On January 6, the world watched as white supremacists bearing Nazi and Confederate flags stormed the Capitol building with little resistance from police, who appeared to help insurrectionists both into and out of the building.
This stood in stark contrast to the summer of 2020, when police across the country, including in Washington, D.C., tear-gassed, pepper sprayed, beat, and even ran over protesters demanding justice for Black people killed by law enforcement.
VICE spoke to five people who were arrested during the uprisings for Black lives and against police violence the summer of 2020 about their experiences, and about their reactions to the January 6 raid on the Capitol.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Some names have been changed or omitted for privacy and safety reasons.
Toy Slaughter, 38, Pittsburgh, PA
Photo by Jared Wickerham
Since protests began in Pittsburgh on May 30, I have been out and active, stomping the pavement to fight for equal rights. I have been kettled and assaulted, tear-gassed, beaten with wooden batons, shot at with rubber bullets, and maced for peacefully protesting the injustice and systematic racism of my people.
When the police murdered George Floyd, the whole of us protesting were fed up with the world seemingly being complacent with this being a "normal" occurrence. Fuck that. We gathered and rallied and petitioned our local government and did everything according to what they said was lawful. One of the days of our protests, we were kettled and forced by police into a dark park, where the police then told us that our being in the park was unlawful, as it was closed. They proceeded to mace and shoot non-lethal (but still painful) rounds at us.
Over the summer, I had to turn myself in three times and was arrested twice because I protested. They charged me with intent to riot and disorderly conduct at first, but then kept adding new charges or doubling down on old charges, which opened up active warrants for my arrest. I've had to pay a lawyer multiple times and haven't even had my preliminary hearing yet. Even when I turn myself in, I'm there no less than 16 hours, which is terrible for me, because I get out feeling like I'm dying of thirst because I'm not drinking water from a toilet—they give you a bag lunch with two stale cookies, a warm orange drink that makes your mouth so dry, and two pieces of bread with a thin slice of lunch meat. I'm a vegetarian.
Since I'm facing 17 charges for peacefully protesting, I was completely dumbfounded watching the events of January 6 unfold. I can't believe that I'm facing felonies and a bunch of bogus summaries for having cute little parades in the street where we danced, sang, and screamed “fuck the police.” We have been met by riot cops during marches led by children! We didn’t set anything on fire, we didn't bust down doors, we didn't physically harm anyone or any property. Still, I can no longer find gainful employment due to the charges I'm still facing, and they keep dragging the case out. They’ve combined my court date with other activists’ to make scheduling even harder. Our preliminary hearing has been pushed back at least four times and with them dragging it out like this it makes it harder to organize and march.
Jordyn, 24, Columbus, OH
Photo courtesy of Jordyn
On June 23, the day I was arrested, I had already protested downtown for multiple days in a row. The same group of cops monitored and harassed us throughout, so they knew our names and faces. I knew from other people that police were targeting organizers that week for arrests. The night before I was arrested, a handful of cops pointed me and another organizer out and referred to us by name, making it clear that he knew who we were. They were noticeably more aggressive and abrasive that night because of our chants asking for justice.
The following day at dusk, I joined the protest. When I got there, I noticed cops escalating a tense situation with protesters on the sidewalk, and I started livestreaming it. One of the officers who pointed me out the day before walked over to me and demanded I get out of the street. The signal for the crosswalk was green, so I wasn't breaking any laws, but he continued to get angrier. When the signal to walk was counting down from 10, I turned to return to the sidewalk. Behind me, I heard him yell to the other cops "Get her! Get her! Get her!" Five to seven cops grabbed me. They kicked in behind my knees so that I fell to the ground, and then I was picked up and slammed against a cruiser that I was held in for hours.
I was charged with failure to comply and pedestrian in roadway—jaywalking—and was threatened with an officer assault charge. After fingerprinting me, they asked me questions about organizing. When I refused to answer, they gave me a court date and released me. Local legal observers were able to put me in touch with National Lawyers’ Guild lawyers, and one of them represented me pro bono. To secure counsel, it took about three weeks of communicating and getting connected to people. With the help of my great lawyer, my charges were dropped, but many other organizers in Columbus are still fighting unjust charges. It is clear from my arrest report that this was an intimidation tactic.
The police's actions on January 6 show how complicit they are in upholding white supremacy. They were taking selfies and shaking hands with white supremacists breaking into the Capitol, while my friends and I were maced, tear-gassed, beaten, shot at with wooden and rubber bullets, arrested, and traumatized by the brutality we experienced and continue to live with. Their lack of action shows very clearly that the "thin blue line" exists to reinforce the very blatant caste system we live in.
Jamie, 22, La Jolla, CA
I was protesting in La Mesa, California on May 30 in response to the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. We marched throughout the city until 6 p.m., when we gathered around the local police precinct. The crowd was chanting with their hands up when tear gas canisters were deployed and officers in full riot gear began pouring out of the building. At that point, unable to see almost anything because of the tear gas, I tried to run away and was hit by a rubber bullet. Police moved into the crowd of fleeing protesters, and as I was tackled by two officers who placed me in zip-tie wrist restraints. They led me to a police car where I sat for what I can only estimate was an hour. I received no medical attention despite having trouble breathing from the tear gas and bleeding from the rubber bullet wound on my side.
Two officers got into the car and drove me to the El Cajon police department precinct. I was strip-searched and placed in a holding cell. An officer informed me I was being charged with vandalism and resisting arrest and Mirandized me. They removed me from the holding cell and led me to a small room where I was questioned about my involvement with protest organizers, of which I had none. I told them I was there as a passive observer. The officers interrogating me were accommodating of my injuries; I received basic medical treatment for the wound on my torso as I was being held. After they finished their questioning, they left the room for about 20 minutes. After they came back, I was told I was free to go. I was out of the building at 10 p.m.
I believe the response by police at the Capitol building was irresponsible and compromised national security—and that they allowed a violent mob to swarm a federal building because that mob was majority white.
Ty Hobson-Powell, 25, Washington, D.C.
Photo courtesy of Ty Hobson-Powell
Back in August, I was arrested in Louisville, Kentucky for peacefully protesting in solidarity with Until Freedom to call for justice for Breonna Taylor. We simply marched in the streets. Within 20 minutes, we were met by officers in riot gear who surrounded us and told us that we were about to be arrested. I was one of 65 arrested, and I was held for over 10 hours before being released on my own recognizance. I came out to jail support coordinated by Until Freedom and was greeted with a meal and warm welcomes from others who had been released prior or had never been arrested. I have a court hearing on Inauguration Day to answer to the charges. With the assistance of Until Freedom, I have retained counsel to represent me so that I don’t have to attend the proceedings in person.
Seeing white supremacists storm the Capitol without consequence reminded me of work that remains unfinished. On July 4, a group I am a part of, Concerned Citizens DC, unveiled a set of policy proposals called Bill of Rights for a New America, which is designed to act as guidance for the future we hope to forge for America. We made our announcement at the Capitol and we were met with barricades and armed police lines. We have led other peaceful protests in D.C where police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, mace, assaults, and arrests.
Seeing white supremacists loyal to Trump stage a coup attempt without similar repercussions was extremely frustrating. It underscores that policing works on an inconsistent basis instead of being equitably administered to all communities. It's more apparent than ever that we have to revisit public safety so that Black and brown protesters can be treated with the same spirit of understanding that allowed the vast majority of the insurrectionists to walk away from vandalizing the U.S. Capitol unharmed.
MAN-E, 31, Pittsburgh, PA
Photo by Emmai Alaquiva
I was arrested on May 30 in downtown Pittsburgh at a protest in response to police violence. There was a heavy police presence at the protest throughout the day, like helicopters, armored vehicles, and officers in full military gear, and it became increasingly aggressive as the day went on. Our mayor had imposed a curfew that most protestors abided by, but I was among the few who remained at the protest after dark: The murder of George Floyd impacted me because of my own experience with police brutality, including one occasion where I was choked violently. Pittsburghers also recently witnessed a police officer acquitted after murdering a young man named Antwon Rose II, so some, like me, felt compelled to persist with the protest, despite the curfew.
That night, I was among a group of roughly 20 people who were kettled into a narrow alleyway by SWAT officers. Initially, two canisters of tear gas were shot at us, forcing us to withdraw into the alley while a police vehicle blocked our rear exit. A second police vehicle blocked the opposite end of the alley, then officers on both sides fired multiple canisters at us while we had no way to disperse. One struck a comrade of mine in the back. We were unable to see and breathe as we followed the officers' voices ordering us onto the ground. An officer pressed their knee into my back as I was handcuffed. We were all taken to the Allegheny County Jail.
Most of the 45 protesters who were arrested that night were given the same two charges of disorderly conduct and failure to disperse. Upon entering the jail, my forehead was scanned for a fever and I was given a mask and flip flops to wear. I was placed in multiple holding cells with fellow inmates, up to nine, where we were not required to wear our masks, so COVID was definitely a concern. We were arraigned, photographed and fingerprinted individually before being allowed to make an initial phone call, which was roughly 10 hours after the arrest. Although my cash bail of 10 percent of $2,000, was paid expeditiously by the Bukit Bail Fund of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County can hold you up to 48 hours after bail is paid; I was released 12 hours later. Correction officers gave me no information about the process, and I was only updated by my wife over the phone. Upon my release, I was greeted by a jail support organization called Jailbreak PGH, who helped me secure transportation home.
What stood out about this experience was the arrest itself, which was traumatizing. In that alleyway, unable to see or breathe and hearing the screams of both scared protesters and aggressive police officers, some of us literally thought we were gonna die. That’s not an experience that will ever leave us—but it’s one I would gladly experience again while standing up for social justice.
Disorderly conduct is a summary offense—a minor crime—and failure to disperse is a misdemeanor offense, which is less serious than a felony. The response of law enforcement was completely disproportionate to what we were accused of, and watching what transpired in Washington D.C. on January 6, I see another disproportionate response. I'm again reminded of the two Americas that exist: One where Black people get murdered in their sleep by police officers, and one where white insurrectionists take selfies with police officers.
Follow Reina Sultan on Twitter.