As a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters attacked the Capitol in Washington, D.C., last week, more than 500 miles away a Portland city councilor said he had seen it all before.
Councilor Pious Ali took to Facebook Live during the domestic attack on the congressional buildings, saying he had seen political coups happen before, in his home country of Ghana.
“It is not different than this,” Ali said.
Ali had more to say a day after the Jan. 6 siege that left five people dead, including a police officer.
“A coup is when any group of people with a different ideology take over an elected government,” he said in an interview. “Yesterday’s actions were an attempted coup.”
Ali said a telltale sign of a political coup is removing the democratically elected government’s flag and replacing it with your own. On the day of the siege, the flag of the failed Confederate States of America, which has become a symbol of racism, bigotry, and hatred, flew in the Capitol for the first time. Before Jan. 6, the closest the flag of the Confederacy had made it was Fort Sumter, South Carolina, during the Civil War.
“A flag is a representation of a body, and if you remove a flag and put up your own, it’s a sign of taking over,” Ali said. “It’s exactly what happened.”
Ali, the first African-born Muslim elected to Portland’s City Council, has lived in Maine since 2002, after first immigrating to New York City.
Ali is an at-large councilor, meaning he is elected by the entire city, not just a specific neighborhood district. He previously served on the School Board, where in 2013 he became the first African-born Muslim to hold any public office in the city.
He didn’t go into the specifics of the coups he had seen in Ghana, although the West African country has had its share of political turmoil over the years. It is now a democracy, after alternating between civilian and military control in the 1990s.
Although not always the loudest voice during council meetings, Ali has become a public advocate for civil rights. He led a campaign to ban facial recognition technology by Portland officials, a move that was ultimately endorsed by a citizen referendum. He also requested an independent investigation into the June 1, 2020, Portland protests where Black Lives Matter advocates and police clashed, and dozens of protesters were arrested. That investigation, still unfinished, has fallen to the city’s Racial Equity Steering Committee, which Ali co-chairs.
He suggested the police response in Washington, D.C., would have been very different if the people climbing the walls, breaking down doors and entering congressional chambers had been black, rather than the overwhelmingly white crowd.
Ali said it’s obvious the BLM protesters were treated very differently than white supremacists in this country, especially by law enforcement, and called Jan. 6 an “ugly display of white violence in our country.”
But he said that did not represent the majority of the country, and that the presidential election results, which were certified later that day affirming Joe Biden as president-elect, showed that.
“The system upholds white supremacy, and it’s time we tear down that system and build a just society,” Ali said. “Can you imagine if those people were Black people?”
Like many others around the country, Ali also said it is time to invoke the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which elevates the vice president when a sitting president proves unable to do his job. In order for that to happen, Vice President Mike Pence and the majority of Trump’s cabinet would have to invoke the amendment to oust Trump.
Ali was not the only city official to denounce the D.C. mob. Mayor Kate Snyder issued a statement, condemning the lack of a peaceful transition of power.
“While peaceful protest is an American right, violence and destruction is not,” Snyder said. “I join all levels of elected leadership upholding our shared commitment to democratic elections and peaceful transfers of power as anything less undermines our fundamental American values.”
The members of Maine’s congressional delegation – Democratic U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, independent U.S. Sen. Angus King, and Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins – all also condemned the actions of the violent Trump supporters who attacked the Capitol.
While most Maine officials either outright condemned the actions, called on Trump to call the movement off, or remained quiet, some on the political right defended the events of the day.
A Facebook page for the Waterville Republican Party posted support for Trump several times following the events of Jan. 6. One post said they would never abandon him. Another seemed to attempt to ridicule Democratic lawmakers for taking cover during the siege, with the comment “These are the people who want to send your children to fight foreign wars” on a photo of the huddled officials.
Another post, a screenshot from a false story in the conservative newspaper The Washington Times, claimed facial recognition software had been used to identify antifa members who had infiltrated the mob to storm the capitol. Many of Trump’s supporters believe antifa – slang for anti-fascist groups that oppose right-wing ideologies – are the antagonists who often incite conflict to embarrass Trump.
Waterville is home to two of Maine’s most well-known Republican firebrands and vocal Trump supporters: former Gov. Paul LePage, who has indicated he is planning to run for governor again in 2022, and former Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro, who drew national ire for a tweet telling a Florida school shooting survivor to “Eat it.” He is the vice chair of the Maine Republican Party.
On the day of the siege, Isgro tweeted a photo of a swarm of Trump supporters gathered in the nation’s capital, with the caption “This is an unstoppable force #AmericaFirst.”
He also retweeted messages Trump had issued that day about election results, which were marked by Twitter as being disputed. The social media platform later permanently banned Trump.