As we enter the homestretch before Election Day, I am watching America’s history of political violence repeating itself, and it is alarming.
Here in Philadelphia, the cradle of American liberty, the 2020 presidential election was marred by city officials receiving death threats, armed men driving to the Pennsylvania Convention Center as votes were being counted, and tense protests by competing sets of demonstrators. Such local incidents paled in comparison with the violent storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, but in the current political climate, the Capitol insurrection may very well have been a prelude to something bigger.
Now, with the midterm elections looming, our political atmosphere is once again rife with violence. A conspiracy theorist broke into the home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and beat her 82-year-old husband with a hammer. Armed poll watchers dressed in tactical gear have been reported near ballot drop boxes in Arizona. Right-wing social media figures are advising users to arm themselves for civil war, while Republican politicians sow doubts about the results of an election that hasn’t even happened yet.
All of this is occurring as threats of violence against members of Congress and other political leaders continue to escalate, and issues of race swirl over all of it like a poisonous ether. That’s because when Republicans talk about crime, they often use images of African Americans, reference incarcerated Black people like Mumia Abu-Jamal, and try to convince white voters that all Black Americans are criminals who are coming to take something from them.
This racist political atmosphere is eerily reminiscent of the dynamic that led to the murder of Black voting-rights activist Octavius V. Catto in Philadelphia on Election Day, Oct. 10, 1871. At the time, the Republican Party was aligned with civil rights, while Democrats were the party of white supremacy.
Many Irish immigrants, who were fighting to grow their political power in a nation that did not initially welcome them, found jobs as police officers. They overwhelmingly supported the Democrats and their racist ideology — a corrosive dynamic that Frederick Douglass described in his 1853 speech, “The Slavery Party.”
“The Irish people, warm-hearted, generous, and sympathizing with the oppressed everywhere, when they stand upon their own green island, are instantly taught, on arriving in this Christian country, to hate and despise the colored people,” Douglass said. “They are taught to believe that we eat the bread which of right belongs to them. The cruel lie is told the Irish, that our adversity is essential to their prosperity.”
On Election Day 1871, police stood by as armed white men roamed the streets of South Philadelphia’s Black community, using violence to suppress the African American vote. An Irish Democratic Party operative named Frank Kelly murdered Catto, who was trying to encourage Black Americans to cast ballots for Republicans. Catto was pronounced dead at a police station, and though it was common knowledge that Kelly killed Catto, Kelly was tried and acquitted years later by an all-white jury.
Today, the racial and political calculus is more complicated, as some people of color are aligning against Black Americans in the hopes of gaining greater political and economic power for themselves.
In Los Angeles, for example, prominent Latino political leaders were caught on tape uttering racist remarks about Black people while scheming to realign City Council districts to increase Latino political power and decrease the clout of Black voters. Two of them have since resigned from their posts. Two others have not.
In another instance, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing two cases that could bar the use of race as one of many factors in college admissions. The brainchild of white conservative Edward Blum, one of those cases challenged Harvard’s admissions policy, claiming that high-achieving Asian American applicants were hurt by policies that favored historically underrepresented Black Americans and Hispanics.
But even as some people of color fight to snatch power from African Americans, white supremacists are working to make sure that the bulk of the nation’s influence stays in the hands of white people.
Could that mean that roving bands of white thugs could take to the streets on Election Day as they did in 1871? Given that we watched a mob of thousands attack the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, I believe that is within the realm of possibility.
I can only hope that as the browning of America continues, and white conservatives see their numbers dwindling, Black Americans and other people of color will resist fighting each other for crumbs.
The wisdom of Douglass echoes through the centuries: One group’s adversity is not required for another’s prosperity. Our history of political violence doesn’t have to be our future. To avoid it, we must fully come to grips with our past.
This content was originally published here.