They breached the U.S. Capitol with fists clenched, scaling walls and breaking through glass to penetrate even the most tightly protected chambers.
The faces of the rioters looked largely the same as they pressed up against windows and screamed into the cold January air.
Overwhelmingly, they were White and they were male.
As spectators around the world watched the scene unfold — with rioters easily making their way past Capitol Police — many recalled the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that took place in D.C. in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, when protesters were subjected to tear gas and pepper bullets on nights that were generally peaceful. They were deterred with towering fences and armed military personnel.
Those protesters were largely Black. Many more of them were women.
Many asked: Why did the White male anger seem to elicit less of a reaction from police?
Capitol Police did eventually deploy the measures used in the Black Lives Matter protests, spraying tear gas inside the Capitol building. President Trump called in the National Guard in the later afternoon. But many argued that these measures came too late.
“It’s pure White male privilege,” said Lisa Wade, a professor of sociology at Tulane University who specializes in gender studies. “White men realistically expect that their anger will be validated and that they won’t lose any sort of prestige or status for it.”
Guardian reporter Sirin Kale pointed to a photo of a White male rioter in a baseball cap in the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Leaning back in her chair, he is smiling, one foot up on her desk.
White men are empowered to behave in this way, Wade says, because they know they won’t face the same consequences as people of color.
“Part of this is the cops and other authority figures who see this behavior as more legitimate when it comes from White men,” Wade said.
The anger on display on the steps of the Capitol on Wednesday was hard to ignore. But many other forms of White rage regularly go “unnoticed,” writes Carol Anderson, a professor of African American studies at Emory University. “White rage carries an aura of respectability and has access to the courts, police, legislatures and governors, who cast its efforts as noble, though they are actually driven by the most ignoble motivations.”
Throughout American history, Wade said, White men have been promised a place at the “top of the hierarchy.” They showed up in such large numbers today, she said, because with the defeat of Trump, “that promise is being broken.” The most fervent rioters, she said, were likely the ones with the most to lose: working-class White men who Trump has made feel powerful.
“The men at the very bottom of the hierarchy are the ones who are most likely to defend it,” she said. “They may be at the bottom of the male hierarchy but at least they’re not women. They may be at the bottom of the White hierarchy but at least they’re not Black.”
Masculinity today is rooted in the dual roles of “provider” and “protector,” said Michael Kimmel, a professor of sociology at Stony Brook University, who studies masculinity and political movement. With many unemployed or underemployed, unable to fulfill the role of “provider” for their families, they have turned to their role as “protector.”
That was on display at the Capitol, he said.
While men were certainly the most visible rioters at the Capitol on Wednesday, it’s important not to let White women off the hook, Wade said, because they are working toward similar ends behind the scenes.
In 2020, Trump won the votes of 61 percent of White men.
He won 55 percent of White women.