The Miller Center contributed to the Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion’s annual two-week community celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Tuesday with a virtual discussion entitled “Race Relations and Criminal Justice in the New Year.” Kevin Gaines, African American and African Studies professor, was joined by Paul Butler, Georgetown University law professor and legal analyst on MSNBC, to discuss the aftermath of the Capitol insurrection and criminal justice reform.
Miller Center Director William Antholis opened the event by introducing this year’s Community MLK Celebration theme — “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?" based on King’s book of the same title. Antholis compared calls for racial justice and equity in the 1950s and 1960s to the same demands occuring today, nearly nine months after Minneapolis police officers murdered George Floyd.
“As Dr. King faced an issue of choosing chaos or community in his time, so do we here today at this point in our history,” Antholis said. “The incoming Biden administration has several pivotal decisions to make as it pertains to the future of race relations and criminal justice in America.”
Butler and Gaines began their discussion by contrasting police officers’ treatment of participants in Black Lives Matter protests to the mostly-white mob who violently stormed the United States Capitol building Jan. 6 after being incited by then-President Donald Trump.
While many peaceful Black Lives Matter protests were met with police officers and National Guard troops in riot gear, rioters at the Capitol overtook officers — who received no additional persons from D.C. Police or the National Guard prior to violence breaking out — forcefully to enter the building. The National Guard didn’t arrive at the Capitol complex until nearly three hours after the violence began.
“For many in law enforcement, it seems a violent mob of white men is not nearly as threatening as a gathering of Black people and their allies peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights,” Gaines said.
Gaines noted that the Capitol Police Department knew of possible violence days before the insurrection occurred but failed to prevent rioters from entering the Capitol. He said that police officers “weren’t waiting” for the mostly white mob at the Capitol as they were for BLM supporters in Lafayette Square over the summer, where peaceful demonstrators were met with force from police officers and National Guard troops.
Since the Capitol insurrection, at least two Capitol police officers have been placed on leave for partaking in the riot, and 12 National Guard members were removed from duties related to President Joe Biden’s inauguration due to possible ties to right-wing extremist groups. U.S. Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Stenger and House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving also resigned following the insurrection.
“They were in Lafayette Square with tear gas and the rubber bullets and forces that they used against the legal Black Lives Matter protesters,” Gaines said. “They gave these [Capitol rioters] extra credit because they were white, and the result is five dead people and what is now the nation's capital turned into a military encampment. This is the price of ignoring anti-Black bias. This is the cost of ignoring white supremacy.”
Gaines then discussed systemic racism in the U.S. criminal justice system and how Biden’s administration could realize the goals of former President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which the Trump administration “threw in the garbage can.”Obama’s criminal justice reform actions and goals included reforming solitary confinement, building community policing and lowering incarceration and crime rates.
While Gaines is anticipating the Biden administration’s plans for criminal justice and policing reform, he said that the Trump administration made some progress in reforming the criminal justice system.
“The policies of the Justice Department on reform of the criminal legal process, on police, on mass incarceration have remained the same under Republican administrations,” Gaines said. “You could say that, in some ways, some of the policies advanced by the Trump administration, including the First Step Act, were a baby-step, incremental improvement over previous Republican presidents.”
The First Step Act — which was signed into law by Trump in December 2018 — is a bipartisan criminal justice bill that aims to reform prisons and the criminal justice system to reduce the number of federal prisoners and lower the rate of prison reentry.
According to Gaines, some have called Biden and his administration “Obama’s third term,” in reference to the fact that Obama’s goals for police reform, criminal justice and those outlined in the Final Report of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing could be realized with Biden and his administration appointees in office.
Butler and Gaines proceeded to discuss the history of policing of Black people in the United States and the history of police departments tolerating misconduct from their officers.
“It's been shown, time and again, that [police officers] at least respond to Black people and people of color with disproportionate force for the most petty offenses, or no offenses at all,” Butler said. “I think we've seen that quite a bit and we've seen it actually going back for quite, quite a few years.”
Gaines said the vast majority of complaints against police officers regarding racial mistreatment don’t lead to charges against police officers or legal settlements.
Throughout their conversation, both Gaines and Butler emphasized King’s advocacy for civil rights and equity.
“We should all remember [King’s] fight for economic justice, which was front and center in his agenda,” Butler said.
To systemically end police brutality, Gaines said, King’s ideas — such as reallocating money used by the U.S. Department of Defense in wars to help alleviate poverty — need to be implemented.
“Until we have that kind of transformation, that redistribution of resources, outside of this apartheid that's led to all of this money and power in the hands of a few white elites, until we totally transform this radical reconstruction to something that's more consistent with the multi-cultural, multi-racial democracy some of us are trying to get to, the violence isn’t going away,” Gaines said.