WASHINGTON – When Chanelle Helm helped organized protests after the March 13 killing of Breonna Taylor, Louisville police responded with batons, flashbang grenades and tear gas. The 40-year-old Black Lives Matter activist still bears scars from rubber bullets fired at close range.
So Helm was startled and frustrated Wednesday to see a White, pro-Trump mob storm the U.S. Capitol – breaking down barricades, smashing windows and striking police officers – without obvious consequence.
“Our activists are still to this day met with hyper-police violence,” Helm said. “And today you see this full-on riot – literally a coup – with people toting guns, which the police knew was coming and they just let it happen. I don’t understand where the ‘law and order’ is. This is what white supremacy looks like.”
Helm and other activists across the country who spent much of 2020 facing off with law enforcement officers while protesting police brutality and racial inequality watched with a mixture of outrage and validation as the president’s supporters stormed the Capitol building during sessions of the House and Senate.
For veteran social justice demonstrators, the images of men and women wearing red Trump 2020 hats and clutching American and Confederate flags walking through the Capitol building largely unmolested came as shocking yet predictable evidence of their long-held suspicions that conservative, White protesters intent on violence would not be met with any of the strongarm tactics as anti-police brutality demonstrators.
Lezley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown, who died at age 18 in a 2014 police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., which launched the Black Lives Matter movement, said in an interview that the lack of a police response was stunning. “There was no shooting, no rubber bullets, no tear gas,” she said. “It was nothing like what we have seen. Nothing like what we have seen.”
Gregory McKelvey, 27, of Portland, Ore., said he was among dozens of people who were tear-gassed and beaten by federal officers as they stood this summer in a park close to a federal courthouse in his hometown as they protested the choking death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“We never once tried to get into the federal building,” McKelvey said. “We faced off with people who looked like troops. They were dressed for war. They were in armored vehicles. And today I’m watching bike cops riding up.”
The image of Confederate flags being raised over the rooftops of government buildings and atop scaffolding in Washington deadened some of the jubilation among Democratic voters in Georgia who saw the election of Georgia’s first black senator Tuesday, with Rev. Raphael Warnock’s victory over Kelly Loeffler, R. Democrat Jon Ossoff also won Georgia’s second Senate seat, beating out incumbent David Perdue, R, and completing a Democratic flip of the chamber.
Danny T. Stone, a 62-year-old retired Army colonel and Atlanta resident, said he woke up Wednesday having his faith restored in the system and feeling grateful to God. Then he watched television scenes of a nearly all-White mob storming the Capitol. For Stone, it was a reminder of the deeply rooted White grievance that helped elect Trump once and awarded him the second-most votes ever four years later.
“When I first saw it, I was angry,” Stone said. “White America made a conscious decision. But the saving grace is there was another 81 million people that said ‘No.’ “
While police were working to secure the Capitol on Wednesday evening, Warnock described the riot in a tweet as a “dark moment,” quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“In this moment of unrest, violence and anger,” Warnock wrote, “we must remember the words of Dr. King. ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.’ Let each of us try to be a light to see our country out of this dark moment.”
Civil rights attorneys and activists said they believed if Black protestors had stormed the U.S. Capitol, the consequences would have been immediate and deadly.
DeRay Mckesson, a leading voice of the Black Lives Matter movement and co-founder of Campaign Zero, a police reform effort, said, “Black and brown people have been shot and arrested for far less.”
He pointed to Miriam Carey, a 34-year old unarmed Black dental hygienist from Connecticut who was shot and killed in 2013 when she drove through a barrier near the White House, hitting a Secret Service agent who attempted to wave her away. She then sped toward Capitol Hill, leading police on a high-speed pursuit that came to an end when her car got stuck on the median and police shot and killed her.
“These people broke into the Capitol and were sitting on the House speaker’s desk today,” Mckesson said. “Black people would not have even gotten into the building. They would have started shooting at them the minute they started to rush at the police.”
Civil Rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who represents the families of police killing victims George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake, among others, said in a statement that the contrast in the law enforcement response was an example of “our two systems of justice.” Black Lives Matter protesters who marched in Washington never stormed the Capitol or overtook police, he said.
“If Black people had done what these White domestic terrorists did today, can you imagine the reaction? They would have been tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, arrested, and charged with felonies – or treason,” Crump wrote. “Another tragic display of our two systems of justice.”
A day before the Capitol riot, Kenosha, Wis., braced for potential unrest by boarding up government buildings and blocking off roads ahead of an announcement over whether prosecutors would charge a White officer who shot a Black man, Blake, seven times last summer.
“Even outside the Dinosaur Discovery Museum, different National Guard members were guarding the entrance,” said a Kenosha activist who goes by the name Billy Violet to avoid becoming a target of the far right. Violet, 30, recalled how the streets of D.C. were similarly fortified in August when they attended the March on Washington.
“The idea that the protesters today were able to get all the way up there, climb the walls and storm the Capitol, was unbelievable to me,” Violet said of Wednesday’s riots. “How would this have been different if this had been announced as a BLM protest?”
Black Lives Matter DC said in a statement they urged city officials and business leaders to denounce Trump supporters who made online threats of violence. The group had called on hotels to close their doors during the day of the protest – a step taken by Hotel Harrington, which had become an unofficial gathering place for the Proud Boys.
“Though we remain unsurprised, it should have never have gotten to this point,” the organization said. “Instead of brutalizing Black Lives Matter activists, D.C. officials should have intervened months ago. White supremacists were emboldened and made to feel comfortable, confident and secure to come to our city and reign terror.”
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Belware reported from Chicago. The Washington Post’s Reis Thebault in Atlanta and Brittany Shammas in Washington contributed to this report.