When the insurrectionists stormed the Capitol building, people were astonished. How did they get into the building? Where were the police? They were there, but because of their own hubris, they were woefully underprepared. Why? Because they didn’t (and don’t) see white Americans as a threat.
But, when it comes to Black people coming together to protest peacefully, after one of our own are mercilessly killed again at the hands of police, the cops are in full riot gear. Viewing the way these two things are handled says everything we need to know. Even when Black people are being peaceful, they’re seen as threatening and violent. And white people aren’t seen as either one of those things … until it’s too late.
Over the summer, police would descend upon protesters with batons, tear gas, and zip-ties. Peaceful marchers suddenly found themselves under siege as cops would swarm them, the clouds of smoke enveloping the crowds. Dozens, if not hundreds of people were being arrested and held in paddy wagons simply because they were there. It doesn’t matter if they were standing there quietly or simply holding a sign. They were seen as guilty and menacing because they were protesting police brutality against Black people.
The marches that took place over the summer were largely quiet. The protesters walked the streets of their cities wearing masks and trying to be as observant of social distancing as possible. Holding up signs and chanting things like “Black Lives Matter” and other calls for justice, they simply wanted to show that enough was enough, and systemic reform (long overdue) needed to finally happen. And police answered their calls for peace with anything but, often proving the point the protesters were trying to make. It was clear to everyone that they were out for blood, literally. Even if the protesters were largely peaceful, the cops weren’t. Shooting rubber bullets into crowds? Tear gas? Trapping people in New York City on the Brooklyn Bridge? They seemed to have no problem asserting their authority during these times.
It seems that as soon as the police find out Black people are getting together, they’re on standby. When Black Lives Matter organizes a march, their intent is to draw attention to the issue of police brutality or other injustices happening to the Black community. Their gatherings are never vengeful, and they never have the intent to cause bodily harm. This is in direct contrast to everything we saw and heard about the storming of the Capitol building.
Let’s look at the gross mishandling of the Capitol insurrection. Despite the participants openly making plans on social media apps like Parler, Capitol police didn’t seem to view them as a threat. As we’ve learned in the time since, requests for additional assistance were dismissed, even though people were making it clear this was going to be anything but a peaceful protest. The way the Capitol rioters (many of whom were openly armed) were handled, highlights the way this country treats whiteness.
It’s whiteness that lured the police into a false sense of security. They believed that while Trump supporters may show up in large numbers, they don’t resort to violence. This is the party of “law and order,” after all. These are the same people who openly denigrate “rioters.” How could they then turn around and riot? Well, they proved that it’s very easy to do, if you’re white. The insurrectionists openly planned to take over the Capitol, barriers and police be damned. And that’s exactly what the “Blue Lives Matter” crowd did, using everything from flagpoles to fire extinguishers to their own hands to violently assert themselves. Five people died, including Brian Sicknick, an Air Force Veteran who achieved his dream of becoming a Capitol police officer; he was beaten and succumbed to his injuries.
Even a few weeks later, it’s astounding and terrifying to me what they were allowed to accomplish.
“They’ll have to admit one of two things: Either they’ll have to say that they can’t protect the Capitol, or they’ll have to admit that they gave certain people preferential treatment because they didn’t view them as threats,” City University of New York criminology professor, Christopher Chapman, told USA Today. Chapman spent almost 20 years training state and federal police officers.
We already know what the answer is. Based on the actions of the police during the insurrection, it’s clear they didn’t view the mob as a threat. It’s very clear that they were beyond wrong. These violent people had a very clear agenda, and no one took their open threats seriously. And we all know this story would have played out very differently if these folks storming the Capitol were Black.
Capitol police had such blind faith in the insurrectionists, they didn’t wear riot gear. Black Lives Matter protesters so much as hint at a march? Or hold up a cardboard sign on a public sidewalk? The cops are out there looking strapped like it’s an action movie. They deployed the National Guard to the Lincoln memorial ahead of the George Floyd protests last June, so don’t tell me I’m exaggerating. There’s a precedent that has already been set, many times over. Black folks, and their allies, try to protest for our human rights, for our literal lives, and the response is to call in the National Guard. And yet, White folks can stage and execute a coup, ransack the nation’s Capitol, beat a police officer to death, and run through the building with weapons and Confederate flags — and get politely escorted to the nearest exit.
If you see images from this summer’s protests, you will see that there is nothing but police in full riot gear. Hundreds of police officers stand in hard lines like a human barricade. They have bulletproof vests, shields, batons and helmets on to take on groups of protesters wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts and masks. They are quick to get aggressive, and violently shove, hit and strike peaceful protesters. The troops stood on the Capitol steps en masse, daring one protester to cross an imaginary line so they had a reason to unleash fury.
But, if you see pictures from the insurrection, the rioters are the ones forming hard lines on the steps, daring the police to make a move on them. They were shouting things like ‘We’re coming for you!’ and ‘Hang Mike Pence!’
Whether you like it or not, it is abundantly clear that the way police handle protests has everything to do with the race of the people protesting. And it’s not just in Washington D.C.; it’s everywhere. In early July, Trump sent federal forces to Portland to back up his claim that local law enforcement had “lost control of the anarchists and agitators.” They were there for nearly the entire month, using rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse crowds.
In New York City this week, police strong-armed a protest on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. That evening, the cops, dressed in full riot gear, threatened peaceful protesters in downtown Manhattan. They even went as far as to block the Brooklyn Bridge to keep protesters out of the public park. As soon as a couple people stood in the street, cops were ready to bust heads. This protest was small, peaceful, and the cops’ response was unwarranted. This is a typical response to Black activists and allies, but we know it isn’t a typical response to armed, white wannabe “patriots.”
“It baffles me because the Capitol building, they were able to get in,” Jordan Plaza, one of the protesters, told The New York Times. “Here, they were protesting outside a courthouse.”
Well, I can tell you how they got it in. It’s simple: whiteness isn’t seen as a threat in America. Whiteness gets the benefit of the doubt. Whiteness gets preferential treatment. Even if they’re literally storming a federal building (after being incited by the 45th president). But as soon as Black people organize, mobilize, and demand to be heard, the police treat them as thugs before they even set a foot in the streets. While no one expects it to change any time soon, the actions taken (or not taken) at the Capitol may shine a brighter light on the current inequities in the system, and further prove who the real threats are.