WASHINGTON – Civil rights leaders and Black Lives Matter activists blasted law enforcement agencies for their slow response to rioters at the U.S. Capitol Wednesday, saying they had massive police forces in place for demonstrations last year over police killings of unarmed Black men and women.
“When Black folks are protesting and progressives are protesting peacefully they were tear-gassed, they were arrested, they were shot with rubber bullets. They were shot with real bullets,’” said Derrick Johnson, president of the national NAACP. “We watched it take place all summer long when people were peacefully demonstrating.”
As thousands of people of color and allies took to the streets this summer to peacefully protest police brutality, law enforcement often clashed with demonstrators, deploying tear gas and rubber bullets, bruising faces and bodies, and pushing an elderly man to the ground.
But as thousands of President Donald Trump supporters, mostly white, marched to the Capitol Wednesday and broke into the building, forcing lawmakers and staff to shelter in place, law enforcement were notably absent.
D.C. police chief Robert J. Contee III said the crowd came to Capitol Hill “following the president’s remarks” and was “intent on causing harm to our officers by deploying chemical irritants on police to force entry into the United States Capitol.”
But only a small group of riot police stood outside the back of the Capitol building in the early afternoon, and as demonstrators called for breaching the building, hundreds started swarming into the area, reporters at the scene noted Wednesday.
As protesters began climbing up the side of the building and on the back balcony, police appeared to retreat. After the break-in, police attempted to secure one section outside the building but were quickly overwhelmed, according to reporters at the scene.
One video posted to social media showed several people in D.C. Capitol Police jackets removing barriers outside the Capitol building, allowing demonstrators to pass through to the building. Videos posted to Twitter also showed at least one person who appeared to be an officer taking selfies with people who had breached the Capitol.
By Wednesday afternoon, several videos shared to social media showed officials slowly escorting people out of the building. One officer in riot gear could be seen helping a white woman in a Trump hat down the Capitol steps, holding her hand, according to a CNN livestream.
One person suffered a gunshot wound inside the capitol, and the situation was under investigation, Contee said.
U.S. Capitol Police did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment.
‘A fanciful reality’:Trump claims Black Lives Matter protests are violent, but the majority are peaceful
Johnson questioned why the Capitol police and other local law enforcement agencies weren’t prepared for thousands of Trump protestors, including the Proud Boys. There had been plenty of warnings on social media and talk shows about the potential for riots, he said.
“We should not be witnessing what we are witnessing today in this nation,” he said. “It is a global embarrassment.”
Johnson said tens of thousands of people joined protests at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington without this level of violence. “None of this took place,’” he said.
The majority of Black Lives Matter-affiliated protests over the summer were peaceful, according to a report by the U.S. Crisis Monitor, a joint effort including Princeton University in New Jersey that collects and analyzes real-time data on demonstrations and political violence in the United States.
Kofi Ademola, a local Chicago activist who helped organize civil rights protests throughout the summer, said he was surprised by the police response.
“It’s not any shock that we see this huge contradiction that we can storm a capitol … break into elected officials’ offices, the chamber, and create other chaos trying to perform a fascist coup, and we see little to no consequences,” he said. “But Black protesters here in D.C. and Chicago- we’re heavily policed, brutalized, for literally saying, ‘Don’t kill us.’ There was no planned insurrections. We were literally just advocating for our lives. It speaks volumes about the values of this country. It doesn’t care about our lives.”
CNN commentator Van Jones highlighted the discrepancy in a tweet Wednesday.
“Imagine if #BlackLivesMatter were the ones who were storming the Capitol building,” he wrote. “Thousands of black people laying siege to the seat of government – in the middle of a joint session of Congress? Just imagine the reaction.”
At the Capitol Wednesday, some lawmakers were holed up in their offices and other places. Several would not say where they were for safety reasons. Staffers were cleared out of the press galleries and the Capitol by the afternoon.
By Wednesday afternoon, Army Gen. Mark Milley said the D.C. National Guard had been fully activated.
“We have fully activated the D.C. National Guard to assist federal and local law enforcement as they work to peacefully address the situation,” Miller said in a statement. “We are prepared to provide additional support as necessary and appropriate as requested by local authorities. Our people are sworn to defend the constitution and our democratic form of government and they will act accordingly.”
The decision to ask for the National Guard to intervene comes as protesters breached the Capitol during Wednesday’s counting of electoral votes. Police barricaded the doors of the House chamber and had their guns drawn and there were reports of shots fired inside the building.
“This is a coup attempt,” tweeted Republican U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois.
The chaos that unfolded Wednesday stands in particularly harsh contrast to the law enforcement presence seen when U.S. and military police drove protesters out of Lafayette Square, located between the White House and the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, shortly before a presidential photo op with a Bible at the church on June 1. Officers used smoke canisters, shields, pepper balls and horses to force demonstrators from the park.
U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., was holed up in his Capitol Hill office Wednesday as protestors continued their assault on the Capitol. During a Zoom call with reporters, he said he and his staff were safe and weren’t leaving. Kind said he intended to return to the House chamber to continue the debate over the certification of electoral votes.
“Things are still not in control, unfortunately,” he said.
Kind blamed Trump, who has been reluctant to denounce white nationalists and fraudulently insisted he won the November election, for encouraging the violence Wednesday.
“When he was encouraging the demonstrations, tweeting out that this was going to be quote ‘wild.’ I mean, what would he expect the reaction would be, especially when you’re talking about the Proud Boys, militia groups, white supremacists coming into our nation’s capital today,” Kind said.
Contributing: Will Carless