THE FLAG OVER the Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, hung at half-staff Sunday. Set atop a hill overlooking the Susquehanna River, the entrance was guarded by police in riot gear. Lower down, at the street level, intersections were blocked by law enforcement vehicles. On each of the Capitol’s four sides, camouflaged National Guardsmen in masks clutched rifles to their chests. A handful of stocky, middle-aged men with wraparound sunglasses lingered about. Whether they were cops or militia was unclear. If they were trying to keep a low profile, their efforts were falling short.
Police officers on horseback rode down the middle of North 3rd Street, past Sammy’s Authentic Italian Restaurant and Old Town Deli, toward Liberty Street. The horses’ hooves clacked against the pavement. A young couple sat on stoop taking it all in. Between them was their 3-year-old boy, dressed in a winter coat and light-up sneakers. The man was 27, and the woman was 20; both were Black and lifelong residents of the city. They asked that their names not be used in a story. Given that rioters carrying Confederate flags had just laid siege to the nation’s Capitol, leaving five people dead, and that law enforcement in Harrisburg was bracing for similar acts of insurrection, it felt like a reasonable request.
“It’s crazy,” the woman told me, as she looked out at the armed forces occupying her city’s streets. The man agreed: “It’s just shocking that all of this comes after a presidential election.”
“There’s a profound historical change taking place in the United States,” said Yale University historian Greg Grandin. In 2019, Grandin published “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America,” a sweeping Pulitzer Prize-winning analysis of the historical conditions that gave rise to the Trump years. Grandin argues that from the outset, frontier wars — from the genocidal Indian Wars, to the blood-soaked creation of the U.S.-Mexico border, to the building of a global empire through campaigns of military conquest around the world — provided a “release valve” for the nation’s various internal conflicts. That mechanism, which turns on a notion of “freedom as freedom from restraint,” no longer functions as it once did. Undermined by the transparent hollowness of the Iraq War, the Great Recession, and other factors, the project of channeling the nation’s internal conflicts into messianic campaigns on distant fields of battle has collapsed, according to Grandin, and now the wars are coming home.
“Trump’s whole presidency confirmed that argument, and the fact that it’s wrapping up now with a green zone in Washington, D.C., is pretty amazing,” Grandin said. “Climate change, the disaster of the wars, the economic restructuring of the global economy — all of these things have limited the United States’ ability to channel that kind of extremism outwards.” In the past, Grandin explained, the U.S. has been able to avoid social revolution through political realignments within the two-party system. Economic exploitation of the developing world, wealth extraction, and war “all were part of process in which the U.S. could use foreign policy in order to organize domestic politics.”
“That’s no longer possible,” Grandin said. “We’ll see how Biden handles it.”
Robin D.G. Kelley, an American history professor at UCLA, said he’s been thinking a lot about the relationship between the protests and the Capitol riot. The author of several books exploring the history of social movements and race in the United States, Kelley’s forthcoming title, “Black Bodies Swinging: An American Postmortem,” aims to provide a “genealogy of the Black Spring protests of 2020 by way of a deep examination of state-sanctioned racialized violence and a history of resistance.”
In the wake of the siege, Kelley said he’s been particularly focused on the relationship between the police, the military, and conventional notions of radicalization. “I’m really thinking hard about the notion of a thin blue line, and what does it mean when the very forces that many of us were fighting in June are the forces that ended up trying to take the capital?” he told me. Kelley sees the Capitol insurrection not as a backlash so much as an ongoing historical pattern of right-wing violence responding to moments of pressure from the left. “I actually think they’re responses to insurgency,” he said — the insurgency, in this case, being a historic mass movement challenging the power and role of the police in American society.