RALEIGH, N.C. — In what is sure to become an iconic documentary photo, rioters climbing the west wall of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in their jeans and winter coats are starkly silhouetted against the building’s pale gray stone.
As the siege played out for hours on laptops and TVs, many Americans who watched couldn’t help but see another glaring contrast: the relative ease with which hundreds of mostly white supporters of President Donald Trump were able to illegally occupy the building that serves as the heart of American democracy on the day Congress planned to affirm the victors of the 2020 presidential election.
Similar numbers of protesters who gathered in Washington last June to demonstrate against the killing of George Floyd were met by federal officers who sprayed them with chemical agents and rubber bullets. But the pro-Trump crowd, displaying white nationalist and evangelical Christian symbols, was able to overpower police and hold the Capitol for hours while members of Congress hid in darkened rooms and texted grim messages to their families.
Five people died during the attempted insurrection, including a police officer.
Slain Civil Rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birth and life will be honored on the annual federal holiday on Monday, would not have condoned any violent protest. In his lifetime, King came to believe that non-violent protest — refusing to cooperate with an evil system — could be the most effective tool in bringing about social change.
The Rev. Dr. Anthony T. Spearman, president of the N.C. NAACP, recognized the zip ties that one of the insurrectionists at the Capitol had in his possession when approached by police.
“Plastic handcuffs,” Spearman said in an interview with The News & Observer. “I know them all too well from the Moral Monday Movement, from having them placed on my wrists at least three times.”
Between 2003 and 2008, police made more than 1,000 arrests at Moral Monday events, when protesters came to the N.C. Legislative Building in downtown Raleigh to push for changes in laws seen as oppressive or discriminatory. Some protesters were charged with trespassing with such regularity they knew some of their arresting officers by name.
Riveted to live coverage of the Jan. 6 siege in Washington that followed a speech by President Trump at a rally of his supporters, Spearman was outraged, he said.
“One of the things that was infuriating each time I heard it was when a reporter would refer to those people as protesters,” Spearman said. “That’s not protesting. That is straight-out terrorism.”