Activists who took part in Black Lives Matter marches in Washington last year watched with astonishment this week as hundreds of pro-Trump rioters stormed the US Capitol with apparently little resistance from police.
Scenes of Wednesday’s chaos, in which the Capitol building was breached and the Confederate flag carried within its halls, stood in stark contrast to what happened in June, when heavily armed police flooded the city and buzzed overhead in military helicopters.
A now-famous photograph of armed police lined up on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the BLM protests has become emblematic of the double standard.
Anger among many African-Americans deepened as footage showed authorities on Wednesday allowing rioters to depart the Capitol complex without being arrested. It has renewed calls to overhaul the country’s police and criminal justice system, an issue that president-elect Joe Biden has pledged to make a priority of his administration.
Alycia Kamil, a leader in the Chicago anti-violence group Good Kids Mad City, recalled the heavy-handed policing of protests that she participated in this summer in Washington, Chicago and Minneapolis.
“Looking back it makes you more angry about how we were treated,” she said. “Most of our members got tear gassed, pepper sprayed, shot at by rubber bullets, for . . . doing nothing but marching, or taking up space or blocking intersections.”
But while Ms Kamil is angry, she is not shocked: she said she expected the police to treat white people more leniently.
However, criminologists who have studied racial inequalities in American policing say they were startled to see the disparity demonstrated quite so vividly this week.
Valena Beety, a law professor at Arizona State University, said: “I was shocked to see white men strolling through the Capitol, with handheld selfie-sticks, taking pictures of themselves with their flags, completely nonchalantly. To see them handled with kid gloves was incredibly disturbing.”
The light-touch policing of Wednesday’s assault on the Capitol drew condemnation from Michelle Obama, the former first lady. “Seeing the gulf between the responses to yesterday’s riot and this summer’s peaceful protests and the larger movement for racial justice is so painful. It hurts,” she wrote in a statement.
The contrast in how the events were policed generated widespread outrage that reached into corporate C-suites. In a memo to employees, American Airlines chief executive Doug Parker said the company recognised “the disparity in how other protesters have been treated”.
Rather than demonstrating before their National Basketball Association contest on Wednesday night, the Milwaukee Bucks and Detroit Pistons took a knee during the game itself — a symbolic escalation of the anti-racism protests that swept the American sports world last year.
Mr Biden was at pains to show he understood the double standard on Thursday. “No one can tell me that if it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesting yesterday, they wouldn’t have been treated very, very different from the mob of thugs who stormed the Capitol,” he said.
The challenge for the incoming president will be translating the outrage into policy while keeping the centrist and progressive wings of his party unified and also working across the aisle with Republicans.
The president-elect has said he plans to spend more money on community policing, divert people with minor drug convictions into treatment rather than jail and decriminalise marijuana.
Experts say he could also choose to make it easier to bring federal prosecutions against police officers who commit violent acts, something that is difficult to do now because prosecutors must prove malice.
However, Mr Biden has rejected calls to “defund” or radically reorganise police departments. And he has not yet said whether he is willing to try and enact the Breathe Act, a package of measures supported by BLM activists that includes the repeal of his own 1994 crime bill.
The 1994 legislation, which Mr Biden has since described as a “mistake”, has been blamed by experts for fuelling an era of mass incarceration that has disproportionately affected the black community.
Patrisse Cullors, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter, said: “The fact white supremacist terrorists are able to storm the Capitol — one of the most secure and heavily guarded buildings in the United States — proves that law enforcement operates under a double standard when the protesters look like them.”
She added: “President-elect Biden must pass the Breathe Act.”
Even if the president-elect does decide to push for a fundamental shake-up of US policing, his room to manoeuvre is likely to be limited both by the slim majorities the Democrats hold in the House of Representatives and Senate and by the fact that much policing policy is decided at a local level.
Mr Biden could use his office to press local Democratic leaders to get tougher on police wrongdoing. But if he does so, he is likely to run into resistance from police unions, some of whom appeared not to understand why Wednesday’s scenes triggered such outrage.
John Catanzara, the president of Chicago’s police union, said of the rioters on Thursday: “They pushed past security and made their way to the Senate chamber. Did they destroy anything when they were there? No.” He apologised on Friday, saying his comments had been a “lapse in judgment”.
Jonathan Blanks, a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, said: “Police unions have extraordinary political power, they are almost untouchable. If President Biden wants to shake up policing in America, they will fight him all the way.”