On August 26, Michael Byrd gave a remarkable and courageous television interview. Byrd is the Capitol Police Officer who shot insurrectionist Ashli Babbitt during the January 6 riot “as she climbed through the broken door to the Speaker’s Lobby” of the House of Representatives. Feet away, representatives were evacuating behind the breached Speaker’s Lobby doors.
Byrd told NBC’s Lester Holt, “I know I saved countless lives.”
That Byrd is a Black officer and Babbitt was a white woman puts an ironic twist on the more familiar story of white officers using lethal force against persons of color. That tragic irony has played out against a background of former President Trump’s race-baiting and fear-mongering.
Trump, who proudly proclaims his law and order credentials and his devotion to “blue lives,” was mostly silent about the string of police killings of Black people that unfolded while he was president. He has shown no such reticence about Byrd.
Suddenly his steadfast devotion to law enforcement evaporated.
On August 11, he issued a statement praising Babbitt and calling Byrd a “murderer,” a word he never uttered after the murder conviction of Derek Chauvin for his cold-blooded killing of George Floyd. Trump was all too eager to use Byrd to stir the pot of racial grievance and division.
And in his August 11 statement, Trump noted menacingly, “We know who you are.”
To Trump and many of his followers, it simply doesn’t matter that the Justice Department has fully exonerated Officer Byrd from right-wing accusations of “executing” Babbit, “lying in wait” for her, or using “unreasonable force.”
Those transparently false accusations took no account of the rioters’ screams to “hang Mike Pence” or “kill Nancy Pelosi,” or Byrd’s multiple yells to Babbitt to “Stop.” Nor did his accusers consider the harrowing, sworn testimony of other police officers about the January 6 “terrorists,” or radio traffic that Officer Byrd was listening to, describing desperate pleas of “officer down.”
Byrd’s valor on January 6 was matched by the uncommon courage he showed in making himself known in the face of Trump’s barely veiled threats. And the many threats on his life by followers of the former president have hardly been veiled.
History tells us what Trump’s effort to turn Byrd into a villain is really about. Autocrats, intent on undermining democracy, concoct tales of martyrdom and create demons to unify followers and to divide and conquer non-followers.
Adolf Hitler made the 1930 murder of leading stormtrooper Horst Wessel a centerpiece of Nazi propaganda and legend. Words that Wessel wrote became the party’s anthem, renamed for him. The making of his martyrdom fueled Hitler’s rise to the Chancellorship three years later, and his vilification of his Communist rivals.
In Russia, Stalin used the 1934 murder of Bolshevik party leader Sergei Kirov as the pretext for his first Great Purges, eliminating rivals over the next four years. As Russia historian Michael Smith writes, one of the “mantles” that the Soviet dictator wore was “the one who mourned, who suffered with the sadness of loss . . .”
Trump is surely no student of history, but he instinctively understands its primer on power. He believes that gaining authoritarian control requires not just a martyred figure like Babbitt, but also an enemy like Byrd who can be used to promote discord and division.
Moreover, Trump’s use of the racial dog whistle in the Byrd/Babbitt case resonates with a long racial fear-meme of black males attacking white women, even those as young as 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 on fabricated charges.
That Trump’s August 11 threat makes no explicit mention of race makes it no less incendiary. His political career has been built on barely concealed racial appeals to whites fearful of losing status in a changing American racial landscape.
Trump’s most vile appeals to racial resentment surely would include “birtherism”—Trump’s many tweets that Obama was born in Kenya, a meme meant to undermine a Black man’s legitimacy as president. Also memorable during his 2015 campaign was Trump saying about a Black protester at a Trump rally, “maybe he should have been roughed up.”
Several months after Trump took office, in August 2017, he famously defended the Charlottesville white racists’ march: “There really were some very fine people on both sides.”
Then in June 2019, Trump refused to apologize for his 1989 full-page New York Times ad urging the death penalty for five young black men who, by the time of Trump’s refusal, had been fully exonerated of false charges of rape in Central Park.
In August 2020, he resurrected his “birtherist” charges only this time directing them against Kamala Harris whom he said did not meet the requirements to become Vice President. Republicans followed suit, focusing their attacks on Harris rather than Biden.
A month later, when asked during a presidential debate to condemn white supremacy, Trump responded, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” The Canadian government has labeled them a terrorist group that “espouses . . . white supremacist ideology.” And in April, the Justice Department indicted three Proud Boys for conspiracy at the January 6 riot following Trump’s “Stop the Steal” Rally.
Also in September 2020, Trump called BLM protestors “thugs,” while on January 6, 2021, he called those participating in the Insurrection “very special people.”
In light of this ugly track record, it should not have been surprising that Trump would viciously attack, defame, and threaten Officer Byrd. But in so doing he again revealed his true colors.
That Byrd came forward as he did is a reminder that the best way to deal with a bully who is himself a coward is to call his bluff.
Indeed, when the story of this America’s frightening flirtation with authoritarianism is written, Officer Byrd’s simple act of courage will stand out like the man who, in 1989, defended democracy and human rights by standing in front of a Chinese Communist tank sent to intimidate pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
“Democracy,” the distinguished historian Timothy Snyder tells us, “is the courageous way to have a country.”
If we are to save our democracy, all of us must summon the courage to call out those who would use racism to divide us and, in so doing, destroy what so many have sacrificed so much to build.