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The Cops Showed Us Who They Are

The Capitol Police picked a side. We shouldn't be surprised which side it was.

capitol police selfies
Timothy Burke/Twitter

On Wednesday afternoon, as lawmakers gathered to certify Joe Biden’s presidency, an unhinged mob of election-contesting Trump supporters invaded the U.S. Capitol building in an attempted coup. If you’re anything like me, you spent the better part of the day glued to every increasingly staggering development in this story. The MAGA army swarmed the building, fired guns in the chamber, stood at the dais, and lounged at Nancy Pelosi’s desk. They mugged for the cameras while government employees and elected officials evacuated or hid in fear. Four people died

The news was shocking (more to some than others), terrifying, and at times, unbelievable. But it also, frankly, felt like a continuation of much of the last year, in which massive governmental systems failed citizens on a spectacular level, fulfilling their true duty to protect some Americans and not others. Every single development in the Capitol riot story was simultaneously, “oh my god, I can’t believe this is happening” and “oh my god, of course this is happening.”

Case in point: the cops. Specifically, the U.S. Capitol Police, who allowed the entire thing to happen in the first place. The characterization is not a speculation or an assumption. A mountain of evidence in the form of firsthand accounts, photos, and video show that what has widely been described as a breach or a storming of the Capitol (words used by this very blog), was hardly the fight you’d expect for a takeover of a major government building full of high profile officials in one of the largest and most heavily militarized countries on planet earth. 

No, instead of stopping the insurgents with the ferocity we’ve come to expect, the cops literally stood aside and let them into the Capitol, took selfies with them, hung out with them, and watched as they scaled the walls of the so-called “People’s House.” Once inside, the police reportedly asked the mob VERY POLITELY to please go outside and when the rioters declined, they just gave up!

Hey, what can you do, boys will be boys and white supremacists will be white supremacists, I guess. Oh, and then the cops escorted the invaders out like they were damn debutantes at the ball. 

The police did eventually manage to make a whopping 52 arrests following the incident (with journalists among them), a shockingly low number in and of itself, but one that becomes far more logical when you consider that more than 10,000 people were arrested during the George Floyd protests this summer. After all, everything becomes much clearer when you stop to consider the standardized bigotry that this country is built on. Still, many people, including Rachel Maddow still couldn’t seem to make sense of it. I can only hope that someone (maybe Joe Scarborough???) has explained racism and police brutality to her by now.

Despite the fact that we absolutely know and understand what happened here, people will continue to ask: How could this have happened? Where was Homeland Security? Where was the FBI? Why did it take so long to activate the National Guard? How could such a massive security failure occur under the onus of an organization with a $460 million budget? Hmmm, some real thinkers! The key players will likely blame it on a lack of preparation, call it a failure of coordination, and finger point until their appendages fall off. There will probably be an investigation. Law enforcement will make statements, elected officials will make statements, and knowing how all of this tends to go, the police will end up with more money than before to ensure this “doesn’t happen again.“ A lot of work will go into avoiding saying the truth, which is that this happened because the police let it happen.

We know that they let it happen because racist police brutality is embedded in the foundations of this country, and we’ve seen that play out on a massive scale over the course of the last year. Not only have we witnessed police murdering Black Americans (obviously not a new development), we’ve seen a large scale, militarized, no-holds-barred reaction to the movement to end police brutality, and end police departments as a whole. In DC, the response to the Black Lives Matter protests looked like the cops were preparing for war. Curfews were enacted. Protestors were tear gassed, shot with rubber bullets, tasered, assaulted, had ribs broken, and lost eyes. Cops even used pepper spray during a vigil for Elijah McClain, the 23-year-old Black man who was killed by police in Aurora, Colorado in 2019. As many, many, many people pointed out yesterday, if Black Lives Matter demonstrators had tried to storm the Capitol, they would have been dead by the time they reached the doors.

It’s hard not to compare yesterday’s coup attempt to the ongoing Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police protests, but in truth, they aren’t even remotely comparable. One is a protest of police murdering innocent people and one was a violent, far-right attempt to overthrow the government. You couldn’t help but notice yesterday that those who loudly admonished the looting that took place during last summer’s Geroge Floyd protests were awfully quiet about a violent insurgency breaking in, vandalizing, and looting the literal United States Capitol building. Ah, well.

But you don’t even have to look at outside protests for comparison. In 2017, Capitol Police forcibly dragged disability activists out of the Capitol while peacefully demonstrating for their right to healthcare. Those demonstrators were pulled from wheelchairs, yanked across floors, and arrested. I guess they, like those protesting police violence, were simply a bigger threat to public safety than the MAGA insurrectionists. This is not to say that the solution to our problems is a mass police crackdown or an expansion of police powers. It’s simply to point out that we know what the police are capable of, and we have to take note of when they decide to use those capabilities and when they don’t.

Even if you accept the idea that this was a “security failure” above all, you have to think about the ideological implications behind such a failure. Emerging reports suggest that the cops planned for a small-scale, light-touch response to the protests. Does anyone seriously think they would have been so casual about a Black Lives Matter protest descending on the Capitol? If you have been to a protest challenging state power in America, you have seen the disproportionate, overwhelming force the police deploy when they see you as a threat to be crushed. On Wednesday, we saw what it looks like when the police don’t think a protest is all that big a deal. We know why they would think that about a MAGA mob.

And so while the comparison can feel a little mind-melting, the last seven months have truly served as a perfect encapsulation of exactly who the police protect and serve. None of it is new and none of it is surprising, but god, there is something painfully on the nose about the way in which BLM protestors across the country were repeatedly suppressed and assaulted by police while a MAGA mob was essentially escorted into the chambers of the United States House and Senate and given free rein. It really would be quite astonishing if it wasn’t so predictable. 

Much of this last year, and honestly the Trump presidency as a whole, has been a lesson in living through an unprecedented time in history—an experience that completely sucks. The whole ordeal is bad and I cannot wait for it to “end,” but in my opinion, the very worst thing about it is learning that horrible things really do happen in plain sight. When I read about past atrocities in school, I wondered “hey, why didn’t anyone do anything?” Surely if some knew, something would have been done. 

We know this is happening. We’ve known for a long time. The Capitol Police didn’t do anything because they are part and parcel of the forces of right-wing extremism. The Blue Lives that are supposedly under threat because of peaceful protests against their own savagery are complicit at best and outright supportive in many cases. They serve to maintain and safeguard this country’s racial divide, which makes one wonder who is there to shield the citizens of Washington D.C. who had their city overtaken and on top of everything else, have no representation in Congress

This tweet honestly summed it up best:

An eerie sense of normalcy resumed immediately following Wednesday’s invasion. The House and Senate reconvened to continue the ceremonial counting of electoral votes (but not before systemic racism made another sobering appearance), and in New York, the NYPD continued to attack BLM protesters. Today, Trump will reportedly award the Medal of Freedom to three golfers. It’s back to business as usual. 

The coup may have failed, but this is simply one more instance of police aiding white supremacist mayhem and violence. It will happen again. It will escalate. Even when he’s out of office, Trump will keep fanning the flames, telling the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” and calling the mobs who support him “special.” If Wednesday taught far-right extremists anything at all, it’s that they have nothing to fear, and in fact, they have the full support of the president and the police (never forget that many police unions endorsed Trump). Cops don’t suffer any consequences, and neither do white supremacists. They are groups that uphold each other. They are inextricable. The mission of the police in this country—to protect and serve—is a false promise. Which is exactly why they cannot be reformed. The only solution is to get rid of them entirely.