Like most Americans, I was shocked and embarrassed by what I watched on television Wednesday afternoon. A mob of thousands of Donald Trump’s extremist supporters pushed their way into the U.S. Capitol, breaking windows, running through the halls of power, violently trying to reverse the outcome of a democratic election.
But what most stood out to me was the glee and entitlement so many of the insurrectionists expressed. Smiling, sitting in the ransacked office of the Speaker of the House, feet up on Nancy Pelosi’s desk. Standing shirtless with a Viking hat on, posing for selfies at the podium where Vice President Mike Pence just moments before presided over the U.S. Senate. Taking selfies with U.S. Capitol police officers in videos on social media.
Meanwhile, the work of brave photojournalists embedded in the middle of the chaos showed us scenes of the other side of the mob’s action. Terror washed over the faces of congressional staffers and federal workers huddled in any corner they could find seeking shelter as the mob made its way through the Capitol. Suited Capitol police agents stood inside the House chamber pointing their guns at the barricaded door as a crowd of unknown size tried to beat the door down.
President Barack Obama would later call it “a day of great dishonor and shame on our nation.”
But all while I watched the live images of the chaos, I kept thinking about Josh.
No, not Josh Hawley, Missouri’s national embarrassment. Not the man who many believe is guilty of sedition for having encouraged this violent insurrection. Not the man who just 24 hours before lied and said “antifa scumbags” threatened his wife and newborn daughter only to have the police report and video of the incident clearly identify the group as peaceful and far from antifa. If his goal was to increase his name recognition this week, he certainly achieved that. But it’s him who people are calling the “scumbag” now.
No, I was thinking about another Josh. Joshua Williams.
Williams, 24, is serving eight years in a Missouri prison. In the summer of 2014, when he was just 18 years old, he was one of the many young people angered by the death of Mike Brown and other Black people killed by St. Louis area police. Protest after protest, I remember seeing Josh. Tear gas, SWAT, police snipers. No amount of police intimidation stopped him and others from showing up to keep the pressure on St. Louis to change the way it treated its Black population.
In December that year, at a protest after the killing of Antonio Martin by Berkeley Police, Josh did something stupid. He joined others in looting a gas station. He stole gum and a bag of chips and he tried to set a trash can on fire. The trash can fire was quickly put out and Josh was soon arrested. St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch and Circuit Court Judge John D. Warner Jr. decided to make an example of the first-time offender. McCulloch asked for the maximum 15 years. The judge gave him eight. And today Josh still sits in prison.
I couldn’t help but think about how differently the mostly white group of insurrectionists were being treated Wednesday as they tried to attack not just a building but our very democracy. I couldn’t help but notice how close they were allowed to get to the U.S. Capitol without any significant resistance. No streets full of tear gas. No kettling by police. No one being tased, maced, or beaten with batons. No scenes of dozens of zip-tied protesters. No one pouring milk onto the faces of women and children as their eyes burned from chemical agents.
America showed more force against unarmed Black people protesting at a QT gas station in Ferguson than it did defending the U.S. Capitol against an armed insurrection. That made me as angry as anything else I saw that day.
It would be another thing if I believed the restraint by police I saw was the result of improved police training. It wasn’t. It was actually just a huge failure. “There’s no way in hell they should have taken over that building,” said Charles Ramsey, former chief of the D.C. and Philadelphia police departments. “You don’t lose the U.S. Capitol, for God’s sake.”
It also showed how much restraint police are capable of showing, even to a fault. “Let this be a lesson to you all,” wrote activist Zellie Imani on Twitter. “Police do not need deescalation or restraint training. They can restrain themselves against certain people. They just not going to restrain themselves against YOU.”
We’ll see if the criminal justice system shows as much restraint in dealing with the traitorous “scumbags” (to borrow a phrase from Josh Hawley). Or if it does as it did with Josh Williams and chooses to make examples of them.
Antonio French • 314-340-8130
@AntonioFrench on Twitter