A year ago, a right wing mob, incited by a Republican president, stormed the U.S. Capitol in the hopes of disrupting Congress's certification of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris's Electoral College victory. They succeeded, but just for a few hours. As dawn broke over Washington, democracy — and the tens of thousands of organizers and activists who fought for it — won.
As we approach the anniversary of the attack, we should center the actions of those organizers and activists instead of engaging in another tiresome round of imagining disaster scenarios or pinning our hopes on process solutions to the right-wing fever finally breaking.
Nimble, Smart Organizing Won
In the lead up to January 6th, media outlets and experts did a good job warning people about a coup, but with few exceptions, they didn't follow through with a realistic assessment of what organizers were trying to do to stop it or telling their freaked out liberal readers how to get involved in saving democracy.
The Transition Integrity Project, a collaboration between think tanks, high-ranking Democratic officials, Never Trumpers and university scholars, didn't anticipate the high level of organization or coordination among grassroots activists, probably because no one representing grassroots activists was part of their widely reported "war game" exercise.
Their report acknowledges this as it imagines street conflict between left wing and right wing protestors, with Biden calling for peaceful demonstrations:
During TIP’s exercises, Team Biden almost always called for and relied on mass protests to demonstrate the public’s commitment to a “legitimate” outcome, with the objective of hardening the resolve of Democratic elected officials to fight and take action, and to dramatize the stakes. As a practical matter, however, participants in the exercise noted that racial justice activists and others will likely act independently of the Biden campaign – players repeatedly cautioned that these social movements are independent, not beholden to, or a tool of, the Democratic party. Their support or Biden’s ability to mobilize them cannot be taken for granted. (Note: leaders of these grassroots movements were not well represented in the simulation exercises, so the scenario exercises did not robustly test their likely receptivity to a Biden call to take to the streets, or to the Biden campaign’s ability to control these actors once mobilized.) If anything, the scale of recent demonstrations has increased the stakes for the Democratic Party to build strong ties with grassroots organizations and be responsive to the movement’s demands.
The right wing Claremont Institute, which provided intellectual cover for Pence to overturn the election results, imagined antifascists instigating the violence in DC rather than their own MAGA-chud brethren:
As the House is returning to session to vote by state delegation, there is a massive and violent Antifa demonstration in D.C. In the confusion, a Republican member from an at-large delegation is attacked and sent to the hospital with life-threatening wounds. With only 25 state delegations in control, it looks like the Speaker might become temporary President on January 20 per the Succession Act pending the elevation of the Vice President or unless the House comes to agreement.
Meanwhile, back in reality, several organizations and coalitions sprang up across the ideological and tactical spectrum to win the election and defend the results. Groups like Election Defenders seamlessly moved from supporting mail voting to celebrating democracy with public events outside polling locations to peaceful demonstrations outside election offices. Protect the Results, a national coalition of progressive groups, and other organizing tables, had regular check-ins and adjusted strategy on the fly. Other organization like Hold the Line held mass organizing calls to prepare people for democracy-saving demonstrations. Local and national activists kept an eagle-eyed watch on wayward election officials, forcing one Republican official in Michigan who tried to go rogue to back down. Union leaders openly discussed striking if Trump refused to concede the election.
In fact, this activity was so widespread, and fears of a coup were so prevalent before election, that I shared organizer Melissa Byrne's worry that it was distracting from voter outreach!
As January 6th approach, local activists in Washington, DC and state capitals, as well as major national groups, all recommended standing down. They had concluded, probably correctly, that any counter-mobilization would lead to street conflict, which could then lead to Trump ordering a security response and bad media coverage blaming "both sides" for conflict.
Organizers were strategic, nimble, and coordinated, invoking what writer adrienne marie brown calls "murmuration" which describes the shape-shifting, turn-taking patterns of starlings in flight. This orientation was particularly useful for fighting the Trump contingent, which was erratic, but persistent in throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, at the election process.
As I look back on January 6th, I'd love to see more media coverage featuring organizers like Nelini Stamp and Melissa Byrne and union leaders like Sara Nelson. I appreciate political scientists' voice on this issue, for sure, and their expertise is welcome, but we also need to hear from people doing some actual organizing. We can not expertise our way out of a coup.
More practically, I'm sick of reading doom-porn about American democracy, especially after four solid years of street activism, the world's largest racial justice demonstration and a successful people's veto on a coup attempt. As I repeatedly counseled in 2020, telling people democracy is dying without linking them to the people and groups who are actively making sure that doesn't happen does a disservice to audiences.
It's also worth remembering we've been here before. Activists in the 1970s had to build mass politics to secure elite concessions to deescalate the Vietnam War. Elected officials largely followed those movements, not the other way around. Today, too many of us are still looking to elected officials to solve our problems for us. To be sure, Democratic Party leaders can and should help save democracy. Prosecuting Trump and his enablers would be amazing. Reforming the Electoral Count Act would be super. Nuking the filibuster to advance voting rights would make me want to dance in the streets. But democracy, as always, does not rely on leaders. It relies on us, the people.
My media projects focus on how political communication works in practice, from the perspective of people who are active in the field. Want more essays like this? Sign up for the newsletter here and consider a paid subscription.