What the Capitol insurgency reveals about white supremacy and law enforcement

A supporter of President Donald Trump carries a Confederate battle flag on the second floor of the U.S. Capitol near the entrance to the Senate after breaching security defenses, in Washington, U.S., January 6, 2021. A portrait of abolitionist senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who was savagely beaten on the Senate floor after delivering a speech criticizing slavery in 1856, hangs above the couch.        REUTERS/Mike Theiler     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Make no mistake, the Capitol insurgency was about making America great for white people. In erecting a hangman’s noose, waving the Confederate flag, and wearing white nationalist paraphernalia, including an Auschwitz Concentration Camp shirt, the domestic terrorists showed America they fundamentally believe in maintaining and enacting white supremacy. Donald Trump, and Trumpism as an ideology, has opened a Pandora’s box of hate into the American mainstream, giving the permission some racists needed to reveal themselves proudly and wreak havoc on symbols of American democracy that have withstood wars and attacks for centuries.

Let’s talk about law enforcement. I have researched policing for years and know that the only way a limited amount of personnel is deployed is because an incident is not viewed as a credible threat. Despite repeated warnings from the FBI and other national security agencies, the grossly inadequate security preparation by Capitol Police shows negligence at the least and conspiracy at the most among the upper echelons of law enforcement. Only about 60 rioters were arrested on January 6, 2021, while nearly the same number of police officers were injured (including one officer who was killed along with one of the insurgents). For comparison, on June 1, 2020 in Washington DC, nearly 6,000 law enforcement officers ranging from ICE to DEA including National Guard helicopters were mobilized to descend on the area for a Black Lives Matter protest. Over 300 people were arrested that night. They never even got close to the Capitol or the White House.

I have written repeatedly that bad apples come from rotten trees in policing. Well, the domestic terrorists who stormed the Capitol come from those same rotten trees. And, the roots of those trees are laced with white supremacy.

America should be honest about the fact that while many people are attracted to law enforcement because they truly want to protect and serve, there are others who seek out these jobs because they want to enforce white supremacist ideologies. Enforcing these ideologies means relegating pursuits of racial equity and criminalizing Blackness. For white supremacists, Blackness is viewed as an antithesis to white supremacy and anyone who actively and overtly embraces racial equity is a potential target of violence, even when the people doing the violence wear a badge.

For some police officers and military veterans, their participation in the insurgency is undeniable. Some were taking selfies, opening up gates, offering the mob guidance through the Capitol complex, and helping women down the Capitol steps, while Black officers reported being called the N word, repeatedly. This is during and after the mob destroyed and stole items from the offices of Democrats including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congressman James Clyburn, defecated on sacred ground, and then smeared it down the hallway. Two Capitol police officers have now been suspended and several others are being investigated for their role in the insurgency.

Anyone who supports white supremacist ideologies or assisted the mob have betrayed their country and the many law enforcement officers who bravely fought to protect people and defend American democracy during the Capitol coup. In addition to one officer dying at the Capitol due to mob violence, another office has died by suicide, and others have indicated they are struggling in the aftermath. It is unclear whether they felt guilty for being complicit or for not doing more. My research suggests that mental health is a significantly problem in law enforcement. Eighty percent of officers report critical stress (with about 10% being suicidal). Ninety percent of officers never seek mental health counseling.

Regardless, participation by some officers should not be surprising considering the infiltration of white supremacists in law enforcement. America has never truly dealt with the roots of law enforcement that link back to slave patrols. Despite progress in the racial composition of the department, Capitol Police is known as “The Last Plantation” within law enforcement.

It is important to note that maintaining white supremacy is not only about ideology. It is also about controlling people and property. The insurgents believe the Capitol is their building and they are its only rightful heirs. They deem America and everything it has to offer to only be theirs, while everyone else is either here to serve them or should leave.

These domestic terrorists also had a blueprint for what might happen when they stormed the Capitol. During COVID-19 anti-lockdown protests, people similar to these domestic terrorists stormed state capitals and little happened. They pushed the boundaries on law enforcement and our democratic ideals and nothing happened. So, they not only felt emboldened by Trump and other politicians complicit in the Capitol coup, but they were shown directly from previous interactions with law enforcement at government buildings that nothing would happen. After all, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse drove from Illinois and killed Black Lives Matter protesters in Wisconsin. He walked straight past law enforcement with the loaded AR-15 rifle he used to kill them and police simply told him to go home. People like Rittenhouse were be able to drive to Washington, DC, park a vehicle with bombs and guns on residential streets, and walk to the Capitol and take it over.

But, the domestic terrorists’ boldness with law enforcement is much deeper than just recent incidents. Their experiences with law enforcement throughout their lifetimes show them how police often privilege whiteness over blackness. They are accustomed to police officers being deferential with them. They are accustomed to being entitled to spew white nationalist rhetoric in settings where police are present. And, I am not talking about only during protests. I am talking about at dinner tables, at restaurants, and other places where police officers are present. It is important to comprehend that the people who stormed the Capitol are our co-workers, lawyers, CEOs, military veterans, police officers, neighbors, and family members. This is America and we must admit it.

We have seen swift action with the FBI leading the investigation into the coup. The insurgents are being arrested, put on no-fly lists, and fired from their jobs. However, there needs to be much more.

  • Domestic terrorism and hate crime laws need to be strengthened.
  • Groups like the Proud Boys need to be put on a federal hate crime registry.
  • People who participated in any manner need to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
  • Politicians and police officers need to be investigated for links to white supremacist organizations.
  • Law enforcement and military background checks need to be expanded to include an evaluation for the presence of anti-Black bias and links to white supremacist groups.
  • Trump needs to be impeached.

Bottom line: The Capitol coup is the mirror we needed to overcome our warped sense of American exceptionalism. Becoming a truly equitable democracy requires work. It requires actively working against ideological forces that try to make America great for only a few. It means realizing that the American Civil War and Nazi Germany began just like this. It means being courageous to admit that what happened at the Capitol is who we are as the United States. It means realizing that being silent on this issue is accepting the side of white supremacy. So, if you are worried, scared, or fearful, you should be. How will we respond to fight for the soul of America?