragedy. Medgar Evers, the black veteran stopped by a white mob from voting, became a civil rights leader in his native Mississippi. Because of his civil rights activities, he was shot and killed in front of his home by a white segregationist in 1963.

This is our history, and there is so much more to this history of violence that we don’t have the time to include here, but it deserves acknowledgment and reconciliation. 

Black Americans were only guaranteed the right to vote in 1965 by the Voting Rights Act. More recently, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled part of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, ostensibly because it was no longer needed. Voting rights advocates feared that this would allow for voter suppression to increase without accountability, which is exactly what has happened in the years since, though not without resistance. The organizing led by Stacey Abrams and others doing voting rights work in Georgia led to recent election outcomes in that state which surprised many. And despite Donald Trump’s claims that these outcomes are invalid and his efforts to orchestrate a different outcome through intimidation and abuses of power, the outcome of the Presidential election in Georgia has been certified and defended by Georgia’s top election officials, who themselves say they voted for Donald Trump. 

The mob’s anger about the election outcome, stoked by intentional disinformation campaigns and repeatedly by the outgoing President himself, is disingenuous given the United States’ long history of disenfranchising voters from historically oppressed and marginalized groups.The violent insurrection committed last week was not rooted in a desire for fair elections. It was rooted in a desire to maintain white supremacist power and justifications to use force and violence to accomplish their aims, despite that this would result in mass trauma. 

We see the traumatic impacts of behaviors associated with that kind of attitude, “I’m going to take what I want by force,” every day in the work we do with survivors. The ideologies and justifications that perpetuate white supremacy are deeply connected to the ideologies and justifications that perpetuate sexual violence. We are called to acknowledge and to fight against all of it.

Our Response

Last week, as an agency, we checked in about staff needs. We emailed everyone to provide basic information on what was happening and give staff permission to be distracted from work and take time off if needed. We cancelled our staff meeting scheduled for last Friday, January 8th, given how emotionally exhausted many of our staff members were, and are in the process of rescheduling the various components of the staff meeting in a piecemeal fashion to make it up. 

We had planned to hold a training at our staff meeting on the topic of microaggressions, but despite the importance of this topic, external events disrupted our internal work, as they have so many times. At the same time, they underscore the importance of this work and our commitment to figuring out how to engage in it without overburdening and overwhelming staff, thereby causing more harm. We continue to adapt and adjust and move forward despite the obstacles, imperfectly, to progress in our commitment to better embodying our values. We remain wary about what is yet to come.

As we condemn overtly white supremacist groups and recognize the specific and growing threat they pose, we remind ourselves that racism largely operates in ways that are less visible and obvious to those who don’t directly experience it. We remind ourselves that racist practices are most often carried out unintentionally in institutions throughout our communities and society, without a conscious or intentional commitment to white supremacy. Yet, the impacts of unintentional racism and unconscious bias are widespread, harm people in many ways up to and including death, and must be rooted out. This is the work we are staying committed to as we move forward, through these uncertain and anxious times. 

Racheal Hebert, LCSW-BACS
President & CEO, STAR

Rebecca Marchiafava, MPP
Vice President, STAR

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