America's police and other law enforcement agents all too frequently use lethal violence. But in fact they are capable of great restraint and self-control when they decide to employ it. The decision to use force against a given person or group is all too often a function of skin color and politics.
This article first appeared in Salon.
On Jan. 6, a mob of Donald Trump's followers, nearly all of them white, attacked the U.S. Capitol in an effort to nullify the results of the 2020 presidential election. This coup attack was incited not just by Trump himself but by a neofascist movement that includes the Republican Party, white evangelical churches and the conservative "news" media.
Five people would die because of the attack on the Capitol building. At least 140 Capitol Police and other law enforcement officers were injured that day, some of them seriously. Trump's mob was armed with a variety of weapons including guns, sharpened poles, baseball bats, stun guns, pepper spray and bear mace. Other weapons, including homemade bombs and an assault rifle, were later discovered in a pickup truck parked nearby.
Some of Trump's followers carried white supremacist flags and wore neo-Nazi and other right-wing terrorist regalia. The attackers also included Christian fascists who carried a cross and shouted Biblical verses as they participated in the insurrection.
After several hours of battle, Trump's mob successfully breached the Capitol building's outer layer of defenses. Once inside, they tried to find Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other high-ranking officials whom they deemed to be "traitors." We cannot know for sure what would have happened had they captured any such people, but a gallows had been constructed in the park across from the Capitol building.
This was all part of a plan — somewhat incoherent, but determined to stop the certification of Joe Biden as the duly elected president of the United States. Trump's mob also chased Black and brown Capitol Police officers through the building while screaming racist slurs and other hateful invective.
Instead of raining down hellfire on Trump's insurrectionists, America's trillion-dollar military machine and national security forces were ordered to stand down or otherwise delayed in their reaction to the crisis. The Capitol Police were also oddly subdued and neutered in their response to this attack on the literal heart of American democracy.
Later investigations have suggested that at least some Capitol Police assisted Trump's attackers in gaining access to the building or otherwise demonstrated sympathy with their treasonous cause.
It cannot be reasonably disputed that If the attackers had been Muslims, Black or brown people, members of antifa, Black Lives Matter activists or any other variety of "leftists," such an assault would never have been allowed to take place. Law enforcement would most likely have arrested the leaders during the planning stages. If the attack on the Capitol had somehow still taken place, lethal force would have been used by the Capitol Police and other law enforcement agents without hesitation. In all, the result would have been a massacre.
A new report from the Capitol Police Department's inspector general on the events of Jan. 6 offers additional insight into how and why their officers were so relatively tame in their response to Trump's attack force. As the New York Times reports:
The Capitol Police had clearer advance warnings about the Jan. 6 attack than were previously known, including the potential for violence in which "Congress itself is the target." But officers were instructed by their leaders not to use their most aggressive tactics to hold off the mob, according to a scathing new report by the agency's internal investigator. ...
Mr. Bolton [the inspector general] found that the agency's leaders failed to adequately prepare despite explicit warnings that pro-Trump extremists posed a threat to law enforcement and civilians and that the police used defective protective equipment. He also found that the leaders ordered their Civil Disturbance Unit to refrain from using its most powerful crowd-control tools — like stun grenades — to put down the onslaught.
The report offers the most devastating account to date of the lapses and miscalculations around the most violent attack on the Capitol in two centuries.
Three days before the siege, a Capitol Police intelligence assessment warned of violence from supporters of President Donald J. Trump who believed his false claims that the election had been stolen. Some had even posted a map of the Capitol complex's tunnel system on pro-Trump message boards. …
"Unlike previous postelection protests, the targets of the pro-Trump supporters are not necessarily the counterprotesters as they were previously, but rather Congress itself is the target on the 6th," the threat assessment said, according to the inspector general's report. "Stop the Steal's propensity to attract white supremacists, militia members, and others who actively promote violence may lead to a significantly dangerous situation for law enforcement and the general public alike."
Consider the reaction of law enforcement to recent events in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, which offer a stark contrast to the events of Jan. 6.
A Black man named Daunte Wright was stopped by Brooklyn Center police on Sunday, supposedly because his car had expired registration tags. During the traffic stop, police determined that Wright had two outstanding misdemeanor warrants. As shown by their body cameras, Brooklyn Center police detained Wright. In a moment of panic, Wright attempted to get back into his car.
Kim Potter, a 26-year-veteran of the police department, shot Wright with one round from her Glock 17 pistol. As shown by the police body camera, Potter aimed the pistol at Wright for several seconds before shooting him. Potter has claimed that she believed she discharged her Taser, not her firearm. Potter resigned from the police department on Tuesday and was charged with second-degree manslaughter on Wednesday.
Civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who is representing Wright's family, offered this observation to ABC's "Good Morning America" on the role of racism and racial bias in how America's police treat nonwhite people:
She was a training officer and so it's not about training, it's about implicit bias. It's about giving the same respect and consideration to people of color that we give to white American citizens. We don't see these sort of things happening to white young people that we see happening over and over and over again to young, marginalized minorities.
They could have given him a ticket, given him a notice to show up. But just like in George Floyd — they could have given him a ticket — they used the most force when it comes to dealing with marginalized minorities. And we can't have these two Americas -- one where we treat Black Americans different from white Americans in policing.
In response to Wright's killing and a larger pattern of documented police abuse against the black and brown community in the Minneapolis area (including the high-profile police killings of George Floyd and Philando Castile), this week has seen several days of largely peaceful protests. There have also been minor incidents of looting and other vandalism. During the evening hours, some protesters at the Brooklyn Center Police Department and an FBI satellite office have thrown water bottles and other projectiles at local police and other law enforcement.
As occurred during the George Floyd protests last summer, the governor of Minnesota, the Brooklyn Center mayor and other area leaders have deployed the National Guard, state police and other forces. In response to the evening protests and curfew, law enforcement have used tear gas and stun grenades, and deployed at least one armored vehicle, snipers and tactical teams.
It hardly needs stating that nothing even close to that level of force was used against the Trump followers who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Militarized police, in Minneapolis and elsewhere around the country, are trained to view Black and brown communities and the people who live there as "insurgents" and "enemies." Importing the logic and tactics and training from America's forever wars abroad has resulted in a dangerous escalation of violence against non-whites, the poor, undocumented immigrants and other communities and individuals deemed to be a threat. White communities, especially those which are middle class and affluent, are not subjected to such violence.
Writing at Tom Dispatch, William Astore explains what happens when America's imperial forces come home in the form of police and other law enforcement:
It's taken years from Ferguson to this moment, but America's cops have now officially joined the military as "professional" warriors. In the wake of George Floyd's murder on May 25th, those warrior-cops have taken to the streets across the country wearing combat gear and with attitudes to match. They see protesters, as well as the reporters covering them, as the enemy and themselves as the "thin blue line" of law and order.
The police take to bashing heads and thrashing bodies, using weaponry so generously funded by the American taxpayer: rubber bullets, pepper spray (as Congresswoman Joyce Beatty of Ohio experienced at a protest), tear gas (as Episcopal clergy experienced at a demonstration in Washington, D.C.), paint canisters, and similar "non-lethal" munitions, together with flash-bang grenades, standard-issue batons, and Tasers, even as they drive military-surplus equipment like Humvees and MRAPs. (Note that such munitions blinded an eye of one photo-journalist.) A Predator drone even hovered over at least one protest. …
It's not enough to say that the police are too violent, or racist, or detached from society. Powerful people already know this perfectly well. Indeed, they're counting on it. They're counting on cops being violent to protect elite interests; nor is racism the worst thing in the world, they believe, as long as it's not hurting their financial bottom lines. If it divides people, making them all the more exploitable, so much the better. And who cares if cops are detached from the interests of the working and lower middle classes from which they've come? Again, all the better, since that means they can be sicked on protesters and, if things get out of hand, those very protesters can then be blamed. If push comes to shove, a few cops might have to be fired, or prosecuted, or otherwise sacrificed, but that hardly matters as long as the powerful get off scot-free.
What do we know about how America's police treat Black people, as compared to white Trumpists and other right-wing extremists who attacked the Capitol and continue to menace the country?
Police are more likely to use force against Black people, including lethal force, as compared to white people in comparable scenarios. At every level of encounter with America's law enforcement and criminal justice system, Black people are treated more harshly and punished more severely than white people charged with identical or comparable crimes.
As part of the failed "war on drugs," Black and brown people are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated for drug possessions as compared to white people, even though all racial groups use drugs at roughly comparable rates.
Recent research has shown that peaceful participants at Black Lives Matter and other liberal and progressive marches and protests are much more likely to be arrested than are Trumpists and other right-wing extremists.
Other reporting shows that police appear much more likely to detain and arrest members of antifa and Black Lives Matter (and liberals and progressives more generally) at protests and similar events than they are Trump followers and other right-wing extremists — even when the latter are engaging in violence and other criminality.
Those outcomes corroborates research showing that white supremacists, right-wing militias and other extremist groups have extensively infiltrated police and law enforcement agencies. The FBI has reported that white supremacists and other right-wing extremists now constitute the greatest threat to public safety and security.
The subculture of American law enforcement is conservative and authoritarian. By implication, this means there is an affinity between many of America's police and Trump's followers and other right-wing extremists.
The divergent responses of law enforcement and national security forces to the Capitol attack as compared to the protests in the Minneapolis area (and in other parts of the country) against police brutality and thuggery are not examples of "hypocrisy," a "double standard" or some type of contradiction. In fact, this is the American law enforcement system behaving almost exactly as designed. Ultimately, the police are agents of social control. The question then becomes who they are controlling, and who is most often the target of their lethal force and other violence.
American law enforcement values property over people. It is a tool for enforcing the power and privilege of white people over nonwhites. It protects the interests of the rich and corporations over those of the poor and working class.
America is correctly described as a type of "carceral society" where the working class and the poor, the homeless, nonwhite people, the mentally ill and otherwise disabled, migrants and refugees, and other marginalized groups are surveilled and subjected to arrest, abuse and incarceration to a far greater extent, and in more brutal ways, than rich, white middle- and upper-class people.
There has been much discussion about a need for an American reckoning to heal the country's wounds caused by neofascism, white supremacy and the social inequality and injustice that have been exposed and accelerated by the Age of Trump and the coronavirus pandemic. Part of that reckoning must involve acknowledging how America's police reproduce, enforce and encourage the violence, racism, cruelty and injustice that fuel Trumpism and American neofascism.