“The Capitol coup is the mirror we needed to overcome our warped sense of American exceptionalism. Becoming a truly equitable democracy requires work. It requires actively working against ideological forces that try to make America great for only a few. It means realizing that the American Civil War and Nazi Germany began just like this. It means being courageous to admit that what happened at the Capitol is who we are as the United States. It means realizing that being silent on this issue is accepting the side of white supremacy. So, if you are worried, scared, or fearful, you should be. How will we respond to fight for the soul of America?” — Rashawn Ray, University of Maryland sociology professor
This week I was called to testify before the Congressional Black Caucus at an emergency hearing titled “January 6, 2021: U.S. Capitol Insurrection: White Supremacy on Display.”
I used the opportunity to shine a light on the stark disparity between law enforcement response to attack on the Capital and the response to Black Lives Matter protests over the summer.
On June 2, 2020, racial justice protesters peacefully gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to protest the death of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police. They were met with row upon row of military police in fatigues and armor lining the Memorial’s steps.
The day before, on June 1, at least nine military and police aircraft hovered in the sky. Two helicopters eventually swooped low in a tactic usually reserved for combat zones, battering the protesters with tropical storm-level winds.
Park Police infamously unleashed tear gas and fired rubber bullets to clear a nonviolent crowd from Lafayette Park so President Trump could stage a photo-op.
D.C. Metropolitan Police arrested 316 protesters on June 1, 2020
“The FBI knew that extremists were preparing to travel to Washington to commit violence and “war” on Jan. 6. The insurrection was openly plotted on social media. One post on the platform 8kun declared “We will storm the government buildings, kill cops, kill security guards, kill federal employees and agents.”
There were no National Guard troops in riot gear awaiting them. No military helicopters. There was no tear gas deployed as the mob shoved its way past barricades. Vastly outnumbered police stepped aside and allowed the mob to storm the Capitol.
Metropolitan Police made only 61 “unrest-related” arrests on Jan. 6. U.S. Capitol Police arrested just over a dozen.
Many Capitol Police executed their duty bravely and with honor. Officer Eugene Goodman, for example, is being hailed as a hero for luring a mob away from the Senate chamber. However, another officer did exactly the opposite, offering the rioters directions around the building as he donned a “Make America Great Again” cap.
Jan. 6 may have been one of the most egregious examples, but it was certainly not the first. Again and again and again: In the eyes of far too many law enforcement officers, Black people are considered a threat simply for existing, while violent white people are cossetted, protected, pampered and indulged.
Even the author of the FBI report warning of the mob’s murderous intent worried that a show of force might encroach on the rioters’ free speech rights. Lt. Gen. Walter E. Piatt, director of the Army Staff, rebuffed requests for National Guard assistance because he didn’t like “the visual” — a concern nowhere in evidence during Black Lives Matters protests.
In fact, much of the violence at racial justice protests over the summer was instigated by white supremacists and far-right extremists, yet this violence was used to rationalize military-level crackdowns on peaceful protests.
“Operation Relentless Pursuit” and “Operation Legend” — cynically named for a 4-year-old killed in a shooting that had no link to racial protests, sent federal officers to override local law enforcement in Black communities.
Far from trying to contain a violent insurrection where the symbols of white supremacy were on full display, police officers are under investigation for actively participating.
On Jan. 6, we witnessed a violent mob motivated by racial resentment, by a conspiracy theory rooted in the effort to invalidate Black votes. The mob was met with empathy and deference from a law enforcement and military establishment that harbors white supremacists among its own ranks.
The national reckoning over racially-motivated police misconduct and brutality that began this summer cannot move forward until the institutions entrusted with public safety and national security rid themselves of the cancer within. We cannot heed the hollow cries for “unity” from the very collaborators who fanned the flames of insurrection and promoted racist lies. You cannot cure cancer by ignoring it. It must be cut out and burned away.
Reform efforts such as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act are a necessary step, but only one part of the solution. We must use every means at our disposal to shine a light on racial injustice and fully commit, as a nation, to a zero tolerance policy with regard to white supremacy in law enforcement and the military.
We are truly at a crossroads in America. The precedent we set here will have a profound impact on future generations. The world is watching.
Morial is president/CEO of the National Urban League.