Panelists say Jan. 6 insurrection shows that democracy matters


A panel of Pitt race, history, rural education and political science experts discussed the complex roles racism, white supremacy and law enforcement played in the Jan. 6 Capitol riots in a virtual panel discussion on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and the Center for Race and Social Problems co-hosted the “What Just Happened? Race, Justice and Politics after the Capitol Siege” panel discussion on Jan. 18.

James Huguley, interim director of the Center for Race and Social Problems, and Paula Davis, associate vice chancellor, Office of Health Sciences Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, moderated the event.

The panel featured:

  • Clyde Pickett, vice-chancellor, Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

  • Kristin Kanthak, associate professor, Department of Political Science

  • Thomas Farmer, professor and department chair for Health and Human Development, School of Education

  • Tomar Pierson-Brown, associate dean for Equity and Inclusive Excellence, School of Law

Provost Ann Cudd opened the event saying the Capitol siege, where a mob of people supporting then-President Trump temporarily took over the U.S. Capitol building, was a monumental event that will have long-lasting political, societal and historical implications.

“It was and is history unfolding before our eyes, tragically, as our Capitol was infiltrated, and violently tarnished, and the symbols of racism and white supremacy so brazenly displayed,” Cudd said. “The Capitol siege was a stunningly terrifying day.”

Five people died in the siege, including four rioters and one police officer, and more than 100 law enforcement officers throughout Washington, D.C., were injured that day.

Pickett, in his opening remarks, said the events during the siege show the importance of democracy, and speaking out against injustice is key to maintaining a healthy democracy.

“I invite us to remember that democracy matters,” Pickett said. “Certainly, social justice matters. Accountability matters, and our responsibility for championing those things in doing our due diligence to advance them is more critical now than ever.”

Pickett added that the siege was a direct attack on democracy meant to instill terror — an event that reaffirmed the dangers white supremacy poses to the U.S. 

The siege also confirmed that law enforcement is harsher to certain groups of protesters compared to others, he said.

“The incidents of Jan. 6, 2021, also confirmed a double standard that many of us knew to be true — that the planning and response of law enforcement to those protesting on matters regarding black issues and concern is met with strong links, including those prepared to go into battle with weapons, ammunition, dogs, riot gear and tanks; whereas, in a siege on the nation’s Capitol, the cradle of democracy, a group of armed terrorists was met with limited resistance, confusion and in certain situations, selfies.”

The siege also reveals a flawed democratic process, Pickett said, that promotes some more than others.

And this democratic process is deeply intertwined with racial hierarchy, Pearson-Brown said in her opening remarks.

“After the Capitol siege, in my mind, what we as Americans must continue to understand is that the measure of true democracy that this nation is willing to possess is inextricably linked to the measure of racial hierarchy that this nation is willing to accept,” Pearson-Brown said.

And it shows that a healthy democracy in the U.S. cannot co-exist with the advancement of white supremacy, she said.

“The events we witnessed on Jan. 6 are simply the most current instances of a pattern of behavior that calls out to us and says, you can either have democracy or you can continue to advance white supremacy, but you can no longer have both,” Pearson-Brown said.

The siege, Pearson-Brown said, is a part of a historic pattern of unequal treatment of protesters and angry mobs of white Americans attempting to undermine a fair democratic process with violence and racial terror.

Kanthak said anger is a key political motivator that is stronger for white Americans. And this anger “is partly wrapped up in how we think about how acceptable it is for white or Black people to be angry.”

And this anger stems a “fiction” that white supremacists have weaponized to help stir fears that white people are under attack, Kanthak said.  

“The fiction of white supremacy gives you two choices about what happened in 2020,” Kanthak said. “On the one hand, you lost an election, the other guy got more votes. And part of that is because race is mattering in ways that you don't quite understand. Or if you don't believe that, if you don't believe that that can possibly be true, the other answer is the election was stolen.”

Farmer, in his opening remarks, focused on the power dynamics at play in rural communities to help attendees understand how extreme views (like the election was “stolen”) spread and led to incidents like the Capitol siege.

Farmer, a researcher on rural education and rural communities, also studies the social dynamics of bullying in schools, which can illustrate how Trump’s views spread throughout rural America.

In past, researchers believed bullies were socially incompetent, but over the past 30 years, researchers have found that bullies are great at weaponizing a community to attack others.

“They create in-groups, and they call others names to denigrate them, to make them socially vulnerable,” Farmer said. “They start rumors, foster mistrust, they triangulate friendships, they challenge roles. ... They create chaos and basically bring out the worst in others, and they recruit followers who feel socially vulnerable or who want to bask in the glow of their power.”

To view the rest of the discussion, including the Q&A segment, visit the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion’s YouTube channel.

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905. 


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