The storming of the Capitol building marked a watershed moment in American history.
For the first time since British troops torched the building in 1814, hostile forces breached the Capitol’s defences, hunting for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence. The apparent ease with which rioters overwhelmed the DC police and entered the Capitol was shocking.
This has led to near universal comparison on the political left as they drew comparisons between the police response during the Capitol attack, and their actions during last summer’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests.
The claim being made – from President Biden to the masses on social media – is that BLM protesters would never have been allowed to storm the Capitol, and the inadequate police response to far-right, white protesters, is an expression of white supremacy. This claim was illustrated by photos showing rows of square jawed riot police arrayed across the steps of the Lincoln memorial during a BLM protest last summer.
To many, this was proof positive of the racist bias inherent in US policing.
What more evidence could you possibly need?
This racialised analysis of the Capitol attack is dependent on a series of assumptions that overlook equally or more plausible causes that have little to do with race. One assumption that is probably true however, is that there would have been a greater police presence had it been a BLM protest. Yet this is not necessarily evidence of white supremacy. The decision to deploy so few officers has not yet been explained by those that made it, but there are perfectly plausible, non-racist, explanations imaginable.
One is that the police simply did not expect a pro-Trump rally to be anything other than virulently pro-cop. Given the president’s rhetoric that ‘blue lives matter’, and his supporter’s hostility to the BLM protests, the idea that they would attack and kill officers may well have seemed absurd.
As such, a smaller, less militarised police presence would have been considered adequate for crowd control, in a way it might not have been when dealing with a movement that spent last summer spraying ‘Fuck the police’ on walls across America.
In this scenario, the greatest failure was a failure of imagination. Such negligence is not new in American history. A ‘failure of imagination’ was exactly how the 9/11 Commission characterised the intelligence community’s failure to prevent the attack on the World Trade Centre.
We can be sure that had 9/11 been carried out by a group of white men, many of those now claiming that a BLM attack on the Capitol would have been met with automatic gunfire, would have said there was no way black or Arab hijackers could have learnt how to fly in the Mid-West, and not been picked up.
On the ground, officers have been criticised for taking selfies with the rioters, and comparisons have been drawn with the violent police response to the BLM riots. Many making this comparison have forgotten the scenes of police officers literally getting down on their knees in front of protesters last summer, in an effort to deescalate the situation.
It is entirely possible, even likely, that some in the police sympathised with the Capitol rioters, and that is a serious problem that needs to be investigated. However, it is also perfectly possible that the police, surrounded by a mob that was willing to kill, decided that any form of deescalation was better than shooting a couple of rioters, being overwhelmed, bludgeoned to death, and then having their weapons taken.
It also seems necessary to mention that the police did actually shoot a woman in the face at point blank range. The characterisation of rioters looting with impunity, whilst accurate for large periods, is clearly not the only story. Whilst the police acted with appalling violence against peaceful BLM protesters on numerous occasions, they also stood back and watched as cars, shops, and homes were set on fire, deciding that inaction was the safest strategy in these instances too.
More and more individuals that attacked and looted the Capitol are being arrested and prosecuted, a far more effective strategy than the tiny group of officers attempting to make arrests on the spot.
Once it was clear that the Capitol was under attack, the Mayor of DC not only called in the Virginia National Guard, but the Maryland and West Virginian guard as well. Trump may have delayed this process, and we may yet learn of a wider conspiracy within the police to leave the Capitol unprotected. This cannot be ruled out.
Since the attack however, soldiers have been sleeping in the Capitol building, and state houses across the country had been fortified ahead of Biden’s inauguration. A more accurate comparison with the pictures of riot police on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during a BLM protest was available on Inauguration day. The security forces deployed in their thousands, belatedly aware of what a pro-Trump crowd was capable of. Indeed, 6,000 soldiers will be remaining in DC indefinitely, itself arguably an overreaction by the security forces.
None of this is to claim that white supremacy isn’t a problem in America. A quick glance at some of the t-shirts worn by the Capitol rioters indicates otherwise. Nor is it a denial of the fact that some police forces are institutionally racist.
It is quite plausible that there was collaboration from within the DC force.
If this is proven, how we should discuss this event will change. Yet to attribute everything to white supremacy makes it harder to identify the genuine artifact.
There is a raft of non-racist reasons why events unfolded as they did at the Capitol. Rather than drawing flimsy comparisons, perhaps we should take a moment to consider what an inadequate police presence looks like, before continuing to demand an end to policing.