On Wednesday, the world watched as a group of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol building with the intent of subverting a free and fair election. During the attempted insurrection — which some deemed the largest terrorist attack on the federal government since Sept. 11, 2001 — white supremacists donned Nazi paraphernalia, waved Confederate flags, defecated in the halls, and attacked Capitol Police officers with flagpoles, bear mace and bricks. Five people died as a result of the violence, including a Capitol Police officer.
In the mayhem, rioters easily pushed past Capitol Police. Some officers appear to have taken selfies with the violent mob, while others are believed to have given the rioters directions to specific congressional offices. So far, several Capitol police officers have been suspended, and more than a dozen are under investigation in relation to Wednesday’s events.
Many watching the events unfold drew contrasts between how Capitol Police handled the attempted insurrection and how they responded to other protests the nation’s capital — notably, last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. For some women who have been arrested at the Capitol in previous years — for protesting sexual violence and access to abortion — the handling of Wednesday’s rioters was “an outrage.”
Mallory McMaster, a 34-year-old from Ohio, was one of hundreds of people arrested while protesting the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. Ahead of Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation, a former classmate, Christine Blasey Ford, came forward to allege that he had sexually assaulted her more than three decades before, roiling what was supposed to be a seamless confirmation process.
On Sept. 27, 2018 — the day both Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford publicly testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee — McMaster says she was standing in solidarity with other sexual assault survivors when she was arrested and detained for more than six hours by Capitol Police, a stark contrast to how some police treated the male-dominated Capitol mob, she says.
“We were there to be supportive of a sexual assault survivor on what we knew was the worst day of her life,” McMaster says, referencing Blasey Ford. “We wanted to be with each other in solidarity on what was maybe one of the worst days of our lives. And we were denied that opportunity by the Capitol Police, in our nation’s capital.”
When McMaster was arrested, she was sitting in the middle of an already closed-off road, chanting “Believe women” and singing hymns with about 20 fellow political activists, she says. McMaster says the group was “certainly peaceful — there were women of all ages and ability levels there, so we were just helping one another.”
After about an hour and a half, McMaster says Capitol Police warned the group that if they stayed in the road, they would be arrested. Eventually, the officers zip-tied the protesters and left them in the rain for about three hours while they checked pockets, McMaster alleges.
“Watching what happened on Wednesday, watching the police open the barricades to allow protesters to get through; watching police taking selfies with protesters …” McMaster trails off. “Obviously I know there are a lot of police departments around the country who support Trump, but do your job.”
Capitol Police has not responded to requests for comment. The department, unlike other law enforcement agencies, releases little public information. As The Washington Post reports, the force of about 1,200 officers patrols a very small area — but has a large budget and has faced accountability questions before.
For some women, the contrasts on display Wednesday were examples of systemic racism and sexism. On the day the Capitol was under siege, 61 “unrest related” arrests were made. Meanwhile, at least 302 protesters were arrested for challenging Kavanaugh’s confirmation in a single day in October 2018. Multiples reports have also long shown that police officers often treat sexual assault victims with “undue skepticism,” especially Black victims.
What is clear is Trump’s differing response to past social justice protests and Wednesday’s mob at the Capitol. In June of last year, Trump made numerous derogatory remarks about Black Lives Matter protests, calling those who participated “thugs” while claiming their goal was the “destruction of the nuclear family.” During the Kavanaugh hearings, Trump argued that peaceful protests should be illegal, calling them “embarrassing to the country.”
Alison Turkos, a 32-year-old feminist activist based in New York, has also drawn contrasts between the Capitol riots on Wednesday and her own experiences. “During the Kavanaugh hearings, when we stormed the Capitol steps, the police were there within seconds,” she says. “They were arresting survivors, clergy members and individuals at a rapid pace. During the BLM actions over the summer, you saw D.C. police violently respond to the sheer presence of Black bodies in the streets.”
Turkos continues: “The fact that the Capitol police were taking selfies, carefully helping rioters down the stairs, proves police do know how to avoid brutality.”
Turkos was arrested on Oct. 15 as she protested the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett in the wake of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. (On Oct. 12, the first day of Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings, at least 21 people were arrested.) Turkos says she was protesting the threat she believed the Coney Barrett confirmation posed to abortion access. “I was sitting in the street, linking arms with fellow protesters, blocking traffic in front of the Senate building,” she says. “My privilege as a White, cis person meant Capitol police were kinder to me than other people getting arrested.”
Turkos says she saw a young Black woman in the group being told she was “resisting arrest”; that woman was separated from the rest of the protesters, according to Turkos. Meanwhile, Turkos says, she was processed in a taped-off area on Capitol grounds and released within two hours.
McMaster says she’s glad people are paying attention to the disparities in the way police treated White men during Wednesday’s riots — a conversation that has been taking place on social media and in news outlets in the past week. Still, she says, what was on display Wednesday was “disgusting.”
“It feels awful, knowing that white supremacists and Nazis and whatever the QAnon people call themselves feel entitled in doing what they did — desecrating the nation’s Capitol [building],” McMaster says, “only to go home like nothing happened and with minimal disruption to their lives. I’m just feeling like they got away with something, because they did.”