Preston Salisbury of Starkville, Miss., writes that he attended protests in the past where he should’ve called out dangerous, racist rhetoric by others. Since the takeover of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2020, (pictured) he is now speaking out. Photo by Blink O’Fanaye

Facing Responsibility After U.S. Capitol Riot: I Was Too Cowardly to Speak the Truth

As I watched the storm of protesters overwhelm police officers and enter the U.S. Capitol, disrupting legislators at their business and looting offices, I could not help but question my own responsibility.

No, I was not in Washington. No, I did not pay for anyone to go to Washington. No, I never voted for Trump. But everyone should know that this assault on our nation, this (somewhat) armed insurrection against our nation in which five people, so far, have lost their lives did not happen because of Donald J. Trump alone. 

It happened because, ultimately, too many conservatives are cowards.

Most of Us Model Peaceful Protesters, But…

In 2009, I participated in my first political protest. The date was Sept. 12, a date chosen, organizers said, because the goal of the protest was to return the country to the united mindset of Sept. 12, 2001. At the time of the protest, I was quite libertarian-leaning and had no issues associating with tea-party ideology. 

In contrast to the rioters of Jan. 6, 2020, we were well-behaved. I know of no reports of damages; the group I was with took care to leave no litter behind, let alone any destruction. While the protest was primarily white, there was also conspicuous Black presence. I saw no evidence of journalists being treated as the enemy. The vast majority of us were model peaceful protesters.

But I also saw signs equating Obama with Hitler. I saw signs depicting Obama as a monkey. I saw signs with vulgarities. None of these things had any place, in my mind, in what was supposed to be a peaceful and united display of conservative values. However, all of us were too filled with cowardice to say anything to the people who brought such signs. Perhaps we were too scared to lose allies. Perhaps we did not wish to be accused of oppressing their right to free speech, a right we ourselves were in the act of exercising. Perhaps we hoped that if we ignored them, they would go away.

Ashamed for Not Calling Out Racism and Lies        

It became clear, over the next several years, that they were not going away. Greater experience of life led me to moderate my stances on a whole host of topics. More  reading of texts (including libertarian) convinced me that if the government could act in the public interest to protect property, they could also act in the public interest to protect life. 

Preston Salisbury has moved “toward the center,” he writes, since his participation in earlier conservative protests because of the rise of extremists on the right. Photo by Blink O’Fanaye

While I still voted libertarian in the elections in 2012 and 2016, I moved toward the center, and I grew ashamed, to a certain extent, of my involvement in the protest of Sept. 12, 2009, because of its association with the rise of extremism on the right.

My shame in attending the protest is misplaced. It was a part of my political journey and of my journey as a human being. I should be ashamed, however, of my cowardice in refusing to call out those who were stoking the flames of racial and political hatred with lies. I should be ashamed of the fact that, instead of standing up years ago to those who were with me in person or in spirit and outlining why I could no longer agree with them, I slunk away. 

Most of all, I should be ashamed that, while thinking I was courageous by my presence at that protest, I was too cowardly to speak the truth to my fellow protesters.

Everyone who has been part of the broader conservative political movement over the past 20 years (and possibly more) should be ashamed. Every time we heard someone spout a lie about how Democrats had rigged the elections in Baltimore, or Philadelphia, or Detroit, or Atlanta, or New Orleans, and we said nothing, we contributed to these events. Every time we valued friendships over truth and said nothing against racist slanders from friends or family members, we contributed to these events. True, we could not have dreamed what the result of inaction would be, but what value should be more conservative than the dedication to truth?

‘She Was Willing to Die for a Lie’

I could excuse myself by saying that I was young, and I didn’t know better, and to an extent that would be true. But it is my generation, many of whom grew up in an environment of tacit racism and unanswered slander, who form the vanguard of what is a rebellion. The young woman who lost her life at the door of the House chamber as she fought for a lie was my age. Almost certainly, she would not have done such a thing in 2009. But she went in one direction, while I went in another. The fact that she was willing to die for a lie certainly should inspire those who still value the truth to speak the truth.

Preston Salisbury writes that the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol is not solely Donald Trump’s fault, but that he should be removed from office because of it. Photo by Gage Skidmore

No, this was not solely the fault of Donald J. Trump, although he certainly should be removed from office because of it. This was not the fault of Sens. Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, or those who voted with them in a gratuitous act of political grandstanding that was designed for the very people who, just hours before, had placed the lives of their colleagues in danger. This was the fault of the thousands of conservatives all across the country who have been unwilling to speak up, to call out people on their lies, for so long that the lies were accepted as truth, and could be combined into a greater lie. 

Thirty-nine percent of the country, if the numbers Sen. Cruz provided can be believed, think the election was rigged not just because Mr. Trump says so, but because they have heard, all their life, that corrupt officials in these cities rig elections. The majority of Republican voters, the majority of conservatives, never would have taken the actions of Wednesday. However, they built a pile of kindling that Mr. Trump set ablaze.

It Is My Duty to Speak Truth, Call Out Lies

I do not know if it is possible to put the fire out. I do not know if it is possible to reverse the rot within the conservative movement in America, nor am I even sure I want to expend the effort to do so. However, I do know that it is my duty to speak truth, not only to power, but equally to those who view themselves as powerless. It is my duty to call out little falsehoods at the beginning, because those little falsehoods have the potential to grow into earth-shattering lies.

No, the majority of well-behaved Republican voters and conservatives did not storm the Capitol on Wednesday, Jan 6. But what happened was the fruit of decades of lies regarding the electoral process, many of which were racially motivated, and none of which could be substantiated then or now. Those lies were spoken openly and shared among peaceful conservatives and brought about the atmosphere that allowed the president of the United States to send a mob into the U.S. Capitol.

After President Donald Trump and others fired up protesters who wanted Joe Biden’s presidential win overturned, they marched to the U.S. Capitol, but Trump did not walk with them as he promised. Photo by Blink O’Fanaye

In order for us to move beyond the horrors of that day, in which five people lost their lives and in which the lives of many others were forever changed, we must embrace honesty and no longer listen to slander. We must demand that people who make these claims show their evidence, and make it clear that we do not tolerate unsubstantiated claims of fraud. We must make sure our children see us doing this. This is the only way to heal what is a fractured nation. 

Sadly, it will not happen in a day, or a week, a month, or a year. It took decades to get to this point, and it will likely take decades for things to improve. But it is our duty as Americans to work for it.

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected] We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

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