After police forced her away from the White House with flash bangs and pepper spray, Allison Lane and dozens of people who were peacefully protesting George Floyd’s killing last summer ran into a stranger’s home to escape the clouds of tear gas.
“I was pepper sprayed for being Black and protesting,” the 34-year-old bartender and podcaster recalled.
Lane’s chaotic night in the nation’s capital last June has since been replicated numerous times from coast to coast. It was a wave of interactions, racial justice activists say, that underscored a form of systemic racism that’s deeply tied to one of the country’s most powerful institutions: police forces.
So when supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol on Wednesday, a mix of outrage and disappointment quickly festered among Black activists, protesters and their allies.
The disparities in police treatment were clear, say activists: Social media videos appeared to show a Capitol Police officer posing for selfies with the pro-Trump mob, as law enforcement agencies struggled to intervene.
“[F]or those who wonder why we need to be reminded that Black Lives Matter at all, yesterday made it painfully clear that certain Americans are, in fact, allowed to denigrate the flag and symbols of our nation,” Former first lady Michelle Obama said in a statement Thursday. “They’ve just got to look the right way.”
The police response to the riots signaled “hypocrisy,” the Black Lives Matter Global Network said. And for Lane, it felt like the “biggest slap in the face” after thousands of people were shot with rubber bullets and arrested in the wake of the police killing of Floyd.
‘There have always been multiple Americas’
The insurrection meant to stop congressional affirmation of President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory led to five deaths. Meanwhile, the police killings of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and other Black people sparked protests that were met by force far superior to that displayed on Wednesday, activists say.
“As we were fighting police brutality, we’re also experiencing police brutality,” said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter.
The racial justice activists that spoke to CNN said it was a feeling of disgust and heartbreak that drove them to the streets last summer. As they marched in Minneapolis, Louisville, Los Angeles and Washington, DC, they say they veered between anger and fear, knowing that the color of their skin had and could still determine the outcome of their lives.
“There is absolutely a different treatment for Black and brown citizens exercising their First Amendment rights as we look at the contrast of a non Black and brown crowd,” said Lynda Williams, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, or NOBLE. “That’s a world of difference and it’s because systemic racism is real, and we have to recognize that.”
Before becoming NOBLE’s president last summer, Williams served as a deputy sheriff in Augusta, Georgia, and as the deputy assistant director at the US Secret Service.
Williams added: “If those protesters (at the US Capitol) were Black and brown there would have been a bloodbath.”
During last summer’s protests, some police officers showed solidarity with protestors by kneeling beside them. Others, however, responded with violence.
Footage from cities like Denver and Philadelphia showed police firing tear gas, rubber bullets, and officers pushing protesters to the ground. In Atlanta, at least six officers faced charges, and at least two officers were fired after being filmed breaking the windows of a vehicle, yanking two protesters out of the car and tasing one of them.
“I think what the events of this week have shown us is that there have always been multiple Americas,” said Alicia Garza, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Global Network. “There’s been an America that we read about in history books – a romantic America that is made of fairy tales. And then there’s America that some of us live in – an America where the rules have been rigged against us for a very long time.”
“It’s an America where the rules around race and gender and class are fundamental, and they shape and impact people’s everyday lives. It’s also an America where we function under a particular sense of amnesia,” Garza said.
Riots displayed white privilege, rights leaders say
Police behavior toward rioters during the Capitol insurrection, and the intentions of the mob itself, were not surprising, according to Garza and Derrick Johnson, president the NAACP.
“This president (Trump) has created the space where people feel more emboldened. He started his administration with Charlottesville, Virginia, and now in the final days, he’s ending his administration inciting this treasonous act by individuals who are domestic terrorists,” Johnson told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Thursday.
The mob of Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol included conspiracy theorists linked to QAnon, members of the far-right extemist group Proud Boys and two other right-wing extremist factions. And at least one insurrectionist carried a Confederate flag.
“This was an example of White supremacy and White privilege at its finest,” said Leslie Redmond, former president of the Minneapolis branch of the NAACP and founder of Don’t Complain, Activate, which encourages people to get involved in social justice.
Law enforcement officials have defended the response to Wednesday’s mob, saying they were outnumbered and unprepared.
But former Washington, DC Police Chief Charles Ramsey and lawmakers have said they are perplexed at the lack of preparedness among law enforcement given that it had been known for weeks that Trump was promoting a rally.
“These right-wing groups that made it very clear that they were going to be there. I mean, everything was in place. I mean, we always monitored the hotel reservations, short-term rental reservations, bus rentals – to kind of get a sense of how many people are going to come to the District. I mean all that is there. How could you be possibly caught off guard? I don’t get it,” Ramsey, a CNN senior law enforcement analyst, told CNN’s John Berman.
Meanwhile, earlier this week in Kenosha, Wisconsin, metal barricades were placed around the city’s courthouse as the National Guard was deployed to assist local law enforcement in anticipation of potential protests. That’s because prosecutors were set to announce whether an officer who shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back would face charges.
Criticism over arrests
Activists also noted the disparity between the thousands of arrests in multiple protests last year and those at the Capitol this week.
Washington DC’s Metropolitan Police Department has made 80 arrests related to unrest this week in the nation’s capital, including 68 arrests Wednesday night, according to a mayor’s spokeswoman. Most of the arrests were made for curfew violations after Mayor Muriel Bowser imposed a 6 p.m. curfew. Other charges included weapons charges and unlawful entry.
Federal prosecutors have charged 15 criminal cases stemming from the unrest, including one man arrested with a semi-automatic rifle and 11 Molotov cocktails “that were ready to go,” acting US Attorney Michael Sherwin said on Thursday. Most of the cases relate to unauthorized entry to the Capitol and the Capitol grounds.
As for what Black protesters should expect, Redmond said people of color will have to “bear the burden” of Wednesday’s events because law enforcement will use it as excuse to deter similar behavior.
“The next time someone tries to go and protest at the Capitol, there’s going to be even more security and it’s going to be even more brutal,” she said.
CNN’s Christina Carrega contributed to this report.