Professor of Organizational Behavior, Stanford Graduate School of Business
This conversation took place on January 11, 2021
Brian Lowery: How do you think we should talk about and refer to the events at the Capitol last Wednesday? Would you say it was a riot, a coup attempt, a terrorist attack, an insurrection, or something else?
Loretta Lynch: It’s one of those events that, frankly, calls forth all of those terms. It was a concerted, deliberate effort designed to prevent the lawful transfer of power from one administration to another. Even though many of the people there are now saying that they’re simply patriots and didn’t know what they were doing, you can see the order coalescing in the crowd if you look back at what happened. You can see the people who came prepared to take action. You can see the group come together and a mob mentality overtake them, regardless of their intention when they first got to the Capitol. And frankly, they were incited to do what they did. A group of people who, by force, try to overthrow a branch of government is the definition of an attempted coup. Had it succeeded, it would have been only the second one to occur on American soil. It was an attempt to prevent a constitutional process that would have determined the next president. So yes, all of the words you listed apply.
Brian Lowery: Let’s talk about this more from the perspective of race. Black people in this country have shown a commitment to United States, despite being enslaved and lynched. A mostly white mob broke into the Capitol building, reportedly defecated it while carrying Confederate flags, and were able to walk away without being arrested. If it had been a Black mob, I would have been afraid for myself and my family’s safety — I believe that the police or vigilantes would be looking to hurt Black people connected to that crowd.
Loretta Lynch: I agree, or others may have looked to just blame Black people. We saw that after 9/11 — anyone who was remotely assumed to be of Arab or Muslim descent was blamed and often beaten. We’ve seen it when there have been Black protests, and then there is backlash against the extended Black community. However, I think you need to step back and see it from an even further perspective, because this didn’t start last Wednesday. This is the culmination of years of planning by those who don’t fear retribution because they rarely are held accountable. They are not characterized as the violent groups they are, even though there have been more acts of concerted, organized violence within the United States perpetrated by white supremacist groups than by foreign nationals or African American affiliated groups. We’ve already seen the scenario where the group has been primarily Black — last summer, with the Black Lives Matter protests. The difference begins with the perception — the perception of law enforcement officers was that this was a group that could instantly turn violent. That was the expectation, and that was the planning. Last summer, the National Guard and officers in riot gear were already standing at monuments to protect them before the protests began.
Brian Lowery: You served in the Department of Justice at the highest levels of the U.S. government. One of my cousins told me that he thinks we have to keep it real with our kids, and tell them that they aren’t free and that nothing has changed. What do you think we should be telling young kids about the state of our country right now?
Loretta Lynch: We need to be reiterating the messages that we’ve always shared with them: This is a country founded on tremendous ideals, and the struggles we face in this country have always been about living up to those ideals. Historically, we’ve seen that with significant progress there will always be backlash; that pattern is as predictable as the sunrise. We’ve been living through a backlash ever since former President Barack Obama was elected. Yes, we should tell our children what the world is like, but we should also say that there are people who push to make our country better every day. Last Wednesday was tragic not only because of the insurrection but also because we didn’t have time to celebrate or notice that Georgia — a state that embodies the painful legacy of race in this country — elected a Black man and Jewish man to serve as senators. On Wednesday, we should have been holding that up as an example that even though we don’t always get it right, there are times that we can come together. Instead, though, we were talking about the people who stormed the Capitol. As someone who comes from descendants who had their votes stolen and voice ignored, it is insulting to see people reacting this way in response to one of the most secure and fair elections on record. The real basis for the argument that this election was rigged is focused on urban areas with large numbers of Black voters. Again, it boils down to the perspective that Black votes should not count as much as white votes. I tell my kids that yes, life is not always fair, but I’m proud that I come from a long line of people who have fought for this country’s ideals since the beginning. This summer, we saw that awakening in many young people and people of color. I would tell my children to look at all the things we’ve accomplished and let no one take them away from us.
Brian Lowery: How do you think we should respond to individuals, such as the president, who incite violence like what we saw at the Capitol last Wednesday?
Loretta Lynch: For any democracy to work, people have to perceive the system as being fair. Many who have worked in the government, like myself, face the challenge that the system hasn’t always been fair. When we have a breach of trust and responsibility, such as what we saw last week, we have to thoroughly examine all the flaws, both logistical and legal, that led to such a thing happening. We also have to hold those who we deem responsible accountable. And we’re starting to see the process work — we’re seeing people arrested and the accountability kicking in. It is also important to keep in mind that the occurrence that was disrupted was an inherently political process — the peaceful transfer of power, something we are known for throughout the world. However, we’re beginning to see a political reckoning — major corporations are coming out and saying that they will be thinking long and hard over who they support. There’s also social accountability — some people are losing their jobs, and most people, I believe, are losing their friends and acquaintances. Of course, the flip side of that is that the far right is using last Wednesday’s events as a rallying cry and making martyrs out of those who were injured. We have to ensure that the systems in charge of accountability in this country are utilized, and that people are identified and prosecuted — including the president. The people that want accountability for this aren’t just the BLM supporters — it’s the country as a whole. We need to understand exactly what happened, why it was wrong, and who will be held accountable; otherwise, the next group will think they can do the same thing.
Brian Lowery: How do we hold people accountable in a political environment where many politicians are making a bet on embracing radical right-wing views in order to remain in office?
Loretta Lynch: We have to look at the larger picture, because holding people accountable comes in many shapes and forms. Some people are going to stop contributions to lawmakers who have behaved this way. As a society, though, we can hold people accountable at the ballot box. Coming back to what Georgia has achieved, we had people like Stacey Abrams working tirelessly for 10 years to turn Georgia blue. And she, and a committed group of people, got it done. The question of how we maintain the ballot’s power has been around since even before the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of ’64. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Joseph Lowery, and everyone else who was working so hard back then knew that, with the ballot, you could put people in office who could change policies. We will hear people begin to say that they weren’t able to advance their view of election fraud because we kept them from showing evidence. They are going to use this to tighten up how people get access to the ballot box. I predict that there will be a push to limit early and mail-in voting and limit the number of polling places under the guise of “preventing voter fraud.” We have to redouble our efforts to keep the path to the ballot box open; we have shown the power of the Black vote and the power of organizing. The events of last Wednesday, as horrific as they are, are now set in stone. The next step is to hold those individuals accountable and look ahead to the challenges we face.
Brian Lowery: Law enforcement is using sophisticated surveillance technology to try to catch some of the people involved in the insurrection. I sense that there will be support for using those tools because of who they’re using them against. But do you think there is a reason to worry that those tools become normalized? As we know, those types of things often don’t end up being used against the dominant majority group.
Loretta Lynch: These surveillance tools are using technology in incredible ways, but the problem occurs when they are used to replace investigation, corroboration, and confirmation. For example, facial recognition was a tool that was first touted as something that would benefit law enforcement. Yet we’ve seen that it may not be accurate enough, depending on who manufactures that technology. However, it’s challenging to get people to pull back from a tool that has already been adopted. As we use it more and more, we see that it needs to be used alongside other tools: cell phone data, people calling in with tips, etc. To use these techniques correctly, we must have people in charge with the necessary judgment and discretion — a function of police, prosecutor, and judicial training. There are, though, many people who can outline the concerns of a surveillance state. We have to have a counterbalance to this technology and not simply tout it as something that will solve all of our problems for us. A tool never solves the problem for you. If we advertise it as doing so, it takes away the necessity of trained and trustworthy people using it. Many communities lack that trust of the people in police departments or prosecutor offices.
Brian Lowery: How do you get those communities to accept that this tool is actually going to serve them and won’t just turn into another way to simply surveil specific subpopulations and keep those who are well resourced safe?
Loretta Lynch: The role of law enforcement has often been used to keep those who have a lot of resources safe from those who don’t have as much. There’s a perception that there’s going to be some kind of inherent problem or tension between those two groups. But this goes back to the same words I use when talking about the specific ways we have to handle last week’s events: transparency and accountability. Before you can rebuild trust, you have to resolve the individual and systemic issues of accountability. The time to do it is hopefully before a tragic event happens. When I was in law enforcement, we spent a lot of time talking to law enforcement departments. The officials would say: “I’m looking at the demographics of and economic disparity in my city and I see a powder keg — I don’t want to be the next Ferguson, MO. Can you give me some guidance, tools, and help?” And we did that — it was called “collaborative reform” and was one of the most successful programs that we had. The program relied on both the police department and a community partner to hold the police department accountable and help with the introduction of new technologies. When body cameras were first introduced, police departments wanted nothing to do with them; they said they would be an encumbrance. But now, law enforcement has realized that body cameras are an important way of providing clarity in volatile situations. They give everyone a third eye to observe some of the events. They’re not perfect — they’re not always pointed in the right direction, or the volume isn’t always on, or they don’t turn on early enough — but you can see a little bit better. Now, we’ve seen that in police departments with body cameras, instances where police officers overstep and community complaints drop. However, communities need to be asking police departments to share their technology (e.g. when they will get body cameras and can community members view the footage) and findings (e.g., posting the statistics about things that cause tension between law enforcement and the minority community on a daily or weekly basis). Where are they occurring? Where are the police going and why are they going to those areas? However, this is something that under-resourced communities don’t necessarily have the time or resources to do, which is why they have to be electing people who have their interests at heart.
Brian Lowery: What is your attitude toward the “defund the police” movement?
Loretta Lynch: We have to understand the perspective of communities that have been overpoliced and have reaped such little value from what the police provide that they are willing to advocate for defunding, or even abolishing, the police force. How do you change the dynamic that these communities have with the police? That will require different things in different communities — for example, body cameras if a community does not yet have access to them. Then, you have to look at who the police chiefs are. Are they individuals who believe in community policing, deescalating, and limited contact between law enforcement and community members? Often, over-policing stems from the municipality’s desire to generate tickets, fees, fines — all of which translate into profit. These things are all woven together, and we have to recognize that.
Brian Lowery: Social media has played a significant role in helping people’s viewpoints become more extreme and helping the far right organize. Do you believe that social media platforms have a responsibility to police the content on their networks?
Loretta Lynch: When I was serving in office and frequently corresponded with my foreign counterparts on how they deal with social media, I quickly realized that different countries had used it in very different ways. We are one of the few countries that value free speech to the extent that we do. We face the challenge of upholding free speech in the marketplace of ideas but stopping it before it gets to actual incitement. This line shifts a lot. The right to free speech is a tremendous right — that’s why it was one of the first ones promulgated. But, just like in every aspect of life, with this right comes responsibility. I do think that there has to be more responsibility taken by social media companies because they are private companies and can, in fact, enact policies. They have policies that are supposed to ban violent speech or calls to hurt other people; it’s merely a question of pushing them to use them. The way we get them to change their actions is simpler than we think — the power is in our hands because we are the consumers. But it’s tough, because they’re woven into our way of life. For many, it’s more than just sharing photos — small businesses use them to advertise and find customers. However, we have to decide: At what point does our comfort, ease, and efficiency trump our safety? We often talk about the tremendous power that social media companies have. Why do they have that power? Because we’ve all signed it away. But people don’t see it that way. We have many decisions to make about what’s important to us and what we’re willing to fight for in this country. We’ll see how it plays out.