The contrast was stark.
Last summer, a diverse group of largely peaceful protesters for racial justice were met with tear gas, military tactics, and legions of police in riot gear. But when armed and violent — and mostly white — insurrectionists stormed the Capitol on Wednesday, an anemic law enforcement operation was comparatively gentle, even polite.
Black activists, politicians, and regular citizens shared their outrage at the unequal treatment on social media and beyond, decrying the disparity as they watched white Trump supporters ransack and riot with relative impunity.
“So let me make sure I understand this: Black and taking a knee —unAmerican; White and taking the Capitol = patriotism,” tweeted Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins. “Black and protesting for your life = rioter; White and denying the election results = free speech. Law & order has always been a dog whistle. Change is coming.”
On Thursday, President-elect Joe Biden acknowledged the glaring inconsistency, as well.
“No one can tell me that if it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesting yesterday, they wouldn’t have been treated very, very differently than the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol. We all know that’s true, and it is unacceptable,” he said in public remarks.
As Trump supporters carried out their assault on the Capitol, a photo from the summer went viral, a visual embodiment of the government’s unequal and racist treatment of people of color. The image shows row upon row of camo-clad and helmeted National Guard troops guarding the Lincoln Memorial, placed there in response to a Black Lives Matter protest in June.
No such force was dispatched to guard the Capitol ahead of the rally of Trump supporters that escalated into an insurrection. Washington, D.C., police reported that a mere 52 or so arrests were made. Images of law enforcement officers calmly ushering the pro-Trump mob to leave the building — including one in which an officer holds the hand of a white woman in a Trump hat as she descended the Capitol steps — ricocheted across the Internet.
It was a vivid illustration of the privilege whiteness confers in encounters with police, and precisely what the summer protests sought to expose, and to end.
“Today’s insurrection and coup by hundreds of pro-Trump supporters is one more example of the hypocrisy in our country’s law enforcement response to protest,” the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation said via Twitter.
“When Black people protest for our lives, we are met by National Guard troops or police equipped with assault rifles, tear gas and battle helmets. When white people attempt a coup, they are met by an underwhelming number of law enforcement personnel who act powerless to intervene.”
Today’s insurrection and coup by hundreds of pro-Trump supporters is one more example of the hypocrisy in our country’s law enforcement response to protest.— Black Lives Matter (@Blklivesmatter) January 6, 2021
“What’s Happening at @uscapitol is White Privilege. Black Lives Matter would not only be dead but not allowed in due to barricades,” tweeted Monica Cannon-Grant, a Black anti-violence activist from Roxbury.
What's Happening at @uscapitol is White Privilege. Black Lives Matter would not only be dead but not allowed in due to barricades.— Monica Cannon-Grant 🌈 Accomplice (@ProRockThrower) January 6, 2021
Every time I protest I'm informed that NO STICKS, NO BACK PACKS and what about Social Distancing...#Racism #BlackLivesMatter #DCProtests pic.twitter.com/ewR51JFQj4
“So, are we completely out of rubber bullets and tear gas?” asked comedian Wanda Sykes. While Sykes didn’t elaborate, the comment recalled that police had fired tear gas and rubber bullets at peaceful protesters assembled in Lafayette Square to protest the death of George Floyd. All so Trump could get a photo op.
Nina Turner, a top Bernie Sanders ally who is running to replace Ohio Representative Marcia Fudge in the House, placed Wednesday’s events in a broader history of government officials “invoking ‘law and order’ only to suppress peaceful calls for Black liberation. The military used tear gas to disperse peaceful BLM protesters, yet when a mob of white supremacists storm the Capital, they are merely escorted away. I ask, Law and Order for who?”
NAACP President Derrick Johnson observed that the Trump supporters’ insurrection occurred the day after a Kenosha, Wis., prosecutor declined to bring charges against the white police officer who shot and paralyzed Jacob Blake, who is Black, in August.
“The day after we watched a complete travesty of justice in the shooting case of #JacobBlake, an unarmed man shot IN THE BACK after attempting to break up an incident, we see ARMED TERRORIST storm the Capitol of the USA with little to no recourse! #ThisIsAmerica” he wrote.
Athletes, including several with Boston ties, spoke out about the disparity on social media, as well, and the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat put out a joint statement ahead of their Wednesday night game.
“We play tonight’s game with a heavy heart after yesterday’s decision in Kenosha, and knowing that protestors in our nation’s capital are treated differently by political leaders depending on what side of certain issues they are on,” the teams said. “The drastic difference between the way protestors this past spring and summer were treated and the encouragement given to today’s protestors who acted illegally just shows how much more work we have to do.”
An earlier version of this story misspelled Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins’s first name.