On June 1, 2020, amid the height of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, peaceful protesters in Washington, D.C. were met with tear gas as police and National Guard troops pushed them out of Lafayette Park and away from the St. John’s Church. Strolling through the aftermath was President Trump, Bible in tow. The occasion? A photo op. And to accomplish this, he subjected protesters to the wrath of the National Guard and riot police without provocation.
It’s instances of police brutality like this, ones that happened en masse throughout the summer of 2020, that make what transpired Jan. 6 at the United States Capitol all the more shocking. After we grew used to seeing protesters brutalized at the drop of a hat, it was the sudden lack of force that raised eyebrows.
The mob, riled up by Trump, encroached on the Capitol as congress began the process of certifying electoral votes. NPR’s Hannah Allam reported only a “small contingent” of Capitol Police guarding the Capitol while the House and Senate met inside. As insurrectionists climbed the steps and pushed through the doors, organized resistance crumbled.
Insurrectionists were largely free to roam the halls of the Capitol. What’s more, they acted with a certain swagger that portrayed a sense of impunity. Who else but someone who believed they were above the law would steal House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s lectern while smiling and waving to the camera?
Law enforcement appeared impotent at best and complicit at worst. Video emerged throughout the day showing police appearing to dismantle barriers and taking selfies with insurrectionists who were storming the seat of American government. Two officers have been suspended and at least 10 more are under investigation. Allegations that off-duty cops and members of the military among the mob flashed their badges on the way in indicate more widespread misconduct.
Some might want to write this off as a freak occurrence combined with the acts of a few bad apples (it is already the catchphrase) but the flaccid response turns from unfortunate to inexcusable once you learn Capitol Police knew what was coming and still let themselves be blindsided.
When the FBI asked for information the morning after, it looked like the kid who skips class and begs for the notes.
The insurrection, as extreme an example as it is, falls into a systemic pattern of disparate responses to protests across the United States. A study from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project found police were more likely to intervene in BLM-affiliated demonstrations than right-wing protests. In situations where police were involved, they were also more likely to use force against BLM-linked protesters than right-wing demonstrators.
Would the right response have been for riot police to swarm in once Trump left the stage to preemptively beat and pepper spray and tear-gas the insurrectionists like we saw happen so many times to protesters last summer? No. Not because the Capitol insurrection wasn’t a colossal security failure, but because the path forward must be increased accountability, not increased brutality.
The legions of cops deployed across the nation this summer look even more ridiculous beside the skeleton crew tasked with protecting lawmakers from crazy conspiracy theorists and militiamen. While the response to the Capitol insurrection was pathetic, it is useful for showing law enforcement agencies are entirely willing to respond to protests with some modicum of restraint. They just have to be white and right-wing to receive the VIP treatment.
What has been clear and is now clearer than ever is there is a disparity in use of force, and it is motivated by race and by politics. Empirical evidence proves it. Data proves it, and one of the darkest days in recent American history proves it. The Capitol insurrection should be the last straw for anyone who doubted this country has two systems of policing.