A day after riotous supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol, shattering windows and forcing their way inside the building, local Black and Latino leaders and activists drew a stark contrast between the police response to the mostly White mob in Washington and the many Black Lives Matter protests led by people of color over the summer.
Scenes from the Capitol Wednesday, Jan. 6, bore little resemblance to events that unfolded in San Bernardino in late May, said Rakayla Simpson, who on Thursday recalled joining a protest in her city days after George Floyd, a Black man, died as a White police officer in Minneapolis kept a knee pressed to his neck for more than eight minutes.
Hundreds of protests sprouted up across the country over the summer, some turned violent, including in Portland where more than 100 days of protests led to the involvement of the Department of Homeland Security and the death of one protester.
Simpson and others who were part of what began as a peaceful march in San Bernardino, she said, were met with an “overwhelming police presence.”
The protest gave way to looting and vandalism as night fell, a scene that was repeated at protests in cities across the nation well into the summer. Officers in San Bernardino at the May 31 march, however, were equipped with riot gear long before there was any violence, said Simpson, public policy and advocacy lead for BLU Educational Foundation, a local organization that provides services for area youth.
“But here was a White mob running free on the Senate floor taking pictures on their cell phones,”Simpson said of Wednesday’s rioters.
At protests against police brutality across the nation, she said, “we fought for our right to live, to stop being killed by police. We were teargassed and shot at with rubber bullets. But here was a bunch of White people who were angry about the election result, and the police were opening gates and letting them in. This was White privilege on full display.”
‘Not a surprise’
The unequal treatment by police was “disheartening, but not a surprise,” said Alesia Robinson, a Costa Mesa-based activist who participated in several Black Lives Matter protests over the summer.
“In a sense, it’s a good thing this was on national television,” she said. “People who may have been in denial about how people of color are treated differently got to see first hand that racial inequalities still exist in America. Police officers who came out in full riot gear to BLM protests looked like mall cops in the nation’s capital.”
As a result of the chaos in Washington Wednesday, officials said, five people died, including a woman who was shot by police, an officer who had been injured and three others with medical emergencies. On Thursday, the chief of police for the Capitol Police Department resigned, under pressure from lawmakers, after details about the response began to emerge.
For local activists, the actions by the Capitol police continue to raise concerns about the treatment of mainly White Trump supporters allowed to roam the building for hours, while Black Lives Matter protesters who demonstrated over police brutality faced more robust and aggressive policing.
It is offensive that some would compare the cause of civil rights to a group of Trump supporters “who acted like young children throwing a tantrum because they didn’t get what they wanted,” Robinson said.
“It is a slap in the face when you see the two equated.”
Privilege on display
It also wasn’t a good look for police to be seen retreating from rioters as they violently disrupted lawmakers who were counting electoral votes to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the November election, said Fernando Romero Orozco, executive director of the Pomona Economic Opportunity Center, a nonprofit that focuses on immigrant and workers’ rights.
“What happened was an act of treason against our nation’s democracy,” Orozco said. “It was orchestrated by a fascist mob and incited by a president who has made the lives of immigrants and people of color very difficult over the last several years.”
When he marched for Black Lives Matter in Pomona in June, he said, the police presence was formidable.
“We were met with more firepower for a march with a couple of hundred people that was peaceful, in a small town,” he said. “For communities of color, (the rioters’) White privilege was very evident.”
For immigrant communities already skeptical of police and the government, the scenes from the Capitol only reinforce those feelings of distrust, Orozco said.
“This is not a good indication of future action or protection from police for people of color,” he said.
Safety for all
Wednesday’s desecration of the hallowed grounds of democracy on the day a new president was being certified by legislators bears testament to a fear of a multi-racial, multi-gender, multi-religious democracy, said Jay Jordan, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice in Los Angeles.
“It seems to me that these people felt people of color and what Joe Biden represents is tearing down their God-given right to be free and white in America,” he said.
Black people and other people of color who watched the riot on television are left with questions about their own safety, Jordan said.
“As a Black man, I don’t feel safe around the police,” he said. “You think police are there to protect you and then you see them sitting on a Black man’s neck, smiling. Yesterday was a stark example of how one group in America — White people — will always be safe, no matter what. The closer to white you are, the better you’re treated.”
Issue of trust
The Rev. Mark Whitlock, a longtime Orange County pastor who now leads one of the nation’s largest Black congregations at the Reid Temple in Maryland, said he marched down Black Lives Matter Plaza last summer when National Guard members were deployed to protect the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial.
“At the time, I understood that this was all needed to protect the nation’s capital, the most powerful place in the world,” he said. “I accepted it as normal. But on TV (on Wednesday), I saw police running away” from the rioters.
At the BLM march in August, pastors, students and activists were dressed in suits, Whitlock said.
“These people looked like they were going to a football game with painted faces and costumes,” he said of Wednesday’s mob. “Where was the police? The protection? You saw White police officers letting these people into the Capitol — my Capitol — without any resistance.”
Some like Kim Isaacs, a Redondo Beach resident and activist, wonder if Capitol police were deliberately unprepared and showed with their behavior they could react in a calm manner — just not around people of color.
She fears more violence from Trump supporters heading into Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20.
“I think there’s going to be more, and I don’t trust the police to not be on their side,” said Isaacs. “For me, who do I trust? How do I trust that the police are going to be available and willing to protect me? Because they were not willing and available yesterday. They allowed what happened to happen.”
A wake-up call
Shandell Maxwell of Riverside said Wednesday’s events illustrated the duality in American culture.
“Black people are seen as a threat that must be contained,” she said. “White people are viewed as patriots. That reflects our history. We’re seeing our history being played out in modern times.”
Maxwell, who also manages the legacy of the Tougaloo Nine, a group of African American students at Tougaloo College who participated in civil disobedience by staging sit-ins of segregated public institutions in Mississippi in 1961, sees her country at a crossroads.
“I hope it’s going to lead us to that next level of consciousness,” she said. “If we don’t grasp what the character of our country is and change it, we’re missing a grand opportunity to focus our nation on the evolution that is needed. We need to move toward inclusiveness and the true acceptance of each other, our talents and gifts.”
What happened also laid bare America’s weaknesses, Maxwell said.
“But now we have to show what our power is,” she said. “It’s our unity, inclusiveness and diversity. That’s where our real power is.”
Staff writer Tyler Shaun Evains contributed to this report.
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