Here’s the original English text of an article I contributed to Fonte Segura, a newsletter produced by Brazil’s Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública and Analítica Comunicação. It offers some warnings and lessons, for Brazil and elsewhere, from the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. It borrows a few sentences of language from my January 11 e-mail newsletter update, but is otherwise original material.
On the afternoon of January 6, as television images showed a mob of Donald Trump’s supporters entering and ransacking the U.S. Capitol building, my first thought—the first thought of many Americans—was: where are the security forces?
A thin line of U.S. Capitol Police (the force that protects the installations of the U.S. Congress), not outfitted for crowd control, was quickly overwhelmed. For far too long—hours—a few hundred Washington, DC city police were the only other law enforcement personnel to arrive on the scene.
The United States has been rigorously preparing and drilling its law enforcement forces to deal with attacks and disturbances since September 11, 2001. Off-the-shelf interagency plans exist. Tens of billions have been spent on new capabilities to protect federal government facilities and monuments. Displays of force and caution are so common that the term “security theater” is now part of the American vernacular. We all saw, in response to the June 2020 racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd, the remarkable and intimidating capability that U.S. law enforcement, both local and federal, can muster. In one night in Washington—June 1, 2020—police arrested 289 mostly peaceful “Black Lives Matter” protesters.
On January 6, though, when the protesters were mostly white and egged on by a sitting president, the deployment was far smaller, and agents were not initially equipped with riot gear. Capitol Police arrested only 13 people during the day of the rampage; Washington municipal police arrested 69 more.
The U.S. Congress’s Capitol Police force had seemed formidable. Though it only protects a neighborhood-sized area, its force of 2,000 officers has a half-billion-dollar budget, greater than that of the armed forces of Guatemala. They give an impression of being a thorough force that controls its territory on a micro level, known for scolding tourists for minor transgressions and arresting peaceful protesters, while mobilizing quickly when a threat arises.
But the force fell apart rapidly and spectacularly on January 6, and investigators are trying to figure out why. Clearly, a small but not insignificant number of Capitol Police officers shared sympathies with the pro-Trump rioters and were complicit, allowing them to enter the Capitol grounds and posing for selfies.
That’s of huge concern, and must be punished to the maximum criminal penalty. But the complicity of some doesn’t explain the failure: some Capitol police performed heroically to stop or divert the rioters. One died and more than 50 were injured.
The more urgent unanswered question is why the force received so little backup, so slowly, from a presidential administration that has been quick to contain other recent protests by deploying border agents, DEA agents, Bureau of Prisons personnel, and Army National Guardsmen. Barricaded in rooms with the mob just outside, congressional leaders and even Vice President Pence (who had been presiding the Senate) were calling urgently for help. Why did it take hours to come?
We now know that President Trump spent those hours glued to the television, appearing delighted at the spectacle and unwilling to call in security. Capitol security leadership and the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security and Defense have spent days engaging in finger-pointing, blaming each other for not responding, or for not making requests “the right way.” But the message the delay left is clear. Federal security forces’ management—and especially the Trump appointees at Homeland Security and Defense who were in charge of anticipating this situation, preparing, and calling for National Guard and other backup—either felt affinity with the rioters’ cause or are stunningly incompetent.
The United States’ legislative branch doesn’t have its own army. It just has the unexpectedly weak Capitol Police. It must depend on the executive branch for protection. We never realized before that this dependency was dangerous. January 6 shows how important that norm is. Ignore it—leave another branch of government vulnerable to mob attack—and everything falls apart if there’s no accountability. That’s why we obey democratic norms: because if we don’t, then nothing matters. We plunge into the abyss.
In the United States, for now at least, the norms have held. Congress made Joe Biden’s election victory official. The U.S. military remained loyal to the constitution, even as some in law enforcement seemed more loyal to the president. Donald Trump is now being impeached, even as he leaves office, for his role in enabling the January 6 insurrection—and the high-level delay in calling for more security will certainly be considered during his Senate trial.
The non-response to the mob attack on the Capitol shows the danger of politicized security forces. Nearly everywhere in the world, security force memberships tend to be conservative men with strong social biases. How to keep them apolitical while on the job, from being instrumentalized by an authoritarian leader, is a common challenge.
It means de-politicizing our law enforcement agencies. This starts by removing commanders and officials who are more loyal to a political leader than to the constitution.
It also means returning to an ethic of service, actively fighting against an encroaching “us versus them” mentality. Too often, officers view themselves as a “thin blue line” guarding against an entire sector of society. As the wildly uneven response to recent U.S. protests indicates, that sector to be guarded against tends to be racial minorities and people who hold left-of-center political views. In the United States, those who hold this “thin blue line” view even have a flag depicting it. This is toxic.
Brazil is in a similar situation. It, too, has an authoritarian populist president who heaps praise on, and seeks to instrumentalize, the security forces. The country’s 2022 election promises to be very close. When it happens, Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters’ tendency to deny reality could lead them, like Trump, to dispute the result of the voting. If something like that happens, what role will Brazil’s security forces play?
Authoritarian populist leaders have been gaining ground worldwide, and there are very few examples of one being defeated in an election before he could consolidate his dominion over institutions. The United States, though, is doing it. It’s not pretty—January 6 could hardly be uglier—but democratic institutions are holding. As one of the world’s very few “post-populist” democracies, the United States could end up being an even stronger example of functioning democracy than before.
There is much work to do, especially with our law enforcement agencies. But if the United States succeeds, it will hold up a light for countries, like Brazil, that remain under the the spell of 21st century “post-truth” elected authoritarians.