The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The false comparison between last summer’s protests and what happened at the Capitol

A mob of Trump supporters fight members of law enforcement at a door they broke open as they storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in Washington. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

With every day that has passed since a violent mob stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, it becomes more remarkable that the human toll incurred that day was so low. One of the rioters was shot and killed by a Capitol Police officer as she tried to enter an area near the floor of the House. But restraint shown by police officers facing off against thousands of supporters of President Trump saved any number of lives. So, too, did the inability of the protesters to find the targets of their outrage: members of Congress and Vice President Pence, who, we learned Friday, narrowly avoided being spotted by the mob.

That only five deaths, including the shooting death of the rioter and the death of a police officer assaulted by rioters, are linked to the Capitol attack has contributed to a line of argument that what occurred that day was not that big a deal. Defenders of the president in Congress and in conservative media have suggested that what occurred at the Capitol was nothing worse, really, than the protests that occurred last summer after a Black man, George Floyd, died after a police officer in Minneapolis put his knee on Floyd’s neck for an extended time.

It's a false comparison and, often, a willfully dishonest one.

There are similarities, of course. It was the case that the protests over the summer did at times devolve into violence. There were people killed at protests. There were attempts to occupy government buildings and instances in which protesters successfully established extragovernmental areas.

It is also true that there were politicians on the left who offered support for the protests or who contributed to organizations reinforcing the protests. But any attempt to draw parallels between that support and what occurred at the protests collapses quickly when considering the broader context of what occurred in Washington last week.

The intent of the Jan. 6 protest was far more nefarious. Last summer's unrest was a revisitation of a years-long focus on the relationship between Black Americans and the police. The protests were meant to draw attention to what protesters describe as systemic injustices within law enforcement, injustices which make it more likely that Black people detained by police will be shot or injured.

The goal last week was to object to the democratic transition of power in the United States.

Those two aims are not comparable. Nor were the effects of the violence. Rioters in Minneapolis burned down a police precinct; others in other cities looted and burned buildings. All of those acts were criminal and damaging. None of them broadly threatened the existence of law enforcement or commerce.

The events in Washington, by contrast, constituted a “violent insurrection that attempted to overthrow the United States Government,” according to federal prosecutors. On the scale of changes that could result, the dismantling of a city’s police department is objectively less significant than the overthrow of the U.S. government. More importantly, the violence itself wasn’t simply meant to send a message to legislators, the violence was meant to effect the desired change. The violence was the means to that end.

The Capitol riots stemmed from a lie. Among those in Washington last week were a number of people who obviously intended to cause destruction and damage. Dozens of people flagged as potential terrorists were detected by law enforcement, according to Post reporting. It is safe to assume they were there mostly because they sensed an opportunity.

But that opportunity emerged because thousands of others had been compelled by Trump's rhetoric and the rhetoric permeating right-wing politics to travel to Washington and be heard. At the heart of that rhetoric was the utterly false and thoroughly unfounded claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Trump, eager to convince himself and his supporters that he hadn't lost the contest, spent weeks elevating baseless conspiracy theories and lying about alleged fraud in the election. His allies on Fox News and in Congress humored or amplified his claims. There were — and still are — millions of Americans who were convinced that democracy had already succumbed in the United States as a result of Trump's insistences.

This is not only not true, it's obviously not true. There's no credible evidence of even moderate fraud, as has been established repeatedly, including by Trump's former attorney general and by other officials in the states about which Trump has lied.

By contrast, there is credible evidence that there exist systemic problems within law enforcement. The rate at which Black Americans are killed by police is twice the rate among White Americans, according to a Post analysis. That the resolution of the storming of the Capitol involved so little violence on the part of law enforcement, particularly when compared to the resolution of many of last summer’s protests, itself is circumstantial evidence that protests made up primarily of Whites are handled differently than heavily non-White ones.

The encouragement of political leaders was not the same. During the protests this summer, a number of prominent Democratic leaders expressed their support for those who'd taken to the streets. When violence occurred, those same leaders, including President-elect Joe Biden, offered condemnation.

There are two important points that follow. The first is that the Democratic leaders were responding to the protests. The second is that they tried to draw a bright line between supporting those peacefully protesting and those violently lashing out.

By contrast, the protests in Washington directly followed Trump’s advocacy. That’s not only a function of his dishonest claims about the election results but, instead, about explicit advocacy from the president for people to show up in Washington as Congress was counting the electoral votes that day. Over and over in the days before Jan. 6, Trump encouraged people to show up, at one point promising his tens of millions of Twitter followers that the protests would “be wild.”

Shortly before the Capitol riot began, Trump gave a speech outside the White House in which he asked that people peacefully protest — before repeatedly insisting that the election had been stolen and encouraging people to march on Congress. There don’t appear to be any examples of a Democratic elected official ginning up a demonstration and then calling on a crowd to march on a police station.

Even if there were, though, there's a difference between Trump's power and relationship with his base and how other elected officials interact with their supporters. Trump's political position is predicated on the loyalty of his base. He is also the president of the United States, giving his words different weight. It's simply not comparable to some senator doing the same thing, even had that happened.

What's more, Trump didn't denounce the violence as it occurred or even for some time after it ended. Reporting suggests that he was pleased by the support demonstrated by the rioters, a sentiment reinforced by his repeatedly praising those who'd participated in the hours that followed.

“We love you,” he said in a video statement that evening to those involved in the insurrection. “You're very special. You've seen what happens. You see the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil. I know how you feel. But go home and go home in peace.”

Hundreds of peaceful protests happened last summer. One violent protest happened last week. Those attempting to equate the protests last year with the storming of the Capitol are collapsing hundreds of protests aimed at police brutality into one homogeneous and violent event. In reality, as analysis has repeatedly shown, the vast majority of protests which occurred over the summer involved no violent acts at all.

“[T]he Black Lives Matter uprisings were remarkably nonviolent,” one analysis published by The Post explained. “When there was violence, very often police or counterprotesters were reportedly directing it at the protesters.”

With the 2020 election looming, there was an explicit effort by Trump and his allies to suggest that the Black Lives Matter protests were necessarily violent. Fox News ran footage of the same violent incidents for weeks after they occurred to bolster the idea that the protests all ended the same way. Trump released campaign spots suggesting that such violence was a necessary component of left-wing politics.

It wasn’t, any more than violence is necessarily a component of right-wing politics. It is true, though, that the protest promoted by Trump in the weeks before Jan. 6 did result in violence, with hundreds of Trump supporters attacking police and vandalizing the seat of federal legislative power in the United States. Simply on a percentage basis, rallies centered on Trump’s lies about the election being stolen have far, far, far, far more often devolved into deadly violence than did Black Lives Matter protests last year.

There were deaths during the protests and violence last summer, but, as of late August, almost none were actually a function of the protesters. Most were either unrelated to the protests or a function of individuals reacting to vandals or other criminals. A retired police officer, David Dorn, was killed as he sought to defend a business in St. Louis, a rare exception. His alleged assailant was arrested for murder.

During a speech as the protests emerged, Trump painted a stark picture of what was occurring.

“A federal officer in California, an African American enforcement hero, was shot and killed,” Trump said. “These are not acts of peaceful protests. These are acts of domestic terror.”

That killing in California was later linked to a right-wing shooter.

Whataboutism isn’t an excuse. In a Twitter thread that went viral Thursday, conservative writer Jonah Goldberg disparaged the idea that even an actual equivalence between last summer’s protests and what happened at the Capitol should be considered a rationalization.

“If my kid shoplifts,” one of his tweets said, “she'll be punished. If she complains her friend's parents don't care about shoplifting so it's unfair for me to punish her, I'll say “I don't care what they do” (even though I do care and I'll make a stink later). None of that changes what's right.”

In a message to The Post, Goldberg expanded on that idea.

“I do think the left has a double standard on political violence,” he wrote. “But I also think the right should have a single standard. But the Trumpist right thinks that because the left didn’t sufficiently condemn rioting last summer, Republicans shouldn’t have to condemn this more than political convenience will allow. It’s asinine.”

He noted that some Trump supporters expressed more outrage about the alleged hypocrisy of the left than about Trump's incitement of his base to march on the Capitol in the first place.

“Trump has been like a magnet next to their moral compasses,” Goldberg said of Trump supporters in politics, “and a lot of people can’t find True North any more.”