COMMENTARY

Black cop shoots white woman: The saga of Michael Byrd and Ashli Babbitt

The killing of Ashli Babbitt was justified — but it violated America's racial script, and backlash is inevitable

By Chauncey DeVega
Published September 7, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)
Police stand as supporters of US President Donald Trump protest outside the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Police stand as supporters of US President Donald Trump protest outside the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Like other forms of fascism, Donald Trump's cult demands human sacrifice.

This can come in the form of those targeted for violence and pain as "the enemy." The sacrifice can also come in the form of followers so committed to the movement that they are willing to kill and die for it. These rituals of violence bind the followers to the leader and one another, offering them meaning, a sense of community and a mythos built around their simultaneous "victimhood", triumph and "heroism." Ultimately, Trumpism and other forms of fascism are human destruction — both for their followers and society as a whole.

On Jan. 6, Donald Trump's attack force overran the U.S. Capitol, committing at least 1,000 acts of violence against Capitol Police and other law enforcement officers. The goal of Trump's attack force was to stop the certification of the Electoral College votes that would finalize the election of Joe Biden — and perhaps also to capture and execute Mike Pence, Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Republicans and Democrats deemed to be "traitors."

During the battle, Ashli Babbitt, a pro-Trump obsessive and extremist was shot and killed by a Capitol Police officer as she attempted to breach the doors of the House speaker's chamber. Capitol Police investigated the shooting and concluded that it was justified and likely saved many lives. These facts, of course, do not matter to the right-wing propaganda machine.

The officer who shot Ashli Babbitt, Lt. Michael Byrd, has now come forward and identified himself, although at first his name was not disclosed because of safety concerns. Babbitt was immediately elevated into a martyr by the right-wing media. In their fictional world, she was the "victim" of overzealous police, who used "excessive force" against an unarmed "patriot." As a white woman, Babbitt made a particularly compelling figure to the right-wing imagination, defined by her race and gender through the white racial frame as automatically being "innocent" and "vulnerable."

Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump demanded to know the identity of the officer who shot Babbitt, and made veiled threats of violence against him. In TrumpWorld, it does not matter that Trump himself encouraged his followers to engage in the acts of right-wing terrorism and political violence that led to the tragic events of Jan. 6.


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In death, Babbitt has become a symbolic prop for the Big Lie that the 2020 election was "stolen" from Donald Trump and his followers. She is also part of a larger pantheon of "heroes" who have engaged in right-wing violence in service to the cause. These Trumpist martyrs and heroes serve as a powerful recruitment and fundraising tool

As Talia Lavin explains at New York magazine, "Every revolution runs on myths, its own heroes and martyrs filling the hearts of adherents with grievance and a wish for revenge. For the attempted revolution of January 6, Babbitt is the most visible of these figures." Lavin continues:

Days after the storming of the Capitol on January 6, an image began spreading widely across the encrypted chat app Telegram and other bastions of right-wing digital conversation. It was a "battle flag" depicting Ashli Babbitt, a 35-year-old woman who was shot by a Capitol Police officer as she attempted to enter the building, as a spooky-looking white-on-black idealized feminine figure, not unlike a more martial version of the Starbucks logo. On the flag, a drop of blood dangles from Babbitt's neck against a crimson Capitol dome.

Variations on this flag include the Capitol stamped with a Star of David, the word vengeance written below it in a gothic font. The Babbitt flag was used to advertise an abortive "Million Martyr March" scheduled for Inauguration Day. Ever since, white-supremacist groups like Revolt Through Tradition and the National Partisan Movement have used the same image of Babbitt in their recruitment propaganda, posting flyers on light poles and hanging banners that read "Her Name Was Ashley Babbitt" from Boston to Orlando.

Two Thursdays ago, Michael Byrd gave an exclusive interview to NBC News' Lester Holt, discussing the struggle to protect the House chamber during the chaos of the Jan. 6 attack, as 60 to 80 House members and staffers remained inside:

As rioters rampaged through the Capitol, Byrd and a few other officers of the U.S. Capitol Police set up a wall of furniture outside the doors.

"Once we barricaded the doors, we were essentially trapped where we were," Byrd said in an exclusive interview with NBC News' Lester Holt, speaking publicly for the first time since the riot. "There was no way to retreat. No other way to get out.

"If they get through that door, they're into the House chamber and upon the members of Congress," added Byrd, who gave NBC News permission to use his name after authorities had declined to release it. …

What happened next was captured on video: Byrd fired one shot, striking Babbitt in the shoulder.

Babbitt, 35, an Air Force veteran and ardent supporter of former President Donald Trump, fell to the ground; she died from her injuries later.

The NBC News report observes that Trump falsely claimed that the officer who shot Babbitt had "worked for a high-ranking Democrat." Byrd told Holt the incident had "turned his life upside down," saying he had been in hiding after receiving "a flood of death threats and racist attacks that started when his name leaked onto right-wing websites." He said he had no doubts about his decision to fire at Babbitt:

"I know that day I saved countless lives," Byrd said. "I know members of Congress, as well as my fellow officers and staff, were in jeopardy and in serious danger. And that's my job." ...

"I tried to wait as long as I could," he told Holt. "I hoped and prayed no one tried to enter through those doors. But their failure to comply required me to take the appropriate action to save the lives of members of Congress and myself and my fellow officers."

Byrd's decision to shoot Babbitt — a Black police officer shooting an unarmed white woman — has taken on much greater meaning and power in the context of a nation stained by centuries of white-on-Black racial violence. This incident represents the ultimate transgression across the color line: A Black man granted the power of lethal violence by the state used it against a white woman.

The fact that a police officer was forced to kill a Trump invader — let alone a white woman — adds an exclamation mark to the meaning of Jan. 6.

On that day, Trump's terrorists attacked the Capitol with the goal, consciously or otherwise, of overturning multiracial democracy and reasserting white people's control over every aspect of American life.

Trump's attack force carried Confederate flags and a white Christian nationalist cross. They also wore Nazi regalia and other white supremacist symbols. Right-wing paramilitaries and other street thugs played a central role in the attack on the Capitol. White freedom and white privilege made Trump's attack force feel so safe that they made no effort to cover their faces. Evidently, they were not afraid of being identified and punished for their crimes.

Moreover, white freedom and white privilege convinced Trump's followers that the police would not use lethal force against them. They were largely correct in that assumption: If Black or brown people or Muslims, or any group identified as "liberal" or "leftist," had stormed the Capitol they would have been shot down in large numbers. Trump's attack force also bombarded Black law enforcement agents with racial slurs.

In total, the events of Jan. 6 were but another reminder that white supremacy and its violence have not been fully exorcised from American society. At least 6,500 Black Americans were lynched by white people in the South and across the country during the 19th and 20th centuries. These men, women, boys and girls, old and young, were "guilty" of being Black and perhaps daring to request some basic level of human respect and dignity in a white supremacist society.

One of the most notable crimes that demanded the lynching tree was the particular crime of raping a white woman. Historians have documented few if any actual examples of Black men or boys committing such an act during slavery, Reconstruction, or the Jim Crow era in the South. Most accusations of rape by white women against Black men and boys during that time period were fabrications or outright lies intended to encourage collective white violence against the Black community.

In her essential book "Behind the Mask of Chivalry," historian Nancy MacLean offers these insights into the South's lynching culture, the Ku Klux Klan, and dynamics of race and gender:

All the Klan's sexually related charges, in fact, focused on the men of other groups. The lack of corresponding fears about female African-Americans and Jews indicates that sexual jealousy was an important ingredient in white men's racism, as W.E.B. DuBois had once suggested. … Klansmen viewed women at some level as property; they also viewed them as symbols of power. … Deeply conscious themselves of this tradition of using women as markers in symbolic power plays between men, Klansmen realized that other men could play the same game. The image of the black rapist was thus conjured out of Klansmen's fears of a militant claim to equality by a social subordinate: he would prove his dignity with their property even if he had to risk his life to get it.

The elevation of Ashli Babbitt into a martyr fulfills a cultural script in which white men are supposed to "protect" white women (against nonwhites, especially men) as a type of property over whom they have final dominion.

Because of his cultural experience and living memory as a Black American, at some point Michael Byrd must have realized that by doing his duty as a police officer and patriot on Jan. 6, the full weight of white supremacy would come crashing down upon him. The other Black and brown police officers (and some white officers as well) likely felt some version of the same thing as they battled Trump's attack force.

The Ku Klux Klan wears white robes in an attempt to intimidate Black people — the robes are supposed to represent Confederate war dead who have been summoned back to this plane of existence to seek vengeance on Black people. Many of those demons and ghosts in human form now wear business suits and ties, or khaki pants, polo shirts and MAGA hats.

In his book "Trouble in Mind," historian Leon Litwack, described the state of siege that typified Black life in the South after the end of Reconstruction and the many decades of Jim Crow terrorism and white tyranny that followed:

The "war" black men and women were clearly losing; indeed, it had become a virtual rout. The other side owned the land, the law, the police, the courts, the government, the armed forces, and the press. The political system denied blacks a voice; the educational system denied them equal access and adequate resources; popular culture mocked their lives and aspirations; the economic system left them little room for ambition or hope; and the law and courts functioned effectively at every level to protect, reinforce, and deepen their political powerlessness, economic dependence, and social degradation. Those were formidable odds.

This was the world — a world of racist fantasies made real through unrestrained white freedom — that Trump's terrorists and the Jim Crow Republicans hope to recreate in the 21st century.

When Lt. Michael Byrd and the other Black and brown police officers battled Trump's attack force on Jan. 6, they committed an unpardonable sin against white racial authoritarianism and its believers and followers. Revenge and retaliation are inevitable.

Lt. Michael Byrd's peril will continue into the foreseeable future. He is now more than a man. He is a symbol for the white right and other American fascists, who are likely to perceive him as an ultimate trophy, as well as a way of avenging the killing of Ashli Babbitt. The threats of violence will not be limited to him. For the white right and the American neofascist movement, all Black people are now, to varying degrees, Michael Byrd.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Ashli Babbitt Capitol Police Capitol Riot Commentary Donald Trump Jan. 6 Michael Byrd Racism White Supremacy