Domestic Affairs

Why Law Enforcement Involvement in the Capitol Riot Should Surprise No One.

As right-wing extremists stormed the Capitol in a foiled attempt to prevent the official certification of the 2020 election, the Capitol Police were unable to stop them. Many Americans were astonished by the cordial response of Capitol Police towards these militia groups — how could they just stand there? Why didn’t they stop them? “If that was Black Lives Matter, they’d have tanks rolling down Pennsylvania avenue!” one man shouted from his porch in D.C. Photos comparing the Capitol Response during the Black Lives Matter movement and Jan. 6, 2021, have become a symbol of the very oppression the protests were inspired by. 

In the following days, it became clear that law enforcement failure on Jan. 6 was part of a larger issue. One officer from Pennsylvania who was arrested in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot tweeted about his arrest. The crossover between military and law enforcement is startling — over 20% of law enforcement officers are veterans, despite being 6% of the population. Ashli Babbit, a 35-year-old San Diego woman who suffered a fatal gunshot while storming the Capitol, was a former Air Force MP. Many have reacted incredulously to this news, shocked that our own military was implicated in treason. How could the people who are supposed to protect our freedom and liberties desecrate one of the most important democratic institutions? A complicated network of over-militarized law enforcement agencies with deep ties to white supremacy has created a serious problem for the American people. Can law enforcement be trusted to defend democracy for all people if they are complicit with violent, white supremacists? Why do American Police departments act so much like the military? 

The militarization of the police has been an ominous trend in law enforcement over the past 50 years.

The Over-Militarization of Police and the War on Minority Communities 

For years, police violence against communities of color and the unprecedented stock-piling of military-grade weapons by local law enforcement have been inextricably linked. Deadly resources, including armored vehicles, battering rams, and even helicopters, are given to local law enforcement with little scrutiny. The Department of Defense’s 1033 Program often transfers these resources at no cost to the departments themselves. Furthermore, according to the ACLU, there is no existing federal process mandated to collect information related to local law enforcement use of S.W.A.T. teams. Communities are not notified of these acquisitions and are often unaware of how much military-grade equipment their local law enforcement agency possesses. This stockpiling of military-grade arms is startling, but how and when local police forces employ this equipment is another matter of concern. 

An investigation conducted by the ACLU found that there were no clear standards for defining a ‘high risk’ situation that would justify the deployment of highly-militarized local law enforcement. Instead, it seems local police departments regularly acted without any justification when choosing where to stage war-like raids. The heavily militarized S.W.A.T. units responded to 79% of low-level drug investigations but only 7% of hostage, barricade, or active shooter reports. Despite law enforcement having these resources for extreme scenarios, they are mostly used in circumstances that seem to be anything but high-risk. Sixty-one percent of all groups affected by over-militarized drug raids are communities of color, making them disproportionately affected.

The frequent use of military-grade equipment by local law enforcement agencies has blurred the line between officer and soldier. Officers donning battle dress uniforms (BDUs), are known to “throw caution into the wind.” When police officers, who are already accustomed to wearing a uniform that inspires respect and fear, don military-style uniforms with ‘Police’ printed on the back, they gain even more power. Training reinforces the ‘battle-ground’ mindset by portraying everyday American communities as breeding grounds for terrorism and violence. In this extended metaphor, American citizens become potential combatants and neighborhoods are perceived as warzones. Communities of color are often classified as ‘high-risk’ neighborhoods and endure disproportionate levels of police brutality. 

These are hardly new issues — police treatment of African American communities has long reflected this ‘warzone’ mentality. Shortly before his death, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called for a revolution in community-police relations: “police must cease being occupation troops in the ghetto and start protecting its residents.” By treating low-income or majority-minority neighborhoods as ‘high-risk’ zones, police begin to see everyone associated with these areas as potential combatants — a mindset that leads to a war on minority communities regardless of circumstance.

Police departments have become a hotbed for white nationalist attitudes, and a safe haven for members of white supremacist groups

Despite the rising threat of domestic terrorism, especially from white nationalist groups, law enforcement has had little impact on stymieing the growth of these groups. As recently as 2020, the Department of Homeland Security declared white supremacy as the most persistent and lethal threat to the United States. In the wake of the Capitol attack, the new attorney general, Merrick Garland, has pledged to pursue white supremacists and ensure equal justice under the law. But why did it take an escalation of violence to the Capitol for the United States to address this abnormally large and well-armed elephant in the room?

It seems that part of the problem is law enforcement agencies that are entrusted to carry out equality and justice are often implicated in this wider white nationalist uptick. White nationalists have infiltrated law enforcement to exact their own form of “justice,” and recruit from within the organization. Even though the FBI has been concerned about white supremacy’s impact on local law enforcement for years, there is no national strategy to identify those involved or protect their victims. The Plain View Project showed that at least one in five active-duty officers (along with two in five retired) had publicly posted racially biased or violent content on social media. Additionally, 400 officers were found to be members of neo-confederate, islamophobic, or anti-government militia groups on Facebook. 

The contrasts between the Capitol Police’s response to Black Lives Matter and the Jan. 6 riot are glaring. Many peaceful protesters of police violence were met with an ultra-militarized police force that treated them with excessive force and tear-gas. Genuine insurrectionists, some of which donning ‘Camp Auschwitz’ merchandise, received a red-carpet rollout. Despite the presence of well-armed Capitol Police officers, protestors entered the capitol, smeared feces on the walls, and took selfies, some even with Capitol Police. This disparity between the police response to Black Lives Matter protests and the Capitol Riot is not unprecedented. White nationalists have often avoided prosecution for years despite flagrant hate crimes and violent rhetoric, like the prolific career of white nationalist Glen Miller. 

Law enforcement treats communities of color as the enemy, in the truest sense of the word. Spurred by a ‘warrior’ mindset, police officers treat people of color as potentially armed combatants. White supremacists — who ironically pose a much more real threat of domestic terrorism according to a hearing by the House of Representatives — are treated as a friendly force, fighting for the same cause of the police departments themselves. Law enforcement’s connections to white supremacy have been on the FBI’s radar for a long time, but no adequate steps have been taken to address the issue until now.

The success of the Capitol riot demonstrates the failure of American law enforcement.

We would be naive to be shocked by these events. Rioters planned their attack very publicly on the social platform Parler, and the Capitol was warned of forthcoming violence by intelligence agencies. The government’s attempt to hold responsible parties accountable has been lackluster — putting supporters on the no-fly list, arresting a small portion of participants, and preparing for coming violence. In contrast, the FBI has previously used Etsy and Linkedin to identify a BLM protestor suspected of arson. The Biden administration has promised to pursue the threat of white nationalism, but changing such a wide-reaching, institutional issue will take more than one administration. Despite the large-scale outfitting of law-enforcement agencies to handle these kinds of hostage situations, the Capitol Police could barely hold back the Jan. 6 assembly. If a highly-militarized police force is unable to defend one of the most sacred democratic institutions from insurrectionists, it raises questions of where these resources are actually going. Worse, if the Capitol Police chose not to defend the grounds against this crowd because of their political affiliations, it invalidates any argument that the American Police system is a functional and neutral organization. If we cannot be sure that our law enforcement is free from white supremacist actors, how can we be assured that the whole institution of policing is not compromised?

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