When churches need protection, it’s not normal, it’s dangerous. And it’s a sign of trouble to come

Georgia Senate results brought some optimism. Did a Trump-fueled coup attempt extinguish it?

President Donald Trump’s message to Wednesday’s mob perfectly fit his vision of which Americans have the right to protest, to have their churches protected and, apparently, to riot and inflict harm, Curtis writes.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
President Donald Trump’s message to Wednesday’s mob perfectly fit his vision of which Americans have the right to protest, to have their churches protected and, apparently, to riot and inflict harm, Curtis writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 7, 2021 at 6:00am

The end of an old year prompts not just relief for a 2020 in the rearview mirror, and optimism for the new one ahead that has to be better, but also a chance for that last look back. Which stories lodged in the headlines, and which ones disappeared all too quickly?

As Washington prepared for an onslaught of pro-Trump demonstrations this week, organized by those who refused to accept the president’s defeat and hoped to rattle officials with a last grasp at power, I could not forget the damage from the last time supporters of President Donald Trump visited D.C., when the grounds and property of Black churches were vandalized. That drew not nearly enough outrage, or at least it seemed that way.

For his next act, Trump invited his followers to flood the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday to protest as Congress counted the state-certified electoral votes in a democratic process that is usually routine.

He promised it would be “wild,” an inciting message from a president and his party that had been sending out klaxon calls for years.

Spurred by the lies that nonexistent voter fraud robbed him of victory, MAGA supporters traveled from all over. Trump stoked what followed, and a frighteningly large number of supine Republican enablers backed his play — promising to block votes and holding out the unconstitutional hope that Trump would prevail.

It unfolded as anyone could have predicted.

Terrorist rioters, predominantly white, stormed the Capitol as the world watched, replacing American flags with Trump banners and taking apart the myth of American exceptionalism brick by brick.

Whose America?

A prescient voice had been the Rev. William H. Lamar IV, pastor of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of those churches targeted in D.C. He put what happened last month into context, writing in The Washington Post: “I am deeply disturbed by this incident … but I am more disturbed by the continued mythology of imperial America. This mythology supports those who commit violence against human beings for political ends, deny citizens their right to vote, denigrate sacred spaces and claim as their own whatever they survey.”

This week’s mob claimed America as theirs.

Why did the police seem so unprepared for the violence Trump and too many GOP leaders had been fomenting? Law enforcement had no problems unleashing tear gas and more against peaceful protesters advocating for Black lives; imagine if Wednesday’s mob had been Black or brown or Muslim. Will there be mass arrests for the lawbreakers?

Before the riots exploded, Trump had spoken to the amped-up organized and disorganized groups that had been openly chatting about mayhem on social media sites for days and weeks. “We will never concede,” he said.

In the weeks after the December violence, it was heartening that the leader of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, who bragged about his offenses against the historically Black houses of worship, was arrested on his return to D.C., for that and weapons-related charges. But when the Proud Boys, in their December late-night D.C. prowl, shouted, “Whose streets? Our streets,” trespassed against several churches, ripped away signs that endorsed the movement for Black lives, dragged them into the street and set fire to them, backed by a not-so-heavenly choir of cheers, it seemed to sum up the unholy state of our union.

It provided yet another chance for a country that would do well to learn the lessons of the past, though it often lets those chances pass by. Most of America, it seemed, forgot just how symbolically incendiary that December scene was.

Throughout history, Black-led churches that stood up for an inclusive vision of America have been targets of intimidation and worse. Remember, Dylann Roof deliberately chose the storied Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, for his heinous, murderous acts in 2015.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” chided the predominantly white religious leaders who urged caution rather than nonviolent demonstrations, who were more devoted to “order” than “justice.”

In that year, it took another church attack, the white supremacist terrorist bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed four young Black girls, to shake more Americans out of their role of mere observers of the country’s racial injustices. And King the reverend and activist was still considered too radical by most Americans when he was assassinated in 1968.

Georgia hope?

If that label seems familiar, it’s what Georgia GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler threw, along with the kitchen sink, at her Democratic opponent, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, not coincidentally an heir to King in the pulpit of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. Her onetime rival turned ally Rep. Doug Collins said: “There is no such thing as a pro-choice pastor. What you have is a lie from the bed of Hell. It is time to send it back to Ebenezer Baptist Church.”

But there was hope that things might be different in this new year of 2021, a new administration and surprising results in the two Senate runoffs in the former Confederate state of Georgia.

Warnock’s victory did signal that voters, at least those mobilized by activists on the ground, had had enough with the insults and disrespect. Warnock, ever the preacher, said in his postelection statement: “It’s dark right now. But morning comes. And scripture tells us weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”

With all due respect to the reverend, the morning and afternoon also brought another reckoning.

The president who gifted the December protests with a flyover, and basked in the adoration of Wednesday’s anti-democratic crew, ignored city leaders’ calls for calm. It’s no surprise that the man who remained silent about assaults on Black churches, on Wednesday called the rioters “very special” and continued to repeat the lie that he was robbed of the election, instead of owning up to what he had wrought and trying to fix it.

His response perfectly fit his vision of which Americans have the right to protest, to have their churches protected, to have their votes counted — and, apparently, to riot and inflict harm.

It is fitting, too, that the fight for the vote for Black Americans historically found sustenance in many Black churches, with Black women doing so much of the grassroots organization that helped tip Georgia into Joe Biden’s column in 2020 and pulled Warnock and Jon Ossoff over the finish line this week.

The year may have begun with many of the same challenges of the last one, and new ones that seem to shake the very foundations of democracy. All are competing for time, attention and effort from Americans too exhausted to process every scene, every outrage, including literal attacks on Black churches that trigger Jim Crow memories and terrorists roaming the halls of buildings that are close to sacred.

But the resilience from the leaders of those churches and the fight from a people who will not let America look away from its past or refuse to face its future just might offer a sliver of optimism, and hope for that “joy” Warnock speaks of.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

CQ Roll Call’s newest podcast, “Equal Time with Mary C Curtis,” examines policy and politics through the lens of social justice. Please subscribe on AppleSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.