Drawing upon her experience working in conflict prevention, stabilization, and response, Congresswoman Sara Jacobs (D-CA-53) outlined her framework for how the country can move forward following the deadly attack on the Capitol on January 6th in a letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi this week.
Congresswoman Jacobs wrote to the Speaker on Tuesday, proposing plans for the near-term that focus on accountability, defending democratic traditions, and ensuring Congress does not set up new systems and set poor precedents out of fear. In the long-term, Congresswoman Jacobs proposes a focus on healing the divisions in our country, fighting inequality and injustice, fixing the enabling social media environment that exploited divisions, and rebuilding our institutions.
Specific remedies proposed by Congresswoman Jacobs include: establishing a truth commission to address white supremacy and the roots of the attack on the Capitol, building a memorial to the heroes of January 6th, combating social media radicalization, and making sure that the military and law enforcement are free of white nationalism and insurrectionists.
Congresswoman Jacobs releases the following statement:
“Speaker Pelosi led Congress through one of our darkest moments, calling us back into session hours after the deadly attack on the Capitol and leading the effort to impeach President Trump one week later. As the focus turns to where we go from here, I am grateful for the opportunity to add my voice and expertise in post-conflict settings to the conversation. The world is watching and the strength of our democracy will depend upon the actions we take now and in the long-term. I look forward to working with Speaker Pelosi and all our colleagues to hold those responsible accountable, repair the divides in our country, and vigorously defend our democratic and constitutional traditions.”
Prior to being elected to Congress, Jacobs served at the United Nations and the State Department where she specialized in post-coup transitions and responses to electoral violence and violent extremism in Fiji, Mali, Nigeria, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The text of the letter is copied below:
January 19, 2021
Dear Speaker Pelosi,
I write to you today in response to your request for Members’ thoughts on how to move forward from the attack on our Capitol and our democracy on January 6, 2021. I am tremendously grateful for your leadership – and the resilience and care of your staff – during this tremendously painful and difficult time for our country.
As you know, my background prior to coming to Congress was working in conflict prevention, stabilization, and response. I have also worked on a number of post-coup transitions. As we work to figure out a way ahead for our country, I wanted to share some lessons that I have learned from my past experiences that I believe are relevant to the pressing issues before us today.
First, there is increasing debate on who is to blame. Do we blame the individual participants of the attack or does responsibility solely lie with the President, Members of Congress, and the members of the media who incited these violent actions? In my experience with analyzing conflict, it is clear that the answer is both. For conflicts to manifest, you need (1) deep fault lines within a society, such as the long history of white supremacy in the United States; and (2) conflict entrepreneurs such as the government leaders and media involved. As such, I believe our response must work to hold accountable all conflict entrepreneurs, while simultaneously addressing the fault lines that were mobilized around and an enabling environment that allowed these destructive behaviors.
Our near-term solutions must include:
Accountability: When you look at countries where coup attempts have taken place, in almost every case, when the first attempt was not met with swift and harsh actions that held the culprits accountable, then subsequent attempts were much more likely to prove successful. It is of utmost importance that we hold Donald Trump and everyone who has committed, incited, or encouraged violence to the highest level of accountability. As Donald Trump leaves office on Wednesday, holding him accountable is not simply about ensuring he will never hold office again, but about preventing another such leader from attempting a similar attack on our democracy.
A relentless refusal to succumb to efforts undermining democratic traditions: A key goal of insurrectionists is to disrupt the norms that sustain democratic traditions. We must protect and reclaim the symbols of patriotism and America’s democratic ideals, and quickly reverse the cooptation attempts of these symbols by extremists. I also recommend we build a memorial to the heroes of January 6, and make sure that we immediately memorialize these events so they cannot later be re-written by those who wish us to remember them otherwise.
Not setting up systems out of fear that can be used dangerously later: One key thing to keep in mind in our immediate response to the attack on the Capitol is to be mindful of the tools and precedent we are setting. In many cases around the world, the very security measures put in place post-coup attempt were used for a subsequent coup-attempt. This includes surveillance and the dismissal of due process laws. We must be swift, but cautious, in our actions. And we must ensure that no systems and processes that we set up further erode democratic norms and values, or further criminalize Black and Brown communities.
Our long-term solutions must include:
Healing the divisions in our country: The central fault line of American history has been race-related, and we have seen a resurgence of white supremacist hate groups over the last number of years. We’ve also seen an increasing level of inequality that has contributed to and exacerbated our other fault lines. In addition to the work our caucus is already doing to fight economic inequality and racial injustices, addressing these fault lines will require a systematic, nationwide community dialogue process. This will begin to break down some of the key factors precipitating violence such as inter-group distrust, hardening opinions, and accepting violence as a justified response to furthering your opinions. We must begin the hard work of repairing relationships between individuals, communities, and groups. Given my experience in post-conflict settings, I believe a truth commission and empirically supported best practices from transitional justice case studies will be the best way to do so.
Fixing the enabling environment that allowed those divisions to be exploited: Every conflict requires a communication structure to spread their message. In Rwanda, it was radio. In this case and in many other conflicts around the world such as the genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar, the primary messaging conduit has been social media. We must take the threat of radicalization through online social media networks seriously. We must also recognize that the very structure of the social media ecosystem lends itself to radicalization — by promoting information that gains the most reaction. It is incumbent on us to set up norms and standards that reshape the social media ecosystem to promote the kind of discourse that benefits the public good, rather than have them become breeding grounds for sensationalist and radicalizing ideas.
Every country has major inter-group divisions and bad actors. The difference between the countries that end up in conflict and those that do not is the ability of institutions, legal processes, and leaders to channel this division in a productive manner. We must invest in rebuilding our institutions to make them worthy of public trust.
As we look at the likelihood of conflicts around the world, it is clear that, in recent years, the United States has begun to slip on some of the important protective factors against conflict — the legitimacy and effectiveness of our institutions. Our inability to effectively address COVID-19 has only exacerbated these issues. We must pass a comprehensive COVID relief bill and crush the virus. We must also pass the democracy reform initiatives that you have been championing. But we need to go further. We must fundamentally reshape our institutions to be able to effectively address the challenges we are facing now. We also need to make sure our military and police are free of white nationalism and insurrectionists so if a conflict of this nature ever happens again, they do not support or fail to intervene, as this is how coup attempts become successful.
The world was watching as rioters took over the United States Capitol and attempted a coup. The world is also watching what we do next. And if we do this right, we can be a model for how countries deal with violence and division.
I hope we will be.
With great admiration for your leadership and courage during this difficult time,
Member of Congress