‘We been knew’: Many Black Philadelphians don’t see how white people didn’t see insurrection coming

After Capitol police failed to prevent the mob from breaching the federal building, law enforcement has tried to play catchup — with charges so far filed against 70 people and hundreds more expected.

  • By Taylor Allen/WHYY

(Philadelphia) — Spurgeon Holloman, 51 and a systems analyst, said he’s always known there was a different set of rules for Black and white people in America.

Growing up in Cobbs Creek, he remembers when the city bombed the MOVE compound in 1985 that caused 11 deaths and 61 homes destroyed. He was 15 years old.

Fast-forward 35 years, he’s watched a mob of right-wing insurrectionists storm the Capitol after President Donald Trump continued to spread baseless claims of mass voter fraud on television. Images from the attempted coup included people carrying a Confederate flag and a noose erected outside the historic building.

“What was the harm with MOVE beyond being a public nuisance versus an armed insurrection with people who felt comfortable enough to show their face?” Holloman asked. “White supremacy not only runs this nation but will enable others to do illegal acts without consequence or very little consequences.”

After Capitol police failed to prevent the mob from breaching the federal building, law enforcement has tried to play catchup — with charges so far filed against 70 people and hundreds more expected.

Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza, 73, an organizer who also worked under former mayor Ed Rendell in City Hall, said such a threat was on the horizon for years.

“I could see they were building up to it since Trump got elected,” she said. “He groomed these people.”

Sullivan-Ongoza acknowledged that folks are probably well-meaning with the calls of “this isn’t who we are.” But it’s not true if you look back at U.S. history.

“I just think it’s disingenuous that you don’t believe [white supremacy] is deeply embedded in this nation,” she said. “That’s the issue with white allies. It’s not with Black people because we’ve been living it for years. They think it’s just on the surface and that it is not deeply rooted in this country.”

White supremacy live on network news

Timothy Welbeck, a civil rights attorney and adjunct African American studies professor at Temple University, said last week’s deadly riot was a symptom of America never reckoning with its history of racialized oppression. It was white supremacy alive and that it could not be easily explained away.

“There has always been this desire to speak about America’s goodness,” Welbeck said.  “Part of the insidious nature of white supremacy is the imagination of fostering this notion of the implicit good of whiteness and so this idea that people would engage in vile, racist behavior is just something that some people are just not willing to believe until they see it.”

Welbeck remembers being originally introduced to George Washington as a child with the myth that he was a man who could not tell a lie and confessed to his father that he cut down a cherry tree. He didn’t learn until much later that he actually owned 317 enslaved people at the time of his death.

“What we teach children about our nation and its funders, we’re inculcating this sense of American exceptionalism and virtue in not only in the character of this nation but also its founders,” he said.

He said white supremacy will always be an issue until America addresses its racist roots.

“Our nation was literally founded by eradicating the Indigenous population of this land and then enslaving African people,” he said. “We became an economic superpower because for 249 years we got to exploit unpaid Black labor and then assume this large land mass from people who had lived on the land for thousands of years.”

After that, the country put in place institutions that continued to disenfranchise marginalized groups causing America to “only be a true democracy since the ’60s.”

For Black people in particular, there’s mass incarceration and the legacies of segregation that still exist.

“It’s hard to divorce the context of racism from the U.S., especially when you’re looking at history,” he said. “There’s often a disconnect between Black people and white people and seeing the reality that race has played in America,” he said.

Among those under investigation in relation to the insurrection are local police and elected officials as well as many middle-class or upper-income professionals. Welbeck said that’s also important to recognize.

“People have reduced racism to ignorance and a lack of economic opportunity but racism is so firmly embedded in all America’s institutions that it’s [all kinds of] people who are holding these beliefs,” he said.

Michael Coard, a criminal defense attorney, said that’s the part that reignited a fear in him. He loves his moniker as “the angriest Black man in America” but it’s only now that he’s seriously considering getting a gun and training to use it.

“I knew there were threats, violence, and racists out there but it seemed distant [and] abstract to me,” he said. “But in seeing those people on Jan. 6 carrying weapons … those are white people I see every day.”

For others, the Capitol mob didn’t raise new fears but instead, came as a reminder of the struggles for survival Black Americans have endured.

Jeannine A. Cook named her Fishtown bookshop Harriet’s, after Harriet Tubman. Cook described feeling last week as if she were transported into the late 19th century, when the abolitionist led hundreds of enslaved people to freedom.

“This is probably what it was like for her during the time to think, ‘What does it mean to be in a country that is imploding in some ways on itself?”

Cook said she is not interested in unity. Calls on the nation to just move onto healing are not useful, in her view.

“I think it’s really easy for a lot of people to want to jump to the unified phase but unify for what? It’s too convenient,” the entrepreneur said. “I’m not fighting with anybody who doesn’t really care for my opinion anyway.”

Cook recognized her view may not be popular but she feels the racism in the country has led her to this point. She sees the insurrectionists as a population who cannot handle when they don’t win and have been historically coddled.

“I’ve been thinking about myself and people like myself having our own declaration of independence and making a decision to not participate,” she said. “We declare these truths to be self-evident that we are all created equal but y’all haven’t kept your side of the bargain.”

She’s not necessarily talking about a separate space for Black people but for people who have similar ethical and moral commitments.

“We been knew,” she said about America’s reluctance to let go of white supremacy. “This is what this was built on.”

WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.

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