'Double standard': Black lawmakers and activists decry police response to attack on US Capitol

Grace Hauck and Deborah Barfield Berry, USA TODAY
·10 min read

WASHINGTON – President-elect Joe Biden, civil rights leaders and activists blasted law enforcement agencies for their slow response to rioters at the U.S. Capitol Wednesday, noting the massive show of police force in place for Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year over police killings of unarmed Black men and women.

Biden said his granddaughter pointed out the unfair difference in images that showed the violence wielded against Black Lives Matter protesters versus the seemingly muted response against those who attacked the U.S. government.

"No one can tell me that if that had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesting yesterday, they wouldn’t have been treated very, very differently than the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol," Biden said in remarks to the nation Thursday.

Related: What it looks like inside the Capitol after pro-Trump rioters removed

Rep. Marcia Fudge, a Democrat from Ohio and former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, also questioned law enforcement officials' security efforts.

"The Capitol police were unprepared, ineffective and some were complicit. All of them should be held to account," Fudge, who was still in lockdown by the evening and who has been tapped by President-elect Joe Biden to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, told USA TODAY Wednesday night.

Fudge said there's "no question" the response was different than at last year's Black Lives Matter protests at the Capitol. She shared a picture of a row of police standing guard on the steps of the Capitol.

"There is a double standard,'' she said.

As thousands of people of color and allies took to the streets last year to peacefully protest police brutality, law enforcement often clashed with demonstrators, deploying tear gas and rubber bullets, bruising faces and bodies, and, in one incident that went viral, pushing an elderly man to the ground.

Protesters are sprayed with pepper spray by Detroit police officers in riot gear in downtown after an afternoon march and rally against police brutality extended into the evening and became contentious on Friday, May 29, 2020 in Detroit.
Protesters are sprayed with pepper spray by Detroit police officers in riot gear in downtown after an afternoon march and rally against police brutality extended into the evening and became contentious on Friday, May 29, 2020 in Detroit.

But as thousands of President Donald Trump supporters, mostly white, marched from a campaign-style rally to the Capitol Wednesday and broke into the building as lawmakers were convening to count presidential electoral votes, forcing lawmakers and staff to shelter in place, crowds of law enforcement were notably absent.

Trump, who previously characterized Black Lives Matter protesters as "thugs," said on Twitter that the people involved in the riots Wednesday were "great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday that he applauded Capitol police officers who bravely stood in the line of duty against the "failed insurrection."

“With that said, yesterday represented a massive failure of institutions, protocols, and planning that are supposed to protect the first branch of our federal government," he said in a statement. "A painstaking investigation and thorough review must now take place and significant changes must follow."

D.C. police chief Robert J. Contee III said the mob of Trump voters came to Capitol Hill "following the president's remarks" and was "intent on causing harm to our officers by deploying chemical irritants on police to force entry into the United States Capitol."

But only a small group of riot police stood outside the back of the Capitol building in the early afternoon, and as demonstrators called for breaching the building, hundreds started swarming into the area, reporters at the scene noted Wednesday.

Supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.
Supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.

As protesters began climbing up the side of the building and on the back balcony, police appeared to retreat. After the break-in, police attempted to secure one section outside the building but were quickly overwhelmed, according to reporters at the scene.

One video posted to social media showed several people in D.C. Capitol Police jackets removing barriers outside the Capitol building, allowing demonstrators to pass through to the building. Videos posted to Twitter also showed at least one person who appeared to be an officer taking selfies with people who had breached the Capitol. USA TODAY has not been able to independently verify the identities of the people in these images.

By Wednesday afternoon, Army Gen. Mark Milley said the D.C. National Guard had been fully activated. "We have fully activated the D.C. National Guard to assist federal and local law enforcement as they work to peacefully address the situation," Miller said in a statement.

Several videos shared to social media Wednesday afternoon showed officials slowly escorting people out of the building. One officer in riot gear could be seen helping a white woman in a Trump hat down the Capitol steps, holding her hand, according to a CNN livestream.

By Wednesday evening, nearly a full day after the demonstrators first clashed with police Tuesday night, officers began using tear gas and percussion grenades to begin clearing crowds, ahead of a 6 p.m. curfew. In the moments before, there were violent clashes between the police and protesters, who tore railing for the inauguration scaffolding and threw it at the officers.

At least one woman suffered a fatal gunshot wound inside the capitol, Contee said. At least 13 people were arrested, and five firearms were recovered.

By comparison, in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, which sparked last year's protest movement, more than 100 people were arrested over the course of three days in Minneapolis. In subsequent days, cities across the country arrested dozens of people in a single night, with Los Angeles arresting more than 500 in one day.

"When Black folks are protesting and progressives are protesting peacefully they were tear-gassed, they were arrested, they were shot with rubber bullets. They were shot with real bullets," Derrick Johnson, president of the national NAACP, said in a telephone interview. "We watched it take place all summer long when people were peacefully demonstrating."

U.S. Capitol Police did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment.

'A fanciful reality': Trump claims Black Lives Matter protests are violent, but the majority are peaceful

Johnson questioned why the Capitol police and other local law enforcement agencies weren’t prepared for thousands of Trump protestors, including the Proud Boys. There had been plenty of warnings on social media and talk shows about the potential for riots, he said.

"We should not be witnessing what we are witnessing today in this nation,'' he said. "It is a global embarrassment.”

Johnson said tens of thousands of people joined protests at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington without this level of violence. "None of this took place,’" he said.

Police with guns drawn watch as protesters try to break into the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.
Police with guns drawn watch as protesters try to break into the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.

The majority of Black Lives Matter-affiliated protests over the summer were peaceful, according to a report by the U.S. Crisis Monitor, a joint effort including Princeton University in New Jersey that collects and analyzes real-time data on demonstrations and political violence in the United States.

Kofi Ademola, a local Chicago activist who helped organize civil rights protests throughout the summer, said he was not surprised Wednesday by the police response.

"It’s not any shock that we see this huge contradiction that we can storm a capitol ... break into elected officials’ offices, the chamber, and create other chaos trying to perform a fascist coup, and we see little to no consequences,'' he said. "But Black protesters here in D.C. and Chicago, we’re heavily policed, brutalized, for literally saying, 'Don’t kill us.' There was no planned insurrections. We were literally just advocating for our lives. It speaks volumes about the values of this country. It doesn’t care about our lives."

The protest gets heated in Foley Square in lower Manhattan May 29, 2020 to protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier in the week.
The protest gets heated in Foley Square in lower Manhattan May 29, 2020 to protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier in the week.

CNN commentator Van Jones highlighted the discrepancy in a tweet Wednesday.

"Imagine if #BlackLivesMatter were the ones who were storming the Capitol building," he wrote. "Thousands of black people laying siege to the seat of government – in the middle of a joint session of Congress? Just imagine the reaction."

At the Capitol Wednesday, some lawmakers were holed up in their offices and other places. Several would not say where they were for safety reasons. Staffers were cleared out of the press galleries and the Capitol by the afternoon.

"The after-action review will determine what failures occurred and why,'' said U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. "The plans should have anticipated the potential for what happened today."

Dzemila Hamzabegovic hugs Courtney Artis on Sunday, May 31, 2020, during a Black Lives Matter healing rally in front of KFC Yum! Center in downtown Louisville. The two were complete strangers before the event and embraced as they were overcome with emotion. "For white people to think about us, it's powerful. It's emotional," Artis said. "Don't hurt us. We won't hurt you."
Dzemila Hamzabegovic hugs Courtney Artis on Sunday, May 31, 2020, during a Black Lives Matter healing rally in front of KFC Yum! Center in downtown Louisville. The two were complete strangers before the event and embraced as they were overcome with emotion. "For white people to think about us, it's powerful. It's emotional," Artis said. "Don't hurt us. We won't hurt you."

The chaos that unfolded Wednesday stands in particularly harsh contrast to the law enforcement presence seen when U.S. and military police drove protesters out of Lafayette Square, located between the White House and the historic St. John's Episcopal Church, shortly before a presidential photo op with a Bible at the church on June 1. Officers used smoke canisters, shields, pepper balls and horses to force demonstrators from the park.

Black Lives Matter Global Network called the law enforcement response to Wednesday's riots hypocritical.

"When Black people protest for our lives, we are all too often met by National Guard troops or police equipped with assault rifles, shields, tear gas and battle helmets,'' the group said in a statement. "When white people attempt a coup, they are met by an underwhelming number of law enforcement personnel who act powerless to intervene, going so far as to pose for selfies with terrorists, and prevent an escalation of anarchy and violence like we witnessed today.'

"Make no mistake, if the protesters were Black, we would have been tear-gassed, battered, and perhaps shot,'' the group wrote.

Bernice King, daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., put out a series of statements on Twitter Wednesday calling on law enforcement to engage demonstrators “with the same humanity and discipline with which they should have engaged people who were outraged by a police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck.”

“What many are saying is true: If this were Black Lives Matter storming the Capitol, tanks would have been in the city by now,” she wrote. “The response tells the story of our nation’s racist history and present. How can we stop it from being the future?”

As violent Trump supporters climbed the steps of the Capitol Wednesday, Trey Williamson, of Burke, Virginia, stood nearby while straddling his bike, arguing with those who would listen. He wore a helmet with Black Lives Matter written on it.

Williamson, a food safety director at a large restaurant, was in Washington, D.C., last year when Trump had the streets cleared so that he could take his photo in front of St. John's Episcopal Church.

“I got tear-gassed and all I was doing was riding my bike trying to see what was going on,” Williamson said.

He said the police response at the Capitol was lukewarm in comparison to what he experienced during Black Lives Matter protests over the summer.

“If there were nothing but Black people up there, there would’ve been a lot of injuries,” he said. “It sucks, but I know that this is how it is. I know that because Trump people have felt more comfortable to be at ease with their racism.”

U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., was holed up in his Capitol Hill office Wednesday as protestors continued their assault on the Capitol. During a Zoom call with reporters, said he and his staff were safe and weren’t leaving. Kind said he intended to return to the House chamber to continue the debate over the certification of electoral votes.

"Things are still not in control, unfortunately," he said.

Kind blamed Trump, who has been reluctant to denounce white nationalists and fraudulently insisted he won the November election, for encouraging the violence Wednesday.

Police and protesters face off during a Justice for George Floyd rally in downtown Phoenix on May 28, 2020.
Police and protesters face off during a Justice for George Floyd rally in downtown Phoenix on May 28, 2020.

“When he was encouraging the demonstrations, tweeting out that this was going to be quote ‘wild.’ I mean, what would he expect the reaction would be, especially when you're talking about the Proud Boys, militia groups, white supremacists coming into our nation's capital today,” Kind said.

Contributing: Will Carless, Marco R Della Cava, N'dea Yancey-Bragg

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump supporters attack US Capitol after Black Lives Matter protests