California Leaders Question Why Capitol Police Stepped Aside for Mob

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Extremist Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they violently storm into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images)

Last summer, the nation watched as largely peaceful protests against racism were met in many cities with violent police response — including just outside the White House, where National Guardsmen and federal officers used tear gas and rubber bullets to forcefully clear a path so President Trump could walk to a photo op.

That stood in sharp contrast to the images from Wednesday, showing violent extremists storming into the halls of Congress, overwhelming U.S. Capitol Police who appeared in some videos to simply step aside.

California leaders — including some in law enforcement — expressed dismay and outrage at the seemingly tepid response to the insurrectionists.

Some said it would have been very different if the overwhelmingly white crowd had been largely composed of people of color.

"I was watching this and I was thinking, if that crowd was composed of Black and brown people, we would be shot dead," said Eva Paterson, a San Francisco civil rights lawyer who’s long been involved in police accountability efforts.

"Instead, they're being courteously escorted away," she added. "They're just walking home, taking selfies. I saw one police officer help one of the rioters get down the stairs of the Capitol — I’m going, 'What?' "

Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón, a former San Francisco police chief who has overseen many crowd-control responses, agreed that Wednesday's rioters were treated very differently from the mostly peaceful group of multiracial protesters who flooded the streets of the nation's cities last summer.

"It seems to be a significant disparity of treatment. We have seen very aggressive law enforcement response to members of Black Lives Matter and other groups. And this was like, you have people with guns going into the Capitol," he said. "This was unfortunately a very horrible example of how race matters."

Gascón also called the lack of preparation by police "inexplicable."

"I'm sure there is going to be an investigation," he said. "This was predictable. I mean, the president has been basically asking people to come in and riot, and they did. And for the Capitol Police to be so unprepared is hard for me to understand."

The police, Gascón added, didn't need "special intelligence to know the president was inciting his followers to go in and cause problems."

But 30-year law enforcement veteran Frank Straub, of the National Police Foundation, defended the way the situation was handled. He said Capitol Police officers don’t have expertise dealing with this sort of crowd, and they likely retreated into the building to protect lives inside.

More on the attack on the U.S. Capitol

"Now you have a question of where’s my greater obligation, to protect human life, that being the vice president and the members of Congress, or to protect property? My guess is somebody made the right decision," Straub said.

In a statement Thursday morning, Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund defended his officers, calling their actions "valiant," and noting that the mob attacked them with "metal pipes, discharged chemical irritants and took up other weapons against our officers. They were determined to enter into the Capitol building by causing great damage."

"The violent attack on the U.S. Capitol was unlike any I have ever experienced in my 30 years in law enforcement here in Washington, D.C.," Sund continued.

He said maintaining public safety at demonstrations has always been challenging and that the department has a "robust plan" for anticipated "First Amendment activities."

"But make no mistake – these mass riots were not First Amendment activities; they were criminal riotous behavior," Sund said. "The actions of the USCP officers were heroic given the situation they faced."

At a subsequent news conference Thursday, Sund acknowledged that police were too overwhelmed to arrest most of the perpetrators and asked the public to help identify anyone involved.

East Bay Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell was on the House floor when the mob broke in. While praising the police for keeping members safe, he stressed that lawmakers should never have to flee the nation’s seat of power again.

He said that although criminal prosecution may be out of Congress’ hands, there would definitely be an investigation into how the extremists were able to so easily breach the Capitol.

He also noted that the response paled in comparison to how police handled the mostly peaceful BLM protesters last summer.

"I remember being on a run a couple of months ago, during many of the Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd's death, and just seeing the Capitol as a fortress with, you know, dozens of armed police standing at the steps," Swalwell said. "That was not what happened [Wednesday]. ... It is a wonder why it wasn't more fortified to protect the continuity of government."

Bay Area pastor and civil rights activist Michael McBride went a step further, saying law enforcement seems to have a comfort level with white nationalists that needs to be scrutinized.

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He also called for all those involved in Wednesday’s violence to be prosecuted.

"I think every person who was involved in this needs to be arrested and prosecuted and a punishment of consequence needs to be meted out as a deterrent," McBride said.

KQED's Farida Jhabvala Romero and Alex Emslie contributed to this report.