For Black onlookers, it was yet another day in which we were reminded why we chant “Black Lives Matter.” It was a day which offered an undeniable display of how whiteness works in this country and how its privilege protects white bodies — not Black ones.
Watching Black people killed at the hands of the police is always painful and overwhelming. It turns out, watching white nationalists get a pass from police for actions that would have seen a Black person shot is infuriating, dehumanizing, and triggering.
Growing up in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, I could never get too close to the Capitol; everyone knows it is incredibly difficult to even approach the building, much less get inside. As a Black person who has unexpectedly stared down the barrels of several police officers’ guns, I have long been aware of how quickly officers pull out lethal weapons when they are uncertain about a situation, when they perceive a threat. As a Black person, I know that I am automatically seen as a threat by police. On Wednesday, I was reminded that white people are not.
White insurrectionists — some armed with metal batons, baseball bats and knives — stormed the Capitol Building and created chaos for a solid three hours. They scaled the walls, broke through metal gates, and shattered windows. They ran through the building, defaced a presidential bust with blood, ripped artwork off the walls, and at least one person broke into Speaker Pelosi’s office, sat in her chair, and even stole her mail. And yet, police were slow to pull out their tasers, pepper spray, and unleash their K-9s.
Amena Ross, a former congressional chief of staff and friend of mine, was in D.C. as this all happened. When I called her to make sure she was okay, she told me about fearing for her colleagues’ lives: “I have friends who were running through the halls scared to death, my friends were texting their last words to their loved ones in case they did not make it out alive,” she said.
Ross also expressed shock that these dangerous people were able to make it past the Capitol Police in the first place. “If a member of the Capitol Police gave me a directive and I did not comply, their second reaction would be to pull out their gun on me,” she said, recalling her time in Congress as a Black staffer. “Congresspeople have officers protecting them, but there isn’t anyone protecting the janitors, cafeteria staff, and countless people who keep the Capitol going.”
Ross underscored that many of the people in those positions, like her, are Black. Imagine how they felt watching white trespassers run amuck, waving Confederate flags, knowing that peaceful Black protestors have never been given the same courtesy? I wonder if they were in fear of their lives.
It didn’t seem like the white rioters were fearful at all. After the mayor set a curfew for 6 p.m, many rioters were still out well past the deadline. Washington, D.C. has some of the nation’s strictest gun laws — it is almost impossible for a civilian to have a gun in the city — and yet, 26 guns were discovered on the Capitol grounds. Meanwhile, despite thousands of violent Trump supporters participating in the siege, only 68 people were arrested. Juxtapose that with the Black Lives Matter protest at Lafayette Square in June where 289 people were arrested, or the protests throughout the nation where over 14,000 were taken into custody. And just think of the countless other examples of police using violent force against unarmed Black people undeserving of such harassment.
Police shot and killed Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old child playing with a toy gun in a park. Police shot and killed Breonna Taylor while she was sleeping in her home. Police shot and killed Walter Scott while he was driving in his car with his girlfriend and her daughter. Police shot and killed Stephon Clark for running into his grandma’s backyard. Police shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson while she was babysitting her nephew at home. And police pointed guns at young Black people with their hands up during protests.
On October 3, 2013, the same Capitol police who stood by while white looters invaded their building, shot and killed Miriam Carey, a 34-year old Black mother. Carey was having a mental health crisis and made a U-turn at a security checkpoint. She was shot over 25 times and suffered a fatal bullet wound to her head. Her 13-month-old daughter was in the backseat and miraculously survived. On July 30, 2020, the same Capitol police who helped a white Trump rioter down a flight of stairs restrained and arrested two Black mothers, who were with their babies, because they thought the women were driving a stolen car.
For these Black people, minor and uninvited interactions with police led to excessive force. During the Capitol Building breach, police only resorted to violence after being repeatedly provoked. A white woman was shot and killed by police after she crashed through a window attempting to break into the building. That kind of violence is all too familiar for Black people.
This past summer, the nation watched Black Lives Matter protesters in D.C. and throughout the country get brutalized by the police. Protesters were rounded up and arrested the moment a curfew began, they were teargassed without warning, they were brutally beaten with batons for standing in the way of officers, and shot with rubber pellets. On June 1, during the aforementioned peaceful demonstrations at Lafayette Square, people were tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed and forcefully pushed away.
Following many of these violent incidents, when family members, friends, local and national leaders and activists demanded an explanation, the grieving communities received the same answer: Officers had to make split-second decisions, and the offending officers feared for their lives. Where was that fear on Wednesday when the Capitol was infiltrated by rowdy, violent extremists?
Watching the chaos and violence carried out by the Capitol rioters was startling, but not surprising. What briefly shocked me was seeing the police response — or lack thereof. The police seemed to do everything possible to de-escalate the situation without using violence or extreme means. Tear gas was not immediately utilized and there were no disturbing images of people getting beat by batons. Not only were the rioters treated with care, at times, it seemed as though they were welcome; see the selfies with police officers and how some officers helped rioters walk down the stairs. It was like watching how little police care about Black lives and how much they protect whiteness play out in real time. In hindsight, I don’t know why I was even momentarily surprised. It shouldn’t be astounding to see the difference in treatment between Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Michael Brown and all those who took to the streets to protest their deaths, and the conduct towards these violent white insurrectionists carrying weapons. This is America.
The siege on the Capitol was a reminder that police officers are aware and capable of de-escalation tactics and using other forms of crowd control before resorting to lethal or deadly force. The double-standard is palpable, but it’s also important to note that it doesn’t mean the answer is more violent force. If courtesy to white people’s lives can be shown so easily, it can be offered to Black lives as well.
January 6, 2021 is a historic day for many reasons. We had a front-row seat to a three-hour documentary on how easy it is for police to protect white lives, and how far we have to go until they understand that Black ones matter.
Nonny Onyekweli is a New York-based lawyer.