It was clear to everyone watching the mob remotely, and even clearer to those of us outside of the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon: police had a chance to stop pro-Donald Trump rioters before they breached the building. Instead, the group was allowed to grow in size until it was large enough to push over barricades and force entry—even as its members verbally informed law enforcement of their intentions.
“Don’t let them get away with this! We’re getting in there and shutting it all down,” I heard one Trump supporter shout. “It’s too late for the First Amendment—we’re exercising our Second Amendment rights this time around,” said another, and “1776 will commence again,” said a third—a from Alex Jones, who in November for Trump supporters to “surround the White House and support the president.”
The minimal pushback they faced shocked and horrified many onlookers, who wondered aloud how such a brazen assault could take place at one of the best-protected sites in the country. In June, when protesters gathered in D.C. to express outrage at police brutality against Black Americans, law enforcement spared no mercy and no expense. I saw firsthand that if police were so much as hit by a plastic water bottle, they responded with volleys of tear gas, despite being encased in body armor. In the case of Trump’s Bible photo op in Lafayette Square, police gassed and beat protesters and members of the press who were peacefully gathered across the street from the White House. On Thursday, The Washington Post that the lapse in security this time around was partly in response to events this summer. D.C. officials reportedly asked federal law enforcement to keep a low profile, and National Guard members were told to do the same. But the difference in protesters’ race and purpose is likely just as much—if not more—to blame.
I witnessed both the June Black Lives Matter protests and Wednesday’s Capitol Hill invasion, and the contrast was clear. It was driven home by another violent white nationalist gathering in the Trump era: the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. There, police also had an opportunity to de-escalate the violence and quell the crowds but . Before the situation was brought under control, a woman was killed.
Having witnessed law enforcement’s behavior in Charlottesville, their reaction to yesterday’s insurrection was hardly surprising. In both cases, I saw hordes of white extremists, some of whom reportedly riots, allowed to carry out their precise plans—plans that authorities had known about ahead of time. In Charlottesville, the focal point was a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in a downtown park; in D.C., it was the halls of the nation’s Capitol in a bid to stop the lawmakers from certifying Joe Biden’s win. In both cases, police behaved almost cordially. (An officer was even caught on a apparently taking a selfie with a protester as onlookers shouted “ACAF,” or “All cops are friends.” Another was seemingly helping an insurrectionist down the building’s stairs.)
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