Supporters of President Donald Trump planned for weeks to cause chaos in the nation’s capital on Jan. 6, yet when a Pro-Trump mob broke into the U.S. Capitol — some wielding lead pipes, zip ties, explosives and chemical irritants — law enforcement said they were caught off guard.
“Capitol Police deal with big contentious votes all the time. They deal with crowds and protesters all the time,” said John Sandweg, a former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and former general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security. “This was just a stunning failure.”
Before Congress convened to count and debate Electoral College votes that confirmed President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the November election, Trump supporters flooded social media sites known for far-right conspiracies to make plans to converge on the city.
“Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” Trump tweeted in encouragement on Dec. 19.
Among those who descended on the Capitol were known white supremacist figures. The Department of Homeland Security issued a report last October dubbing white supremacist extremists “the most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland.”
Five people died from Wednesday’s violent insurrection, including a Capitol Police officer. The siege has prompted widespread criticism around the world, the resignations of three top Capitol security staff, including Capitol Police chief Steven Sund, as well as at least 10 Trump administration officials, and demands for investigations. Several Capitol police have been suspended and others are under investigation. On Monday, House Democrats introduced an article of impeachment against Trump for “incitement of insurrection.”
In a statement the day after the attack, Sund defended his force’s plan, which he described as designed “to address anticipated First Amendment activities.”.
“But make no mistake – these mass riots were not First Amendment activities; they were criminal riotous behavior,” he said.
With some confusion about what actually happened, the country has been left to speculate as to why Capitol Police may have eschewed offers for assistance from other law enforcement agencies and the National Guard in the days before the attack. For many, including racial justice activists, the police’s lax preparation is one example in a long history of disproportionate treatment of white and Black demonstrators.
Poor preparation leads to chaos
In the days following the Capitol invasion, officials have made conflicting statements regarding security preparation for the rally and the response to the violence.
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said in a press release Thursday that she had an hour-long phone call with Sund on Dec. 31, during which she raised concerns about possible violence at the Capitol. According to Waters, he assured her the grounds would be secure.
That same day, senior military officials said, they received a request from the District of Columbia to deploy 340 unarmed National Guardsmen on Jan. 6, and restrict them to metro stops and traffic control. In the days that followed, Capitol Police and other federal authorities declined other National Guard help, according to senior military officials.
That clashes with what Sund told the Washington Post on Sunday. In the interview, Sund said he began to realize on Jan. 4 that there was “potential for some violent altercations,” although he still didn’t expect anything like the siege. He said he asked House and Senate security officials for permission to have the D.C. National Guard on call in case Capitol Police needed backup. He said that the House and Senate sergeants at arms were reluctant to make a formal request for assistance, but that he alerted the head of the D.C. National Guard and D.C. Metropolitan Police. Pentagon officials maintain the Capitol Police did not formally request D.C. guard help ahead of the rally.
Malcolm Nance, a former U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officer who runs a nonprofit that monitors far-right extremist online networks, said warnings of possible violence at the Capitol were apparent on social media.
“They were there to take over the Capitol like they had been saying on Instagram and Facebook for weeks,” Nance said. “The people who got inside were some of the largest right wing-internet influencers,” he added, referring to people like a white nationalist known as “Baked Alaska.”
On Tuesday, a Washington Post story cited an FBI report from Jan. 5 that warned that extremists were prepared to commit violence on Jan. 6. The report quotes specific online conversations urging Capitol attendees to “get violent” and get “ready for war,” according to the Post.
With proper planning, Capitol Police could have controlled the growing crowd Wednesday without assistance from the FBI or National Guard, Sandweg said.
One option would have been for the 2,300-person force to coordinate ahead of time with the U.S. Park Police and the Metropolitan Police of D.C., which it does on a regular basis, Sandweg said.
Given the level of animosity surrounding this year’s joint session of Congress, during which Republicans in both chambers objected to the counting of key battleground states where Trump lost to Biden, Nance and Sandweg said the Department of Homeland Security could have designated it as a “national special security event.” That would have allowed the Secret Service to take the lead in coordinating security. Other events that receive national special security treatment can include the State of the Union address, presidential inaugurations, the Super Bowl and the Olympics.
But DHS did not make that designation for the congressional vote count and reporting has cast doubt on whether Capitol security leadership made formal contingency plans with the National Guard or other law enforcement teams leading up to the rally.
The security staff at the Capitol on Wednesday appeared prepared for a typical work day, said Theortis Jones, who worked for Capitol police for 37 years until 2009.
“For me, knowing how operations work, this was nothing of the normal preparation,” Jones said. “When you’re talking about [white supremacists], intel goes out so they know or know what to expect.”
Jones said he would have expected the Capitol Police to develop a security plan with Park Police and D.C. Metropolitan Police before the event. He also would have expected to see officers on horses and law enforcement creating a perimeter barrier.
Even if Capitol Police had been caught off guard by the size and volatility of Wednesday’s crowd, the delays in the arrival of Park Police and the National Guard is curious, said Patrick Gillham, an associate professor of sociology with Western Washington University who researches the policing of protests and social movements.
“Best practices, training, and security protocols would likely have tripped an alarm in the head of whomever was responsible for incident command to try to prevent Ellipse marchers from reaching the Capitol and to call for back-up related to the marchers and what was happening at the Capitol,” Gillham said.
At approximately 2 p.m., in the middle of the breach, Sund requested D.C. National Guard, according to military officials. By 3 p.m., acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller, who has to approve deployment of the D.C. National Guard, approved total mobilization of all 1,100 Guard members. But because Guardsmen are not on a hair trigger standby, and have to drive to the D.C. Armory, receive their equipment, and be briefed on what had become a new mission, the first Guardsmen did not arrive at the Capitol until 4:30 p.m., military officials say.
Separately, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said he tried to send Maryland Guard to the Capitol immediately, but it took the Pentagon hours to authorize the deployment.
Seeing a racial double standard
Beyond the lack of preparation and reinforcements, law enforcement have also faced criticism for their approach to the Capitol mob once the violence began.
Video captured by freelance journalist Marcus DiPaola showed several officers appearing to back away from barricades meant to block off access to the Capitol building. DiPaola told Newsweek that the officers were “completely outnumbered” by the angry crowd.
Another video taken inside the Capitol building showed an officer taking a selfie with a rioter as members of the mob roamed freely through the Capitol halls and into lawmakers’ offices, including that of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
When security forces regained control of the Capitol, the majority of rioters were allowed to leave the building; just 13 initial arrests were made by D.C. police, though the number later increased to more than 60, largely due to city curfew violations. Local police and federal authorities have been rounding up people who participated in the attack in their home states in the days since.
As of Tuesday, more than 170 case files have been opened on people potentially connected to the attack, said D.C.’s Acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin in a press conference. Seventy people have been charged with crimes ranging from trespassing, to mail theft, to felony murder, Sherwin added, and people who took part in the siege could face charges like sedition. In total, he said he expects “hundreds” of criminal cases to be filed in local and federal courts.
Sherwin also addressed the confusion that has veiled what took place. “I think there are a lot of misconceptions about what happened within the Capitol, and it’s going to come into laser focus in the next weeks and days,” Sherwin said.
But many have been quick to point out the differences between the police responses to the mostly white mob that stormed the Capitol and Black organizers who have called for the end of police brutality and over-policing in communities of color. Summer protests following the police killing of George Floyd last May were met with aggressive police action, including mass arrests, surveillance, and the use of rubber bullets, batons and flash-bang grenades.
On June 1, 2020, during the height of last summer’s protests, D.C. Metropolitan police made more than 300 “unrest-related” arrests, according to police data.
“No one can tell me that if it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesters yesterday that they wouldn’t have been treated very, very differently than the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol yesterday,” Biden said in a speech on Thursday.
Ronnette Cox, 35, a New York City-based activist, recalled being pepper-sprayed and pushed on several occasions by law enforcement this summer.
“I still remember the stinging,” she said, noting the frustration she felt seeing police officers escort white rioters out of the Capitol, knowing how they had responded to herself and other Black protesters during largely peaceful gatherings. For Washington, D.C., organizer Constance Paige, 37, the police response to the Capitol mob showed that law enforcement is capable of using restraint, but chose not to when dealing with protests against racial injustice.
A report released by Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project and Princeton University identified 7,750 protests in 2,400 locations last year from May 26 through Aug. 22 that were linked to the Black Lives Matter movement. About 220 of those locations experienced violence, but the incidents were largely confined to specific blocks, the report said.
A ProPublica analysis in July of nearly 400 videos documenting the protests against police brutality found that “in 59 videos, pepper spray and tear gas were used improperly; in a dozen others, officers used batons to strike noncombative demonstrators; and in 87 videos, officers punched, pushed and kicked retreating protesters, including a few instances in which they used an arm or knee to exert pressure on a protester’s neck.”
Gillham said his research indicates law enforcement have more closely monitored Black Lives Matter-related demonstrations and used more aggressive policing tactics than for primarily white protests. The Unite the Right rally that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 was another instance where police took a hands-off approach for an event involving far-right extremists, Gillham said. That event turned violent when white nationalist demonstrators clashed with counterprotesters, and a man intentionally crashed his car into a crowd, killing one woman.
After the day of terror at the Capitol, officials and law enforcement will need to investigate the security failures during the breach and response to the mob’s actions, said Brian Higgins, a former police chief for Bergen County in New Jersey and currently a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“I think we really need to collectively look at all these protests and the police response and see why this one appeared to be different,” Higgins said. “Maybe, maybe it wasn’t. But on the surface, it sure appears to be.”
Lizz Bolaji and Nick Schifrin contributed reporting.