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The Capitol Attack Was Enabled by America's Failure to Address Poverty and Racism

The country has the resources, the skills and the techniques to address these interconnected issues, but not the will to see it through.

On August 12, 2017, Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old white woman, was killed when a car deliberately attacked counter-protesters after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. A man from Ohio who had demonstrated that day alongside a white nationalist group was charged with her murder.

Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump made a sickening comment defending the white supremacists, claiming there were “very fine people on both sides”. Trump’s many comments defending the racists drew praise from David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, who had been one of the protesters in Charlottesville. Sarah Anderson observed:

“When President Donald Trump…[equated] anti-racism protesters with neo-Nazis, it was a big hit with the men who’d taken part in the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. But Trump wasn’t just playing to the kind of racist crowd that marches around carrying Tiki torches and waving swastika flags in the streets. He was also sending a signal to those in the executive suites. Racism has always permeated this country up and down the income scale. And in our era of extreme concentration of economic political power, emboldening just a few men at the top can be tremendously dangerous.”

This ‘tremendous danger’ manifested itself on January 6, 2021, when it was the Republican party’s billionaire supporters who stood behind the carefully planned attack on the Capitol, intended as a coup to prevent Joe Biden’s confirmation as president. On January 16, 2021, Jamelle Bouie of the New York Times noted, “This mob had money.”

This was an understatement – the attack on the Capitol had the biggest money in the country behind it: it had the support of all the billionaires who had been bankrolling Trump’s presidency: the Mercers, Thiel, Loeb, the Koch brothers and the Adelson family, among others.

Brendan O’Connor emphasises, “The Capitol riot wasn’t a fringe ‘uprising’. It was enabled by very deep pockets….That siege was just one battle in a decades-long assault on democracy, funded by billionaire donors and corporate interests.” O’Connor continues:

“While law enforcement officials in Washington ought to be held accountable for their alleged culpability in the deadly violence at the US Capitol earlier this month, and the off-duty cops and members of the military who participated in it ought to be disciplined, the attempted auto-coup cannot solely be understood through the lens of policing and security. At least as much responsibility lies with the billionaire donors and corporate interests – in other words, the capitalists – who made this moment possible.”

Law enforcement collusion with white supremacists is a very old problem in the US that has grown enormously under Trump’s presidency. But the ‘failure’ of policing at the Capitol was a deliberate lack of police officers. Due to Trump’s scheming and his supporters in high places, the Capitol was left unprotected on that day: even the few National Guardsmen who had been deputed to help were assigned to traffic duties and were not near the Capitol.

US President Donald Trump gives an address, a day after his supporters stormed the US Capitol in Washington. Photo: Donald J. Trump/Twitter via REUTERS

Cedric L. Alexander, writing for CNN on January 17, 2021, noted that the Capitol riot was a stunning reminder of America’s ongoing, long-standing policing crisis. On the one hand (he writes), there was the problem of likely collusion between some white racist police officers and the white supremacist rioters of January 6, many of whom believed they had been ‘invited’ by the president to the Capitol to stop Congress from the constitutionally mandated counting of electoral ballots, in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election.

On the other hand, there certainly was collusion at higher levels, led by Trump himself, that left the Capitol police overwhelmed by the onslaught they faced: one Capitol officer died from his injuries. But it was their colleagues in the DC metropolitan police, a sister agency, who suffered far worse: they were maced, Tasered, stripped of their badges and ammunition and beaten by the angry crowd. These officers confirmed that the mob, with its Confederate flags, had expected to meet no resistance and repeatedly told these officers that they were ‘on their side’.

Also Read: The Past, Present and Future of India’s Capitol Hill Moment

Steven Sund, the head of the Capitol police, resigned after the attack. But speaking later to journalists, he said that “there was reluctance by senior officials involved in security in Congress and at the Pentagon to have the National Guard put on standby.” The House of Representatives’ sergeant-at-arms, Paul Irving, told Sund he was not comfortable with the ‘optics’ of declaring an emergency ahead of the demonstration, while the sergeant-at-arms at the Senate, Michael Stenger, suggested to Sund that he should only informally seek for the National Guard to be put on standby. Sund claimed that his increasingly panicked calls for help were ignored by senior officials until too late, when the mob was already rampaging inside the Capitol.

A supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump smashes a window as they storm the Capitol building in Washington DC, January 6, 2021. Photo: REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

Reports describe many members of the mob meeting little resistance and walking into the Capitol, having ‘pushed past police.’ and confident that the police would not shoot them. Several commentators, including the New York Times, note that, from the point of view of racist white police officers, ‘Whiteness is seen as friendly and unthreatening.’ Even when the mob had stormed the Capitol, Trump initially would not allow the National Guard to be called in – this decision was ultimately taken by acting secretary of defence Christopher Miller without Trump’s support. Because Trump continued to resist sending in the National Guard, it was Pence who took the lead, authorising Miller to do so. Pence had been identified as a ‘traitor’ by some in the mob, for defying Trump’s request to refuse to certify the election results: they were threatening to hang him.

Far from condemning the rioters, Trump was deeply sympathetic to them in the short video he released when he called for them to leave, telling them, “We love you, you’re very special” and repeating his lie that the ‘landslide’ election had been ‘stolen’ from him.

Many commentators noted the massive difference between the police response to the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 and their response to Trump’s mob on January 6, 2021. Quartz noted, “Police treated Black Lives Matter protesters and the violent pro-Trump mob very differently,” and under a photo of a large Confederate flag being carried through Congress, it tersely observed, “Not even during the US Civil War did the Confederate flag breach the US Capitol.”

Julian Borger emphasised the blatant racism behind this difference: “The contrast between the law enforcement reaction to the storming of the Capitol on Wednesday and the suppression of peaceful protests in the summer is not just stark – it is black and white.” He noted that over 5,000 National Guard troops using teargas, batons and horses were used to clear an entirely peaceful, mostly Black crowd near the White House on June 1, 2020. In contrast:

“The mob that stormed the seat of US democracy on Wednesday had openly talked about such a plan, were explicitly intent on overturning a fair election, and some had hinted they might be carrying guns. They were almost all white. Many were openly white supremacists, and yet the thin Capitol police collapsed in their path.”

A demonstrator with Black Lives Matter holds up a sign during a protest in front of the White House in Washington, US, July 8, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Some commentators have been guarded in addressing the racism of white police officers: Alexander only goes so far as saying:

“Never in American history has the legitimacy of police departments across the country been in greater peril. The killings of George Floyd and too many other unarmed, Black Americans, have already created a crisis in policing. This has been exacerbated by Trump, who has politicized his support for the police.”

Jason Wilson is more direct:

“The presence of off-duty officers, firefighters and corrections officers from other agencies around the country in the protest crowd was a reminder of how members of a lawless movement have been able to find a place in their [police] ranks. Since the violent invasion of the Capitol by pro-Trump extremists seeking to overturn the election of Joe Biden, at least two Capitol police officers have been suspended, and at least 12 more are reportedly under investigation for dereliction of duty, or directly aiding the rioters.”

Wilson notes that the friendliness that some of the Capitol police officers showed the mob was unmistakable:

“Some officers were filmed offering apparent assistance or encouragement to the mob – whether by posing for selfies with Confederate flag-waving protesters, or directing protesters around the building while sporting a Maga cap…. Mike German, a former FBI agent, said he saw the failure of police to protect the building as following the pattern whereby ‘militant far-right groups have been given impunity’ throughout the Trump era…. Pointing to similar attacks on state capitols in Virginia, Michigan, Idaho, Georgia and Oregon in 2020, German asked: ‘How many times do they have to storm a capitol before it’s taken seriously?’ In the wake of the riot – and near misses for elected [Congress] officials who the mob had in its sights – former Capitol police officers who have been involved in lawsuits over decades alleging employment discrimination against black officers, have claimed that their sustained and repeated warnings about racism in the [Capitol police] department were ignored.”

German emphasised that it is because senior officials have been turning a blind eye that far-right militantism has spread so rapidly through police ranks under Trump: “‘They’ve been doing it because the police have been letting them do it. They’ve been doing it because the FBI have been letting them do it,’ he said.” America has failed to deal with deeply entrenched racial bias, particularly in law enforcement.

Also Read: The Many Flags That Flew During the US Capitol’s Storming and What They Represent

Speaking with Senator Cory Booker on January 19, Stephen Colbert said, “We were together, I think, in June of 2020. And on that [June 1] night two things had just happened. I believe that in Lafayette Square, near Black Lives Matter Plaza, Trump had sent out Federal law enforcement troops to pepper spray, to gas, to rubber bullet peaceful protestors … so he could have his Bible-holding moment – and I believe that was the same night that Rand Paul prevented the passing of the Anti-Lynching Legislation in the Senate. You were a little upset that night. How do you feel when you see the lack of preparedness by security forces on the day of the president’s rally [of his seditionist mob that thereafter attacked the Capitol] compared to how the Black Lives Matter protestors were treated on that day [June 1, 2020]… and on many days in many cities?”

Cory Booker replied:

“It’s the hurtful hypocrisy that many in this country know very well – the different treatment that is given to different groups of our nation…. We have two different justice systems – we have two different levels of treatment and so, yeah, it hurts and it frankly enrages me, and what makes me more worried is not simply that this exists, but that so many people are comfortable with this! It doesn’t disturb them at the core of their being …. And we’re failing in this country – it’s a poverty of empathy, failing to all join together in common cause, to deal with this…persistent dislocation that exists within criminal justice, within law enforcement, within our society.”

Alex Vitale, an expert on race and law enforcement, says:

“Over the last 40 years we have seen a massive expansion of the scope and intensity of policing. Every social problem in poor and non-white communities has been turned over to the police to manage. The schools don’t work; let’s create school policing. Mental health services are decimated; let’s send police. Overdoses are epidemic; let’s criminalize people who share drugs. Young people are caught in a cycle of violence and despair; let’s call them superpredators and put them in prison for life.”

Like so many other supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, he calls for defunding the police – and using these funds to support communities in fundamental ways, so they don’t need policing. He emphasises that it is, above all, in poor and non-white communities that ‘every social problem’ gets turned over to the police, because support services simply don’t exist to address them.

The US, the richest country on earth, has failed to deal with racism and poverty. They are closely connected, mutually constituting each other. Non-white communities are the poorest and most disadvantaged – and because they are the most vulnerable they are discriminated against. Dr Martin Luther King Jr was very aware of the mutual constitution of race and class.

Jamelle Bouie recently discussed Dr King’s final book before his assassination, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?. Bouie says:

“Like much of his written work, it is very interested in tackling questions of political economy and their relationship to racial oppression. King had a keen sense of the ways in which the ‘Negro question’ was a labour question, and he returned to that idea again and again in interviews, essays and books.”

Dr King also said:

“Now there is nothing new about poverty. It’s been with us for years and centuries. What is new at this point though, is that we now have the resources, we now have the skills, we now have the techniques to get rid of poverty. And the question is whether our nation has the will …”

Dr King’s question is still alive in 2021: does America, which has the resources, the skills and the techniques, have the will to address poverty and racism?

Karin Kapadia is an independent researcher.