Each of these blistering images from history changed the way Americans talked about race and exposed truths that many had long denied.
But I believe the Capitol riot could have a far-reaching impact on racial justice in America — bigger, even, than last summer’s George Floyd protests. In some ways, it already has.
Here are five reasons why the Capitol insurrection offers an opportunity for transformative change.
It’s damaged Trumpism in a way that no other controversy has
Consider the impact of last year’s George Floyd protests — what they did, and what they failed to do.
Floyd’s death last May at the hands of a White police officer in Minnesota sparked what some consider the largest protest movement in American history.
But here’s what the protests didn’t do: They didn’t stop Trump from getting 74 million votes six months later in November’s election — more than any president before him.
“His entire legacy was wiped out yesterday,” Rep. Nancy Mace, a Republican freshman from South Carolina, told CNN a day after the Capitol assault.
It’s redefined White supremacy as a form of treason
It was easier for a segment of White America to deny their racism during the Floyd protests. They could say the four police officers charged in Floyd’s death were just a few bad apples. They could tune out debates about abstract terms like “systemic racism.” They could attack a clumsy political slogan like “defund the police” to justify defending the status quo.
The Capitol riot, though, has made it much more difficult for White Americans to deny our country has a huge problem with White supremacy. It’s forced many Americans to see how dangerous White supremacy is in a way that the Floyd protests did not.
You can see this shift in the language people are using to describe members of the Capitol mob. They’ve called the assault an “insurrection” and a “coup from below” and argued that White supremacy is incompatible with democracy.
Few, if any, described the accusations of police brutality that fanned the Floyd protests in such a stark way.
The images of the Capitol mob also show how White supremacy is wielded by many ordinary White Americans. Not everyone in the mob was a White supremacist. But the White people who waved a Confederate flag in the Capitol Rotunda, built a makeshift gallows on the Capitol grounds and forced lawmakers to flee for their lives represented a broad swath of America.
“No, the crowd that stormed the Capitol was a big tent of whiteness, a cross-section of American society bridging divisions of class, geography and demography. They were doctors and lawyers, florists and real estate agents, business executives, police officers, military veterans, at least one elected official and an Olympic gold medalist. They’d all come to coup for America.”
It could boost international pressure on the US to make changes
The Capitol rioters didn’t just embarrass themselves — they embarrassed the country they profess to love.
But the Capitol crisis also presents an opportunity for racially transformative change at the federal level. It’s happened before, under similar circumstances.
The US was locked in a global struggle with Russia for the hearts and minds of people when the civil rights movement took flight in the 1950s and 1960s. Civil rights leaders leveraged our Cold War rivalry to help pass sweeping civil rights laws.
The 1963 civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, offered a classic example. Images of Black protesters being attacked by police dogs and sprayed with firehoses were beamed around the world. Foreign governments attacked American leaders for their hypocrisy in preaching the virtues of democracy abroad while hanging “Whites only” signs at home.
In a nationally televised speech announcing his bill, Kennedy said the US was “committed to a worldwide struggle” to promote freedom, and now was the time for the nation to “fulfill its promise.”
“We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home,” Kennedy said, “but are we to say to the world — and much more importantly, to each other — that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes?”
The Capitol mob has created the same type of political environment for change. The Floyd protests sparked some changes at local and state levels and led a cultural shift among Whites who began to consider their own racism. But they have yet to bring any racially transformative changes at the federal level.
It could bring sweeping federal legislation
The Capitol insurrection, however, has created the conditions for such potential changes under President-elect Joe Biden.
Consider the political appetite for racially transformative change in a new Congress where both Houses are controlled by the Democrats and the GOP is now in disarray.
It’s easy to forget, but the Capitol riot was sparked by some voters’ distrust of elections. Trump and some Republican lawmakers claim, without evidence, that the Presidential Election was stolen by voter fraud. Progressives counter that Republicans employ such tactics as voter purges, restricting early voting and closing polling stations in predominantly Black communities.
There’s a growing sense that America’s electoral system is broken.
The new Congress could also cite the mayhem at the Capitol building as a reason to crack down on social media platforms where users spread misinformation about voter fraud. Several Democratic leaders say social media helped spark the riot.
“Congress was attacked … by a mob that was radicalized in an echo chamber that Facebook and other big platforms created,” said Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey.
These potential changes — new federal laws expanding voting rights and regulating social media platforms — aren’t as dramatic as the throngs of protesters that flooded American streets last summer. But they are potentially more racially transformative.
It will force America to choose a vision for its future
Many Americans are still stunned by what happened at the Capitol. An outgoing President who many consider to be a White supremacist tried to incite lawmakers and citizens to overturn a legitimate election and block an incoming administration which includes the nation’s first Black and South Asian vice-president.
There’s also a growing recognition that what the Capitol mob did is nothing new.
“Wednesday was the day of broken glass right here in the United States,” Schwarzenegger said. “The broken glass was in the windows of the United States Capitol. But the mob did not just shatter the windows of the Capitol. They shattered the ideals we took for granted. They did not just break down the doors of the building that housed American democracy. They trampled the very principles on which our country was founded.”
How future Americans view the Capitol assault will also depend on what vision of America prevails — Trumpism or the egalitarian principles that Schwarzenegger evoked.
If the forces that drove rioters to ransack Congress gain permanent political power, the notion of citizens choosing their Whiteness over democracy won’t seem so offensive.
But if America fulfills what Kennedy called “its promise,” those images of White supremacists in the Capitol Rotunda will join the shameful gallery of photos that includes the 1963 Birmingham protests.
The rioters will be viewed as symbols of a bygone America its citizens have left behind.