Back to All Commentary

In the Fight Between White Supremacy and Racial Justice, Police Play Favorites

policing double standard

Last week, the country watched as pro-Trump insurrectionists – undeterred and at times even assisted by the Capitol Police – stormed the US Capitol building.

Wielding weapons, the rioters breached and looted the building, attacked press and destroyed their equipment, terrorized lawmakers, and forced a lockdown of the Capitol.  As the events unfolded, there was a conspicuous absence of the heavy-handed police response consistently used to suppress racial justice movements.

Only six months ago, non-violent Black Lives Matter protesters who assembled in Washington DC’s Lafayette Park were met with rubber bullets and violent beatings from police. Two hundred eighty-nine protesters were arrested, more than five times the number of people arrested during Wednesday’s attack on Capitol Hill, where police officers calmly posed for photos with rioters.

The events of last week laid bare the discrepancy between the way law enforcement treats people fighting against white supremacy and those working to uphold it. Of course, this is not just a DC problem.

New Yorkers reacted to the relative light-hand with which police responded to the violence at Capitol Hill in contrast to the brutal consequences Black Lives Matter activists have faced for peaceful protest across the state, including in Rochester, Syracuse, and New York City.

A report published in December by New York City’s Department of Investigation showed what many New Yorkers have known for months: the NYPD repeatedly used excessive force against protesters for Black Lives, violating the rights of marchers.

The report affirms what the NYCLU documented in a recent lawsuit against Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD, as well as on-the-scene accounts from NYCLU staff. The NYPD has beaten, tackled, pepper-sprayed, and shoved to the ground countless protesters while being praised for their “restraint” by the mayor and NYPD leadership.

But just like at the Capitol Building, the NYPD has demonstrated significant restraint, even support, when responding to white supremacist groups.

The events of last week laid bare the discrepancy between the way law enforcement treats people fighting against white supremacy and those working to uphold it.

Three days before the November election, a coalition of pro-Trump and white supremacist groups held a caravan rally. The motorcade blocked traffic on major highways as participants headed into the City, convening at various locations in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the Bronx. Some of the participants even got out of their vehicles to threaten people passing by – all without any reported arrests. 

While counter-protesters awaited the caravan’s arrival in Manhattan, the right-wing group decided to alter their route. Gothamist reported this change of plans came when one of the motorcade members was told by someone at the NYPD that there weren’t enough officers to “fully support” the caravan.

“Police reached out to us and said, ‘Hey, there’s gonna be a lot of Antifa and Black Lives Matter there. We don’t recommend you guys go there because we don’t know if we have enough backup to fully support you,'” participant Christopher Wright told Gothamist. “So what we did was, we changed the spot at the last moment.”

Only a short time later, the NYPD attacked counter-protesters in Chelsea who had gathered in anticipation of the caravan’s arrival. Seemingly unprovoked, officers charged the group from behind and violently arrested several demonstrators, including at least one photographer. They then gave orders for dispersal and arrested those who did not immediately move to the sidewalk.

The department approaches Black Lives Matter protesters like enemy combatants, and it is difficult to see this treatment motivated by anything other than the message of the protestors calling for massive police restructuring and accountability for violence.

However disturbing, the violence we saw last week is not new, and neither is the racially and politically motivated response by law enforcement in the face of racist violence.

“Between May 1st and November 28th, 2020, authorities were more than twice as likely to attempt to break up and disperse a left-wing protest,” according to a 2020 Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project report. And, as Just Security notes, there is “well-documented support by law enforcement officers of alt-right extremist ideology throughout the country.”

Since Wednesday’s events, police departments in a number of states have announced internal investigations after receiving reports of their own officers being involved in the riot. At least one NYPD officer is under investigation for possibly taking part.

While these and other investigations into the details of the attack on the Capitol proceed, the vicious, ongoing crackdown on Black Lives Matter protests continues across the country. It’s crucial to view these events not as isolated incidents, but through the continuum of violence and racism that defines American policing.

Calls by Black and Brown communities to demilitarize, disempower, and divest from policing are calls to end this pervasive violence. The NYCLU stands with these calls to reimagine public safety. And we must also keep our eyes on the police and defend against their discriminatory punishment of people working toward a just future.

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
© 2024 New York
Civil Liberties Union