All Americans should be disgusted and shocked after seeing the Trump-inspired mob violently invade the heart of American democracy and send our elected officials fleeing for their lives. In trying — though failing — to derail Congress from its sacred constitutional duty affirming President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, these rioters showed us who they really are.
When I first heard the news, I prayed for the safety of the staff and elected officials in the Capitol, especially those preparing to push back against groundless objections to Pennsylvania’s votes. Though many were traumatized and shaken, they came back and did their job.
My first question when seeing this: How did these rioters get on the Capitol complex so easily? Texts streamed in from my friends making the same point.
The Capitol Police’s planning for, and response to, the siege was shocking and will likely draw more scrutiny. Why didn’t they see this coming? The “Save America” or “Stop the Steal” rally was no secret. It had been planned for weeks and breathlessly promoted by Donald Trump and his base on social media. Because the whole point of the gathering was to stop lawmakers’ counting of the electoral votes, police should have set up a secure perimeter far from the Capitol to repel the rabble of malcontents who would try entering the building by force.
The root of this casual response is far from negligence; it’s that police and political leaders routinely underplay the danger posed by far-right white (mostly male) extremists, though they are the gravest terrorist threat to our country.
With this mentality, the police were unprepared for the size and ferocity of the mob and had no apparent elevated security precautions in place, beyond barricades more suited for welcoming a grade-school class trip. They were quickly overrun at the Capitol by Trump’s rioters. There were also reports of officers allowing the mob in, or taking selfies with them. Other officers stood by helpless and understandably afraid as rioters scaled walls, broke glass, roamed offices, and vandalized the inner sanctum of our government. Though some police responded more aggressively inside the Capitol, for the most part the maskless rioters feared neither the police nor any consequences. In the end, most were permitted to walk out of the building without significant arrests after putting in a hard day’s work trying to destroy our government.
This restrained police reaction was in marked contrast to the strong-arm tactics we often see in protests by and for Black people, including the largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protests this summer in Philadelphia and elsewhere. Police in riot gear met BLM marchers — progressives, many women, and Black and brown people — with tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, fists, and batons, while rounding them up and seeking aggressive prosecution.
Black people see and feel this difference. As a friend told me, “Our people have been massacred — killed, shot, beaten, hosed — for a lot less.” If BLM protesters descended on the Capitol to challenge members of Congress, there would have been an overwhelming police presence, including snipers and SWAT teams, behind steel-reinforced barricades, ready with chemical irritants for anyone who defied them. Nobody would have made it to the steps of the Capitol, let alone inside. At least not alive.
Recall that on June 1, 2020, less than two miles away in Lafayette Park, law enforcement agents, at the president’s direction, deployed tear gas to violently clear out peaceful protesters for a photo-op. This racial double standard — the very reason people marched this summer — has helped fuel the anger, hopelessness, and cynicism many Americans feel about the criminal justice system.
Make no mistake, this insurrection will leave an indelible stain on our country. People more eloquent than I will reflect on other lessons, including how our democracy is both stronger and more fragile than we ever imagined and how the rioters were egged on by our leaders. But, as a former federal prosecutor and someone committed to reform, I can’t overlook the two systems of justice at play. This racism goes beyond the police, who are often used by elected officials and the public to let us off the hook for the collective racism in our society and the criminal justice system.
There is a lot to be done immediately. First, every U.S. attorney, including our own, should vow to prosecute any vigilante from their jurisdiction who invaded the Capitol. Second, we need to talk to our kids. As I wrote for The Inquirer this summer, we all must have The Talk with our children addressing not just police brutality, but also general unequal treatment.
This insurrection gives an opportunity to bring those conversations into focus. Even my children could see that these rioters were treated with kid gloves, and I suspect they know why. Third, President-elect Biden and his Department of Justice must start on day one with a focus on reconciliation and reform to restore the broken trust between law enforcement and people of color.
Biden’s DOJ should make real the words etched on another hallowed D.C. building, which escaped the insurrectionists’ wrath: “Equal justice under law.”
I pray for their success. You should, too.