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Symbols of hate, and their racial implications, at the Capitol Hill riot

Last week's riot on Capitol Hill was filled with hate symbols: nooses, confederate flags, violent graffiti symbols. Ivette Feliciano spoke with civil rights lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson, about the racial implications of the riot, how moments like this reverberate for people of color, and what history can tell us about how to approach these challenging times.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Last week's riot on Capitol Hill was filled with symbols of hate. NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano spoke with Civil Rights lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson, about the racial implications of the violent event.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Bryan, some of what we saw at the capitol riot last week includes what for many are very painful images; nooses, confederate flags, violent threats written on the walls of the Capitol building. How do violent demonstrations like this one impact communities of color, specifically Black communities?

  • Bryan Stevenson:

    Well, I think it is particularly upsetting to African-Americans who have witnessed very different responses to protests throughout our lives. I grew up watching Civil Rights leaders who were committed to nonviolence, peacefully gathering and still get battered and beaten by law enforcement.

    There was a presumption of dangerousness assigned to Black and Brown people that would manifest itself during Civil Rights demonstrations. Black folks would put on their Sunday best. They would try everything they could to present themselves as nonviolent, non-threatening, just seeking basic rights. And still they would get battered and beaten and bloodied. So it's very hard to then watch people who are armed, who are talking about violence, who are coming with weapons, who are coming with nooses, be trusted in the way that these protesters were.

    There was a presumption of innocence assigned to the people in Washington last week, which made that that so challenging for us. I remember seeing Amelia Boynton Robinson, a middle-aged Black woman beaten unconscious on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I grew up watching people like John Lewis get beaten and bloodied and battered, and it was by law enforcement. And that kind of the challenge of that memory with what we saw is really part of it. And it does reflect the problem that many of us deal with in this country and communities of color, which is what it's like to live in a nation where you are presumed dangerous, where your color, your race creates this presumption of guilt.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Obviously there is a long history Black churches and communities existing under the threat of white supremacist attacks and violence. Is there a heightened sense of danger in those communities right now?

  • Bryan Stevenson:

    I think there is, I mean, I think you're right that activism for equality and justice has always been met with violent resistance and by many white people in this country. And I think that does make what we saw in Washington especially unnerving.

    I'm a civil rights lawyer. And when I started my career, despite the fact that I have two Harvard degrees and I've been committed to nonviolence most of my life, I was pulled out of my car and threatened by my law enforcement officers who said they would blow my brains out just because I'm trying to do my work. And many people in the Black church have had to deal with those kinds of threats.

    I live in Montgomery, Alabama, where we've seen church bombings, where we've seen that history play out. And so when people who are espousing these views of racial animus and bigotry and using the symbols of resistance, equality to equality like the Confederate flag, arm themselves and start roaming, people of color feel especially targeted, feel especially vulnerable. But the flip side to that is that we have grown up, many of us aware, unintimidated and unafraid. We are committed to the kind of equality and justice that we were promised.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    And since the riots last week and Trump's impeachment this week, there have been numerous calls for unity and understanding. Where does accountability fit in that, but also, what do healing and unity look for the people who have felt directly targeted by white supremacists, and by the Trump administration, in the last four years?

  • Bryan Stevenson:

    I really think that we have to understand that we cannot be casual or indifferent to threats of violence, to calls for racial hierarchy and bigotry. We've learned throughout our history that when we tolerate the kind of violent mob violence that we saw in Washington, we are all at risk. It's a– it's an appeal to the lawlessness that shaped the lynching era. And so if we understand that era, then I think we understand how vigilant it is that there be accountability, that we actually commit to the kind of security and promise of fairness that we talk about. On the other side of that, we have these long standing issues that we haven't addressed, and we have to address those issues.

    I mean, the reason why so many people feel threatened in this moment is because they actually fear that we might do better when it comes to racial equality, that we might do better when it comes to gender equality. We might do better in terms of inclusion and diversity. And some folks are threatened by that. And what we have to persuade people is that not only should they not be threatened by that, they should be excited by that because a true commitment to human rights and equal justice, a true America, requires that. It's not an option. It requires that. And that's the hope we have to share.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, thank you so much for joining us.

  • Bryan Stevenson:

    My pleasure.

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