Throughout the world, people have reflected on the events of January 6, 2021 in the U.S. Capitol. Whether we call this a march, riot, insurrection, mob, or failed coup, we all watched in stunning disbelief as an important component of U.S. democracy teetered on the edge of destruction. We also watched as U.S. Capitol police appeared to let rioters through barricades, begged protesters to disperse with words (not weaponry), and took selfies with members of the mob who forced their way into the Capitol Building and sullied historically sacred spaces.
As scholars of protest policing, we ask people to engage in the following thought experiment: if the crowd were composed of Black people, would it have been policed differently? Our research shows that historically, Black protesters are treated very differently, even when behaving in the same manner as white protesters. We recently noted that this trend seemed also to be the case during the BLM protests of 2020. It is clear to us and many others (including President Elect Joe Biden) that if the chaotic mob at the Capitol on January 6 were composed of Black people behaving in the same way, the police would not have tolerated it. The outcome quite likely would have been a massacre.
As scholars of protest policing, we recognize that this thought experiment is one that Black protesters engage in every time they protest. This is because they have learned what we show in our research: Black protest is perceived as being especially threatening to authorities. And, we believe that we need a system that protects the rights of all who engage in lawfully respectful democratic activity — not just white nationalist ones.
How do we get there? In order to address the problem of differential policing of protest, we suggest starting with three core issues.
First, and perhaps most fundamental, we must recognize that what we saw on January 6 is a manifestation of white privilege. The behavior exhibited by members of the mob reveals not ignorance but empowerment and entitlement that Black protesters would never claim. Many of the people who rioted in the Capitol on January 6 felt they had the right to do so, despite not having a permit. “This is our house,” claimed one insurrectionist, as others scaled walls, broke windows, and threatened elected officials and those paid to protect them. There is no clearer manifestation of differential policing, discrimination, systemic racism, and white privilege than this uncomfortable and profound observation. The sooner we, as a nation, come to terms with the effects of systemic racism, the sooner we will be able to heal. For those looking for a starting place, we suggest starting here.
Second, we need more transparency into the law enforcement apparatus. For example, it was not clear who was responsible for doing what at the Capitol on January 6. There are approximately 27 law enforcement agencies with overlapping jurisdiction in Washington, D.C., but which of these had jurisdiction? What kind of training does each of these law enforcement agencies receive, and specifically do they receive training on how to handle coup-attempts? Anti-bias training? When Capitol police were overwhelmed, who should and who could have stepped in? Should Capitol police be empowered to turn away support (for example, from the Maryland National Guard)? While the events of January 6 shine a light on an extreme example, similar issues about a lack of transparency in protest policing exist throughout the country. These issues need to be addressed, as they were following the violent protests of the 1960s in the Kerner Commission Report.
Third, there needs to be a national conversation about the appropriate level of law enforcement response to civilian activities that threaten political individuals, institutions and/or practices. One of us has done some research on this topic, but this is a question that should be placed before every American citizen, including members of law enforcement and politicians. With this information, we could then have an actual conversation about what we believe is appropriate, and with this information, we could effectively devise a way forward to a more equitable treatment of all protesters, not just white nationalist ones.
It is clear that we, as a nation, have our work cut out. But the events of January 6 should galvanize all of us to continue the work that many of us started in the summer of 2020. That is, we should all return to our work of understanding systemic racism in our country, learning more about law enforcement, and discussing how democracy should operate. While the events of January 6 are shocking and disturbing, we should consider them a call to action to return to the work that we started in summer 2020.