Trump supporters being able to break into the Capitol building shows the stark difference between how the left and the right are policed, argues Kate O'Neil
Something didn’t look right. In the world’s most powerful country, where nearly a trillion dollars are spent on the military each year and police use deadly force far more than any other advanced democracy, a small horde of rag-tag right-wing protesters were able to storm the nation’s Capitol building disperse the members of its highest legislative body into hiding and disrupt its transfer of power to a new leader.
Footage of the initial security breach depicted a few activists pushing past a single line of police who were wearing no riot gear and did not draw weapons. As activists slowly surged on the capitol steps, no barriers were erected, no armed force was used by police and no reinforcements from other federal security agencies were called in. When the National Guard was finally mobilised, the building took hours to clear, and demonstrators were allowed to mill about in the capitol plaza as Congress resumed its proceedings.
Authorities must have known this was a possibility. How far Trump would go to hold onto office has been discussed for months in the press and among high level officials. On Sunday the Washington Post published an op-ed piece by all ten living former defence secretaries calling on Trump not to deploy the military to prevent transition of power to Biden on 20 January. And there were ‘glaring warning signs’ that Trump’s supporters could use violence on the day of the protest in social media and elsewhere. The leader of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, had been arrested and banned from Washington DC after he had burned a Black Lives Matter banner stolen from a church and was found with firearms magazines.
Yet somehow it was assumed that local and Capitol police alone could be enough to contain the situation. In an interview on MSNBC the day before the protest, recently retired Capitol police chief Terrance Gainer declared:
The Police Department in the city of DC, as well as those on the Capitol grounds are well rehearsed on how to let people exercise their rights. But they’re also well trained. There’s a unified command centre where everyone will be working together to ensure it’s safe and secure so that the work that needs to be done in the Capitol [can] be done. There’s no doubt about that. It will be done.
Since yesterday Gainer and a chorus of law enforcement officials throughout the country have expressed shock at the performance of Capitol police yesterday, and in hindsight some politicians have reflected that an “overwhelming display of force” should have been planned. Nonetheless, we must still ask the question of why this display of force had not been organised in advance. And, surely, a few powerful figures watching media coverage of the demonstration prior to the security breach could have asked themselves some questions and made a couple phone calls before things got out of hand.
Flashback to May-June of last year, when rubber bullets and tear gas kept Black Lives Matter protesters in Washington DC well away from government buildings, and rows of fully fatigued National Guardsmen carrying automatic weapons lined the Capitol steps. As many have observed, the security response to peaceful demonstrations for police reform at that time was far better organised and aggressive than the response we saw against violent would-be insurrectionists yesterday.
And you don’t need to travel in time to witness this double standard. Just this Tuesday, a day before the Trump protest, the governor of Wisconsin, Tony Evers, mobilised 500 members of the state’s National Guard to Kenosha not in response to, but in anticipation of, Black Lives Matter protests following what they knew would be a very unjust ruling in the Jacob Blake police shooting case.
Some have begun to speculate that part of the reason for the double standard is that police tend to sympathise more with right-wing movements than with left-wing movements, or that they hesitate more in using force against whites versus Blacks. This is definitely a key part of it. Even as some protesters pushed their way into the Senate Chamber yesterday, police were seen merely trying to calm them down in a friendly manner.
It is reminiscent of the way in which gun-toting right-wing vigilantes in Kenosha this August were thanked and offered bottles of water by police not long before one of them killed two BLM protesters. Fraternity and collusion between police and the far right has a long history in the US and is well documented. Demonstrations against the murder of George Floyd this year are full of examples of this.
But the behaviour of individual police does not explain everything. Again, officials in charge of security prepared differently for this protest than they have for Black Lives Matters protests. And powerful actors could watch events slowly unfold from the comforts of their living room yesterday.
There is a deeper lesson to draw from those contrasting images of 6 January 2021 and May-June 2020. The government, and all the security forces of the state that nominally protect it, fears left-wing unrest far more than it fears right-wing unrest—even if the left-wing unrest is peaceful and the right-wing unrest is armed and dangerous.
This is because, ultimately, the demands of the Left—socioeconomic equality, grassroots democracy, defunding of the police—pose a far greater threat to the powers that be under capitalism than the authoritarian demands of the Right, which cherish the military and police and tolerate or even admire the obscene wealth of many capitalists like Trump. Hence, in his half-hearted attempt to send protesters home last night, Trump tweeted ‘Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement. They are truly on the side of our Country.’
Rarely will an official make this point explicitly, but keep watching for evidence of it as our struggle for justice continues. The Left must be prepared to face this reality in the future.
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