The Capitol riot exposed police double standards

Why do security forces treat Black Lives Matter protesters and pro-Trump rioters so differently?

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier, Jan 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington, DC [File: John Minchillo/AP Photo]

On January 6, as the two chambers of Congress convened to count Electoral College votes and officially certify Joe Biden as the president-elect of the United States, a violent mob stormed the US Capitol in support of President Donald Trump and his false allegation that the presidential contest was “stolen” through voter fraud.

Carrying Confederate flags and wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats, hundreds of rioters broke through barricades, smashed windows and entered congressional offices and chambers. After wreaking havoc on the very heart of American democracy and live-streaming their unlawful actions on social media for several hours, the rioters left the Capitol with ease, with only a few dozen of them being detained. Some even carried “souvenirs” with them as they walked out.

So where were the mighty US security forces during this unprecedented domestic terror attack? How did a bunch of violent white supremacists manage to breach a high-security federal building, defile the “seat of American democracy”, threaten the lives of some of America’s highest-ranking elected representatives, and leave without facing any real resistance from the police?

The authorities tried to explain their failure to swiftly secure the Capitol and detain those responsible for the attack by claiming that they were “underprepared” and did not have the necessary resources at their service to keep the angry mob under control. They said their officers were simply “overwhelmed”.

These excuses did not sit well with anyone who watched the US security forces clamp down on last year’s racial justice protests, which were overwhelmingly peaceful, using not only excessive force but also seemingly limitless resources.

On June 1, when Black Lives Matter demonstrators peacefully gathered near the White House to demand an end to impunity for the police killing of Black Americans, for example, the US security forces were neither “underprepared” nor “overwhelmed”.

They charged on the mostly Black crowd, situated almost a block away from the White House, with a large force made up of Washington police, US Park Police, National Guard troops, and members of other federal agencies. Army helicopters swooped low over the heads of protesters, forcing them to disperse. And when Trump wanted to stage a photo op outside a church across the street, officers used tear gas, batons and horses to quickly clear the president’s way.

That day, 289 Black Lives Matter protesters were arrested. The protesters never even came close to breaching the White House and were doing nothing other than exercising their First Amendment right to protest, but nonetheless, they faced the full force of US law enforcement.

In the following days, as Black Lives Matter protests gathered steam across the country, the National Guard from several states were deployed to Washington, DC to guard federal buildings and public monuments. They stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in full military gear in an ironic show of force against thousands of peaceful protesters calling for racialised police brutality to come to an end. Meanwhile, federal police patrolled the streets of the capital without nameplates or badges. Some 14,000 arrests were made across 49 US cities during anti-racism protests last summer, according to The Washington Post.

The very same security forces that cracked down on overwhelmingly peaceful racial justice protests with such “efficiency” just a few months ago, however, were not able (or willing) to defend the US Capitol against a relatively small mob on January 6.

Moreover, last week’s riot did not come as a surprise to anyone, let alone the security agencies who had months ago warned that “white supremacists present the gravest terror threat to the US”. White supremacist groups and individuals who led the attack on the Capitol advertised their plans for violence on social media for everyone to see long before they travelled to Washington, DC.

The day before the riot, the FBI issued a report warning of a violent “war” at the US Capitol, which authorities did not heed or take seriously. Meanwhile, President Trump himself proclaimed January 6 a day of reckoning and urged his supporters to come to the Capitol on that day to help him overturn the election. “Big protest in DC on January 6th,” he tweeted on December 19, “Be there, will be wild!”

Nevertheless, as the images of a handful of officers unsuccessfully trying to keep the angry crowds behind a few light-weight barriers outside the Capitol building clearly demonstrated, the US security apparatus was neither prepared nor overly eager to get this riot under control.

Why did security forces treat Black Lives Matter protesters and pro-Trump rioters so differently?

Because the storming of the Capitol was not only about overturning the election but also maintaining white supremacy in an increasingly diverse America. This was evident in most rioters carrying not only pro-Trump insignia but also confederate flags and neo-Nazi emblems as they ransacked congressional offices and chambers.

As law enforcement itself has a long history of acting as a tool for maintaining white power in America, the security forces are not inclined to see overwhelmingly white, nationalist groups as threats. So while they are always prepared to crush even the most peaceful protests led by Americans of colour, they are often reluctant to intervene with force when white Americans, who they view as their primary supporters and benefactors, resort to unlawfulness and violence to preserve their privilege.

Indeed, social media footage from the Capitol riot show not only that the authorities failed to take the threat posed by the pro-Trump white nationalist gathering seriously, but also that some of the officers on the ground viewed the rioters as allies. Several officers were filmed joking, shaking hands or taking selfies with the rioters inside the Capitol building. One officer allegedly donned a MAGA hat and directed the pro-Trump mob around the Capitol building. According to The New York Times, another officer tried to direct rioters to the office of  Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

There were also numerous off-duty police officers, military veterans and other security personnel actively participating in the riots in a personal capacity. Larry Rendall Brock Jr, a retired air force lieutenant colonel, for example, was pictured wearing combat gear and carrying zip-tie handcuffs in the Senate chamber. Ashli Babbitt, the woman who was shot and killed as she was trying to breach a barricaded door in Congress, was also an air force veteran.

Two Seattle police officers who allegedly travelled to Washington, DC to participate in Trump’s Stop the Steal “rally” were put on administrative leave so it can be determined whether they took part in the consequent riots. In the coming days, as we learn more about the rioters, we will most certainly hear many more stories of officers and other security personnel actively participating in, or at least voicing their support for, this attack on American democracy.

The police’s subdued and inefficient response to and tacit support for the Capitol riot was not an isolated incident. American police have long been treating white vigilantes who resort to violence to maintain white supremacy and suppress movements for racial justice with kid gloves. This is why far-right vigilantes felt emboldened enough to threaten and violently assault Black Lives Matter protesters hundreds of times in the last year. And this is why Kyle Rittenhouse was not immediately arrested after opening fire on anti-racist protesters in Kenosha.

The police support for angry white mobs targeting Americans of colour did not start during the Trump presidency either. Throughout US history, the police often either tacitly approved or actively participated in racist mob violence against Black Americans.

During the deadly New Orleans race riots in 1900, for example, as journalist Ida B Wells-Barnett explains, “The police and the legally constituted authorities showed plainly where their sympathies were, for in no case reported through the daily papers does there appear the arrest, trial and conviction of one of the mob for any of the brutalities which occurred. The ringleaders of the mob were at no time disguised.”

In 1898, when a mob of 400 white supremacists staged a coup against the local government of Wilmington, North Carolina, the police once again did nothing to stop the attack which resulted in dozens of deaths, or bring the perpetrators to justice.

In 1921, a white mob decimated the thriving Black community of Tulsa, Oklahoma, massacring hundreds, destroying homes and businesses and leaving thousands homeless. Bombs were dropped from aeroplanes on what was known as Black Wall Street in what is now considered the first aerial bombing of a US city. Despite all this, the local police and the National Guard did nothing to protect the victims or hold those responsible to account.

Decades later, in 1985, the second aerial bombing of a US city took place, and the target was once again Black Americans. The Philadelphia police bombed a home occupied by the Black radical group MOVE, killing 11 people, including five children, and burning a city block of 61 homes to the ground, leaving more than 250 homeless. Despite two grand jury investigations, a civil suit, and a commission report that defined the bombing as “reckless, ill-conceived, and hastily-approved”, no one was ever criminally charged for the attack.

So there is no reason to wonder why the police failed to secure the Capitol on January 6. The American police are efficient and ready to crush any dissent with excessive force – but only when the perpetrators are Black. In the land of the free, police afford white terrorists more respect than peaceful Black protesters, and this is an outrage.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.