January 6 events in the US: What is an insurrection?

INSURRECTION – Banner front-page headline, Toronto Star, January 7, 2021

President-Elect Joe Biden, along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and New York Senator Chuck Schumer – who will soon replace Mitch McConnell as head of the Senate, have all termed the protest at the Capitol building January 6 an insurrection. It is reported that articles of impeachment being drawn up by Pelosi charge President Trump with “incitement to insurrection.” So far no such charges are being levelled against the Senators, such as Josh Hawley of Minnesota and Ted Cruz of Texas, who also could be said to have “incited” protesters. These two Senators and the six others who joined in challenging the certification of the vote for Arizona and Pennsylvania, are now being referred to by some U.S. Representatives as the “Sedition Caucus.” But there is no call for charges to be laid, only for resignations.

The term insurrection has also been widely used by media, pundits and government officials. However, what constitutes insurrection has yet to be defined or explained by any of them. Why does this protest and all that happened at the Capitol on January 6 constitute an insurrection?

Speaking January 6, President-Elect Joe Biden first called the actions an “unprecedented assault” on “our democracy.” “This is not dissent. It’s disorder. It’s chaos. It borders on sedition, and it must end now,” Biden said. “To storm the Capitol, to smash windows, to occupy offices, the floor of the United States Senate, rummaging through desks, on the Capitol, on the House of Representatives, threatening the safety of duly-elected officials. It’s not protest. It’s insurrection,” he added. 

From saying that what took place was an “unprecedented assault” to saying it “borders on sedition” to concluding that it is an “insurrection” what are we to think? These are three separate things: an assault, an insurrection, and something which “borders on sedition” but is not sedition. What then does it mean to call it an assault and an insurrection, but not sedition?

From a legal standpoint, it is useful to refer to Title 18 U.S. Code Chapter 115 – TREASON, SEDITION, AND SUBVERSIVE ACTIVITIES.[1] Sedition, and seditious conspiracy are defined as follows:

If two or more persons in any State or Territory, or in any place subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them, or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof, they shall each be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both.

Six decades ago, shots rained down on CongressWhen five Puerto Rican patriots and independence fighters entered the Capitol building in 1954 while armed and managed to reach the gallery, they were charged with “assault with intent to kill” and “assault with a dangerous weapon” and given decades-long sentences. Later, in 1981, many fighters for Puerto Rican independence, a right sanctioned by international law as part of ending colonialism, were charged with sedition and seditious conspiracy and also given decades-long and even life-sentences. Not so in the present case. Despite the presence of weapons, police can be seen on video footage actually escorting some people into the building and taking selfies with them. Charges are minimal.

Sedition also brings to the fore civil war, something the rulers are trying desperately to avoid. So while reference is made to a “Sedition Caucus,” and claims of treason are also being thrown about, no serious action is being taken. It should be remembered that after the Civil War, the main Confederate Generals involved were not charged with treason or sedition.

Still, why then does the event “border on sedition,” but is an “insurrection”? By law, insurrection requires arrests and prosecutions. The same portion of the Chapter 115 law, under “rebellion and insurrection,” says:

Whoever incites, sets on foot, assists, or engages in any rebellion or insurrection against the authority of the United States or the laws thereof, or gives aid or comfort thereto, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.

Does this mean charges will be laid against those who incited insurrection? Is this the aim of calling it an insurrection? Or is it mere rhetoric on Biden’s part in an effort to unify the very divided ruling factions?

The way Biden speaks, it appears that an insurrection involves “a mob” threatening the safety of elected officials, which was indeed the case, but it is important to stress that beyond the rampage, there is a serious problem of a President assaulting Congress. There are no limits to the presidential powers. The assault on Congress was not by an “external enemy” or a problem of “racist militia” per se.

Despite revenge-seeking which targets Trump, the issue is not Trump but presidential authority to use force and to punish. It also serves to make it far easier to make use of such a claim in the future against demonstrations in front of federal buildings and authority.

No matter how Biden uses the word insurrection, images from the past of what constituted an insurrection will not suffice to describe what is taking place in the United States today, nor provide insights on how to analyze unfolding developments or provide the problems with solutions. It is bound to add fuel to the fire of the anarchy and violence taking place in the United States today.


1. The Code of Laws of the United States of America (variously abbreviated to Code of Laws of the United States, United States Code, U.S. Code, U.S.C., or USC) is the official compilation and codification of the general and permanent federal statutes of the United States. (Wikipedia)

TML Monthly, No. 2 • January 10, 2021

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