The freedom to assemble

in two acts

Top, Jan. 6: Trump supporters storm the Capitol building. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)
Above, June 1: Black Lives Matter protesters demonstrate outside the White House. (Jose Luis Magana/AFP/Getty Images)

Lafayette Square, Capitol rallies met starkly different policing response

On Jan. 6, several hundred supporters of President Trump charged inside the Capitol to overturn an election the president had repeatedly and falsely claimed was stolen. They were mostly White, and they roamed freely through the halls, taking selfies and stealing souvenirs, smashing doors and defacing statues, amid sporadic calls to “Hang Mike Pence!” Many shoved and beat officers, one of whom later died.

On June 1, 2020, a crowd of similar size gathered outside the White House to protest after the police killing of George Floyd. They were a diverse group who called for an end to police brutality and racial inequity, and an army of federal agents, assembled after Trump demanded a show of domination, sent them running with chemical agents and rubber bullets.

These two demonstrations, at the most prominent symbols of democracy in the nation’s capital, will define Trump’s legacy, highlighting the divisions he has stoked and the disparate treatment of Black and White people in America by law enforcement.

President-elect Joe Biden said that if the rioters had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesters, they would have been treated “very differently than the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol.”

“We all know that is true,” he said the next day. “And it is totally unacceptable.”

LEFT: June 1: Black Lives Matter protesters sit in the street to protest the police killing of George Floyd, the fourth gathering in as many days. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images) RIGHT: Jan. 6: Trump supporters scale the walls of the Capitol's Senate side. The president urged “patriots” to go there to “take back our country” an hour before. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

The forceful clearing of Lafayette Square on June 1 last year was one of the most controversial confrontations during nationwide protests after Floyd’s death.

The three days that preceded it were largely peaceful by day and pocked by violence and destruction at night, with law enforcement chasing rioters through the capital’s streets. Trump grew more insistent that if local leaders couldn’t reclaim the city, he would. His administration ordered up an outsize and militarized response, with law enforcement swelling from a host of federal agencies, some with no identifying insignia, and National Guard from the District and 12 states.

In the early evening, shield-bearing riot officers and mounted Park Police brutally routed those gathered, apparently without provocation or audible warning as required by law. Shortly after, Trump strode through the cleared park with military leaders at his side to pose at a church whose leaders didn’t want him there.

At the massive Stop the Steal rally on Jan. 6, only one agency was initially on hand to protect senators and representatives and their staff: the Capitol Police. Their chief had requested reinforcements days before, he said, only to be rebuffed by Senate and House security officials.

The few hundred Capitol Police stationed outside the complex were joined by hundreds of hastily summoned D.C. police, but the officers were quickly overpowered when several hundred rioters pushed through low crowd-control stands and surged up the stone stairs.

It took hours for all the 1,100 D.C. National Guard troops to arrive.

Even though Trump supporters openly plotted an assault online, and police and FBI intelligence privately warned of attempted insurrection, and the president escalated his lies about election results, the law enforcement partners of summer failed to make a coordinated plan for Jan. 6.

LEFT: June 1: Demonstrators gather near Lafayette Square and the White House. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images) RIGHT: Jan. 6: Supporters gather on the Ellipse to hear President Trump speak. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

June 1

Jan. 6

The summer protest was the fourth in as many days, part of a nationwide swell of revulsion after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of the unarmed Floyd as he gasped for breath. During the preceding two nights, stores were looted and cars and buildings were set ablaze, including a small fire in the basement of St. John’s Church.

On May 29, Trump and his family were rushed to a secure bunker in the White House after protesters hopped over temporary barricades near the adjacent Treasury building.

Early on June 1, the president criticized state and local leadership as “weak” and vowed to escalate the response to unrest in Washington. “We’re going to do something that people haven’t seen before,” Trump said in a call with governors and law enforcement. “You got to have total domination, and then you have to put them in jail.”

LEFT: June 1: The night before Lafayette Square was cleared, protesters burn an American flag and other items near the White House. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post) RIGHT: Jan. 6: The night before Congress was to certify the election, a supporter of President Trump washes his eyes after getting tear-gassed by police, who broke up clashes at Black Lives Matter Plaza. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

But the crowd that gathered that day was peaceful: A pastor stood in front of St. John’s handing out “free water and prayer.” A group danced, a woman played guitar, and families with small children walked by to see the crowd. The pandemic was in full swing, and protesters came with masks, hand sanitizer, granola bars, water bottles and cardboard signs: “End racist police violence,” and “Black moms want to breathe.”

“No justice, no peace” read the sign that 17-year-old Aly Conyers carried among the crowd. James Mattocks set up an easel to paint, sitting beside a barricade that separated him from rows of officers in riot gear.

About 2 p.m. that day, top law enforcement and military officials met at an FBI command center about a mile from the White House to plan for the night. Attorney General William P. Barr instructed U.S. marshals, federal agents, homeland security personnel and federal prison guards to multiply the number of law enforcement officers on D.C. streets by nightfall, according to Washington Post reporting.

That evening, dozens of Secret Service officers and 50 Arlington County police officers in SWAT gear converged near Lafayette Square. U.S. Park Police had more than 80 officers with shields and 15 mounted on horseback, The Post reported. D.C. National Guard and Air National Guard members carried shields with the words “military police.” U.S. marshals wore camouflage, and some officers had patches indicating they were guards from a U.S. penitentiary in Hazelton, W.Va.

About 6 p.m., Barr walked through Lafayette Square, meeting with law enforcement officials. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was there, too.

Barr would later tell reporters the operation was planned in advance, and was intended to move the perimeter one block. But law enforcement officials told The Post they believed the removal would happen after the 7 p.m. curfew that night, and had been accelerated after Barr and others appeared in the park.

In the previous three days of protests, law enforcement officers in D.C. generally used crowd-clearing tactics in response to individual provocations. But on June 1, officers were given instructions over police radios to execute “surges” to clear the demonstrators.

That intimidating and formidable presence demonstrated extensive preparation, said D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D), and “an entire presumption that folks who were protesting racial justice were dangerous.”

“I can only guess what would have happened if on June 1 there was a breach at the Capitol,” he said in a recent interview. “Kent State, maybe?”

LEFT: June 1: Riot police enforce a secure perimeter as President Trump visits St. John's Church, after protesters were cleared nearby in a chaotic scene. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images) RIGHT: Jan. 6: Only a few hundred Capitol Police officers stood behind barricades as tens of thousands of Trump supporters massed at the Capitol's East Front. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images)

LEFT: June 1: U.S. Park Police with riot gear face protesters demonstrating for racial justice inside Lafayette Square. (Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images) RIGHT: Jan. 6: Trump supporters break down a police barrier outside the Capitol. (John Minchillo/AP)

June 1

Jan. 6

In contrast, all the layers of federal policing were nonexistent when the president’s faithful gathered at the Capitol. For weeks, Trump urged his supporters to show up for a protest he promised “will be wild.” Online forums bristled with references to violence in Washington and recommendations to come armed, despite the District’s laws against open carry.

They came by the tens of thousands Jan. 6, carrying Trump flags and Confederate flags alongside their Stars and Stripes, determined to stop Congress from recording Biden’s victory in an election Trump contends was rigged — claims more than 90 judges rejected in state and federal courts.

The several hundred who later penetrated the Capitol included members of the male chauvinist group the Proud Boys, the armed civilian group Oath Keepers, a 60-year-old gun rights activist from Arkansas and a Republican state lawmaker in West Virginia who has since resigned. Some wore camouflage jackets and pants, others helmets. They carried batons, bats and shields.

Near the Washington Monument ahead of Trump’s speech, Mike Wyatt, 44, huddled with his girlfriend beneath a sheet spray-painted to read “WE CHOSE TRUMP.”

“I really don’t hope for a civil war,” Wyatt, a construction worker from Missouri, said. “But there are people who won’t be pushed around.”

The president talked for an hour. “Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us,” he said. “And if he doesn’t, that will be a sad day. … Now it is up to Congress to confront this egregious assault on our democracy. And after this, we’re going to walk down and I’ll be there with you.”

“Fight for Trump,” the audience chanted.

June 1

Jan. 6

About a half-hour before the 7 p.m. curfew that District Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) imposed on June 1, federal officers in riot gear began moving crowds west on H Street at Lafayette Square, which is in front of the White House. A voice on a loudspeaker had warned the crowd to disperse, but the protesters couldn’t hear it. They turned to one another in confusion. “Did somebody do something?” Ty Hobson-Powell, then 24, recalled saying as he stood across from St. John’s. “What’s going on?”

Officers rolled chemical grenades onto the street. The air filled with smoke and tear gas. Officers struck reporters and demonstrators with riot shields and batons, and fired pepper balls at the crowd.

“My throat was burning. I was out of breath, breathing in and out this toxic air. I was alone,” said Conyers. Once she found her brother and friend, she raced for their car, a half-mile away. “We started running. We had no idea what they had planned, what was going to happen.”

As officers moved in with tear gas and riot shields, Mattocks fell to the ground. His easel and all of his paintings were destroyed in the chaos. He couldn’t see or breathe. A protester pulled him away from the street and flushed water in his eyes. Other protesters were trampled.

From the Rose Garden, Trump said he was taking “swift and decisive action to protect our great capital, Washington, D.C.”

“I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults and the wanton destruction of property,” he said. “We are putting everybody on warning, our 7 o’clock curfew will be strictly enforced.”

Minutes later, the president and a group of administration officials left the White House, crossed the area that had just been cleared of protesters, and walked to St. John’s Church. There, the president said nothing. He brandished a Bible, for the cameras.

LEFT: June 1: Park Police push back protesters with shields and batons. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images) RIGHT: Jan. 6: Trump supporters push to breach the interior of the Capitol building. (Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg News)

LEFT: June 1: Police fire tear gas to disperse people at a Black Lives Matter rally near Lafayette Square. Officers got instructions via radio to execute “surges” against demonstrators. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images) RIGHT: Jan. 6: A mob of Trump supporters storms the hallways of the Capitol. At least a dozen Capitol police officers are under investigation for their actions during the siege. One died the next day. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)

LEFT: June 1: President Trump prepares for a photo op with a Bible outside St. John's Church. (Tom Brenner/Reuters) RIGHT: Jan. 6: Richard Barnett, 60, sits with his leg on a desk in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office. He was later arrested. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

LEFT: June 1: Multiple police units clear the area near Lafayette Square. (Alex Brandon/AP) RIGHT: Jan. 6: Security officers point their weapons at the barricaded doors of the House chamber. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

June 1

Jan. 6

Outrage followed the heavy military engagement in the June 1 civil protest, and it contributed to the cascade of failures at the Capitol.

Pentagon leaders held back this time. Capitol Police, who had 1,400 on duty that day, sent an urgent call for help only after they were surrounded.

The security failure led within a day to the resignation of Congress’s three top security officials.

Blame-shifting followed. Among the charges: The Defense Department had declined to send in D.C.'s National Guard; House and Senate security leaders had failed to listen to the Capitol Police; they and city police had not adequately planned.

Around 1 p.m., with Trump still speaking, rioters overwhelmed the few police guarding the Capitol’s western lawn and broke through the waist-high metal barricade.

“USA, USA, USA,” they chanted as they surged up the lawn, then up the steps onto the balcony, then onto the structures being built for Biden’s inauguration. “Whose Capitol? Our Capitol!”

“Fight for Trump, move forward,” a man dressed in camouflage shouted at those around him. “We’re coming for you, Pelosi,” another said.

After about an hour of banging on the Capitol doors, shouting “Let us in,” a man used a clear plastic riot shield to break through the windows on a first floor to the south side of the building, then hopped in with a few others.

A California woman named Ashli Babbitt was at the front of the crowd trying to bash in the windows of the door to the Speaker’s Lobby. She was fatally shot by a Capitol Police officer when she tried to climb through one of the windows.

Many who made it inside posed for photos in lawmakers’ offices and in the Senate chamber. One carried away a lectern, photos showed. An Arkansas man dressed in jeans, a flannel coat and a baseball cap propped his boot on a desk in Pelosi’s office, rested what appeared to be a weapon against his hip and draped an American flag over a pile of documents. He was arrested that Friday.

Capitol Police rushed to protect lawmakers, leading them to secure chambers and at one point barricading them inside the House chamber. Videos and photos and accounts from those inside portrayed a chaotic, violent series of struggles between rioters and outmanned officers.

One officer, Brian D. Sicknick, died after being injured “while physically engaging with protesters,” police said in a statement. At least 58 other officers were injured.

But other police appear in photos to help members of the mob down stairs, pose for a picture and allow rioters to enter the Capitol grounds. Several Capitol Police officers have been suspended over their actions during the riot, and others are under investigation.

Many Trump supporters made excited calls to friends and family and took videos, marveling at the history they knew was being made.

“We weren’t violent before, but we are now,” said a middle-aged man, talking into his cellphone a few dozen feet from people trying to knock in a Capitol door. “There’s no going back.”

Bowser deployed D.C. police after Capitol Police requested help following Babbitt’s shooting. By 3 p.m., the entire D.C. National Guard had been activated. “Traitors, traitors, traitors,” Trump supporters shouted as more officers arrived. “F--- the blue.”

That day, Capitol Police made 14 arrests and D.C. police arrested 69 people Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning, most on curfew and unlawful entry charges.

Prosecutors have called the investigation one of the largest ever undertaken by the FBI, which has received thousands of tips from the public about perpetrators. As of Wednesday, the bureau has charged more than 70 people and identified 170 suspects.

June 1

Jan. 6

In contrast, on June 1 and overnight, D.C. police arrested a total of 289 people, many of them on curfew violation charges that were later dropped. Hundreds of law enforcement officers trailed groups of protesters on the street. Military vehicles were stationed at intersections across downtown, blocking streets. A Black Hawk helicopter swept low over protesters in Chinatown, sending broken glass and branches flying as protesters screamed and ran in panic.

The next day, the president praised the show of force in the nation’s capital.

LEFT: June 1: President Trump walks to St John's Church. (Tom Brenner/Reuters) RIGHT: Jan. 6: Trump supporters attend a rally against certifying the presidential election results. (John Minchillo/AP)

LEFT: June 1: Graffiti on buildings following previous protests in Washington. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post) RIGHT: Jan. 6: Damage and debris is left behind after the riot at the Capitol. (Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)

June 1

Jan. 6

Last week, Aly Conyers thought back to that summer night, and the fear she felt running to the safety of her car, when she saw the images of a mostly White crowd rushing Capitol barricades — and walking off federal property without handcuffs.

“It's a clear double standard,” Conyers said. “In the Black Lives Matter protests we were hundreds of feet away and there were lines and lines of police officers and military-grade weapons and trucks stopping us from getting to that building they were trying so hard to protect.”

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) is drafting a bill that will create a national commission to study how the mob overtook the Capitol. She said one thing she wants the commission to study is whether rioters were treated differently because they were mostly White.

“Black Lives Matter never made the kinds of attacks we saw by Trump’s proponents,” Norton said in an interview. “And yet they were never treated with respect.”

For Hobson-Powell, founder of the group Concerned Citizens DC, watching on the news as crowds of White people blew through barricades with little done to stop them was just the latest illustration of White privilege. “We have been brutalized, we have been arrested, even killed for less,” he said.

“People have been trying to call this un-American,” he added. “We have to understand that this is so American.”

Emily Davies contributed to this report.

About this story

Story editing by Ann Gerhart. Photo editing by Haley Hamblin, Nick Kirkpatrick and Karly Domb Sadof. Design and development by Yutao Chen. Design editing by Virginia Singarayar. Copy editing by Jamie Zega.

Updated January 14, 2021

Complete coverage: Pro-Trump mob storms Capitol building

Rachel is a metro reporter covering local politics. She has previously contributed to The Raleigh News and Observer, CNN Politics and USA Today.
Samantha Schmidt is a reporter covering gender and family issues for The Washington Post.