Opinion

What to Say and Not to Say in Your Statements about the White Supremacist Coup Attempt at the Capitol

Written by Vu Le

Over the past few days, I’ve been seeing public statements about the violent fascist coup attempt. Some are great, and some are awful. At this point, after the hundreds of statements that came out after George Floyd’s murder, many of us are exhausted with these statements against injustice, because so many of them are meaningless.

If you are going to write one about the violent white supremacist efforts to install Trump as an autocrat, here are some suggestions, in no particular order. Please keep in mind that I am not a communications expert or a PR person. But I do interact a lot with colleagues, and the below are some of the things I’ve been hearing. Take what’s useful to you, ignore the rest:

  1. DO figure out what the point of your statement is: Is it a general message to the entire community? Is it mainly to reassure your team? Is it to rally actions? Is it to check off a box and say you did it so that people won’t get mad at you for not saying something? Figure this out before you write.
  2. DO try to sound like a human being: People are angry and scared right now. The last thing they need is a robotic, performative message in their inbox or as the first thing they see when they go on to your website.
  3. DON’T call what happened “events.” I saw so many “the events of Wednesday” or “the tragic event of the past week.” Calling these attacks “events” helps to minimize their gravity and impact. We need to unlearn our bad habit of using euphemisms for terrible things.
  4. DO call these attacks what they were: These were violent right-wing, white supremacist, fascist coup attempts and attacks on democracy. I use the plural because while our attention is focused on the Capitol, there were coordinated attacks across the US, including on the governor’s mansion in my state, Washington State.
  5. DON’T call these vile people “protesters.” Do not help advance the narrative that these were peaceful protesters. They were not. They left bombs and nooses, carried the confederate flag, and wore T-shirts emblazoned with Nazi symbols and slogans.
  6. DO label them as violent fascist mobs: Many of us lean toward calling these people domestic terrorists, insurrectionists, and seditionists. At the same time, we should also be cognizant that “terrorists” and other labels have been weaponized against Black, Indigenous, and POC communities for decades, and using these terms without that context may further that.
  7. DON’T say “this is not who we are” or “this is not the America we know.” For many racialized and marginalized communities, this is EXACTLY the America we’ve known, a country with an ongoing legacy of white supremacy. To say otherwise is to gaslight entire communities.
  8. DO talk about white supremacy and racism: If you are not going to acknowledge that these attacks were motivated and fueled by white supremacy and racism, then your statement is empty. If you cannot say these words publicly, do some reflecting with your team. I know there are various geographic and other contexts that may require softening your tone, but we cannot be effective in our fight for a just society if we are not willing to name what we are fighting.
  9. DON’T call it “unprecedented” or “unforeseen.” This is another form of gaslighting. Right-wing white supremacists have gotten away repeatedly with violence. Did we forget about the attempt to kidnap Governor Whitmer only a few months ago? Many of us knew in 2016 that this was the logical course of a Trump presidency and cult. We need to stop being shocked and in denial about the rise of fascist violence, or it will get worse.
  10. DON’T say “history will judge.” Yes, I’m sure that in a hundred years, if the US is still standing, school children will take field trips to learn about how Very Bad these violent fascist coups were. That is not a reassuring thought for many people and communities, especially Black, Indigenous, Jewish, Muslim, and others who are being terrorized right now. We don’t want history to judge later; we want the courts to judge now.
  11. DON’T call for healing and unity. Healing and unity cannot take place without accountability and justice first. We cannot and must not “meet in the middle” with Nazis and fascists. It only gives them legitimacy and power. We’ve compromised so much with racists and bigots, and look where it’s gotten us. No more.
  12. DO call for justice: If we do not have justice, if the people who coordinated and fueled these attacks do not get severe legal and professional consequences for their actions, these violent coup attempts will continue. Call for impeachment, expulsion, and criminal prosecution for the president, elected officials, corporations, and anyone else who supported this. If you think that’s too “political,” get over it.
  13. DO talk about what actions you will be taking: As colleague Erin Okuno of Fakequity.com says, “I don’t want to read any emails, statements, social media posts about how organizations are condemning violence unless it clearly says what actions your organization are changing to address white supremacy.” We have way too many vague, empty statements. If you’re a nonprofit, what actions will you take? Examine and fix your own racial pay disparity? Encourage existing donors to give to Black-led organizations? If you’re a funder, how will your foundation fund differently? Are you going to support Black-, Indigenous-, and POC-led orgs, leaders, and movements more? Are you going to call on other funders to increase funding for community organizing?
  14. DO be bold. Now is no time to hold back. If your statement is not pissing off a few people, causing a dozen unsubscribes, and making a donor or two angrily storm off, you may not be doing it right.

I know this is all tricky, and there are countless mistakes that could be made. If you already sent out a statement and did one of the above “don’ts,” learn from it and move on. We need to focus on taking actions. Unfortunately, unless we work together to turn things around, we’ll have plenty more opportunities to craft these types of messages in the foreseeable future.

About the author

Vu Le