Dorian Warren, president of the Washington D.C.-based Community Change nonprofit, was preparing for a call with his staff of organizers to celebrate the Senate wins in Georgia yesterday when a mob incited by President Donald Trump stormed the halls of Congress.
“We were collectively watching in real time armed white supremacists with Confederate flags take over the Capitol building,” Warren says. Needless to say, the meeting took on a different tenor, as participants on the call tried to make sense of the unfolding events.
Capital & Main reached Warren hours later at his home, a 10-minute walk from the Capitol building. Sirens could be heard in the background, as well as the sound of his 3-month-old baby crying. He was still trying to process what he had seen and heard throughout the day, but he also was holding onto the boost he felt from the victory in Georgia, which he said was the result of years of work.
We have to change the rules of the game to make it a much fairer and more democratic country. We need real, transformative reform like eliminating the electoral college.
“Let me just say, we did end that [staff] call with a little celebration because we were determined not to let white vigilantes steal our joy in our democracy,” he said.
Warren is a scholar and activist whose Community Change supports grassroots organizations around the country, including the New Georgia Project, a group founded by Stacey Abrams. He sits on Capital & Main’s advisory board.
Capital & Main: What was running through your mind as you not only watched these images on television but heard these sounds from your home?
Dorian Warren: As a Black person in this country, I can’t say I was surprised or shocked because we’ve seen the version of this story too many times before. I’m at a loss for words about today but was putting myself in my ancestors’ shoes. I can trace my own ancestry in this country to the generation that first experienced freedom under Reconstruction. So I often think of them because they not only went from slavery to freedom, they also experienced the rise of Jim Crow. That’s where my head went, just in terms of who I am and my own family history.
Capital & Main: Who is responsible for this?
Dorian Warren: The armed white nationalists who showed up ready to commit acts of violence and to threaten explicitly duly elected leaders and then attempt a coup — yes, they are directly responsible. But clearly we can count all the folks, whether it’s [Sen.] Ted Cruz or President Trump or [Vice President] Pence who was complicit before he decided to find a conscience a few minutes ago, or the entire Republican Party or the conservative movement over the last 40 years that has deliberately used race and racism to divide us to hold on to power.
So there’s proximate causes and then there’s the long, deep seated root of that in the core of our founding as a country about who lives, who is a citizen and who is not, who is deserving of life and freedom and who is not, and whom this democracy is for and whom it is not for.
Capital & Main: We’ve had a year of protest in the wake of police killings of unarmed Black men and women. Can you talk about how this display is different from those protests?
Dorian Warren: The Capitol police here in D.C. are not known for their restraint. In 2013 a Black woman named Miriam Carey made a U-turn near the White House and the police fired at her 26 times, killing her. Her baby daughter was in the backseat and thankfully survived. But that’s emblematic, right? So that’s the Capitol police who basically treated these white vigilantes and militants with kid gloves today. I saw some images earlier of police [at the Capitol] taking selfies with the protesters, which is utterly enraging.[But] nationwide, police have shown force, aggression, anger against protesters for racial justice, right under the banner of Black Lives Matter. [This summer], we saw the smoke of tear gas and rounds of rubber bullets, bleeding by nonviolent protesters, heads smashed by police with batons. We saw all that. It’s the overwhelming disregard police have for the lives of Black people, and then you compare that to the leniency that they have shown to white nationalists, white nationalists who are attempting a coup of our democracy.
Capital & Main: What do you think this attempted coup will mean for the future of the Republican party?
Dorian Warren: This is a critical juncture or choice point for the Republican Party because it is no longer a willing participant in a democratic system of party competition… So either they will die like the Whigs did in the 1850s, which led to the founding of the Republican Party, or they will chart a different path forward…We’re seeing this play out literally in real time with what’s happening on the floor right now.[Sen.] Kelly Loeffler just rescinded her objection [to the electoral count] a few minutes ago. So it took basically them having to duck and cover under a threat of violence to basically accept the legitimacy of our democratic process, which is just absurd….
Capital & Main: The Democrats are on the verge of controlling the executive and legislative branches of government, even if the majorities in Congress will be narrow. What issues do you think they should tackle first?
Dorian Warren: We have to change the rules of the game to make it a much fairer and more democratic country.
And I mean something more than H.R. 1, by the way. [Proposals passed by the House in 2019 intended to shore up the electoral system and strengthen voting rights.]
[We need] transformative reform: eliminating the electoral college. I’m all for what some people would call universal voting. I’m all for mandatory voting….
The other big thing is a just recovery package from this pandemic and the crisis of our public health and economic systems…And then of course transformative racial justice policies. When I think of racial justice, I also include immigrant justice — a total transformation of our immigration system, a moratorium on deportations and detentions.
But democracy reform and all that transformation doesn’t get us there by itself. There has to be a power building lens underneath it…What Social Security did was to build in a permanent political constituency that has been willing, over several decades, to fight for that policy…How do we build in levers into policies that build the power of ordinary and marginalized people and their organizations to be able to not just defend new policies, but to expand and to press further?
Capital & Main: What are you feeling hopeful about right now?
Dorian Warren: A week ago we were planning for what we were going to do with a divided Congress, and with [Sen. Mitch ] McConnell still in charge and minority rule. And today it’s a very different world.
So I don’t know, if you had asked me the question this morning, I would have probably said something like, yeah, if you imagine the start of Reconstruction and the start of a New Deal coming together, this is that moment. And I still believe that. I have to believe that because if I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t work for it.
Capital & Main
This article was co-published by Capital & Main and Salon.