Identity

Of Course the Police Didn't Keep the Capitol 'Safe.' That's Not Their Job

Police scholar and author Stuart Schrader talks about questioning our institutions and why abolition is a long term project.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
January 8, 2021, 9:07pm
A protester argues with a Capitol Hill policeman as crowds gather outside the U.S. Capitol for the "Stop the Steal" rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Photo by Robert Nickelsberg via Getty Images

To call Wednesday’s breach of the U.S. Capitol disturbing would be a profound understatement. Footage from the ground showed neo-Nazis, QAnon acolytes, and white supremacists toting Confederate flags through the halls of Congress; sparring with an unprepared and quickly outnumbered police force; and exiting the building largely unencumbered. The insurrection sparked condemnation and backlash, even from those who encouraged the idea that the presidential election results (set to be certified the same day) were fraudulent and worthy of contesting.

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But what exactly we were looking at—and what it means in the context of larger conversations about American policing—remains unclear and has left us with burning questions. Should the police have used the kind of force that was on display this summer during the BLM protests? Did this event count as proof that police can be “gentle,” and if so, do they actually need to be abolished? 

While we wait for the hard facts (like how many people actually breached the Capitol) to emerge, we talked to Stuart Schrader, a police scholar and the author of Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Changed American Policing, about the difference between safety and security, who and what our law enforcement institutions protect, and what this event could portend for the movement to defund and abolish the police.

VICE: You’ve written extensively about policing, and obviously the behavior of the U.S. Capitol police force on Wednesday has created a huge discussion. What were you thinking about what the police were actually doing as it unfolded? 

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Stuart Schrader: From an operational planning perspective, they were really caught off guard—for many people, that’s hard to wrap your head around. The Capitol police has around 2,000 officers. That’s shocking. For perspective, Chicago PD has around 12,000 officers—so considering the Capitol police has jurisdiction on an extremely small plot of land, that’s a huge number of officers. That raises the question for me of what was the chain of command? Who would have been in charge of the interagency planning that accompanies any large event? Already the chief of the force, whose online biography says he is an expert in large-event planning, has resigned.

Even if the Capitol police were focused on the Inauguration, if they had been gathering info about January 20, Inauguration Day, they would have seen the very open and clear planning about [Wednesday, January 6] in the course of their research. It’s just astonishing. These people were setting up gallows on the National Mall, they were printing t-shirts that said ‘January 6 Civil War.’ There's just no excuse for being surprised—so the obvious next step in that argument’s logic is, OK, if the police weren't surprised, and they knew, then they decided to step aside and let this happen. That raises a lot of questions that the defund movement or the abolition movement already poses by insisting on the conceptual separation of safety from police. 

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Definitely. I think a lot of people are looking to square what we saw on Wednesday with the police abolition movement. Is that something you’re seeing, too? 

Stuart Schrader: Insofar as this moment pushes us towards an abolitionist politics, what that means is this moment should encourage us to consider building up new types of social and political institutions that will provide safety. Saying that police couldn’t keep the Capitol building safe and therefore we should defund the police—there are more steps to be made in that argument, concerning how safety is defined. In short, of course, the police didn’t provide safety!

I don’t want safety to be associated with the police, positively or negatively. I don’t want to operate on those terms. When we say, “The police didn't effectively produce safety on January 6,” we're tying back together things that I think shouldn’t be tied together. That is the analytic move the abolitionist critique demands.

Right, because they don’t exist to produce public safety—they produce order for the ruling class. 

Stuart Schrader: Exactly. If we took away the Capitol police force tomorrow, is that the solution to the problem of a multi-generational right-wing threat? Obviously not. 

But why not? Because this threat has its own institutional basis and longevity and power. That’s not always portrayed as part of the same conversation as the conversation about safety, but to me it is. We can’t think about safety as long as there’s a neo-fascist threat on the streets. We have to be clear, at the same time, that police don't provide protection from the neo-fascist threat, because they're so closely aligned [with those neo-fascists], to the point that in some cases, it’s literally the same people.

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Are you concerned this moment might be used to empower law enforcement institutions even more?

Stuart Schrader: One worry that’s emerging among commentators is that if we call this a “coup,” and therefore a threat to the government, the response is inevitably going to be bolstering the security state or the police forces. I agree partially, but also word choice among online commentators isn’t as powerful as we wish it to be. 

Other people are saying “Don’t call them protesters, call them terrorists,” but you can’t call them terrorists—terrorism is inherently racialized as a concept. It can never apply to white guys who are dressed like cops or who are the cops. If we say we want a security response to “terrorists,” what we will get is further repression of Black and brown people. 

I also expect we will hear calls from the Biden administration to return its focus to neo-Nazis and white supremacists—we know for a fact that the DHS decided to stop focusing on white supremacist threats, and that coincided with its massive growth and organizational networking. 

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But the reason I’m not comforted by that is because I fundamentally don’t think the DHS is capable of addressing this problem. The DHS understands the threat it's up against as basically coming from overseas, from theological and political radicalism from the Middle East, or uncontrolled migration by “violent” Mexicans or Central Americans. It can’t be repurposed to take on a homegrown fascist threat, because that’s just outside of its conceptualization. The purpose of the national security state is to blow up brown people in the desert. It doesn’t exist to protect the Capitol from angry white people.

Gotcha, that makes sense—even if it’s depressing. There are also a lot of calls for serious legal punishment for the insurrectionists. 

Stuart Schrader: Even among some people who I think are in favor of racial justice and critical of the excesses of policing, the way they frame their argument is a little bit like, “We want the police to be brutal on these MAGA types, too!” Obviously, that’s not an abolitionist argument. [Prison abolitionist] Ruth Wilson Gilmore has this line, I’m grossly paraphrasing, but basically she’s like, “When I say I want to abolish the prison system, that doesn’t mean I want the people who would lose their jobs to starve to death. I want them to still have fulfilling lives and to feed their families.” 

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I don’t think that most people are actually there, even on the Left. I think many  people want to see MAGA types get brutalized and suffer, and probably they want the police to be put out of work and begging for scraps in the gutter. I understand the [emotional] dimensions of that, but as a social policy perspective, it leaves a little bit to be desired—and the weirdest thing about that is, policy by affect is the hallmark of Trumpism. I get a little nervous when the Left is doing that too. 

So would you say it’s a mistake to try and apply this thinking to one specific incident? 

Stuart Schrader: That's basically what I'm saying, especially because this is such an extraordinary moment. I think in ordinary moments of police violence, what happens on a daily basis in any given city, that’s when we should respond with “Defund the police.” This really extraordinary moment requires a different analytic tone, more like how did we get here? How has it been the case that for four years, the same livestreaming Nazi motherfuckers have been consistently traveling around the country, engaging in extreme violence, egged on by the president, all in the wide-open? How did we get into this cycle? 

There’s like a million memes about this, but it’s worth asking: How does the U.S. spend so much money on “security,” and yet it’s clear that our monetary, political, moral and ideological investment in this thing called “national security” is a complete fantasy. All the investments in national security haven't protected us from COVID, they haven't protected us from the still quasi-mysterious cyber attack on the federal government, and now they haven’t protected us from this violent neo-Nazi threat. So we have to ask on some level, what the hell is this all for?

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