The images of largely white rioters storming past police into the U.S. Capitol and avoiding arrest are the newest rhetorical weapons for advocates pushing to reform police practices, drawing a sharp contrast with the response to Black Lives Matter protesters last summer.
Advocates of policing reform saw the images as clear evidence of their concerns about policing. They intended to use those optics to bolster their case, especially around bringing an end to qualified immunity for law enforcement and the disparate arrests and prosecutions of minority groups.
“This is an unequivocal example of the imbalance of the distribution of justice that we have in our country, so that is absolutely a new weapon for us as advocates to use,” Randy Shrewsberry, founder and executive director of the Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform, said about images from the riot.
“There’s a clear bias that shows how the police can be much more heavy-handed with the Black and brown community.”
Supporters of President Donald Trump broke into the U.S. Capitol building Wednesday to disrupt Congress from recognizing President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory. Video shared on social media showed police appearing to remove barricades in some cases and demonstrators freely leaving the Capitol grounds, sometimes being escorted peacefully by law enforcement officials.
Advocates of policing reforms contrasted those images with the response to protests over the deaths of George Floyd and others last summer, which saw law enforcement arrest protesters and use tear gas and deploy the National Guardsmen to protect federal property.
“What happened to Black and brown people and allies over the summer was they were prosecuted for crimes that they either did not commit, or that were so minor in nature, that there’s a fundamental unfairness about it,” said Arthur Ago, director of the criminal justice project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
As of Thursday morning, the Metropolitan Police had made 68 arrests. But many of those arrests came hours after demonstrators had stormed the Capitol complex and were due to a violation of the 6 p.m. curfew set by Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser.
Rachel Pickens, executive director of the National Police Accountability Project, said the arrest numbers were “a demonstration of the unfairness and bias that affects policing today.”
“Most of the arrests happened because of curfew violations and not because they trespassed or broke property.”
Capitol Police announced Thursday that Chief Steven A. Sund would resign effective Jan. 16. The Capitol Police didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Helping Their Case
Police reform advocates said the images from Wednesday’s events would help them make the argument for broad changes in policing practices.
“Yesterday’s events dramatized that racism is rife in policing—no one could miss the often deferential and largely hands-off approach that the police showed yesterday to a mob of people filled with white supremacists to the military-style response aimed at peaceful BLM protesters,” said Paul Bland, executive director at the nonprofit legal advocacy group Public Justice.
Advocates critical of how law enforcement handled Wednesday’s mob stressed that they were not calling for a more heavy-handed police response in similar cases but rather drawing attention to the disparate treatment of Black people and other minorities by police.
“There wasn’t any overt police violence from what happened yesterday and we’re not asking for that,” said Shrewsberry.
A tougher response to the pro-Trump protesters won’t address larger issues with the criminal justice system or policing, said Ago.
“There’s a more nuanced solution to police reform than a lot of people embrace” Ago said.
“Increased prosecution of white supremacists, of the Proud Boys, of QAnon, and their sympathizers does not necessarily equal fair treatment of Black and Brown people in the country,” he added. “If what happened in the Capitol results in a slew of prosecutions, there still has to be justice for Black and brown people.”
Pressure on Congress
Advocates said they expected the attack to motivate Congress to consider police reforms.
“There will be a bigger appetite in the next Congress to advance transformative policing reform, especially after seeing what happened at the Capitol,” predicted Hernandez Stroud, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Justice Program.
With Democrats assuming control of both congressional chambers and the White House, the party could face more pressure to take up the issue.
“The leveling of the playing field can be done right now, especially given that the Senate has been flipped. The first order of business for the new Senate should be the pass two bills, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and the John Lewis Voting Act,” said CK Hoffler, president of the National Bar Association. “It is a priority for the U.S. Senate to prioritize these two pending acts that passed in the House.”
Pickens highlighted three areas where she hoped the incoming Biden administration would shift the debate.
“The three things I think that they could do quite quickly to really start this revolutionary change in policing would be having special prosecutors come in when there are cases of police violence, urge the demilitarization of police officers, and ending qualified immunity,” she said.
For activists, Wednesday’s images showed the rest of the country what they say has long been apparent to them about policing practices.
“For many years, it’s been obvious to us, and other advocates for racial justice and civil rights, that illegal police violence is particularly targeted against Black people and people of color,” said Bland.
“Important police reforms, like ending qualified immunity, are not just good public policy, but they’re essential to advance racial justice.”