On Jan. 6, the nation watched in horror as a group of pro-Trump insurgents stormed the U.S. Capitol in an event best understood as a pathetic attempt at a coup. The group, some armed with assault rifles, Molotov cocktails, bombs and even six-foot spears seized the Capitol building, forcing Congress to temporarily delay finalizing the certification of the electoral vote and President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
There are many takeaways that can be derived from the insurrection. One of the most prominent , however, was the treatment that the insurgents received compared to that experienced by Black Lives Matter protesters. Although one study estimated that of the more than 7,000 Black Lives Matter protests that took place this last summer 93% were entirely peaceful, those protests often garnered an intense police and military response. Protesters were hit with batons, run over with cars, doused in pepper spray and shot at with rubber bullets by the police. However, the predominantly white Capitol rioters, who had made credible threats to storm the Capitol building and interrupt the certification of the election results, garnered a relatively small police presence.
The sharply diverging treatment of the two groups demonstrates an indisputable and reprehensible racial double standard in how police and local governments respond to incidents. Black Lives Matter protesters who — unlike the insurgents — were more often than not engaged in peaceful and legal protests and whose cause was wholly justified, were nonetheless perceived to be more violent and received harsher policing than the Capitol rioters. These contrasting examples clearly demonstrate the extent and danger of racial bias in policing.
One cannot imagine that — had the insurgents been predominantly Black or other people of color — the police would have permitted the insurgents to get inside the Capitol building, take selfies with police officers, sit at members of Congress’ desks, walk around the building carrying assault rifles or steal and destroy podiums and offices. This past June, President Donald Trump ordered federal officers, clad in riot gear, to use flash-bang grenades and tear gas to clear a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest being held in front of St. John’s Church, all so that the president could hold a press conference. The fact that this peaceful and legal protest was met with such force, while violent insurgents managed to storm the Capitol itself with relatively little resistance, is representative of just how differently groups are treated based on their race.
A different but similarly peaceful Black Lives Matter Protest held at the Lincoln Memorial on June 2, 2020 was met with armed members of the Washington, D.C. National Guard lining the steps of the memorial — a scene that resembles that of countless Black Lives Matter protests held across the country in which there was a considerable police and military presence. Meanwhile, the D.C. National Guard was not deployed during the Capitol insurrection until after the insurgents had already made it inside the building.
The fact that authorities perceived a group of peaceful, mostly Black protesters as a threat worthy of calling in the National Guard, while they deemed a mob of mostly white, pro-Trump insurrectionists as initially nonthreatening once again demonstrates that police forces and the authorities that govern them have a clear racial bias. This bias sets a terrifying precedent: that so long as you are a white terrorist or insurgent, you will not be perceived as threatening even if you are heavily armed and are directly threatening the leaders of our nation, but if you are a Black person opposing police brutality and racial injustice, you may be injured or killed.
We must hold the leaders who incited this chaos, as well as the rioters and insurgents who perpetrated it, accountable for their actions. But we must also acknowledge the danger that the policing double standard poses and work to fix it. Let’s use this appalling stain on America’s history as an impetus to take action. Because as these past few weeks have shown us, the product of inaction and indifference is an outcome far too deadly and destructive for us to risk.