White Rioters Are Treated Differently than BLM Protesters

The video of a Capitol Police officer taking selfies with MAGA looters has come to symbolize what Michelle Obama recalled as a “painful” part of the Capitol siege:…

The video of a Capitol Police officer taking selfies with MAGA looters has come to symbolize what Michelle Obama recalled as a “painful” part of the Capitol siege: the void of a powerful military-police force’s presence. 

But, the video recalls another irony of that day.

Smith says going into the Capitol as a group with many young Black activists wasn’t even an option; state troopers had created a metal barricade, and protesters were arrested when they went over it. 

The mostly white protesters, who stole government documents and fought police—leading to the death of an officer—while waving the Confederate flag down the halls, were free to roam throughout a city with the highest police rate per capita

Meanwhile, that same day, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis used the momentum of the riot to push his vision for a bill cracking down on Black Lives Matter protests that would also make taking down Confederate statues a felony.

As DeSantis commented on the internationally watched spectacle, he repackaged his proposal for a “Stand Your Ground” Act—a response to BLM protests whose most controversial feature would potentially allow citizens to shoot “rioters and looters”—as an “anti-mob” bill. However, the bill retains its old components, making it a felony to pull down “any memorial” and penalizing any municipality considering to “defund the police.” 

Anti-protest bills have been introduced and passed exponentially since the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, according to PEN America, which has been documenting what they call  “an explosion” of 116 state bills introduced since 2015. Most of these bills were introduced between 2017 and 2019, creating new penalties or harsher sentences for protesters. 

These bills include clean-up costs for protesters, criminalizing protesters who conceal their identity, and bills proposed after a Neo-Nazi drove over and killed a counter-protester at the 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia “Unite The Right” rally, which take away the liability for “unintentionally injuring or even killing a protester obstructing a public road.”

The number of anti-protest bills seen in recent years is so high that international human rights experts have rebuked the trend. In 2017, two United Nations Special Rapporteurs wrote to the State Department to warn that “a number of undemocratic bills have been proposed in state legislatures with the purpose or effect of criminalizing peaceful protests.” The issue has grown since.

With the rise of white nationalism and conservative movements coinciding with the resurgence of BLM protests, which are more likely to draw a heavier police presence, PEN America notes that conservative movements that have been getting more support from these same politicians drafting anti-protest bills “is potent evidence of the political motivations that have shaded these legislative efforts.”

The narrative that today’s protests are an act of criminal disruption, rather than civic participation, threatens the U.S. tradition of Black protest that has been slowly shifting the Overton window of civil rights toward civil progress.


This past August, Black Lives Matter protesters in Nashville, Tennessee, occupied the state’s capitol building for more than sixty days, camping outside to peacefully protest for the removal of a KKK Grand Wizard’s bust that was memorialized inside the halls.

By their first week, they were met with a line of state troopers waiting to arrest them. By their third month, Governor Bill Lee signed a bill into law that made it a class E felony to camp outside of the Capitol.

“We had a big movement. It stopped our movement in its tracks,” says John Smith, the main organizer of the protest, who said the protesters went home in fear of getting a felony on their records. 

Smith says going into the Capitol as a group with many young Black activists wasn’t even an option; state troopers had created a metal barricade, and protesters were arrested when they went over it. 

On July 4, he adds, the metal barricade was moved and protesters were told to stand by a wall. Smith recalls protesters who passed the barricade, even by accident, were grabbed, pulled by the hair, sprayed with mace, and arrested for trespassing immediately.

This double standard has sparked rage and a growing concern that Black Lives Matter protesters are considered more of a threat to the United States than an armed mob at the nation’s capital.

Alex Kent photographed the demonstrations that day, capturing images of state troopers dragging protesters by the hair and toppling them over to make arrests. He was also at the Washington, D.C., Capitol building photographing the January 6 riots. 

Kent said that, as he has documented dozens of Black-led rallies over the summer, he had not experienced such widespread violence as during what he thought was just going to be the “Save America” protest at the U.S. Capitol. 

He said that he saw demonstrators mace and throw metal objects at officers in Washington, D.C., even dragging the officers into the crowd of protesters. On the other hand, it was discovered this summer that Tennessee spent nearly one million dollars in June on overtime pay for Tennessee Highway Patrol at the Tennessee Capitol to monitor the protests organized by Smith.

“There was a sense of privilege and assumed security that was not present at BLM protests,” said Kent.

Niti Sharan, a lawyer based in Nashville heard about the Tennessee Capitol protest and saw “a bunch of young kids and there were no legal observers involved,” so she got a group of attorneys together to represent the protesters and acted as a legal observer and liaison during the event. 

She was “livid” when she saw the police treatment of the pro-Trump protesters in Washington, D.C., compared to the young Black protesters in Nashville. She recalls troopers pushing people off of the eight-foot walls of the Nashville Capitol, and groping women and men.

Sharan says there were upwards of 200 people arrested, for either criminal trespass, disorderly conduct, resisting, camping on state grounds, and even “unequal access to public space”.

Of the almost 20 arrests still proceeding through the courts, most of the defendants are people of color. 

Smith continues to organize protests but has been careful not to incite a police response, which he says is nearly impossible to do. He has been watching the news of armed, mostly white men storming the Capitol, imagining what would have happened if it were BLM protesters doing the same.

“It was like they were buddies. I saw police helping people on the steps, escorting them out peacefully. We were run over. We were sprayed with mace. We literally had to run to get away from these state troopers,” Smith says.


The armed militia did not just enter into the U.S. Capitol that day, but Capitol buildings all across the nation. In Georgia, as the United States Senate was about to flip blue, pro-Trump rioters carrying assault-style weapons gathered outside the state’s Capitol, forcing Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to evacuate. No arrests were made. 

However, two days before, more than twenty people were arrested during a peaceful solidarity protest for Jacob Blake, a Black man who was shot seven times by a Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer who faced no charges.

This double standard has sparked rage and a growing concern that Black Lives Matter protesters are considered more of a threat to the United States than an armed mob at the nation’s capital.

In 2017, Georgia was one of several states, like Florida, that started enforcing old statutes that criminalize wearing a mask at protests, as folks at BLM protests often conceal their identity in fear of retaliation at work or in their community. Georgia’s “Back the Badge” bill would have increased penalties for protesters who blocked any highway, street, sidewalk, or other public passage. 

While the far-right U.S. private militia movement is now in the spotlight, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project identified more than 500 anti-government hate groups active in 2019, with many warning of “impending government violence or the need to prepare for a coming revolution.” As these rightwing movements are growing into the mainstream, penalties as a response to Black protest movements have been ramping up even more. Of the twenty-three that became law, only two have been challenged in court so far.

Sharan says that while she has not seen any new arrests made from the anti-protest law that Lee signed, the U.S. Capitol siege made her realize the hypothetical threat to the freedom of expression for Black people that these laws create. “To fight justice you have to go through a racist system,” said Sharan.

“There were people who broke in with guns while our representatives were in the Congress. You think [Black people] doing that would have been alive? I don’t think so.”

This post was originally published on Radio Free.


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