The Inaction of Capitol Police Was by DesignRoundup
tags: Police, Capitol Riot
KELLIE CARTER JACKSON is an assistant professor of Africana studies at Wellesley College, and the author of Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence.
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.
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.
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