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Race-Based Threat Assessments Enabled a Terrorist Attack on the US Capitol. Now Can We Do Something About It?

A long-standing double-standard of justice turned into a homeland security threat last week when the president of the United States incited a terrorist attack on the United States Capitol building. The U.S. Capitol Police planned for minimal resistance for a predominately white mob – armed with guns and homemade bombs – that intended to kill lawmakers and overturn a democratic election. Many of us watched in horror as the mob breached the Capitol with ease and we could not help but contrast this with how law enforcement prepared as if they were going to war with Black Lives Matter protesters last summer.

Law enforcement’s response to this attack was not unique. Capitol Police followed a long and consistent history of law enforcement assessing threats and dispensing consequences based on race. Race-based threat assessments led federal and local law enforcement to use rubber bullets, chemical projectiles, batons, shields, and helicopters to respond to Black Lives Matter protesters this past summer, but to stand down last Wednesday for white terrorists who publicly signaled their intent to kill members of Congress and forcefully overturn a democratic election. The same assessment allowed police officers to murder Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Eric Garner, all unarmed Black people, but peacefully arrest Dylann Roof, an armed White man who murdered nine Black people in a South Carolina church during Bible study.

It is a hypothetical that many have raised in the past week and one that is worth emphasizing: If the terrorists on Wednesday were Black, few of us doubt that federal and local law enforcement would have been prepared and militarized. The Capitol Police would have met the crowd with swift and deadly force, and terrorists would not have breached the Capitol.

The justice system stands down for white Americans every day. It gives them the benefit of the doubt that people of color don’t get–the benefit of humanity, justice, and life. Race-based threat assessments by federal and local law enforcement frequently lead to aggressive and deadly policing of Black Americans with little consequence. This time, though, the race-based threat assessment didn’t just endanger people of color, it left our very institution of democracy vulnerable. Maybe now it will matter enough to address.

This problem is both national and local. That is why I am calling on Congress to hold a hearing on race-based threat assessments, and I will introduce a bill to examine the race-based threat assessments locally. We need lawmakers across the country to do the same. If we engage in this long overdue dialogue, we can begin to restore trust between communities of color and law enforcement and reduce our risk to a growing threat from homegrown radical groups.  We should hold the Capitol Police accountable, but we should not pretend that their assessment or response was unique. We must wade through the treacherous history of discrimination and develop clear goals, actions, and a plan to heal a deep distrust in law enforcement. If not for justice, do it for national security. 

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