In the past few days we've seen the expected spate of media from January 6, at the Capitol of the USA. Shaky cell phone videos, photographs, all kinds of shit.
As also expected, these have been carefully curated by everyone to present this story or that. We saw videos of the Trumps
watching a rally in the morning of Jan 6, which is routinely and repeatedly mischaracterized as the Trumps watching the
mob storm the Capitol Building. We have seen a carefully selected set of pictures and videos of Capitol Police opening
doors, opening barricades, and standing by as protesters move freely. These are positioned, generally, as the Capitol
Police acting in complicity with the mob.
We also saw a lot of rhetoric comparing the Capitol Police treatment of these protesters versus BLM protesters earlier
this year, with again carefully curated sets of media. More recently, we're starting to see more pictures of
physical altercations between officers and protesters, more scenes of tear-gas-obscured chaos, and so on. In short, we are only now seeing
pictures that more resemble the BLM protest photos, pictures which we were not seeing earlier.
It is surely true that the Capitol Police treated this protest differently from the way they treated the BLM protests, but
what is not clear to me is why this is a bad thing. It is widely agreed that the BLM protests were badly handled, isn't it?
Add to that the fact that this was a rapidly unfolding, short-term, very localized protest action as opposed to a slowly evolving,
long-term, geographically diffuse and mobile protest action and I become quite leery inferring too much from comparisons.
But, whatever. The differences in handling play in to the ways people are interpreting the media they are seeing, and that
is what I am interested in here, really.
Whether complicity, incompetence, or strategy, the building as a whole (with small but important exceptions) was ceded to the
protesters, to the mob, for a few hours. You can read the photographs and videos any way you like.
You can read the photos and videos from within the mob as anything from "idiots talking shit" to "a vicious mob bent on
murder" and it's not even clear to me whether there's a functional difference here. Idiots talking shit just need one
yahoo, probably drunk, high, or both, to break ranks and start charging the building, or shooting hostages, and suddenly
you're an actual vicious mob bent on murder.
There is an interesting theme running through the photos, which I am not sure many people notice. The uniformed officers
are doing various things: standing around, shoving at the barricades, wrestling with protesters, spraying pepper-spray,
that sort of thing. There are other guys, guys in suits over body armor.
I'm pretty sure these are the dudes who are charged with defending the legitimate government of the USA, and they seem to
be really serious bastards. The protester who was shot was shot by a guy in a suit as she was trying to move toward
the House Chamber (where that Government was currently sheltering, before being evacuated.) The cops with pistols out
pointing at a door are these guys, defending the Legitimate Government of the USA which is currently huddled under their
seats in the Chamber behind the cops.
These cops are aiming over a piece of furniture which I suppose is kept near the door for the feng shui.
The fact that it neatly barricades the door as well is surely a happy accident.
Whatever your preferred narrative here, once the barricades collapsed the Capitol Police had very limited options, I think, and
I think they executed pretty well. I guess they could have just opened fire on the crowd, there were cops with rifles positioned
to do just that. The mob probably would have broken and run for it, eventually. I don't think I would approve that plan.
The civilians were protected, and safely evacuated (did you notice that there are exactly zero civilians visible in any
of the media of protesters inside the Capitol Building? They've all been hustled off to defensible spaces, i.e. the two chambers,
where extremely tense men in suits are doing their job.
What is interesting to me here, though, is the way these pictures are being interpreted. What looks to me to be consistent with
de-escalation is seen by others as complicity, and still others as simple incompetence.
You can construct a narrative around Trumps and Republicans egging on the crowd, although that story doesn't hold a lot of water
since all that media seems to come from maybe 1:30pm or earlier, when it seemed to be pretty much an ordinary protest. These
things happen several times a week. You have to drag in some "well, the gun nuts were talking about it on Parler for weeks
so obviously they knew what was going to happen" theory, which is, well, a bit iffy. But.. ok, I guess? I mean, it kinda
works, if you squint, and weirder shit has surely happened.
You can construct a narrative of incompetence, and there have been resignations, so I'm willing to admit there was incompetence.
I guess the crowd control specifics were pretty minimal. Again, you have to assume that the cops were supposed to take
randos shooting off their mouths on Parler seriously. I dunno Parler at all, but it sounds like the kind of deal where
randos are literally shooting their mouths off 24x7, it's the app you use to do that. Maybe there are ways to assess which
blathering is credible, but if so, I am not privy to those methods.
And you can construct a narrative of a practical strategy, a protocol more or less properly executed. The Capitol Police have
surely had plans in place for "when the mob breaks into the building" for 50+ years, and it probably includes options for
"let's not just machine gun them all, but instead let's protect and evacuate the civilians, and clear the mob later."
It may also have options for "let's just machine gun the lot of them into hamburger and call it a day" but I am glad they did not
choose that one.
In the end, the ground truth is probably a mixture. Some of the cops were probably a bit sympathetic to the mob. The leadership probably
did ignore warning signs, and not roll out the Heavy Crowd Control gear. And, when it went pear shaped, the serious guys in suits kept all the
civilians safe. Symbolically it's a huge event, an unprecedented breach, a line never before crossed. In terms of actual real-world effects,
as insurrections go, pretty low key. A failed coup with a total of 5 fatalities is pretty good, no?
What makes the whole thing particularly interesting to me, of course, is that people who ought to know better are falling into the trap. They
are accepting mislabeled media as accurate when it supports their politics, they are consistently reading pictures in particular ways, ditto.
Of course, even university professors and self-styled media experts are entitled to their personal views. Indeed, one can hardly avoid
having personal views. Still, they seem, sometimes, overly credulous under underly critical.
Me? My default starting position on practically any piece of media is "I have no idea what the hell I am even looking at" and I try real
hard to be careful about how I read it, and what I make of it. Meaning is slippery, and it tends to arise from inside ourselves
far more than we think.