The January 6th attack on the US Capitol was a stark reminder of America’s two systems of justice.
January 6 US Capitol insurrectionists (l), Black Lives Matter protestors (r). Photos: Manuel Balce Ceneta
On May 15, 2010, 16-year-old Kalief Browder, a Black teenager from the Bronx section of New York, was arrested on suspicion of stealing a backpack containing $700 in cash, a digital camera, a credit card, a debit card, and an iPod Touch.
New York City police did not find the allegedly stolen backpack or the other items in question on Browder during their search.
The alleged victim of the crime subsequently altered their story multiple times, changing the date the crime occurred and even suggesting that the robbery never actually took place. Despite the lack of evidence of a crime, Browder was arrested and charged with robbery, grand larceny, and assault.
Instead, a judge set Browder’s bail at $10,000 and remanded him to the Riker’s Island jail complex. His family did not have the $900 necessary for his release but borrowed funds from a neighbor. Since the teenaged Browder was on probation from a prior felony conviction, his probation officer had filed a probation violation hold on him, so posting bail would not get him released from jail despite the borrowed funds.
On May 29, 2013, Kalief Browder was freed from jail. On June 6, 2015, at 12:15 p.m., he hanged himself from an air conditioning unit outside his bedroom window at his mother’s home.
Riley June Williams, a 22-year-old white woman from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was recently arrested for her role in the January 6th US Capitol Insurrection. According to a recent Justice Department court filing, the pro-Trump rioters attack left 81 US Capitol Police officers and 58 DC Police officers injured, with five dead, including a Capitol Police officer.
Williams faces charges carrying possible sentences of up to 20 years in prison. Still, her experience with law enforcement thus far is far different than that of Kalief Browder, despite the mountain of evidence showing her involvement in the attack on the US Capitol and multiple felony charges.
Video from the attack shows Williams — wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a white nationalist slogan — directing other insurgents to go up the Capitol stairs and into the office of the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, during the attack.
Evidence presented by prosecutors shows Williams and others stealing a laptop from Pelosi’s office. According to the FBI's affidavits, Williams planned to sell the laptop to a friend in Russia, who then planned to sell the device to Russia’s foreign intelligence service.
Williams later bragged to others about the theft, fled from police, changed her mobile phone number, and deleted her social media profiles before her arrest following a 48-hour search. Instead of incarceration, the federal judge in her first hearing released Williams. Until her trial, Williams remains under GPS monitoring in the apartment she shares with her mother.
In a subsequent hearing less than a week later, prosecutors alleged that Williams encouraged her accomplices in the Capitol attack to destroy evidence since her confinement. According to Buzzfeed News, the judge in Williams’s second hearing wondered why prosecutors did not seek to place her in detention, given the seriousness of the allegations against her (emphasis added):
“Judge Zia Faruqui expressed surprise that the government was not advocating for Williams to be detained, since the allegations in the complaint against her were “pretty shocking” and “read like something out of The Americans,” referencing the TV show about Russian spies in the US during the Cold War. Instead of asking for her to be detained, the Justice Department asked that Williams be held under house arrest with an ankle monitor under her mother’s supervision, that she not be allowed to use any device with internet access. Kelly Smith, the attorney representing the Justice Department in the case, refused to elaborate further on why they were not asking for Williams to be detained, saying that providing any more details about the case could jeopardize the government’s investigation into Williams and the events of the Jan. 6 insurrection.”
Let that sink in: unlike Kalief Browder, who spent three years in jail for allegedly stealing a backpack — without a shred of evidence, mind you, Riley June Williams, an active participant in an insurrection on the US Capitol that left five dead and over one hundred injured, who is seen on video ransacking the office of a member of Congress and stealing their government-issued laptop, and who, since her confinement, encouraged her fellow radicals to destroy evidence, is, as you read this, sitting comfortably at home with her mother.
The contrasting treatment by law enforcement of the Capitol attack’s predominately white insurgents to this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests underscores a larger issue. Unlike the protests at Lafayette Park, when unmarked paramilitary troops, police on horseback, and low-flying helicopters violently corralled the peaceful, mostly minority crowd, the thousands of pro-Trump insurgents faced almost no police presence.
Noticeably absent were the armored personnel carriers and mass arrests seen during this summer’s BLM protests. Instead, the mob of QAnon conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, and anti-semites roamed the halls of Congress unimpeded — some even posing for selfies with Capitol Police.
And now, as if on cue, comes the news of a debate within the FBI and the Justice Department regarding possibly declining to charge some participants in the attack on the Capitol, ostensibly for fear of overloading the courts.
The prevailing logic is that, due to the wide variety of offenses, perhaps those in the Stop the Steal mob that did not engage in violent, threatening, or destructive behavior should not be charged.
No one is advocating in favor of increased governmental levels of incarceration. That said, the BIPOC community deserves equal treatment by law enforcement. Recent events have only served to confirm that is not the case.
With the increased likelihood of more violent attacks from pro-Trump extremist groups, law enforcement cannot afford to let the whiteness of the perpetrators cloud the issue.