Lawmakers call to investigate cops who let "ragamuffin, half-armed protesters" invade Capitol

Capitol Police chief, House sergeant-at-arms forced to resign amid suggestions security was unprepared — or worse

By Roger Sollenberger
January 8, 2021 1:30AM (UTC)
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Trump supporters face off with police and security forces in front of the US Capitol in Washington DC on January 6, 2021. - Donald Trump's supporters stormed a session of Congress held today, January 6, to certify Joe Biden's election win, triggering unprecedented chaos and violence at the heart of American democracy and accusations the president was attempting a coup. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

As a mob of Trump supporters wrangled with federal police at the steps of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, one of them shattered a first-floor window with a plastic riot shield and hopped inside — the first breach of the building since the War of 1812.

Despite weeks of overt threats on social media, and the increasingly violent rhetoric accompanying President Trump's months-long crusade to overturn the election results, authorities failed to stop the mob unleashed on Congress by the outgoing commander in chief, a security collapse that stunned law enforcement officials across the country and reignited outrage about the double standard of brutal crackdowns this summer.

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"I truly had to suspend my disbelief because I didn't think you could breach the Capitol," Terry Gainer, former chief of the U.S. Capitol Police, the federal force specially designated to protect Congress, told NPR. "I have great confidence in the men and women who protect Congress, but there will need to be a full accounting. We're going to have to have a deep dive into what went wrong."

"It looked like the Keystone Cops out there," one law enforcement official told Reuters on condition of anonymity. "It should have never happened. We all knew in advance that these people were coming, and the first order of policing is presence."

The first moments of the collapse were captured on video, when a charge of what appeared to be largely unarmed Trump supporters, some throwing unprovoked punches, almost immediately broke through the thin ranks of the Capitol Police at perimeter barricades, eventually amassing outside the building in a throng of thousands. Rioters first entered through the window breach and then the doors, and as they advanced on security personnel inside, one woman was shot and killed.

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Once in the building, the self-styled revolutionaries, whose futile quest to overturn Trump's election loss was in part fueled by Republican members of Congress, eventually took the Senate floor, where one of them mounted the dais and declared Trump the winner of the 2020 election. Some attackers carried Confederate battle flags, and some removed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's podium and stormed her office, and somehow located and ransacked the office of the Senate parliamentarian, an obscure space tucked deep inside the building where Electoral College ballots are typically stored — though the ballots had been removed for ratification earlier that day.

Activists and prominent politicians were quick to point to a double standard: Police who were quick to crack down on Black Lives Matter demonstrations last summer were highly deferential to the overwhelmingly white crowd of Trump supporters — a deference that at times flirted with complicity.

One senior Senate aide, asked how the invaders would have known how to locate the parliamentarian's office, told Salon it was a "fascinating question."

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"Honestly, I don't know," the aide said. "They somehow got into every nook and cranny."

Democratic leaders have called for investigations and accountability. Pelosi announced in the afternoon that House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving would resign, and after criticism from both Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Capitol Police chief Steven Sund announced his resignation on Thursday evening.

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"A mob should never have been allowed to puncture the security of the U.S. Capitol," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., told Salon. "Many officers performed admirably under terrible circumstances yesterday, but it's clear preparation for such a foreseeable situation fell woefully short. Senator Schumer's decision to bring on new leadership to oversee Capitol security is absolutely right."

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who sits on the appropriations subcommittee charged with funding the federal force, called on Thursday for Sund's firing, along with a broader reckoning of the entire security apparatus around Congress, including military support.

"The primary liability lies with the perpetrators, Donald Trump and his enablers in Congress," Murphy said. But we do need to ask questions about how that breach occurred, what changes we need to make to ensure it doesn't happen again, and why it took so long for the U.S. military to come to the aid" of Capitol security forces. It took less than an hour, Murphy observed, for "ragamuffin, half-armed protesters to enter the building and pose a grave threat to democracy.

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"Again, if you can't deploy thousands of troops to the U.S. Capitol when the vice president is there, the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate," he said, "I'm not sure what the purpose of the investment we make every year in the Department of Defense is."

Pentagon officials indicated to the Washington Post that the muted military response was in part the result of lessons learned from Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year, when, in an inverse of Wednesday's riots, troops and federal police violently cleared peaceful protesters from D.C. streets in a show of force that drew a firestorm of criticism.

At the time, Trump deployed federal personnel to drive protesters out of a square near the White House, scattering them with riot shields and tear gas so he could have his picture taken holding a Bible in front of a vandalized church. That behavior was turned upside down on Wednesday, when Trump spurred supporters to "fight" government officials who maintained that Joe Biden won the election, then retired to the White House as federal forces collapsed in the face of the assault.

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MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a former GOP congressman from Florida, expressed deep outrage at the double standard, saying that if the rioters had been Black "they'd have been shot in the face," and if they had been Muslims they would have been "sniped from the rooftops."

"Yesterday we see them patting terrorists on the back? Opening the door for terrorists who inscribed on the door, 'Murder the media'?" Scarborough asked, referencing a viral video of failed insurrectionists filing out of the building while a security officer held open one side of the Capitol's double doors, with "Murder the media" written on the other.

"How many members of these Capitol Hill cops are members of Donald Trump's cult?" he demanded. "You opened the doors for them and let them breach the people's house. What is wrong with you?"

Murphy told reporters he was certain that "there wouldn't have been 14 arrests" if the rioters had been Black.

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"There's no doubt in my mind that protesters would have been treated differently," he said. "Those folks walking into the Capitol yesterday, they felt like they were acting without repercussions. Some were taking selfies with police officers." He came just shy of suggesting willful complicity, saying officials needed a "dive deep into the tick-tock of what happened," and "why perhaps there weren't more confrontations."

According to Politico, one current Metro D.C. police officer alleged in a public Facebook post that "off-duty police officers and members of the military, who were among the rioters, flashed their badges and ID cards as they attempted to overrun the building." The officer's post continued: "If these people can storm the Capitol building with no regard to punishment, you have to wonder how much they abuse their powers when they put on their uniforms." 

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters on Thursday he had spoken to "senior officials at the FBI" before the pro-Trump riot began, "and had been reassured that the situation was under control." Warner then noted, "They were flat wrong. Yesterday was an embarrassment to their response."

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, whose forces targeted protesters in the June BLM demonstrations and later seized protesters off the street in Portland, Oregon, with unmarked vans, called on Trump to denounce the riots, saying the violence was "tragic and sickening."

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"These violent actions are unconscionable, and I implore the President and all elected officials to strongly condemn the violence that took place yesterday," Wolf said in a statement provided to Salon, adding: "Every American is guaranteed the right to peacefully protest, but once those protests become violent, we should enforce our laws and bring those responsible to justice — regardless of political motivations. After a challenging and saddening 2020, it's time for every American to respect each other and the rule of law in 2021."

Trump announced on Thursday that he would not move to make Wolf's acting position permanent.

The Black Lives Matter Global Network described the riots as a "coup," and Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., said that if this uprising had involved BLM protesters, "tanks would have been in the city."

"The response tells the story of our nation's racist history and present," she tweeted. "How can we stop it from being the future?"

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Amid protests against the GOP's attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act in July, 2017, Capitol Police arrested the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the Atlanta pastor who on Tuesday — the night before the Capitol attack — defeated Georgia's Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler in one of two runoffs that handed the Senate to Democrats. He was handcuffed after he entered the rotunda to pray.

The Capitol Police did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Republican lawmakers did not respond to requests for comment.


Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger is a staff writer at Salon. Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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