Washington, Jan 8 (efe-epa).- Two major events have marked the capital city of the United States in the past year: a crowd of peaceful protesters on a public square demanding racial and social justice was dispersed with tear gas last summer, and this week a violent mob — convened by the president — broke into and vandalized the US Capitol to stop the results of the presidential election being certified in what Democrats and Republicans alike have called an “assault on democracy”.
The contrasting police response to the two incidents has again shined a light on the scope of white privilege in the US, only months after an unprecedented wave of protests calling for racial justice swept the country.
Before Wednesday’s raid on the Capitol — which president-elect Joe Biden and others have called “an insurrection” — Washington had not been the focus of such negative attention since June 1, when federal agents cleared Black Lives Matter protesters denouncing police brutality from Lafayette Square outside the White House.
The pepper spray and smoke dispersed the demonstrators — whom Donald Trump called “terrorists” — and allowed the president to cross the square to have his picture taken wielding a bible in front of a church.
More than 300 people were detained that night, the majority for violating a curfew. The next day, hundreds of armed National Guard troops were deployed in front of the Lincoln Memorial to police dozens of peaceful protesters, many of them black.
“TWO SYSTEMS OF JUSTICE”
The contrast between those images and those of this week, when hundreds of Trump supporters — including white supremacist militias whose plans to gather in Washington had been known for weeks — stormed the seat of US democracy has sparked a furious wave of condemnation across the country.
“We have witnessed two systems of justice: one that let extremists storm the US Capitol yesterday, and another that released tear gas on peaceful protestors last summer. It’s simply unacceptable,” vice president-elect Kamala Harris wrote on Twitter on Thursday.
President-elect Joe Biden also criticised the “double standards” shown by the police responses to the two incidents.
“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 from the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol,” Biden said.
“We all know that’s true. And it’s unacceptable.”
The different reactions from security forces was evident not only in the size of the deployments, but in the conduct of many individual officers, who escorted many of the Trump supporters away from the scene of the siege they were laying on the US Capitol without arresting them. There were even some police who posed for selfies and fist-bumped some of the rioters.
“We saw white privilege on display in the US Capitol,” professor Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, told PBS on Thursday.
“Those of us who study the history of racism, and even those of us who study the history of white domestic terrorism, one of the things that we find is, again and again, over and over, those who engage in this form of terror are simply not held accountable.”
WHITE SUPREMACY IN CONGRESS
For millions of African-Americans watching the chaos unfold on Wednesday, their pain and anger was not only due to the knowledge of what would have happened if these rioters had darker skin or were protesting different causes, but also to witness one of the most powerful and enduring symbols of white supremacy — the flag of the Confederacy — being proudly paraded through the halls of the Capitol.
A Trump supporter was pictured roaming the corridors of Congress with an enormous Confederate flag, the banner that represents the side that during the Civil War (1861-1865) fought to keep African Americans enslaved.
“Growing up in Georgia, I saw that flag several times a week in front of homes, restaurants, and stores as a symbol of hate that carried a simple message: You are not welcomed here,” Josh Delaney, a black staffer on the Hill wrote in a column for the Boston Globe.
“But this was the first time I’d seen that message on display at my place of work. I’ve walked the halls of Congress so often that I probably take for granted how my very presence in the building is a miracle — the result of years of hard-fought civil rights victories and justice work. And consequently, a threat to racists and white nationalists who wish to take us back to whenever they perceived America was ‘great.’”