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The Depressing Whiplash of the Senate’s Capitol Riot Hearing

Republican senators culpable in the violence looked elsewhere, as did the police, for explanations of what went wrong on January 6.

Senator Josh Hawley speaks at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs & Senate Rules and Administration joint hearing on Capitol Hill

Law enforcement ably played the role of both problem and solution at Tuesday’s Senate oversight hearing on the January 6 riot at the Capitol. “Was this an intelligence breakdown,” asked Senator Jacky Rosen from Nevada, “or a resource issue?” A litany of failures had already been offered: an FBI report that wasn’t flagged well enough, according to acting chief of the Metropolitan Police Department Robert Contee, or a lack of appropriate training, said former chief of Capitol Police Steven Sund, when faced with rioters who “came prepared for war.” As Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said more than once throughout the hearing, the consensus was that the day was tragic but, without the actions of law enforcement, could have been much worse. Senator Josh Hawley from Missouri was among many who thanked police, who had defended the Capitol from, as he put it, “criminal rioters, these violent criminals.” Hawley was memorably photographed that day raising a fist in support of the attempted insurrection.

Such was the circular whiplash of the hearing, one of the first to investigate the violence meant to halt the certification of the 2020 presidential election. While several senators were clear about the political dimensions of that attack, that it was fueled by anti-government groups, militias, QAnon—which Rosen accurately labeled as antisemitic—and white supremacists, and that evidence of this growing convergence was there online in the weeks leading up to January 6, they hewed to the narrative of the riot as something unprecedented, out of character with the American story.

The truth is, the question of police resources (which seems to answer itself) has no real bearing on what motivates this kind of attack: lies of a stolen election, repeated from on high, and which continue inside Congress. Senator Ron Johnson from Wisconsin used the overwhelming majority of his time to read from a blog post published at The Federalist, floating the idea that the riot was actually stirred up by “agents provocateurs,” fake Trump supporters, and the police themselves. (“All of a sudden, pro-police people felt the police were attacking them, and they didn’t know why. Instead of running away, the people stood their ground.”) Hawley, meanwhile, asked law enforcement witnesses if they agreed with those who said they were “complicit” in the riots—a neat way of both blaming people for suggesting police complicity and dodging his own in having pushed election fraud lies. It was a mess. And it all served to shove the blame for the riots far outside the halls of Congress.

But police were in a position to prepare. It is worth revisiting how much of the pregame was all out in the open. First, there was the president, who in December publicly called for his defenders to come to Washington on January 6, promising it would be “wild,” and then charged them with marching to Congress to defend their country from the results of a lawful election, “because you’ll never take back our country with weakness.” Also in December, an online flyer appeared, advertising “Operation Occupy the Capitol.” It wasn’t only moving through far-right spaces; several Republican organizations shared it, too. This would mobilize the groups that coalesced earlier in 2020, at rallies demanding states “reopen” in the face of the pandemic, where armed militia members rubbed shoulders with QAnon followers—rallies that the president had also stamped with approval: “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” And in October, law enforcement arrested a number of men, some affiliated with militias, connected to an alleged plot to abduct Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Despite the signs that Trump had been courting these groups in an effort to overturn an election, by force if needed, police largely approached the January 6 protest like a typical MAGA event.

“Despite meticulous training and contingency plans for a host of scenarios from terrorist attacks to biohazards, the Capitol Police seemed unprepared,” wrote W.J. Hennigan and Vera Bergengruen at Time, “when the threat arrived in the form of mostly white men carrying American flags.” Were the police unprepared in the sense that they testified Tuesday, lacking a plan? What we’ve learned in recent weeks is that they were prepared—for a group of Trump supporters with the welcome invitation of the president. They prepared to treat them as relatively nonthreatening, as “American Patriots,” in the language of Ivanka Trump. Police can blame that on faulty intelligence, but we’ve seen the same patterns emerge in other protests. Police have wide discretion to act, which, historically, has meant they hold back in the face of white supremacist violence.

Police may be able to secure a building—though in this case, they clearly did not—but they cannot protect us from far-right and white supremacist violence. It’s not that every officer looked at the rioters and saw brothers in arms—far from it for the officers who were severely injured, and those who lost their lives. Yet police unions have sided with Trump and his racist appeals to “law and order.” In investigating what got us here, that alliance is key, and to not directly address it is a kind of dangerous, willful forgetting. The hearing was on a five-minute recess when news broke of the arrest of a retired NYPD officer, according to NBC New York, charged with attacking Capitol Police with a pipe. He was once responsible for protecting New York’s City Hall and the mayor’s residence. He surrendered to the FBI on Monday. While some protesters battled cops, a number of former and current members of law enforcement took part in the attack on the Capitol: Two Virginia officers and five Seattle officers were identified by late January, and all told, the Associated Press identified “at least 31 officers in 12 states [who] are being scrutinized by their supervisors for their behavior in the District of Columbia or face criminal charges for participating in the riot.” As of last week, at least 35 U.S. Capitol Police officers are being investigated over the role they played on January 6, and six have been suspended with pay.

Even when individual officers participate in this violence, it might not necessarily feel all that distinct from what they do every day. “Warrior” policing, in which police are trained to regard the community they serve in as a kind of insurgent force, overlaps with protest policing. Anyone who followed the demonstrations of 2020 would rightly find it absurd that police could be outnumbered or outmaneuvered by a protest gone off the rails. Still, one doesn’t even need to accept that police routinely respond to protests with excessive force to look honestly at the various failures that define January 6 and the official response to it. They are failures built into the design of policing.

The outcome of these hearings, should they continue in this vein, will not reckon with this history or its failures. Police will likely get more gear, more training. Calls for heightened security and greater surveillance capabilities will further empower them, perhaps with expanded anti-terrorism laws. Given law enforcement’s track record when it has been handed broader power in the wake of a horrifying terror attack, those tools may be turned back on the people of this country. The heightened environment of suspicion and “terror threats,” meanwhile, reinforces itself.

Congress can investigate details like the precise timeline of who called in National Guard support when, as it did Tuesday, for years if it wants. And perhaps it should: It is outrageous how little we have heard from law enforcement about what happened on January 6. But we cannot look to police as the answer to violence born of conspiracy theories, to white resentment. As the most recent former president correctly identified, they can be trusted to share them, too.