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What Does It Mean To Call The Capitol Rioters "Terrorists"?

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington.
Julio Cortez
Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington.

What do you call the people who violently stormed the Capitol on Wednesday, January 6, 2021? Rioters? Insurrectionists? Terrorists? Since the incident, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has used all three labels.

Linda Sarsour, a Muslim, Palestinian-American activist with a huge social media following, tweeted, "This is domestic terrorism. Period," and Republican Congresswoman Nancy Mace from South Carolina also used the label "domestic terrorist" in a tweet:


There's an ongoing debate about that term. People who think it's the most precise word to describe what happened on Jan. 6 say that pro-Trump mob fits the dictionary definition of a terrorist:a person who uses unlawful violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.

Melina Abdullah, a Black Lives Matter organizer and Pan-African studies professor at Cal State, LA, uses "terrorism" to describe what we saw that day. "What they're attempting to do is terrorize," says Abdullah. "What they're attempting to do is elicit a response that comes out of fear." But Abdullah gets even more specific, calling the group "white supremacist terrorists."

"To use the term white supremacist terrorism helps us to unpack what it means to be a threat to the state," she argues. The terrorist label has been used against Black and Muslim-identified Americans as an excuse to surveil and criminalize those communities, she says, while "white supremacist terrorists" are organizing coup attempts on social media platforms with few repurcussions.

But others who don't like the term say it does more harm than good.

Ramzi Kassem has long been a vocal critic of the "terrorist" label. Kassem runs a legal clinic at CUNY law school called CLEAR, where students and staff represent people who, according to Kassem, find themselves on the receiving end of the sprawling security state in the U.S.

"If the FBI shows up at your home asking you questions about your organizing circle or what's being said at your mosque, CLEAR will represent you," says Kassem.

Kassem understands the urge to call last week's mob "terrorists." But instead of addressing an inequity, he says that could easily create the opposite effect: "It only serves to further empower those who are already in power and it helps them expand their budgets to spy on, over-police and over-prosecute people of color."

Kassem cites historical examples of this, notably the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. He says there's no disputing who was responsible: a white, right-wing, man named Timothy McVeigh. Kassem says, "The very next year, there's a legislative response and there are two laws that are passed: The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, and an immigration law called IIRA-IRA. Those laws have been used primarily against Black and immigrant folks in this country."

And many people share Kassem's concern that broadening the "terrorist" label will ultimately lead to more bad policing.

"I'm flexible," says BLM organizer Melina Abdullah. "If somebody comes up with a term better than terrorism, great."

Until then, Abdullah says she'll continue to use "white supremacist terrorism" to refer to the events at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Because, to her, that's the most accurate language we have to describe what went down in D.C. that day.

She says words do matter, but that's not where she wants to leave this conversation.

"What we saw is how pervasive white supremacy is in this country. If we don't come up with our own systems, solutions, and our own re-imagined future and begin building toward that — I don't know if everybody heard this newly elected congresswoman who saw fit to quote Hitlerthat'sgoing to be what's ushered in."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.