The Eerie Charlottesville Echoes of Trump Supporters’ Capitol Coup
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Plenty of contrasts have been drawn between D.C. law enforcement’s treatment of Black Lives Matter protesters in June, and their kid-gloves handling of Trump supporters. But if the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was any guide, this week’s scene was predictable.

It was clear to everyone watching the mob remotely, and even clearer to those of us outside of the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon: police had a chance to stop pro-Donald Trump rioters before they breached the building. Instead, the group was allowed to grow in size until it was large enough to push over barricades and force entry—even as its members verbally informed law enforcement of their intentions.

“Don’t let them get away with this! We’re getting in there and shutting it all down,” I heard one Trump supporter shout. “It’s too late for the First Amendment—we’re exercising our Second Amendment rights this time around,” said another, and “1776 will commence again,” said a third—a quote from Alex Jones, who in November called for Trump supporters to “surround the White House and support the president.” 

When I asked one rioter if he was willing to die for the cause, he replied that the “80 Americans who voted [for] Trump are done standing by—I don’t care how many of us go down, we’re gonna finish this today,” seemingly referencing Trump’s request that far-right group the Proud Boys “stand back and stand by.” (In fact, about about 74 million Americans voted for Trump.) Others in the crowd shared a similar sentiment, chanting, “Fight for Trump” as they mobbed up the Capitol steps with impunity, many waving “Make America Great Again” and Confederate battle flags.

The minimal pushback they faced shocked and horrified many onlookers, who wondered aloud how such a brazen assault could take place at one of the best-protected sites in the country. In June, when protesters gathered in D.C. to express outrage at police brutality against Black Americans, law enforcement spared no mercy and no expense. I saw firsthand that if police were so much as hit by a plastic water bottle, they responded with volleys of tear gas, despite being encased in body armor. In the case of Trump’s Bible photo op in Lafayette Square, police gassed and beat protesters and members of the press who were peacefully gathered across the street from the White House. On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that the lapse in security this time around was partly in response to events this summer. D.C. officials reportedly asked federal law enforcement to keep a low profile, and National Guard members were told to do the same. But the difference in protesters’ race and purpose is likely just as much—if not more—to blame.

I witnessed both the June Black Lives Matter protests and Wednesday’s Capitol Hill invasion, and the contrast was clear. It was driven home by another violent white nationalist gathering in the Trump era: the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. There, police also had an opportunity to de-escalate the violence and quell the crowds but chose not to. Before the situation was brought under control, a woman was killed.

Having witnessed law enforcement’s behavior in Charlottesville, their reaction to yesterday’s insurrection was hardly surprising. In both cases, I saw hordes of white extremists, some of whom reportedly participated in both riots, allowed to carry out their precise plans—plans that authorities had known about ahead of time. In Charlottesville, the focal point was a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in a downtown park; in D.C., it was the halls of the nation’s Capitol in a bid to stop the lawmakers from certifying Joe Biden’s win. In both cases, police behaved almost cordially. (An officer was even caught on a livestream apparently taking a selfie with a protester as onlookers shouted “ACAF,” or “All cops are friends.” Another was captured seemingly helping an insurrectionist down the building’s stairs.)

Rather than attempting to slow down the first wave of protesters who climbed over or tore down security fencing, many police retreated and seemingly created a path for the mob to follow, or simply stood by. There was little real resistance until crowds made their way to the final staircases near the building’s entrance, but at that point, a few squirts of pepper spray and half-hearted shoves failed to slow anything down. After the doors were smashed in, the crowds were let loose in the halls for hours. They used the time to loot lawmakers’ offices, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s, and generally trash the building; by the time law enforcement regained control of the perimeter, a pro-Trump protester later identified as Ashli Babbitt had been shot and killed. According to the Metropolitan Police Department chief, there were three other fatalities in undisclosed incidents during the day, all due to medical conditions. As of Thursday afternoon, D.C. police had reportedly arrested just 68 people, including four on weapons-related offenses, and Capitol Police arrested another 14.

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