The Army rapidly erected a seven-foot, “nonscalable” fence around the perimeter of the U.S. Capitol on Thursday morning. It was less than 24 hours after a large throng of pro-Donald Trump insurrectionists had stormed the building with the goal of stopping America’s suddenly not-peaceful transfer of power to a new president, and it thus brought a powerful new meaning to the old idiom about closing the barn door after the horse has bolted — that horse being our faith in democracy.
The fence wasn’t just a day late and a few bloated Pentagon dollars short of stopping what amounted to the first-ever attempted coup in U.S. history, but it also didn’t come soon enough to erase some of the more troubling images from Wednesday’s unforgettable chaos. Those scenes raised new questions not just about the roots of the insurrection but also the extent of its actual support from within American law enforcement, which is still under fire from 2020′s racial reckoning.
- A quick escalation into chaos: Photojournalists share what they witnessed during the Capitol attack
- Sen. Pat Toomey calls on Trump to resign; Chris Christie calls insurrection incitement an ‘impeachable offense’
- Police departments across the U.S. open probes into whether their own members took part in the Capitol riot
Even as the insurrection was still underway, videos emerged showing that a ridiculously undermanned U.S. Capitol Police force was woefully unprepared at best and that at worst at least some of its officers were sympathetic to a mob sacking the seat of American governance they’d sworn a vow to defend. After hundreds of the large pro-Trump throng fairly easily overwhelmed small gaggles of cops not dressed in riot gear and unable to defend small, easy-to-push-aside metal barricades, some subsequent pictures from inside the maelstrom simply do not add up.
There was, of course, the one still-unidentified officer who took a selfie with a rioter. Another video showed a half-dozen underequipped officers lining a hallway at the Capitol entrance and doing nothing as dozens of insurrectionists, some armed, barreled past them. One member of the mob said an officer actually provided directions to the office of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, while according to another report Sunday from an admittedly unlikely source (the celebrity-focused TMZ), the FBI also wants to know how rioters found House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, buried deep in the 19th-century maze of the Capitol, in just a few short minutes.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn shared similar concerns that thugs quickly located his own unmarked office, telling an interviewer, “Something else is going on here.” Meanwhile, a couple of videos from early in the protest appear to show officers waving in the mob — most notably the one below:
Every one of these apparent episodes or hints of police misconduct must be fully investigated, by the FBI and hopefully by congressional committees. But there are two different — and equally important — caveats here. The first is that any acts of betrayal happened at the same time that many officers were showing remarkable courage and devotion to their job. The plethora of videos — arguably the most documented you’ll-always-remember-where-you-were-when moment in American history — captured dozens of officers who bravely fought to protect the Capitol, but were simply overwhelmed. One striking film showed a bleeding officer, nearly crushed to death and screaming in agony, holding his ground, while another showed a lone Black officer, in a split-second decision, steering a violent cluster away from the main Senate chamber. Flags are at half-mast for a fallen hero — Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, also a military veteran, beloved by the staffers on Capitol Hill who knew him — who died after a thug hit him with a fire extinguisher.
But this — my other caveat — is the broader fallacy of the way we talk about policing in America, which is that we focus far too much on the individual actors, both the rotten ones and the courageous ones, and not on the deeply flawed system. We willfully ignore that system’s roots in 19th-century slave patrols that sprouted into an institution that too often beats down the peaceful dissenters, yet approvingly waves in right-wing lawbreakers, that sees empowerment of Blacks or marginalized groups as the threat they’ve sworn to defend against, with a blind spot toward the often violent white supremacy that, frankly, shares a common heritage with their own practices and beliefs.
With the trashed Capitol still reeking of tear gas and lit up by flash-bang grenades, a Chicago police union leader said the quiet part out loud. John Catanzara, Fraternal Order of Police chief in the nation’s third-largest city, defended the insurrectionists as just “a bunch of pissed-off people that feel an election was stolen, somehow, some way.” That more than a dozen of his fellow members of the “thin blue line” had been injured, and that one lay dying, didn’t compute for the police union boss (who, of course, backtracked after Sicknick’s death). For many white police unionists who’ve fervently backed Trump since 2016, “blue lives” may matter, but Trump’s shared love of white supremacy and his opposition to social protest movements such as Black Lives Matter matters much, much more.
The most powerful testimony about what really happened with policing in Washington on this infamous Wednesday came from two Black officers in the Capitol Police who spoke — anonymously, which is more than understandable under the heated circumstances — with BuzzFeed News about what they witnessed. They said their supervisors had failed to speak in advance of the potential danger — even though insurrectionists had been planning openly on social media for weeks — and failed to issue vital equipment like gas masks. During the afternoon, they said they were violently assaulted by rioters — some of whom carried “Blue Lives Matter” flags — and repeatedly called the N-word, and that several rioters flashed law enforcement badges at them. “[One guy] pulled out his badge and he said, ‘We’re doing this for you,’” a Black officer told BuzzFeed. That, and knowing that so many of their white Capitol Police colleagues voted for Trump and the chaos he unleashed, was clearly painful to the officers.
“If you’re going to treat a group of demonstrators for Black Lives Matters one way, then you should treat this group the same goddamn way,” the second officer told BuzzFeed’s Emmanuel Felton. “With this group you were being kind and nice and letting them walk back out.”
Clearly, there need to be aggressive investigations both into any actual lawbreaking by police officers on Wednesday, but also into the sweeping systemic failures that allowed the previously unthinkable to happen — a preventable riot that delayed but thankfully did not deter the certification of our presidential election. The biggest unanswered questions:
Were the massive command failures — the lack of a protective wall around the Capitol like those erected for less volatile situations, the sheer lack of officers, even with so many different units that were nearby and could have assisted, the absence of riot gear that was so prevalent at Black Lives Matter and other social justice protests — simply the result of incompetence, or were these inexplicable leadership actions more willful or even diabolical?
It’s deeply troubling yet also not surprising that the Pentagon — loaded with Trump lackeys for the president’s final days — either ignored or slow-walked requests for military aid. Less clear, though, is why the Capitol Police at first turned down outside offers of help. Clearly, there was a deep, systemic failure that led top brass not to see often-armed white supremacists as a threat in the way that Black marchers have historically provoked red alerts. The ousting of the sergeants-at-arms for the House and Senate and the speedy resignation of the head of the Capitol Police is just the tip of this iceberg.
How many of the insurrectionists were off-duty current or recent law enforcement officers who felt the need to undemocratically install Trump as a protector of police impunity and against a true racial reckoning in America, trumped their sworn oaths to uphold the rule of law. In a stunning report on Sunday, the Washington Post said there’s evidence that Wednesday’s crowd included two police officers from Seattle — who posted on social media from inside the Capitol — as well as one from Zelienople, Pa., near Pittsburgh; the police chief of Troy, N.H., and a sheriff’s deputy from Texas ... so far.
Were any Capitol Police actively engaged in helping Wednesday’s rioters, and did any of those actions rise to the level of a crime? “The lack of security at the Capitol is not an accident,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state Democrat, said in the aftermath. “It is very clear to me that there were breaches of our law enforcement agencies. The fact that there were no barriers, that they were essentially allowed in. And again, the discrepancy of what would have happened if these had been peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters. … Believe me, they would not have been anywhere near that building. And there would have been a lot of arrests.”
She’s not kidding. Mother Jones documented some 35 times during the Trump years when more demonstrators were arrested than the paltry 13 rioters taken into custody by Capitol Police while the actual insurrection was underway — disability activists literally dragged from their wheelchairs, Jewish rabbis and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who last week became the first Black Democrat elected to the Senate from the Deep South, even Ben and Jerry. The bulk of these arrested were supporting progressive social justice causes antithetical to the white supremacy that corrupts American policing.
It’s hard to get past the raw, emotional political implications of what we witnessed on Wednesday, but the tragic events should also serve as the exclamation point on the conversation that started when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, when we saw how cops had senselessly snuffed the beautiful life of Elijah McClain, or as we chronicled the frequent and flagrant civil rights violations committed by police from Boston and New York all the way to Portland, Ore., when anyone dared protest. It’s a system that — no matter how many Black and brown officers are hired, under court or public pressures — still serves the master that created it, white supremacy, both by squelching dissenters and now, stunningly, by enabling an insurrectionist mob that sees a democratic election as a threat to its racist world view.
Yes, we need to impeach President Donald Trump, to banish the inciter-in-chief from future elections, and we need to arrest the felons who invaded the Capitol, but before the tear gas dissipates, we need to jump-start the debate that had nearly faded in the winter chill following the George Floyd protests. Whose side are the police in America actually on, and how do we fix this? What we saw this week won’t be repaired by a ban on choke holds or a couple of extra days of mandated training (not that those things aren’t helpful on some level), but instead by a massive reform of how we keep the public safe.
Now that the 2020s are really here with a new president, a new Congress, and a new understanding of how systemic racism has poisoned our body politic, it’s time to replace our outdated police departments with a new regime built around real public safety. Let’s weed out overt racists and replace them with new officers who not only look like the communities they serve but who arrive on Day One seeking to be guardians of the peace and not warrior cops. Train them to respect not only the First Amendment rights of peaceful protesters and journalists but the results of democratic elections. Then let’s deploy these officers when we need them — like, for example, when a violent mob is coming for Congress — but send more fitting public servants like mental health professionals or social workers when we don’t. Let’s make Jan. 6 the start of a long-overdue comeback not just for American democracy — but for how we police it.