The Inaction of Capitol Police Was by Design

The spectacle of Wednesday’s tepid police response to riotous mobs shocked many. But the passivity is not some surprising anomaly—it is the status quo.

A police officer talking to insurrectionists
The mob attacks on the Capitol are not so much unprecedented as they are consistent with America’s history of white backlash to racial equality. (Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty)

What Americans witnessed on their TV screens on Wednesday was not just an insurrection against American democracy—it was also an expression of white supremacy. As mobs of white Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building to ransack offices, terrorize lawmakers, and interrupt the certification of the presidential election, they were met with a notably weak show of force by the Capitol Police, who were responsible for quelling the insurrection. According to reports, more than 50 officers were injured, and footage of police being physically assaulted by rioters proliferated online. To many of these acts of violence, officers responded with immense restraint or full capitulation. In other cases, their unpreparedness had fatal consequences: One woman was killed by police, three other people died, and last night an officer succumbed to his injuries.

Videos also portray a friendlier side of these interactions: One widely circulated shot appears to show a rioter taking a selfie with an officer inside the Capitol halls, while others depict insurrectionists being calmly escorted by police out of the building they’d just overtaken. These scenes provide a stark contrast to what the nation witnessed from police mere months ago, during the Black Lives Matter protests: Peaceful demonstrators tear-gassed and pinned to the ground. People who were standing still shown the full force of state violence.

According to the Associated Press, the Capitol Police knew about the potential threat of the riot days before it took place, but rejected offers of help from the National Guard and the FBI. Officials said that they wanted to avoid using federal force against Americans, as they had done this summer. The choice to turn down help amid warnings of an insurrection is as revealing as it is disturbing: Why did law enforcement assume that they’d encounter violence from protesters marching for Black lives in June, but think that a largely white crowd of pro-Trump extremists and conspiracy theorists would remain peaceful? The difference in the Capitol Police’s response shocked many who bemoaned the double standard. But police brutality against Black Americans and police inaction toward white Americans is not some surprising anomaly; it is the status quo.

A Black Lives Matter protestor being manhandled by cops
D.C. Metropolitan Police officers forcefully detain a Black Lives Matter protester on July 4. (Alex Wong / Getty)

The genesis of modern American policing can be traced in part to the institution of chattel slavery and its white-supremacist orthodoxy. It started with the slave patrols of the early 1700s and continued with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a federal statute strengthening laws that prevented the enslaved from fleeing bondage and left free Black people vulnerable to kidnapping. White citizens were employed as slave catchers to return the “stolen property” of southern planters by any means necessary. In his 1903 text The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote that the “police system was arranged to deal with blacks alone, and tacitly assumed that every white man was ipso facto a member of that police.” The ideologies of that earliest iteration of American policing—designed to prevent the freedom and enfranchisement of Black people and to protect the interests of white people—still persist in today’s policing system.

In December, a 111-page investigative report about the New York Police Department revealed that last year’s Black Lives Matter protests had been grossly mishandled by officers. The report, conducted by a city oversight agency, confirmed what millions of Americans had seen after the killing of George Floyd on May 25: Police responses during peaceful protests were characterized by “excessive enforcement” and the violation of First Amendment rights. Yet one month before Floyd’s death, on April 30, the country had watched as white protesters, some of them heavily armed, swarmed the Michigan state capitol to object to stay-at-home orders, resulting in little incident from Michigan State Police troopers and only two arrests. Du Bois characterized occurrences such as this one as part of the “double system of justice, which erred on the white side by undue leniency and … practical immunity.” After an insurrection by hundreds, which resulted in the resignation of the chief of the Capitol Police, just 82 arrests have been made so far. These facts give credence to the idea that with regard to American policing, consequences are split down color lines.

The mob attacks on the Capitol are not so much “unprecedented” as they are consistent with America’s history of white backlash to racial equality and white entitlement to political, economic, and social control. It is not a coincidence that on the same day of the riot, the first Black and Jewish Americans were elected to Senate seats in Georgia. Wednesday’s violence claims no legitimate grievances. It is merely the perpetual retaliation to racial progress, as evidenced by the insurrectionists’ parading of Trump flags, Confederate flags, Gadsden flags, Blue Lives Matter flags, and neo-Nazi symbols. This was not an uprising against a tyrannical government; it was an uprising against a multicultural government. And the police reaction—calm, measured, tolerant—to that uprising suggests that when it comes to engaging in violence against the state, white perpetrators have nothing to lose.