‘Insurrection:’ Is That a Word We Really Want to Use?

As we prepare for former president Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial, let me take a moment to explain why the wordsmith in me is troubled by the way that we’ve settled on the term “insurrection” to describe what happened at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Or perhaps not the wordsmith: the unrepentant 1970s radical who still lives uneasily within my libertarian soul.

I wouldn’t deny for a moment that the angry mob that stormed the legislative chamber was involved in insurrection. The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary define the term as “rising in arms or open resistance against established authority or governmental restraint.” Attacking the heart of the legislative branch in an effort to overturn an election unquestionably fits the definition.

What worries me, then, isn’t the word itself. What worries me is the tight-lipped law-and-order complacency that suddenly attaches to it. When did those who style themselves progressives decide that insurrections are always bad?

Let’s start with the obvious counter-example. The slave revolts of the 18th and 19th centuries were undoubtedly insurrections. That didn’t make them wrong. Unless one believes that violence is never appropriate in any cause — in which case one should be a skeptic of law — the armed violent uprisings of the forcibly enslaved should be defended, not condemned.

No, this isn’t a comparison. I’m not defending the Trumpist riot that has led to the present moment. I’m remembering, with affection, a time when the left was more nuanced, and took the view that acts of violence, even insurrectionary violence, must be measured not against an abstract standard of law and order but evaluated according to means and ends.

Consider the 1960s. In researching a novel set in that era, I've been struck by how openly the radicals of the day were in discussing the violent alternative. In his memoir “Revolutionary Suicide,” Black Panther leader Huey Newton described the urban riots of the day as efforts by the oppressed of the inner city to “liberate their territory.” He considered the effort misguided because the oppressor always responded with greater force than the protesters could muster. But that criticism was only of the practicalities. Newton’s language, like that of other radicals of the era, evoked the sense that forcibly overthrowing the regime, if one but had the ability to carry it out, would be a good thing.

Certainly, those involved in what the left used to call the “uprisings” understood this focus. Early in 1968, “The American Behavioral Scientist” published a survey of the Los Angeles Black community conducted after the 1965 Watts riots. Some 38% described the disturbances using “revolutionary rhetoric” — including the word “insurrection” — and meant the term to indicate support, not opposition.

Among radicals of the 1960s and 1970s, it was common ground that some insurrections were more equal than others. The great left theorist Herbert Marcuse, in a 1969 letter to his friend Theodor Adorno, admitted that the students protesting on campuses across the country showed little glimmering of genuine revolutionary consciousness, but applauded them nevertheless because their uprising evidenced the collapse of the culture of capitalist domination under which they had been raised. As to the claim that the students were engaged in violence, Marcuse urged those on the left to draw distinctions: “We should have the theoretical courage not to identify the violence of liberation with the violence of repression.”

In other words, not all insurrections were bad insurrections.

More recently, many on the left — among them Representative Maxine Waters — used the word “insurrection” to describe the 1992 disturbances in Los Angeles after the jury freed the police accused of assaulting Rodney King case.

They didn’t mean this as a criticism.

A provocative 1993 essay by the legal scholars Kimberlé Crenshaw and Gary Peller defended the use of “insurrection” for what happened after the verdict, because it challenged the “conventional” notion “that racial justice means the end of ‘discrimination’ and the achievement of formal equality and integration into the dominant community.” In explaining why this was be so, Crenshaw and Peller echoed Huey Newton:

“Rather than see justice in terms of achieving police colorblindness, a race-conscious focus on power between communities focuses attention on the legitimacy of the dominant community administering the ‘colony’ in the first place.”

In short, the American left once took the view that there are times when even insurrectionary violence should be defended. This focus on the purpose rather than the nature of the action has faded. Perhaps that helps explain why the term insurrection was so rarely applied to last year’s disturbances that followed the death of George Floyd in the custody of the Minneapolis police. Certainly the establishment of “autonomous zones” where law enforcement wasn’t welcome fit the definition.

But there’s a larger point here. Instead of going to enormous lengths to demonstrate how nonviolent the protests were, the left of my youth would have gone out of its way to celebrate the raised consciousness of those who were forcibly throwing off the chains of oppression and, in the process, seeking to overthrow the existing order. The radicals of the era didn’t defend indiscriminate violence, but they rejected the hardcore law-and-order notion that violent protest was always bad.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that violence is itself a good. My point is that the use of “insurrection” as a shorthand for “violence in the wrong cause” distorts a history in which the left has considered a violent uprising as in some cases an understandable and justified response to systematic oppression.

Losing an election doesn’t come close to meeting this standard, and violence fomented by the President of the United States — such as we saw on January 6 — cannot be justified at any time. I wish we could just say it that way.

I miss the era when it was the forces of reaction that could see only simple categories of right and wrong, good and evil, and the forces of progress that viewed the world in all its subtle shadings of gray – an era when it was the right that shouted for law and order and the left that said, “Insurrection? Tell me who’s doing it and in what cause, and then I’ll tell you what I think.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

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