There is a temptation to interpret the events of January 6 at the Capitol as an exception to what is deemed normal in American democracy. Yet, framing the day as one of exception ignores the multiple ways in which it communicates something at the heart of America. Such is the case when examining the event from the standpoint of state policing. January 6 highlights “common” perspectives about the true character and purpose of American law enforcement. To make January 6 an exception runs the risk of interpreting the mob’s violence towards police officers as a contradiction to their cherished ideals of law and order and “Blue Lives Matter” chants. Such an interpretative frame misses how the public understands the special place of state police in the U.S.
January 6 underscores that there is no contradiction between the mob’s actions and ideals.
This viewpoint was best articulated by one of the insurrectionists, a woman. She stood near the Capitol with her group while law enforcement fired smoke bombs at them. About 1:25 p.m., the woman decried officers “…shooting their own people. We suppose to be supporting Blue Lives Matter. We represent Blue Lives and this is what you do to us.” Her voice sounded bewildered and perplexed. Yet, her following statement captured what she thought the true racial work of law enforcement: “When Black Lives Matter say Blue Lives don’t/we say you do/and this is what you do to us.” The work of law enforcement then, was to protect white rights and liberties. Fundamental to their work of protection is to stop black political struggle in the name of American “law and order.” The duty of law enforcement is to stop black freedom struggles in efforts to secure a white nation-state. In this racialist framework, “law and order” does not apply to white nationalists or population in general. The message of January 6 is very clear: state policing is sanctioned to regulate and manage black and nonwhite populations by suppressing (and criminalizing) their political aspirations. From the vantage point of the woman near the
Again, the woman’s assertion about the officers should not be reduced to the fringes of American society. Her understanding of the real raison d'etre of law enforcement captures the racial divide at the center of American society. The responses of state law enforcement to the mob “storming” the capital and white nationalists in general illuminate a fundamental fact about the role of policing and security in mainstream America. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had received intelligence about the threats that various organizations posed to the nation in the days leading up to January 6. Yet law enforcement did not prepare for the onslaught of white nationalists the same way they did for peaceful demonstrators who protested the police killing of George Floyd (and other unarmed black people) on June 1. (In the age of social media, white bigotry and threats are often couched as the exercise of freedom of speech and/or self-defense). In fact, January 6 actually points to an aforementioned neglect by law enforcement of white nationalist groups that spans two decades. For instance, the Department of Homeland Security has often ignored violent threats posed by white nationalist groups, especially in the aftermath of 9/11. Although white nationalists have killed far more people than other groups since 2001, the Department has concentrated on surveilling Muslims (nonwhite and non-Christian). Additionally, public polls about policing reveal how the woman’s statement reflects mainstream America. A 2020 Pew Report found that 67% of white adults say that police are doing a good or excellent job of protecting people while 28% black adults say the same.
The woman’s understanding of the real job of law enforcement also says something about American religion. State policing is not only informed by racial but religious identification as well. The racial divisions about policing spill over into American Christianity. In his study of policing and American evangelicalism, religious historian Aaron Griffith highlighted a 2015 public poll that found majorities of white mainline Christians (73%) and white Catholics (71%) viewed the police killing of black people as isolated incidents and not as broader issues of structural racism. Similarly, white evangelicals also shared this sentiment of their white mainline Christian and white Catholic counterparts (73%). Two years later, a 2017 public poll highlighted how white American Christians consistently supported law enforcement and completely disregarded its significance in the maintenance of structural racism. Although a 2020 public poll reported that white mainline Christian and white Catholic numbers have declined regarding their stance on police killing of black people as isolated incidents, the rates are now 53% and 56% respectively, which is still high. Yet, the number of white evangelical Christians who support police and attitudes about police killings of blacks has remained consistent as it did in previous years of 2015 and 2017. Griffith notes that these contemporary white evangelical Christians have “maintain[ed] their historic support for law enforcement and skepticism of racial problems within the profession.” He argues that the “historic support” of law enforcement among white evangelical Christians underscores a stubborn theological perspective that police are representatives of “God’s [earthly] authority” and policing a divine ministry. To further highlight the co-constitutive nature of religion and race in America, it is no accident that the aforementioned theological framework of policing gained its fullest expression in the wake of the modern civil rights struggle, urban rebellions, and mobilization of a white Christian voting bloc.
The woman did not articulate her exact religious affiliation. Yet, her voice is clearly within the political and religious norm of American democracy. Thus, her sentiment about law enforcement reflects not only American democracy, but a white
The woman’s assertion reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun. History opens us up to the contingencies of life that spur change over time. History also affords us a chance to examine how the past informs present life. Thus, the woman’s criminalization of Black Lives Matter is a footnote to modern American history. Criminalization of blackness is as American as apple pie. She stated, “When Black Lives Matters [sic] say Blue Lives don’t/ We say you do.” Within her logic, the real work of the police (and law enforcement in general) is to destroy Black Lives Matter by criminalizing its quest for black freedom. To be sure, black freedom has always been perceived as a criminal threat to American (white) law and order. Late nineteenth- and twentieth-century American law enforcement and the broader public framed the quest for black freedom as black domination (e.g. American Reconstruction was framed as Negro rule) that entailed rape, miscegenation, murder, theft, laziness, and “foreign” communist conspiracy. The quest for black freedom has been imagined as un-American (and non-religious and/or immoral, too). White southern segregationists planted the seeds of a political strategy that associated civil rights with criminality. In the aftermath of the Civil Rights Bills of 1964 and 1965, the “Law and Order” trope also facilitated the criminalization of black freedom. During the 1968 presidential election, “law and order” was one of the central issues that mobilized a white Christian voting bloc. Both Richard Nixon’s and George Wallace’s
The woman’s statement about policing is not representative of a voice outside mainstream Christian America. She shows us that January 6 is not an aberration. It is America.
Jamil W. Drake is an Assistant Professor in the Religion Department at Florida State University. He works in the area of American Religious History with a specific interest in African-American Religion. He is the author of the book, To Know the Soul of a People: Religion, Race, and the Making of Southern Folk (Oxford University Press, 2021). He is currently working on his second book project on African American religion and public health.