Capitol’s Hill Insurrection is a Teachable Moment

January 28, 2021

By Peter Williams

January 6, 2021 will go down as one of the most disturbing dates in this nation's history. The attack on and destruction of our nation's U.S. Capitol were despicable acts by homegrown terrorists. They also provided a glimpse into the historical contradictions that have been part of this nation's treatment of race.

I worked in the House of Representatives for three years. During that time, I regularly walked from the Longworth House Office Building to Union Station crossing through the U.S. Capitol's grounds. As an African American male, I felt profiled by the U.S. Capitol Police, who repeatedly asked me for my congressional staff identification. I saw the U.S. Capitol as a nearly impenetrable fortress.

The police were omnipresent throughout my years of work, activism, and efforts to demonstrate against racial violence in many cities in this nation. As a graduate student at American University in Washington, DC, I played a leadership role in the student contingent of Randall Robinson's Free South Africa Movement (Trans Africa). As a young community activist in New York City, I played a leadership role in organizing the response to the Howard Beach killings in 1987 and other incidents of racial violence and police brutality in this city. Later in my career, I held executive positions in this nation's two largest civil rights organizations, the National Urban League, and the NAACP. In all these experiences, the presence of the police was sometimes overbearing and intimidating. So, the lack of a law enforcement presence at the U. S. Capitol on January 6 was quite perplexing.

As I watched the violence unfold on my television, I had thoughts of double standards, white privilege, and the racial inequities that have been pervasive throughout our nation's history.

I reflected on the contrast in how police treated protestors in the wake of George Floyd's killing and how police treated Trump supporters, reacting to their candidate losing the 2020 election. It disturbed me. The deferential treatment of Trump supporters provides a textbook example of how our justice system treats white people versus those of African descent. Law enforcement's inaction at the U.S. Capitol offers this nation another opportunity to reexamine how justice is administered.

Less than a year ago, in the same city along the National Mall, we saw how harshly police reacted to demonstrators protesting violence against African Americans -- demonstrating in the aftermath of the Floyd assassination. In one instance, you had the National Guard protecting the Lincoln Memorial. In another, you had police tear-gassing Black protesters outside St. John's Episcopal Church to allow Trump to have a photo opportunity. In both situations, the group of mostly Black protesters was assembled peacefully and exercising their constitutional rights.

Compared to how the police allowed and arguably assisted the white terrorists to deface and take over the U.S. Capitol. This attack was one of the most horrific acts of terrorism enacted by U.S. citizens that I have seen in my life. Commentators have given numerous explanations for law enforcement's acquiescence, but none of the excuses provide plausible explanations. The only common factor that makes sense of law enforcement's actions on January 6th is the protesters' racial makeup.

There are other documented instances of U.S. Capitol Police maltreatment of black people; let us take for example, the case of Miriam Cary, who was fatally shot 26 times from behind by officers when she accidentally struck a barrier while her 13-month child was in the back seat. In a recent New York Times article, a Black officer whose career stretched from the Nixon inauguration to Barack Obama's presidency said the agency had consistently overreacted to Black participants' events. He recalled that when Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader, visited the U.S. Capitol with a handful of associates, all officers were required to stay at their posts. A SWAT team was stationed in the garage. "I thought that was an insult to every Black officer on the force," he said.

Policymakers, the media, and thought leaders must discuss the actions of these homegrown terrorists' seditious acts -- prompted by the rhetoric and behavior of Trump -- and determine how to address this divided nation. At the same time, we must use this opportunity to truly examine the contrast of how law enforcement handles protests led by people of African descent and those led by white protesters or insurrectionists. This examination should lead this nation to have a robust conversation on the differential treatment of people of color in our justice system overall. I hope this disturbing situation at the U.S. Capitol provides for a teachable moment for this nation on racial equity and that this nation learns the lessons of January 6th so that we never go there again.


About the Author:


Peter Williams is a 2021 Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellow. Peter has a distinguished career in nonprofit capacity building and policy and program development in affordable housing, civil rights, and civil justice. He served as the executive vice president for programs at the NAACP, the president and CEO of the Mid-Bronx Desperadoes Community Housing Corporation, vice president of continuing education and community programs for Medgar Evers College, City University of New York, and director of housing and community development for The National Urban League. Peter also served as a legislative assistant for U.S. Congressman Edolphus Towns and as deputy advocate in New York City’s Office of the Public Advocate. He continues to share his policy and program development expertise through consulting work and teaching at Medgar Evers College.


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