As we enter the field before Election Day, I watch America’s history of political violence repeat itself, and it’s troubling.
Here in Philadelphia, the cradle of American liberty, the 2020 presidential election has been marred by city officials receiving death threats, gunmen who drove into the Pennsylvania Convention Center while votes were being counted, and tense demonstrations by rival protesters. Such local incidents paled in comparison to the violent storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, but in the current political climate, the Capitol uprising may very well have been a prelude to something bigger.
Now, with the midterm elections, our political atmosphere is again rife with violence. A conspiracy theorist broke into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s home and beat her 82-year-old husband with a hammer. Armed poll watchers dressed in tactical gear were reported near polling stations in Arizona. Right-wing social media users are advising users to arm themselves for civil war, while Republican politicians cast doubt on election results which have not yet occurred.
All of this comes as threats of violence against members of Congress and other political leaders continue to escalate, and issues of race swirl over it all like a toxic site. That’s because when Republicans talk about crime, they often do Use images of African-Americans, refer to incarcerated blacks like Mumia Abu-Jamal, and try to convince white voters that all black Americans are criminals coming to take something from them.
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This racist political climate is eerily reminiscent of the dynamics that led to the assassination of black suffrage activist Octavius V Cato in Philadelphia on Election Day, October 10, 1871. At the time, the Republican Party was aligned with civil rights, while the Democrats were the party of white supremacy.
Many Irish immigrants, fighting to increase their political power in a country that initially did not accept them, found work as police officers. They overwhelmingly supported the Democrats and their racist ideology—a corrosive dynamic that Frederick Douglass described in his 1853 speech, “The Party of Slavery.”
“The Irish people, warm-hearted, generous, and sympathizing with the oppressed everywhere, when they stand on their green island, are immediately taught, on their arrival in this Christian country, to hate and despise the colored people,” said Douglas. “They are taught to believe that we eat the bread that belongs to them. The cruel lie is told to the Irish, that our plight is essential to their prosperity.”
On Election Day 1871, the police stood by as armed white men roamed the streets of South Philadelphia’s black community, using violence to suppress the African-American vote. An Irish Democratic Party activist named Frank Kelly murdered Cato, who was trying to encourage black Americans to vote for the Republicans. Kato was pronounced dead at a police station, and although it was known that Kelly had killed Kato, Kelly was tried and acquitted years later by an all-white jury.
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Today, the racial and political calculus is more complicated, as some people of color align themselves against black Americans in hopes of gaining greater political and economic power for themselves.
In Los Angeles, for example, prominent Latino political leaders were caught on tape making racist remarks about black people as they planned to redistrict city council districts to increase Latino political power and reduce the power of black voters. Two of them have since resigned from their positions. Two others do not.
In another case, the US Supreme Court is considering two potentially preemptive cases The use of race as one of many factors in college admissions. The brainchild of white conservative Edward Bloom, one of those cases challenged Harvard’s admissions policies, arguing that high-achieving Asian American applicants were harmed by policies that historically favored underrepresented black Americans and Hispanics.
But even as some people of color fight to wrest power from African Americans, white supremacists work to make sure that most of the nation’s influence remains in the hands of white people.
Could this mean that roving bands of white thugs will be able to take to the streets on election day as they did in 1871? Given that we watched a mob of thousands attack the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, I believe it is within the realm of possibility.
I can only hope that as the browning of America continues, and white conservatives see their numbers dwindle, black Americans and other people of color Resist fighting each other for crumbs.
Douglas’s wisdom resonates throughout the centuries: the distress of one group is not required for the prosperity of another. Our history of political violence does not have to be our future. To avoid this, we must completely come to terms with our past.