Incited by their leader, Trump supporters stormed the capitol. This event, like the anti-mask protests, provides a clear contrast with the police response to BLM protests. To illustrate, Trump ordered the tear gassing of peaceful protestors for a photo op outside of a church while rioters in the capitol were able to take selfies with the police. There was, it must be noted, some violent conflict between the rioters and the defenders of the capitol and people did die. But the overall response of the authorities was to let the mob have its way. Trump, who has called peaceful protestors “thugs”, expressed his love for the capitol rioters. Thus, protests on the left are generally met with police force and the protestors are often cast as lawless thugs. Protests on the right are often met with police tolerance and the protestors are sometimes regarded as patriots. There are, of course, exceptions that can shock the “patriots.”
From a moral standpoint, the problem is that just policing requires that people be treated fairly: police response to protests should be consistent and proportional to the violence. This is clearly not the case: protests by the white right are treated one way, protests by the left and minorities are treated another way.
An obvious objection is that I have given but two anecdotes—the church photo op and the storming of the capitol. One cannot infer the existence of systemic injustice from two examples. After all, it might just be a few bad apples or some such thing. This objection does raise a reasonable point: general claims about the police require a representative sample. Fortunately, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) has gathered such a sample and analyzed the data. Those who might dismiss the ACLED with accusations of being anti-police leftists can undertake their own study. They will need to take care to collect a representative sample and avoid various common errors in reasoning to ensure their study is credible.
ACLED originally studied conflicts in African nations, but in 2020 the organization applied its methods to the United States. While the project is ongoing, their findings match what one sees in the videos: the police respond more and more violently to protests on the left (like BLM) than they do to protests on the right (like anti-mask protests).
Between May 1 and November 28, 2020, the authorities were over twice as likely to try to disperse a protest on the left than a protest on the right. When the police did act, they used force 34% of the time when responding to a right-wing protest and 51% percent of the time when responding to a left-wing protest. Combing these, the likelihood that a left-wing protest will be met with police force is significantly greater than the chance a right-wing protest will experience that response. That is, the police are more likely to try to disperse a left-wing protest and are more likely to do so using force. On the face of it, this seems to show that authorities are acting immorally by treating people unfairly.
One reasonable way to counter this claim is to argue that there is a relevant difference between the two types of protests that warrants the disparity. If the left-wing protestors are acting in ways that warrant the disparity, then the police could be acting justly. For example, if left wing protestors are twice as likely to vandalize property and more likely to attack the police when they respond, then the disparity in treatment would be warranted. However, this is not the case.
About 93% of the BLM associated protests were completely peaceful and even these protests were met with a much harsher police response than right-wing protests. While there is a right-wing narrative that BLM protestors are violent thugs and most BLM protests are violent, this is obviously not supported by any evidence. For those who might think that BLM and the left are getting a just response from the police, it is worth examining uncut, unedited video of protests to see the difference between how the police prepare, set up and respond. The police and military tend to be in full combat gear and respond aggressively to protests on the left—even when the protests are peaceful. In contrast, the police tend to stick with their everyday gear and are not very aggressive when addressing right wing protests. This is readily visible on videos taken at such protests. As noted above, right-wing protestors can often take selfies with cooperating police, while the police sometimes shoot rubber bullets and tear gas at journalists covering left wing protests. Thus, the disparity between the responses is not based on a disparity in the behavior of the protestors. After all, peaceful BLM protestors face off against police and military units outfitted for urban combat. Right-wing protestors often feel safe and comfortable enough to take selfies with the police, who are typically in their normal gear. Thus, other factors must be the cause.
Since the BLM protests had significant black involvement (and are obviously about black lives mattering) one likely factor is race. The disparity between how police treat white people and how they treat minorities is significant and well documented. This disparity arises from many causes, ranging from individual racism to unconscious cultural biases. As such, it makes sense why the police would respond more harshly to protests by the left—they are more likely to include minorities than right-wing protests (which tend to consist mostly of white people).
While policing generally favors white people, politics can override race in terms of how the police respond to a protest. An excellent example of this occurred in Chicago, when two police officers attacked a 75-year old white protestor. There were attempts to cast the man as a threat, but these claims were unsubstantiated. As such, the political views of the protestors are also a factor that influences the police response. This is a moral problem because the response of the police to a protest should be based on the actions of the protestors and not on the views they profess.
One possible explanation for some of the disparity is that the police are more likely to disagree with the politics of the left. While police officers can, obviously, be liberal they will generally tend to more conservative than the people protesting at left-wing protests. There is also the fact that many left-wing protests, especially BLM protests, are explicitly protesting the wrongdoings of police. As such, left-wing protestors and the police tend to be in conflict, and this can contribute to the hostile response by the police. This is, however, obviously not justified—the police should not treat citizens based on whether they like or dislike their political views.
In contrast, the right-wing protestors often share ideological beliefs with the police and many right-wingers are very pro-police. It is, of course, human nature to respond more positively to people who agree with you and who claim to support you. An officer who is facing a BLM protestor calling for the police to be defunded will obviously feel different than when they are facing a Trump supporter who is wearing a thin blue line hat. However, this does not morally justify the disparity anymore than it would justify me grading papers based on whether I like the student writing it or not. Professionals are supposed to do their jobs professionally.
Of far greater concern are the ties between some police officers and far-right, white supremacist groups. This connection is nothing new and much of the history of policing in the United States is the history of the state enforcing racism. The enforcement of the laws governing slavery (especially the laws about fugitive slaves) is but the most obvious example. This is not to say that all or even most police are members of these groups—but some are, and the government has generally done little to address this problem. The government has also been very tolerant of the right-wing groups and Trump has been especially friendly with them—seeing them, correctly, as useful tools for his agenda. After all, Trump incited the storming of the capitol and then allowed the attack to play out. The relatively small amount of active police resistance was met with surprise and shock. I think this was an honest response. After all, they believed they were acting with the blessing of the President and some officers were extremely accommodating. It can be disconcerting for a right-wing protestor to face police violence in response to their actions: “This is not America,” a woman said to a small group, her voice shaking. “They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots.” On this view, the police are supposed to respond to protests based on the ideology (and race) of the protestors rather than based on their actions. The injustice of this view is obvious—unless one is a racist fascist like Trump and many of his supporters.
One reason a right-wing protestor can face police violence is that they can, obviously enough, encounter officers who are doing their jobs correctly and do something that warrants the use of force (like smashing through a door at the capitol). Another reason is that a right-wing protestor can provoke even sympathetic police with their actions. For example, while some of the police at the capitol were clearly friendly with the protestors, they would have likely used force if the protestors tried to attack the Vice President. It must also be noted that right-wingers differ in their views. A right-wing protestor might believe that the existing order must be violently destroyed to bring about their desired fascist utopia, while the right-wing officer confronting them might be ideologically committed to maintaining the existing system.
In closing, the disparity between the general responses to left-wing protests and right-wing protests proves that BLM is correct about the disparity in how people are policed. By responding harshly to peaceful BLM protests and generally tolerating violent right-wing protests the authorities make the case for many of BLM’s key claims.