By Jessica M. Castillo
Some of my perspective on the riots and insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.
This story was originally posted on jessicamcastillo.medium.com on January 14, 2021.
A week after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by an armed, angry mob and I am still in shock. I’m sure many of us are. This will sit with us for quite some time. The only other time something like this has happened in our nation’s history was in 1814 by the British — so never America against itself — at least not so candidly at such a figurative pillar of democracy.
Seeing the images out of the Capitol that day, it didn’t look like America to me. It shocked me in part because there are so many actions — and inactions — that had to happen for a riotous mob to storm the literal seat of this nation’s government where laws are made by elected officials. At the same time, I’m not surprised. We’ve seen and known about the rising tide of far-right extremism for years — and some of its central tenets of white supremacy and racism for centuries. We have seen so very blatantly the stoking of this fiery anger from the one individual who, in 2016, was elected to be the representative face and leader of America and who was swiftly voted out of that role in 2020.
I remembered the slog of going through security at the Capitol when my cousin and her now-husband were in town visiting D.C. and we went on a tour of the building during a snow day. To see this secure, monumental building and its halls and offices ransacked, vandalized and disgraced so easily, it stopped me in my tracks. My jaw dropped when I saw images of rioters hanging from the Senate balcony, taking control of the Senate floor from the very seat where Vice President Mike Pence was just presiding over the electoral vote certification, strolling the halls of this sacred institution with an enormous Confederate flag — which wasn’t even done during the Civil War — a police officer being crushed against a building entrance door by masses of people sporting symbols of hate and division, another police officer being dragged down steps and beaten with hockey sticks, and of a makeshift gallows set up in front of our government in 2021.
This then prompts one to wonder, ‘How did nobody know this was going to happen?’ that’s the first question that comes to mind because, you figure, if somebody did know about it, they’d have done something about it.
Really, we did know. Journalists knew, people on Twitter and Facebook knew, government authorities knew. But somewhere along the chain of command among those responsible for preventing such an attack, someone decided to not act, which, in my opinion, is worse. Willful inaction is much worse than willful ignorance, especially when we, as humanity, have been here before. We know the consequences of willful inaction.
And now, though there have been some arrests, the more poignant action yet has come from Big Tech, specifically social media platforms removing accounts associated with inciting and planning this insurrection, including none other than that of the president himself.
I’m somewhat ambivalent to this deplatforming. On one hand, I think the social media giants should have deplatformed these accounts — and more importantly had the right to. As private companies whose service is to provide a space for community, they can choose (within bounds) who is in that community. No shirt, no shoes, no service.
In their Terms of Service, social media companies explain the mutual agreement that each member of the community agrees to when they are allowed to be a member of that community. It’s a code of conduct as in any society or group of people of any size. Some codes in some groups are unspoken, but more often they’re explicitly defined. You engage in the community following company rules and in turn the company provides the space and agrees to a certain level of not selling your data.
Social media companies — and Big Tech more generally — are now effectively utility companies. Instead of providing a service such as water or electricity, they offer a space and conduit for knowledge, information, community.
To some extent utilities are regulated, and to another they are monopolies with a lot of power. I see this as happening to Big Tech. I think there will be and should be a balance between holding near or complete total market power and being regulated for it. We’ll give you this much power, but it’ll cost you this much freedom. Everything is a balance. You can live off the grid, but it’s hard to. You agree to pay the local power supply company for their service, and the company in turn agrees to provide electricity to you safely and consistently. And you diligently pay for water and sewage service for your home, and you expect it to be clean, safe and reliable. There is a give and take to everything, a trade-off. The challenge is finding the sweet spot of harmony between values. We need to find our harmony — amongst people with differing views and with Big Tech. Though the latter is much newer to society, both are here to stay.
On the other hand, by deplatforming insurgent views it certainly will be harder to track and monitor extremists, militias, and any other groups planning insurrection or other misdeeds. They will be more dispersed and, perhaps at first, more disorganized, but plan again they will. Tracking these nefarious actors won’t be as easy the next time. Logically, we should assume there will be a next time. Nothing has changed. Some have gotten arrested, sure. Some even fired from their jobs. And many locked out of mainstream social media. But they will try again for revolution if only to see how far they can make it another time.
The fire was long ago lit and progressively stoked; it will now burn until it doesn’t. Like a wildfire. There’s a lot of things that happen and don’t happen to create the ideal situations for a wildfire to ignite and rage across a landscape — decades of unabated fossil fuel burning; shortsighted and outdated land management, urban development and building codes; natural cycles of drought and extreme weather that are exacerbated by climate change; inadequate environmental policy that is broad enough to induce needed rebounds within the biosphere; poor leadership and a host of others. What stops the wildfire is large-scale cooperation, coordination and, more plainly, willful action to squelch the flames.
We were lucky with how easy it was to monitor planned uprisings, and we shrugged it off. Some didn’t think the willful ignorance would get us to this point. That’s sweet.
Now dangerous extremists no longer have such an easy time planning to overthrow their government. But where there’s a will there’s a way. History has shown us this. I’m reminded of what’s called “paquetes” in Cuba. People discreetly travel door-to-door distributing USBs with bootleg copies of movies and tv shows. They will Keep Up with the Kardashians, communist dictatorship be damned! Similarly, the Underground Railroad and its freeing of slaves. People will risk arrest or death for what they believe is right.
Revolutions have been planned and started in the past without social media. Rebellions and uprisings will continue to happen. This is not the first ever insurrection and attempt at revolution. And it likely won’t be the last. It’s also not the first and won’t be the last time Big Tech’s role in society is questioned. What we need is willful action to squelch what is decidedly different than escaping and freeing slaves through the Underground Railroad or distributing copies of How I Met Your Mother and Monk. And we need to remember that good always wins. Love and light always win. Balance in society, as in any ecosystem, always wins.
What a time to be alive.◊
Featured image: An image of the dome of the United States Capitol. Photo credit: Jessica M. Castillo, 2014.