Differences in DC Detention
“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.
In “A Tale of Two Protests,” Ronald Dworkin notes the significance of a non-event in politics: “that is, where something didn’t happen, as opposed to where something did.” The “anemic” response to the Capitol insurrection startled most Americans and provided a large slate of cognitive dissonance. This brief article explores, in the vein of Jewish juxtaposition, why was this night different than all other nights? Why did we dip our parsley only once, while on all other nights, we dip it twice?
On June 6th, several permitted election-fraud rallies formed along the National Mall, the largest being the Save America Rally, with 30,000 attendees at its height. According to the timeline in the New York Times, before Trump has started speaking at noon, crowds are forming around the Capital. By 1pm, the joint session of Congress has started, President Trump is finishing his speech, and protestors have made it past several barriers to stand before the lower steps of the Capitol. An hour later, crowds have managed to occupy the balcony and breach the Capitol. For the next four hours, as Congress is in a lock-down, protestors vandalize, loot, and occupy the building. By the start of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s curfew at 6pm, protestors have been successfully pushed from the building by additional law enforcement. Several hours later, both houses of Congress are back in session and by 4am, election results validating Biden and Harris are confirmed.
How is it possible that from a crowd of thousands, several hundred protestors, armed mostly with bats and flags, are able to break into the belly of American governance, in one of the most heavily fortified two square miles of Federal territory, in which security is a draconion reflex, and hold it for four hours? Below are five different scenarios, of which any of them would have significantly altered the political interaction. They move from most potent to least.
1) Black protestors.
There is an extreme chasm between the police response in June in Washington DC to BLM protestors, of which many were Black, and the police response in January to MAGA protestors, of which an overwhelming percentage were White. Deemed a “tale of two protests” by some outlets, the former included horses, helicopters, and humvees; over 7,000 personnel from multiple branches of law enforcement; as well as rubber bullets, flash grenades, and tear gas. Granted, the BLM protests at the start of June lasted for one week, while the Capitol raid lasted for several hours. That being said, according to The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data research project on BLM protests over the last year, more than 90% of these protests were non-violent, while police intervened in nearly 10% of them, utilizing force in a majority of those encounters. This is a substantial increase from the previous year. In America, the punishment can never measure up to the crime of being Black, while for White men, the crime can never be enough to warrant punitive recourse.
2) Left-leaning protest.
According to the same study by ACLED, police were more likely to intervene with force in a left-leaning protest than a right-leaning protest, regardless of its level of altercation. The Guardian notes this regular pattern among recent right-wing protests: “a soft and ineffectual police response” followed by equivocations by President Trump. It mentions the eerie verisimilitude between the Reopen protests around Michigan’s statehouse and what occurred in the Capitol. Several theories on the sociology of protest support these observations of the differential tactics of law enforcement. They posit that police will more strongly repress protests composed of marginalized actors with nondominant ideologies. In this way, police may find protests of ethnic nationalism less threatening to the governing order than protests of multicultural socialism.
3) Appropriate Risk Assessment.
The jurisdiction of DC contains multiple federal and city departments which oversee dozens of law enforcement agencies, including the DC Metropolitan police, Park Police, Secret Service, FBI, ATF, DC National Guard, and Capitol Police. Before the protest, Mayor Muriel Bowser received permission to activate 340 unarmed National Guards for crowd facilitation and traffic control. During the actual insurrection, DC Metropolitan Police as well as officers from several agencies in the Department of Justice did provide assistance. However, CP Police Chief Steven Sund’s requests for the National Guard were met with delay multiple times, whether by Lt. General Walter E. Piatt of the Pentagon or the Sergeant at Arms. A similar situation played out when Governor Larry Hogan requested to deploy Maryland’s National Guard, which finally arrived on Thursday along with the Guard from Virginia.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo called the response a “failure of imagination, a failure of leadership.” Is it possible that it was the converse; a preparation for inadequacy? The optics of the event looked like a concerted slow-down, a tactic used by rank-and-file workers in labor unions. During such an effort, workers appear to be “engaged in their usual routines, [but] deliberately limit their output.”
4) Good apples.
There are a plethora of videos which evince certain members of Capitol Police acting to aid and abet the riot. There are videos of Capitol Police opening doors and gates for protestors, taking selfies with protestors, washing tear gas from their eyes, and escorting them down steps. On a caucus call on January 8th, several House Democrats voiced concerns that the event could have been an inside job. On an interview with CBSN, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn speculated on the improbability of the protestors finding his unmarked third-floor office, instead of his ceremonial office on the ground floor. CNN reported that two Capitol Police officers have already been suspended, and 10–15 more are under investigation.
In general, right-wing protestors already presume that police are on their side and have been given “tacit approval” for their actions. Moreover, the FBI reported all the way in 2006, that white supremacists were infiltrating police departments. Paired with President Trump’s consistent dereliction of duty during the afternoon and his vocalized enthusiasm for the protestors, there may have been incentive for police officers to actively court the protest. If certain bad apples had acted more commensurately, this riot may have been halted.
5) The playoffs.
If the general contingent of officers had engaged in normal law enforcement procedures, this riot may have been short-circuited. While there are several videos of Capitol Police engaging with a level of commitment and concentration on par with other protests, most of the videos show lackluster interactions.
There are police foregoing formation or breaking formation, losing gates and riot shields, utilizing batons in fake or flacid ways, running from protestors, crying for help, or doing nothing. While some commentators believe these are symptoms of surrender or collapse, they are inconsistent with normal police procedures. These same sociological theories of protest posit that police will respond with more aggression when they believe a protest is more threatening or numerous. From my own experience in protests over the past decade, including in DC, police do not show signs of weakness during protests.
Instead, the structural approach of the Capitol Police that day was guided oversight not threat deactivation. And indeed they were correct: despite the violence outside and the spates of vandalism inside, the rioters mostly wandered and importuned during the four hours in the Capitol. That being said, this was still a complete breach of the inner sanctum of American governance. The Capitol Police have a half-billion dollar budget for over 2,000 officers, extensive experience in crowd control, as well as access to a variety of armaments post-9/11. With a deployment of a quick-reaction force or snatch squad, a line of officers with assault weapons, or a continual dispersment of tear gas (or what about tasers?), this protest would have been detoured with no deaths.
I do not portend to have all the correct interpretations. This is just my inductive reasoning, empirical evidence paired with my long experience in protest. I urge other readers of this article, especially those in law enforcement and activism, to please comment and start a conversation on this article. I hope together we may distill greater clarity to what initially seems like a bricolage of bewilderment.