Last week, in my first blog of 2021, I wrote: “The one phrase I kept hearing over the past few days was ‘good riddance to 2020, surely 2021 cannot be as bad a year as that.’ But, unfortunately, there’s a danger that could turn into meaningless rhetoric and wishful thinking if the many and various challenges ahead are not approached properly.”
Well, didn’t the week come back and bite us in no uncertain terms to prove my point, with the Capitol building in DC breached for the first time in over two centuries, since British troops set it on fire during the war of 1812?
On Wednesday, participants in a rally convened by President Donald Trump dispersed and made for the home of America’s Congress and one of the most significant symbols of democratic government in the world, where presidents are inaugurated and State of the Union messages are presented.
DC police made 68 arrests during the insurrection (frankly a stunningly low number given what transpired, though many more will follow having been identified from footage of the invasion); 56 officers were injured, one of them died from his injuries - RIP Capital Police Officer Brian Sicknick.
One rioter was shot dead inside the building when she attempted to climb through a door in the direction of the House Chamber; three other rioters died of medical incidents that haven’t yet been fully explained.
Many images of the mob that illegally entered the building show people connected with far-right groups, some of them carrying Confederate flags. Fueled by extreme conspiracy theorists such as QAnon, there were also numerous examples of Nazi insignia and regalia on view, as well as disgusting anti-Jewish references and celebrations of the holocaust.
Six firearms and two pipe bombs were recovered by the DC Police Department. One man was arrested with 11 Molotov cocktails and a semi-automatic rifle. Whatever your thoughts on how they handled the situation, the overriding emotion was one of sympathy for the threadbare number of police officers trying to hold back the baying hordes of insurrectionists.
The National Guard, which was not on duty before the riot on Wednesday but, according to The New York Times, was later approved for deployment by Vice President Mike Pence from within the Capitol building, will remain activated until President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20.
President Trump today announced he will not attend the inauguration, probably a good thing given the events he triggered with his rally rhetoric on Wednesday and in the preceding weeks.
His subsequent labeling of the attack on the Capitol as “heinous” conveniently ignored the fact that he himself fomented the sedition among the crowd at his Save America rally.
His calls to action included “We will never concede” and “We will stop the steal. We’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, and we’re going to the Capitol…We’re going to try and give our Republicans, the weak ones…the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.”
Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, further whipped up the crowd when referencing the election results. “If we’re wrong, we will be made fools of," he said. "But if we’re right, a lot of them will go to jail. So let’s have trial by combat.”
These inflammatory statements followed prior remarks in the preceding days such as “big protests in DC on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” Even after his supporters had acted on his rhetoric and stormed the U.S. Capitol, Trump said: “We love you. You’re very special… I know how you feel. But go home and go home in peace.” It was a bit late for that.
This was a chastening day for America and all decent Americans. The images were broadcast around the world to an incredulous global audience leaving the perception of Brand USA severely tarnished.
Hill+Knowlton Strategies' CEO AnnaMaria DeSalva wrote Wednesday night that she saw "shock and pain on the faces of my colleagues who, like me, could not believe our constitutional principles could be so distorted and that our democracy itself could come under threat.”
I saw the same reactions from my colleagues on the PRWeek team and our executive editor Frank Washkuch has summed up those reactions and what it means for everyone much more eloquently than I can.
There are so many questions about the day that remain unanswered.
Why weren’t the authorities and law enforcement more prepared when this event had been widely touted on social media and far-right websites amid violent rhetoric about “storming the Capitol”?
How were rioters able to gain access so easily to what is supposed to be one of the most secure buildings in the world?
Why were some police officers taking selfies with the insurrectionists amid chaotic scenes inside the Capitol?
Why were so few rioters arrested and why were many of them seemingly treated with a level of deference unbefitting of their treasonous behavior during the attack on the Capitol?
Why was the 6:00pm curfew imposed by the DC mayor not more robustly enforced?
Most of these lie outside the remit of PRWeek and can be addressed by more generalist media outlets with a wider brief.
But, in light of all our conversations in 2020 about racial inequity, many observers not unreasonably wondered how different the response of the authorities would have been if this was a demonstration carried out predominantly by black or brown people.
They made comparisons with law enforcement tactics and curfew patrols in the recent past during protests in places such as Ferguson and Baltimore, where tanks and other heavy-duty military grade equipment were deployed.
The contrast is striking and one can’t help thinking that the attack on the Capitol on Wednesday was a demonstration of white privilege on an unprecedented scale.
It seems certain people are in favor of law and order but only when it is on their terms and when it suits them. They consider themselves above the law when they choose to be.
It seems they are all about free speech and freedom of choice, except when that speech and those choices differ from their own world view.
They believe in the primacy of elections and the democratic process – but only when the results come out the way they want them.
They want to "Make America Great Again" but their actions defile the very symbols of American greatness and democratic government that are recognized around the globe.
As we have seen this week, and as every PR professional knows only too well, words matter. Trust matters. And truth matters. If these fundamental elements of communication are abused they can have serious implications and they are not to be trifled with.
Brand America also matters, both internally and to the rest of the world. In such turbulent times all around the globe, it is vital for America to continue to demonstrate its leadership role and display the best characteristics of freedom and democracy.
Meanwhile, amid all this carnage in the nation’s capital (a potential coronavirus super-spreader event if ever there was one), more than 4,000 Americans died yesterday from COVID-19. And the vaccine rollout continues to be problematic. There is no communication and leadership about this from the top of the current government.
For the sake of Brand America, it was essential that Congress finished its order of business on Wednesday once senators and representatives were allowed back into the ransacked Capitol building. It showed the democratic process will not be derailed by threats and violence.
While there were still objections raised to the Electoral College counts - a legitimate part of the process by the way - the shaken politicians of both parties had clearly decided the greater good should come first, even those who have helped enable the febrile environment exhibited by Trump's rhetoric on Wednesday and the events that followed.
Business was completed by around 3:45am Thursday and Pence confirmed Biden as the next president of the United States.
Clearly we live in a uniquely divided country. But, hopefully, the next 12 days will pass uneventfully and we can transition to an administration that will prioritize tackling this egregious health pandemic at the top of its agenda and try to construct a bipartisan social discourse based on tolerance and acceptance rather than the hate and violence that this week severely scarred the image of America.
Steve Barrett is editor-in-chief of PRWeek US