As images began to emerge from the U.S. Capitol building on Wednesday, so, too, did significant questions about how the mob was able to gain access to the building, and how police handled those who forced their way inside.
On Twitter and elsewhere, people questioned the size, scope and timing of police response, particularly when compared with heavy – and sometimes extremely violent – police reaction to past protests by other groups. The disparity – burned into recent memory and the public record – could not appear more vast.
“It’s definitely a stark difference,” said Lecia Brooks, chief of staff at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama.
One photo in heavy circulation on Wednesday showed imposing lines of National Guard officers in camouflage lining the steps of the Capitol during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer.
Other images showed Black Lives Matter protesters face down on the pavement, bleeding from rubber bullets or running from clouds of tear gas. Images recirculated of people with severe disabilities being dragged out of wheelchairs while protesting against a repeal of Obamacare at the Capitol in 2017.
And yet there were insurrectionists strolling casually through the Capitol building, posing with seeming impunity.
In one picture, a man in a Trump tuque grins and waves while walking away with a White House podium. In another, a man sits smiling, his foot up on Nancy Pelosi’s desk.
“Trump has been fanning these flames since the election,” Ms. Brooks said. “No one including Capitol police should have been surprised at what took place today.”
Questions about how police responded to Wednesday’s events are only beginning.
In a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Robert Contee, chief of D.C.’s Municipal Police Department, said his department didn’t initially have a role in policing at the Capitol, which has its own police force, but that the MPD was asked to step in after violence escalated and rioters began to breach police lines.
“Today what we witnessed was unlawful, riotous behaviour, and people that come to our city engaged in unlawful behavior will be held accountable,” Chief Contee said, speaking from inside MPD police headquarters, with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.
Ms. Bowser expressed similar sentiments.
“The behaviour that we are witnessing is shameful, unpatriotic, and above all, it is unlawful,” she said. “Anyone who has engaged in these activities, continues to engage in these activities, will be held accountable. There will be law and order, and this behaviour will not be tolerated.”
Meanwhile, video footage showed people walking freely out of the Capitol building. Some pumped their fists in triumph or cheered as they left, passing a message scrawled on the door that read “Murder the media.” One man raised his arms above his head, screaming “Yeah! We stopped the vote.” Another could be heard saying, “Next time we come back, we won’t be peaceful.”
By the time the curfew imposed by the mayor came into effect, the situation had changed considerably, with the D.C. National Guard mobilized, the Capitol building cleared, and a heavy presence of tactical and other officers around the area.
The Metropolitan Police Department was reporting 15 arrests related to the scene at the Capitol as of Wednesday evening, including for charges involving weapons and assault, and another 30 arrests related to the curfew.
Jake Angeli, a tattooed, shirtless QAnon conspiracy theorist who got inside the Senate chamber and posed for multiple photographs clad in a fur hat and horns, told Globe and Mail reporter Adrian Morrow that police eventually stopped trying to prevent people from coming, and, as Mr. Morrow reported on Twitter, “After a while, he said police politely asked him to leave and let him go without arrest.”
One video circulating on Twitter appeared to show a police officer posing for a selfie with one of the people who had forced their way inside the Capitol; another showed an officer in riot gear seemingly leading a Trump supporter carefully down the stairs.
“It is a starkly different picture when the protesters are white,” Ms. Brooks said. “This is white privilege. These Trump supporters can walk boldly in to take over the state capitol.”
She speculated that the police response would have been much different had those who entered the building been Black, brown, or predominantly female.
As Washington Post reporter Michael Brice-Saddler tweeted, “I witnessed some extraordinary, horrific events at the U.S. Capitol today and can only imagine how the outcome would’ve been different if the perpetrators looked like me.”
With reports from The Associated Press.
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