After a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol last week left five dead and dozens more injured, many have taken issue with the police response. Capitol Police didn’t aggressively confront protesters in the same way that we saw over the summer with Black Lives Matter protests, and many people felt that too few arrests were made during the turmoil (at least 13 on the day; the current total is at least 82). Arrest as a result of nonviolent civil disobedience is, ordinarily, considered a matter of course; the Center for Constitutional Rights warns would-be demonstrators of “almost certain arrest” and sentences that may include community service, jail time of up to six months, and fines up to $500.
At nationwide protests last summer, in response to the police killing of George Floyd, police arrested more than 10,000 people, most for curfew violations and “failure to disperse.” Amid the pandemic, many protesters were loaded onto buses and held in small cells for hours. Protesters’ accounts described police brutality and unexplained, unwarranted arrests — tactics that have been shown to be more prevalent during left-wing protests than right-wing ones.
U.S. Capitol Police guidelines prohibit “groups of any size” from demonstrating inside any congressional building or on the steps of the Capitol or any building on Capitol grounds. Nonetheless, most of the white-supremacist demonstrators on Wednesday were evidently allowed to do all of the above.
Below, five individuals who’ve been arrested for (nonviolent) political protest share their experiences with police in the Capitol and across the country and reflect on the disparity between those events and what was allowed to occur — and was explicitly encouraged — on Wednesday.
“I was the only teacher arrested, and being a Black teacher made me understand the way the state and the police operate.” — Jesse Hagopian, educator
“I’m a teacher in Seattle. For many years, our schools have been drastically underfunded. A few years ago, a lower-court judge ruled at that time that the state was out of compliance with its duty to fund education. When we learned the state was getting ready to cut more funds from schools in the wake of the Great Recession, we were outraged. A group of us educators went down to the capitol. First we unfurled a banner from the balcony that overlooks the main chamber of the state legislature that said “Lawmakers Lawbreakers Need to Fully Fund Education.” I was immediately surrounded and dragged out of the chambers for that action. They didn’t arrest me then, but we found out where the actual [budget] meeting was taking place, so we went in and we read out part of the State Constitution. We declared it their moral and legal duty to not only stop the cuts from education but to add a lot more funding. We have some of the biggest corporations, and the two richest people who’ve ever walked the Earth, here in Seattle. Our city is just glittering with gold, and at the same time we don’t have a nurse in every school.
At that point, the officer didn’t agree with my interpretation of the law. They surrounded me, yanked my arms behind my back, handcuffed me, and took me into a room nearby. They had me surrounded with officers, waiting to get me out when nobody would see them take me. When things cleared out, they took me to jail. They charged me with disorderly conduct, and I had to do many hours of community service.
I was scared that when I came back to school the next day, that families would hear their kids’ teacher got arrested and think I was a criminal. I was the only teacher arrested, and being a Black teacher made me understand the way the state and the police operate. Had those protesters yesterday been Black — I think we all know the brutality that would have rained down on them. It was incredible watching yesterday and reflecting on my experience — that when you ask the government to follow the law and support kids, you will be treated like a criminal, and when you organize an attempted coup on the U.S. Capitol with white supremacists flying Confederate flags that glorify the enslavement of Black people, then you’ll be protected by the state. I think a lot of people learned that lesson this week.”
“We stood on our chairs and said a woman’s life is a human life … We were found guilty of disruption of Congress.” — Sarah Schulman, author
“It was 1982 and Reagan had just been elected. The Republican Party had formed its first coalition with Evangelical Christians, and part of that was their anti-abortion agenda. There was a congressional bill that called for outlawing abortion and most forms of birth control. In the late ’70s, there was a movement against sterilization abuse that emerged because Puerto Rican women were being sterilized without consent. I was part of a radical reproductive-rights movement that opposed sterilization abuse while supporting not just abortion rights but access to abortion. We petitioned to testify at the hearing, but no one who supported abortion rights was allowed to testify. So six of us went to Washington — we had no weapons or anything like that — and we called ourselves the Women’s Liberation Zap Action Brigade. This was before hearings were on live television. At one point, someone was testifying that the fetus was an astronaut in the uterine spaceship. And that’s when we stood on our chairs and said a woman’s life is a human life.
We were arrested. They took us to the cell, and the six of us were charged with disruption of Congress, which is a felony. We were bailed out. We had a trial. We had Judge Harriett Taylor, who was a feminist judge, and that was luck. We were found guilty of disruption of Congress, but we were given probation. If we had had a different judge, we would have been incarcerated.”
“He yanked me out of the room and said, ‘You’re under arrest for resisting arrest.’” — Whitney Fox, advocate
“Back in early March, I interrupted a congressional budget hearing for the NIH. It was me and another woman with ME/CFS (also known as chronic-fatigue syndrome). There’s a big lack of funding, and now we’re seeing people with COVID developing these symptoms that can be disabling and last long term. Our goal was to tell Dr. Collins [director of the NIH] to stop ignoring this public-health crisis. That was the first time I participated in civil disobedience, but I had talked with other activists to know what to expect from Capitol Police — that they are very serious about protesters coming into the Capitol Building.
I went into it knowing that anything the officers asked me to do, I was going to comply. During the hearing, as Dr. Collins started to speak, I waited to make sure that I wasn’t interrupting anything COVID-related, and then I just stood up in the hearing and told him to stop ignoring the ME/CFS crisis. I had a couple of lines written, but as soon as I stood up, the officer was ready and waiting. He said, “You’re under arrest. You’re coming with me.” I told him, “Okay, I’m coming,” and I sat back down in my wheelchair and started to wheel myself out. After we got out of the room, he forcibly pushed my wheelchair, and it got a little stuck on the door jam. Then he yanked me out of the room and said, “You’re under arrest for resisting arrest.” I understood that I could be charged with disrupting Congress, but I was very clear not to resist arrest and to comply with everything the officer said. They held us, we got booked for disrupting Congress, paid $50 cash, and went home. It was pretty astonishing to see the treatment that the mob got yesterday compared to the peaceful demonstrations that two sick women participated in.”
“There was no bathroom access. We had no water. We had no idea where we were going.” — Anjalika Lobo, writer and comedian
“I live in Los Angeles, and last summer I was protesting police brutality at city hall downtown. It was a peaceful day. My friends and I were just handing out water bottles and snacks and PPE. When it got closer to curfew, the police started gathering and telling everyone to leave. But there were just so many people in the area it would have been impossible for everybody to get out in time. So it got pretty immediately chaotic. All of a sudden we saw people running. We got in our car, but we couldn’t drive because there were so many people running in the road. The police surrounded both sides of the road, and protesters were caught in the middle, and we were in the middle of them too.
I got out of the car and was trying to help people and give them water. Then the police started yelling at everyone to get on the ground, and I started running back towards the car. They made us all get out of the car and lined us up against a wall. They told us that if we complied and just answered their questions, they would let us go, but instead they zip-tied us, loaded us onto a bus, and booked us. It took a few hours, and we all got court dates. Not really knowing what was going on was really stressful — everyone’s masks were falling down and there was no way to pull them back up because our hands were all behind our backs. There was no bathroom access. We had no water. We had no idea where we were going. They booked us someplace in the Valley. Thankfully, all of our court dates got dropped. But I didn’t see any destruction of property. I didn’t see any violence. I saw chaos and panic only when the police were involved.”
“I was taken out in handcuffs, frisked outside, and brought to the jail.” — Josh Fox, filmmaker
“I tried to tape a public [congressional] hearing on fracking for a film in 2012. I had recorded many hearings before. We had appealed to the chair several times to get in, but they didn’t answer our requests. But when we arrived at the hearing, it was clear they knew we were coming — there were at least a dozen Capitol Police over there, and they stopped my cameraman at the door and said no cameras in the room. So I walked in just with my backpack, as if I was going to observe. I got in the room, started to set up my camera, and a good five, six officers came over to arrest me. I was taken out in handcuffs, frisked outside, and brought to the jail. I was charged with unlawful entry, which was eventually dismissed.
But yesterday you see the cops literally opening the gate to let in armed protesters who then ransack the Capitol, and they let them go. I’m a veteran of many arrests and many, many, many protests. I’ve had friends standing next to me at Standing Rock shot in the back with rubber bullets. I’m a grandson of Holocaust survivors. Yesterday, actual Nazis with Camp Auschwitz T-shirts walked into the Capitol, carrying Confederate flags, and ransacked it. The police allowed them to trash the Capitol. That’s a clear message.”