Stonewall was a riot. The Capitol assault was a terrorist attack
Capitol Insurrectionists (Shutterstock)

We're coming upon the anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York, which began on June 28th, 1969, and are looked upon as a landmark moment in the LGBTQ rights movement. Queer bar patrons finally got fed up and fought the police, who'd been raiding bars and arresting them in brutally homophobic assaults for years.

There'd actually been uprisings elsewhere against police raids of gay bars years earlier, including in Los Angeles and San Francisco. So Stonewall wasn't the first, though it's become so in the American popular imagination.

But as we look back on Stonewall, it had me contemplating the media's having morphed the January 6th insurrection into a "riot" and the participants into "rioters," which is not only completely inaccurate; it both downplays the event and even allows those who were part of it to memorialize it in the future as some heroic act of rebellion. All we hear and read now is a reference to the "Capitol riot."

But the FBI director, Christopher Wray, called January 6th what it was: A domestic terror attack. Five people, including police officers, were left dead and dozens were wounded.

Words matter. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week announced a select committee would be formed in Congress to investigate the assault on the Capitol, after Republicans in the Senate filibustered a vote to form a bipartisan commission to investigate. Surely it's important that the committee and any investigations look at the event the way the FBI director described it and not as the media now dubs it, as a "riot."

A riot is a spontaneous or random event. The synonyms for it are "brawl" and "melee." What happened at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in 1969 fits the description. Queer people struck back at the violence of the police, who'd routinely raided Stonewall and other bars, after the police had knocked people to the ground who'd gathered outside, after they'd first rounded up patrons. And the crowd, with some yelling, "Gay Power!", surged and fought back. No one planned any of this — and nobody brought any weapons with them to fight the police. This was about an oppressed, brutalized group standing up in a moment of solidarity that none of them imagined would happen even an hour earlier. A protest movement emerged from it.

On January 6th, 2020, the opposite happened. (And no, standing up to the police outside a bar is not the same as attacking the Capitol building, the citadel of American democracy, and American political leaders.) Over 10,000 angry people who'd been fed the Big Lie gathered for Donald Trump's "Stop the Steal" rally, which was a well-planned and organized event, at which he and others told people to march to the Capitol to confront lawmakers who were about to certify the presidential election. Rudy Giuliani told the crowd to engage in "trial by combat." More than 800 people stormed the Capitol, and entered the building seeking out lawmakers and attempting to stop the certification of the presidential election.

While a few of these people might have spontaneously joined, the leaders of various right-wing extremist groups — including the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters — had well-planned the assault, in coordination, and are among the over 500 people who've been arrested. They had been organizing for weeks online, and brought weapons with them, as did many of those in the crowd, who also wore military gear.

These weapons included handguns, Tasers, bear mace, crowbars, fire extinguishers, tomahawk axes, crowbars, flagpoles, knives, ice picks and baseball bats.

The day after the Capitol siege, prosecutors said, [Cleveland] Meredith was arrested in D.C. with an assault-style rifle equipped with a telescopic sight, a Glock firearm with several high capacity magazines and over 2,500 rounds of ammunition — including at least 320 "armor-piercing" rounds. He arrived too late to attend the rally, but the following day, authorities said he sent a text threatening to shoot House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the head….
Police said in a criminal charging document that…33-year-old Christopher Alberts was slow to respond to police orders. An officer noticed a bulge on his hip and Alberts attempted to flee, but was ultimately caught with a loaded handgun and a spare magazine, along with a gas mask, pocket knife, a packaged military meal and a first aid kit. Authorities said there was one round in the handgun's chamber.

This was not a "riot." A gallows, built and brought to the event, was infamously stationed outside the event by these domestic terrorists, while the crowd chanted "Hang Mike Pence!" People had blueprints and maps of the inside of the building, seeking to find specific lawmakers, including Pelosi, to harm them.

It's enraging that much of the American media is calling the events of January 6th a "riot," because they simply would not be doing so if this weren't a group of white Americans on the far right.

They label much less organized violent events that have involved Muslim fundamentalists as "terrorism," including the San Bernadino mass shootings of 2015, in which 14 people were killed. According to the FBI, the two attackers were "homegrown violent extremists" who were "inspired" by terrorist leaders thousands of miles away, among jihadists in ISIS. They'd never made contact with those leaders and weren't directed by any groups and weren't part of any network, but rather were, per the FBI, driven by "poison on the internet."

It's bad enough that Republicans are downplaying January 6th, with one having infamously said it looked like a "tourist" event. A judge has rightly slammed such GOP House members in sentencing a woman who participated. "I'm especially troubled by the accounts of some members of Congress that January 6 was just a day of tourists walking through the Capitol," Judge Royce Lamberth stated this week. "I don't know what planet they were on. ... This was not a peaceful demonstration. It was not an accident that it turned violent; it was intended to halt the very functioning of our government."

The people who organized the insurrection and entered the building brought weapons and plotted harm against political leaders and attempted keep a function of democracy, the certification of the presidency, from happening. They, too, were inspired by "poison on the Internet," much of it driven by one man, Donald Trump, a man who promotes terrorism, and who promoted the lie that underpinned the well-planned Capitol assault.

To call January 6th a "riot" is a grave disservice to our country. Any investigation needs to begin by rightly calling it a terrorist attack.