While protesting the police killing of a Black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., several years ago, Johnetta Elzie said she was manhandled by officers. She said they pointed rifles at Black women who were pushing toddlers in strollers and cursed at them to turn around.
Similar scenes unfolded all summer, as police officers clashed with scores of Black Lives Matter protesters. Many times, officers used batons and chemical agents to disperse crowds.
And so what Ms. Elzie saw on television Wednesday afternoon infuriated her: A mob of mostly white Trump supporters stormed past police officers and vandalized the United States Capitol while officers, after initially offering resistance, mostly stood by. Some officers parted barricades, others held doors open and one was seen on video escorting a woman down steps.
“What a joke,” Ms. Elzie said. “I mean, they didn’t even pinch the white people. It wasn’t even like a family dispute. In a family dispute, you might at least hit your sister or something like that. This wasn’t even that. It was almost like tear-gas was not readily available.”
Black Lives Matter activists across the country expressed outrage on Thursday at what they said was a tepid response from law enforcement officers to mostly white protesters, saying it stood in stark contrast to the aggressive tactics they have endured for years — officers in full riot gear who have used tear-gas, rubber bullets and batons. It also underscored the country’s uneven system of justice, many said, and lent credence to their insistence that Black people are devalued and viewed as inherently dangerous.
In a national address Thursday afternoon, President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. acknowledged the seemingly disparate treatment, saying he had received a text message from his granddaughter who questioned the police response at the Capitol.
“She said, ‘Pop, this isn’t fair. 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 differently than the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol,’” he said, adding, “We all know that’s true. And it is unacceptable. Totally unacceptable.”
Officials with the Capitol Police, a federal law enforcement agency responsible for securing the Capitol building, have defended Thursday’s response, saying the officers were under prepared and overwhelmed by the pro-Trump mob.
Joel Shults, a former police chief of Adams State University in Colorado, said “the right balance of quelling a disturbance versus allowing the disorder to continue” was a difficult calculation for law enforcement to make. Every case presents its unique challenges, he said, adding that a lack of information and the location of Wednesday’s riot might have influenced the police’s response — and not the race of the largely white crowd that stormed the building.
“To have a lot of citizen-police violence on the steps of the Capitol,” he said, “I think it was really important that that not happen.”
Black activists noted that when they have planned protests, the police have rarely seemed ill prepared. This week, for instance, National Guard troops descended on Kenosha, Wis., and metal barricades were erected around that city’s courthouse the day before a prosecutor announced that no charges would be filed against an officer who shot a man, Jacob Blake, multiple times in the back last summer.
Last summer, a peaceful violin vigil in Aurora, Colo., to memorialize a Black man who died during a police arrest was disrupted when officers in riot gear charged the park and dispersed pepper spray, sending families with children fleeing. The police argued that there was a small group of agitators among the crowd, a contention disputed by many in attendance, who had been sitting on the lawn listening to people play the violin when the police descended.
And the day after the presidential election in November, hundreds of activists marched through the streets of Minneapolis, advocating for an end to police brutality. The group, which was spirited but peaceful and included parents with children, eventually marched onto an interstate. The plan was to walk to the next exit, something that should have only taken about 15 minutes, said Sam Martinez, one of the organizers.
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Instead, the State Police surrounded the group while on the highway and demanded that everyone sit down to be arrested. Local elected officials frantically tried to negotiate with the authorities to let the demonstrators leave the highway, to no avail.
The police, saying that the demonstrators violated the law and endangered public safety by entering the highway, either arrested or cited and released nearly 650 protesters. The process took about five hours. Most were given misdemeanor charges, but a 19-year-old woman received felony riot charges for shining a laser pointer into the eyes of a police officer.
“It’s a glaring example of how unjust this system really is,” said Mx. Martinez, noting the disparity between the hundreds of arrests on the highway versus the handful of arrests at the Capitol. “If that had been us, there would have been way more than one casualty.”
The highway protest in Minneapolis came months after city police officers killed George Floyd, sparking widespread protests and calls for an end to systemic racism. Amid chaotic demonstrations in the days following the killing, the police retreated from a police precinct headquarters, allowing protesters to descend on it and burn it down.
But even that was not comparable to what unfolded at the Capitol on Wednesday, said Jeremiah Ellison, a Minneapolis City Councilman. In the days preceding the burning of the precinct, the police had been firing rubber bullets and tear-gas at protesters in what Mr. Ellison said he believed was an overreaction at times.
The police at the Capitol did not show that same hostility toward the demonstrators there, he said.
“I think the police will view a leftist protester with a gas mask as more dangerous than a right-wing protester with a semiautomatic rifle,” Mr. Ellison said.
Activists who protest the police say they believe they are targeted because of their criticism of law enforcement.
In a federal lawsuit against the city of St. Louis, a judge wrote in a 2017 ruling on a preliminary injunction that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on their claim that the Police Department “has a custom or policy of using chemical agents without warning on citizens” criticizing the police.
The lawsuit centers on the arrest of more than 120 people in 2017 during a protest of the acquittal of a white officer who killed a Black man in St. Louis. Earlier that evening, some protesters had broken windows and knocked over large flower pots downtown. The police declared an unlawful assembly and ordered people to leave.
Hours later, there were still dozens of people peacefully milling about a downtown street corner that was a few blocks from where the police had told the crowd to leave. Officers eventually moved in and arrested everyone who was still out — sweeping up members of the Air Force who happened to be in the area and at least one journalist in the process.
Video of the mass arrest showed one officer firing pepper spray at the people being arrested, “who all appear to be on the ground and complying with police commands,” Judge Catherine D. Perry of Federal District Court wrote in her injunction.
Javad Khazaeli, a lawyer representing several of the plaintiffs, said that even though his clients were peaceful, “The police made the choice to use violence.”
But the Capitol Police on Wednesday “made the choice” not to, he said. “It couldn’t be a more perfect example for everybody to see the two different criminal justice systems we have in America.”