The Capitol Rioters Attacked Police. Why Isn't the FOP Outraged?

Police unions aren’t usually bashful about defending officers, but they’ve been conspicuously subdued in discussing the January 6 attacks.

Police officers stand in rows.
ALEX BRANDON / AFP / Getty

About the author: Adam Serwer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics.

On Tuesday, the National Fraternal Order of Police decided to “clear up confusion” about its position on the January 6 assault on the Capitol by enraged Donald Trump supporters. “Those who participated in the assaults, looting, and trespassing must be arrested and held to account,” it said in a statement. “We continue to offer our support, gratitude, and love to our brothers and sisters in law enforcement who successfully fought off the rioters, and we will be with them as they grieve and recover, however long that may take.”

The FOP does not often have to clarify its position on matters of public concern; the organization is usually rather strident in expressing its views. For example, in 2016, the FOP demanded that Walmart cease selling Black Lives Matter T-shirts. It denounced Nike for its ad campaign involving Colin Kaepernick, who was purged from the NFL for protesting police misconduct. If you go to the FOP’s Twitter feed, you can find a steady stream of clips from conservative outlets such as Newsmax and Fox News showing FOP representatives attacking policies like bail reform, slamming Democratic elected officials, and blaming Black-rights activists for the recent rise in homicides. These posts are interspersed with tributes to homicide victims, attacking “rogue prosecutors,” “activist judges,” and “progressive policies” for their deaths.

Local FOP chapters, meanwhile, are also not exactly known for being demure. The former head of the Houston FOP, now the vice president of the national FOP, dismissed a woman and a disabled Navy veteran who were killed in a botched drug raid by officers seeking heroin as “dirtbags.” (No heroin was found.) The Miami FOP boycotted a Beyoncé concert, charging that she had used her Super Bowl halftime show in 2016 “to divide Americans by promoting the Black Panthers.” In Chicago, the local FOP president defended the rioters who stormed the Capitol. “You’re not going to convince me that that many people voted for Joe Biden,” he said. “Never for the rest of my life will you ever convince me of that. But, again, it still comes down to proof.” He later apologized.

What you won’t find on the national FOP Twitter feed, however, are condemnations of the Capitol rioters who attacked police officers on January 6 deploying this sort of unrestrained bombast. You won’t find any clips of FOP members on Fox News confronting its prime-time hosts for mocking the testimony of police officers who faced the mob that day. You won’t even find the FOP highlighting the compelling testimony of those officers, whose recollections paint a vivid picture of the rioters and their motives. You will find only the FOP’s careful statement seeking to clear up “confusion” about its position, a deeply unusual situation for the FOP to be in.

Officer Harry Dunn, who is Black, testified that he was called the N-word by rioters who were infuriated that he had mentioned voting for Joe Biden. Sergeant Aquilino Gonell, an Army veteran and immigrant, testified that he was called a “traitor” and said that, “for the first time, I was more afraid to work at the Capitol than during my entire Army deployment to Iraq.” By contrast, D.C. Metropolitan Police Officer Daniel Hodges, who is white and who can be seen on video bloodied and being crushed by rioters, said that some of them tried to “recruit” him, with one asking, “Are you my brother?”

The catalyst for the Capitol riot was the fact that Trump, the sitting president of the United States, had engaged in a months-long propaganda campaign to convince his supporters that Biden had been illegitimately elected, and indulged a series of hare-brained schemes to cling to power even after being defeated including pressuring Republican legislators to void the results in their states, imposing on the Justice Department to declare the results fraudulent, demanding the Supreme Court declare him winner by fiat, and telling state election officials to “find” fraudulent votes as pretext for him to contest the outcome. The behavior of the mob on January 6, however, is difficult to comprehend without grasping how Trump and the rioters understand the role of police.

Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed formal segregation, police in Jim Crow states enforced the color line. Even where the law didn’t explicitly mandate discrimination, police were tacitly, if not explicitly, expected to enforce a de facto color line by local and state political leadership. “I feel just as strongly about what has happened to law and order in this country as does George Wallace,” Richard Nixon told an interviewer while running for president in 1968.

The laws have changed, but many Americans have never abandoned the belief that police are obligated to enforce America’s racial hierarchies. The role of American policing, in their view, is less to uphold the law than to act as a kind of sectarian militia for “real Americans,” which is to say, Trumpist Republicans. Trump encouraged police to abuse people of color, but when he and those around him came under investigation, he turned his anger on law enforcement. As Chris Hayes wrote in 2018, “If a young black man grabs a white woman by the crotch, he’s a thug and deserves to be roughed up by police officers. But if Donald Trump grabs a white woman by the crotch in a nightclub (as he’s accused of doing, and denies), it’s locker-room high jinks.” On January 6, Hodges testified, a rioter shouted, “‘Do not attack us. We’re not Black Lives Matter’ as if political affiliation is how we determine when to use force.” Well, yes. That’s exactly what they think.

The officers at the Capitol who fulfilled their oath by protecting lawmakers from a mob in thrall to a dangerous fantasy—that they could change the outcome of the 2020 election through violence—are now being attacked as traitors. “To my perpetual confusion,” Hodges testified, “I saw the ‘thin blue line’ flag, a symbol of support for law enforcement, more than once being carried by the terrorists as they ignored our commands and continued to assault us.” One Trump supporter accused of assaulting officers during the riot was photographed that day wearing a patch with a symbol of the murderous Marvel Comics vigilante the Punisher, decorated with the colors of the “thin blue line” flag.

The apparent discrepancy is simple to explain. The officers were seen as treasonous by the rioters because they were supposed to join the mob in overthrowing the constitutional order and casting down the liberal usurpers, as well as the illegitimate multiracial coalition that brought Democrats to power. They viewed the officers upholding to their vow to defend the Constitution as betraying their true obligations, as Trump and the mob understood them.

Because the right holds the police in such high regard, the Fraternal Order of Police is uniquely positioned to disabuse conservatives of the idea that the rioters were heroic or that the riot itself was carried out by leftists, and any other manner of conspiracy theories deployed to obfuscate what happened on January 6. The organization is ideally suited to pressure Republican lawmakers to support the commission examining the incident, and to criticize those who seek to turn that process into a circus or rewrite the events of the day. The union could use its stature to attack the legitimacy of right-wing political violence, and to reject the harmful notion that the role of American police is to act as a partisan militia, rather than to impartially enforce the law.

The FOP has chosen instead to remain meekly silent on the Capitol riot, in effect reserving harsher language for protesters against police brutality than for a mob that brutalized police. When asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper why the FOP was not more forcefully defending the Capitol Police officers, FOP President Patrick Yoes offered a tame paraphrase of the group’s press release, and insisted that he had not seen Fox News hosts maligning these officers as emotionally weak cowards on the network that he and his subordinates frequently appear on for friendly interviews. (The FOP did not respond to a detailed list of queries from The Atlantic.)

The FOP has many reasons to remain quiet. Much of its rank-and-file membership is strongly supportive of Trump, whom the organization endorsed and worked to elect in 2016 and 2020. FOP leaders also know that some off-duty officers were in the mob, and might not want to suggest that they should be fired or prosecuted. And they probably also do not want to antagonize right-wing voters who will reflexively support their members as long as any police  abuses are aimed at the communities those voters hate and fear.

All of these reasons, however, are a tremendous indictment of police unions in general and the FOP in particular. The group has placed its parochial interests ahead of the needs of the public, from whom police derive their authority, and ahead of its sworn brothers and sisters in Washington, who drew the wrath of a political constituency that police unions would prefer not to antagonize. If a commitment to “law and order” does not include support for the peaceful and democratic transition of power, it is meaningless.

The officers who defended the Capitol have noticed the FOP’s relative silence. Officer Michael Fanone, who also testified this week, told CNN that he spoke with Yoes. “I asked him to publicly denounce any active-duty or retired law-enforcement officer that participated in an insurrection at the Capitol on January 6 and in doing so betrayed their oath of honor,” Fanone said. Yoes, he added, would not commit to doing so.

Perhaps the nation’s largest police union simply does not see trying to overthrow an election in the name of Donald Trump as such a betrayal. But a commitment to democracy is not a position that an organization representing armed agents of the state should ever have to “clarify.” That it did so only through gritted teeth gives the public little reason to trust its sincerity.