Police response to storming of U.S. Capitol should not surprise anyone
Failure to tackle the most violent elements of white supremacy is how it continues to function in society
This column is an opinion by Sandy Hudson, founder of Black Lives Matter – Toronto and co-founder of the Black Legal Action Centre. She is currently based in Los Angeles and serves as the co-director for Black Lives Matter – Grassroots. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
The images of what President-elect Joe Biden is calling an "insurrection" by violent elements of President Donald Trump's support base are horrifying. A mob made up largely of white men forced their way into the United States Capitol building in Washington on Wednesday in an attempt to prevent the certification of the 2020 election, and with it prevent the end of Trump's presidency.
A number were wearing shirts referencing support for Nazism and white supremacy. They were carrying Confederate flags and some had firearms. And they were let into the Capitol building grounds as they explicitly threatened to take down the United States government.
Yes, let. Some of the most glaring images shared from Wednesday show police appearing to remove barricades and allowing the crowd access to the Capitol building steps. There were also images showing police taking selfies with protestors after they breached the Capitol.
In the chaos, one woman was shot and killed, and three others died due to medical emergencies, officials said.
Some political commentators were touting the idea that Capitol police were embarrassingly unprepared, or that there was some sort of failing of the apparatus meant to secure the building.
This analysis fails to recognize how white supremacy as a social phenomenon, much like racism, has a structural impact on the way law enforcement and policy makers in countries like Canada and the United States engage with the public at times of social unrest.
Comparing Wednesday's events to the case of Miriam Carey makes this abundantly clear. In 2013, Carey, a Black woman, drove into a barrier near the Capitol building. Capitol police opened fire and shot at her 18 times. She was struck five times from behind and killed. Her baby was in the back seat and was miraculously unharmed.
Likewise, during the Black Lives Matter uprisings of 2020, police response was markedly different. More than 10,000 people were arrested across the United States. Unprovoked, police attacked protestors and journalists. The National Guard was deployed in multiple cities to repress peaceful protests.
There are countless examples of the heavy repression Black people experience at the hands of police when protesting manifestations of anti-Blackness. I attended a protest in Portland in August, during which police threw tear gas at demonstrators just as we began to gather. There was no chanting, marching or speaking at that point, as the protest had barely begun.
I attended another protest in Los Angeles in October, during which the sheriff's department emptied out two busloads of police in full riot gear to terrorize a relatively small group of demonstrators that included children. We were simply marching to encourage community members to vote.
Police and policy makers make choices about who is dangerous and must be controlled, and who is not. Anti-Black racist logic renders Black people perpetually suspicious and always dangerous, even as we are peacefully demonstrating for the most basic of human dignities — our lives.
White privilege — itself a function of white supremacy — renders whiteness perpetually innocent, even as white supremacists are explicitly declaring and showing themselves to be dangerous.
Canadians shouldn't be sanctimonious. This is the same logic that allowed for the destruction of Sipkne'katik First Nation lobster storage sites on the East Coast – recall that the RCMP was present and did nothing.
This is the same logic that permitted the RCMP to violently raid Wet'suwet'en blockades. That permitted the OPP to raid a 1492 Landback Lane camp, and to arrest peaceful protesters at a Black Lives Matter rally who used pink washable paint to bring attention to statues revering genocidal figures in Canadian history.
This same logic informed police decisions to tolerate white supremacist rallies that were occurring regularly in Toronto and Hamilton prior to the pandemic.
Do not forget that white supremacist rhetoric inspired Alexandre Bissonnette to carry out the mosque massacre in Quebec City, that the Proud Boys were created by a Canadian, that white supremacist Canadians joined the Charlottesville riots, and that several Canadians serve as the darling celebrities of the white supremacist resurgence, such as Lauren Southern, Faith Goldy, and Gavin McInnes.
A failure to tackle the problem of the most violent elements of white supremacy by policy makers is one of the very ways that white supremacy functions structurally in our society.
What happened in the U.S. Capitol building was entirely predictable — allowing racism and white supremacy to foment unabated is dangerous. White supremacist organizing is present in Canada as well, and a failure to address it has already harmed many.
Canadian policy makers must take this threat seriously and intentionally strategize to confront it.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.