Debate rages over whether race had role in police response to Capitol riot
Questions loom over why police were caught off guard by the insurrectionists.
While many facts remain to be sorted out about how hundreds of rioters caught police off guard and stormed the nation's Capitol building last month, African American studies professor Mark Anthony Neal said recent history shows that had the multitude of marauders been Black Lives Matter protesters the law enforcement response would have been very different.
Citing the high level of force used in response to mostly peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations over the spring and summer in Washington, D.C., the Duke University academic said that "those protesters would have never even gotten close to the Capitol in the way that we saw those white protesters on January 6."
"What we see is that Black folks simply and people of color simply don't have the latitude to act out publicly. Whether it's righteous or not, in ways that whiteness is always allowed to act out publicly," Neal, who is Black, told ABC News.
More than a month after the Capitol insurrection left four people dead, including Capitol Police Officer Brian Sisknick, and more than 50 police officers injured, the debate rages over whether race played a key role in enabling the mostly white mob -- allegedly whipped up into a frenzy by former President Donald Trump's debunked claims the November election was stolen from him -- to overrun the protection of the country's most visible seat of democracy.
"When Black people protest for our lives, we are all too often met by National Guard troops or police equipped with assault rifles, shields, tear gas and battle helmets," the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation said in a statement. "When white people attempt a coup, they are met by an underwhelming number of law enforcement personnel who act powerless to intervene, going so far as to pose for selfies with terrorists."
Roundly criticized for his alleged lapse in leadership during the insurrection, Steven Sund resigned as chief of the Capitol Police, after defending his officers who were overwhelmed while trying to fend off the invading rioters.
In a lengthy statement released a day after the Capitol Building takeover, Sund appeared to blame the episode on breakdowns in security planning, policies and procedures. But he mentioned nothing about whether an investigation will also looking at how the race of the rioters also played a part.
"Make no mistake -- these mass riots were not First Amendment activities; they were criminal riotous behavior," Sund said in his statement. "The actions of the USCP officers were heroic given the situation they faced, and I continue to have tremendous respect in the professionalism and dedication of the women and men of the United States Capitol Police."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., one of the first politicians to demand Sund's resignation, announced on Feb. 15 that Congress will move to establish an independent commission to investigate how the Capitol riot evolved and why law enforcement seemed unprepared.
The Senate will hold its first public hearing on the Capitol insurrection on Tuesday.
Critics contend the stark contrast between the massive law enforcement response to recent BLM protests in Washington, D.C., and its weak performance during the Capitol riots is evidence of the double standard they allege can be found not just in the nation's capital but in police agencies across the country.
"To see the police response against Black Lives Matter protesters over the late spring and summer with a very different response on January 6, was quite striking," Jeremy Pressman, an associate professor of political science and director of Middle East Studies at the University of Connecticut, told ABC News. "And certainly one of the explanations for that was the different racial composition of the crowds at those two protests and the different particular aims and grievances of those crowds."
As thousands of people of color took to the streets last year to protest the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died on May 25 after police in Minneapolis pinned him to the ground and one dug his knee in the back of Floyd's neck, law enforcement officers have often clashed with demonstrators despite evidence showing the majority of the protests were peaceful. In some instances, police deployed tear gas and rubber bullets, bruising faces and bodies with batons.
From the time of Floyd's death to Aug. 22, there were more than 10,600 demonstration events across the country and nearly 95% were peaceful, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a nonprofit group that tracks political violence and protests. Fewer than 570 protests -- or roughly 5% -- involved demonstrators engaging in violence, ACLED reported.
Despite the evidence that BLM protests were mostly peaceful, at least 40 cities across the country imposed curfews and National Guard members were activated in 15 states and in Washington, D.C.
Although many have since been charged for their involvement in the riots, in the immediate aftermath 61 people were arrested, according to the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia. By comparison, 316 people, or five times as many, were arrested at a mostly peaceful June 1 Black Lives Matter protest in D.C., and hundreds of National Guard troops were deployed to the city, many of them assigned to guard federal monuments and buildings.
"No one can tell me that if it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesting yesterday, they wouldn't have been treated very, very differently from the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol," President Joe Biden said during a Jan. 7 press conference, adding that one of his granddaughters had emailed him a photo of hundreds of National Guard protecting the Lincoln Memorial during a BLM protest in June.
ABC News contributor Brad Garrett, a retired FBI agent and crime and terrorism analyst, noted that the Capitol Police said they had intelligence the crowd expected at the Jan. 6 "Save America" rally could turn unruly. In an interview with the Washington Post, Sund claimed he expressed concerns to the House Sergeant-at-Arms and suggested deploying the National Guard in advance of the rally, but was rebuffed due to concerns with the "optics" of declaring an emergency ahead of the rally.
"For whatever reason, the decision was made to, in my view, set up the Capitol Police to fail. And that's exactly what happened," said Garrett, adding that the Capitol Police on hand were not even in riot gear.
During the January insurrection, thousands of Trump supporters, mostly white, marched from a campaign-style rally, in which the then-president encouraged them to "fight like hell," to the Capitol Building and broke in as lawmakers, including then-Vice President Mike Pence, were convening to certify the presidential electoral votes, forcing elected officials and staff to shelter in place.
In comparison, Garrett recalled a June 1 incident in which police used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse a crowd of peaceful BLM protesters in front of the White House so that Trump could walk to St. John's Church and hold up a Bible for a photo-op.
"The event at Black Lives Matter and the event at the Capitol are both colossal failures for law enforcement," Garrett said.
Pressman added that the Capitol riot also came after up to 700 people, many carrying weapons, swarmed the state Capitol Building in Lansing, Michigan, in April with little resistance from the police to demand an end to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home orders imposed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Several men who participated in the Michigan protest were later indicted on federal charges related to a plot to kidnap Whitmer.
"The riots on January 6 were a sort of crowning moment, on a number of events, that were all pointing in the same direction," Pressman said.
Neal, the Duke University professor, said that throughout U.S. history dozens of peaceful protests involving Black people have been met with a disproportionate police response.
"When we talk about the genius of Martin Luther King, beyond his oratory, but strategically understanding that nonviolent protests were going to be broadcast around the world ... they always understood that law enforcement will respond as violently as they did and bring attention to the fact that these folks were protesting nonviolently but yet they were treated in violent ways."
He said a big difference between the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and the Black Lives Matter protests is that now everyone has a cellphone camera and can post in real-time any overreaction by police in attempts to quell BLM protests. He said that in 2017, police in Ferguson, Missouri, responded in armored vehicles and military gear to crush protests over the fatal police officer shooting of Michael Brown, a Black teenager.
"The Ferguson piece was really important because you got to see on the ground the way that protesters were being tear-gassed," Neal said. "We didn't have to watch newsreel footage, as we did during the Civil Rights Movement."
Like in Ferguson and elsewhere, Neal said the Capitol riot has cast scrutiny on the disparities in law enforcement's response to uprisings based on the color of those engaged in unrest.
"For many white Americans, it was as if they had just found out white supremacy existed, that white supremacy is also intimately connected to law enforcement, even our military forces," Neal said. "This is something that folks who've been fighting against white supremacy and dealing with anti-racist politics have long understood."
Pressman added that he believes that the comparisons being made between the treatment of BLM protesters and the Capitol insurrectionist has forced many white Americans to reconsider their complacency to look the other way.
"It shakes their willingness to overlook what to them might have in the past been more subtle signs of the racism that's baked into U.S. history," he said.