Commentary: The historical roots of the security failure at the Capitol

  • Troops, one with a machine gun, stand guard on the steps of the U.S. Senate wing of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., on April 5, 1968. Federal troops were called into the nation’s capital by order of President Lyndon Johnson following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4. AP

  • The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Washington Post
Published: 1/18/2021 6:00:06 AM

During the attempted insurrection on Jan. 6, billows of smoke blanketed the Capitol, where outnumbered U.S. Capitol Police officers tried in vain to contain the mob of pro-Trump extremists.

This was not the first time you could see smoke from the Capitol. In 1968, flames enveloped Washington, D.C. following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Yet back then, detailed coordinated plans between the numerous federal and local agencies that police D.C. helped prevent violence at the Capitol.

After the ’68 uprising, these agencies built an even stronger security apparatus to prevent an insurrection in the capital city. A robust blueprint has existed for over 50 years. But the events of Jan. 6 reveal the federal government’s failure to take seriously the threat of extremist violence from the right, and its unwillingness to use the tools available to plan for and deploy troops to protect the Capitol.

After a long summer of riots in 1967, President Lyndon Johnson took aggressive measures to prepare for a possible disturbance in Washington, D.C. Attorney General Ramsey Clark established a secret intelligence unit within the Justice Department to collect information on Black activists and to better coordinate responses with state and local officials.

Johnson also granted permission to the U.S. Army to conduct its own surveillance operation and commissioned the office of the secretary of defense to issue riot-control plans. Code-named Operation Cabin Guard, the Army’s subsequent plan relied on well-prepared, racially integrated military units trained in riot control techniques and assigned to specific police precincts. In February and March 1968, officers toured their assigned precincts and met with D.C. police. Operation Cabin Guard ensured close coordination between the National Guard, local police and the U.S. Army.

Hours after the riots began in D.C. on April 4, 1968, federal officials implemented Operation Cabin Guard. Shortly afterward, D.C. Mayor Walter Washington consulted with Deputy Attorney General Warren Christopher, who provided the president with an executive order and proclamation necessary to authorize the use of federal troops and federalize the District National Guard.

The carefully coordinated plan helped police officers and national guardsmen exercise restraint. Despite the 7,500 arrests made and 15,000 troops called in, only 13 citizens died. Of the 13 deaths, only two came at the hands of police. This differed drastically from the death tolls from riots in other big cities, where city and state police and guardsmen bore responsibility for most of the deaths.

In addition to the uprisings, the FBI and Justice Department were monitoring the Poor People’s Campaign, a national antipoverty campaign that King had announced in December 1967. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King’s organization, had promised to come to the capital in May to build Resurrection City, a shantytown on the Mall and in view of the Lincoln Memorial, to draw attention to the country’s poorest citizens.

In response, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover demanded exceptional interdepartmental cooperation, requiring that agents secure direct lines to key information-sharing sources in the local police, state police intelligence units and regional military intelligence groups.

Meanwhile, the April riots had prompted the Justice Department to expand its intelligence capabilities to yield more accurate information about the activities of the city’s own militant groups as well as those heading to Washington for the Poor People’s Campaign. Throughout the winter and spring, these agencies made the campaign a focal point of their frontal assault on Black activism in D.C. and throughout the country.

Lacking firm information and fearing further protests, federal officials, from the White House on down, cooperated closely with the D.C. government to prepare. In the month between the riots and the Poor People’s Campaign, Attorney General Clark worked to improve coordination between D.C., Maryland and Virginia officials on curfews, traffic control and the sale of guns, gas and liquor. These efforts also included enhanced coordination on everything from troop deployment to communications.

Working closely with the FBI, the Justice Department kept tabs on Black citizens who they believed were traveling to the capital for the demonstration. Rumors abounded: Black activists in Alabama were planning to take over the campaign and foment unrest when they arrived in the District; local leaders down south were conspiring with noted militant and D.C. resident Stokely Carmichael; Southern youths were carrying weapons to loot Washington stores.

The rumors, while baseless, served to stoke officials’ fears about the potential for violence. While the Poor People’s Campaign was generally peaceful, police arrested 77 Black demonstrators protesting for an expanded surplus-food program for the poor at the Agriculture Department. When the remaining 300 demonstrators crossed the Washington Monument grounds in retreat, they scuffled with a lone Park police officer, who immediately called for backup.

One hundred-fifty officers from Park and D.C. police swiftly arrived on the scene, throwing 15 tear gas canisters into the crowd and several more over the fence into Resurrection City.

Taken together, it is clear that these federal and local agencies repressed Black citizens under the pretense of policing the capital. Actions taken during the ’68 riots and Poor People’s Campaign underscore the ease of implementing coordinated law-and-order campaigns when the targets are Black. Government agencies built the infrastructure – infrastructure that has been further strengthened since 9/11 over fears of foreign terrorism – to militarize the Capitol grounds, surveil non-White citizens and suppress liberal activism.

So where was that coordination on Jan. 6?

Ever since President Donald Trump’s Nov. 3 election loss, he has rejected the results and encouraged his supporters, whom he called “patriots,” to descend on Washington to protest the results.

On Dec. 19, five days after the electoral college finalized states’ counts, the president advertised and endorsed the “Stop the Steal” protest. Promises of violence spread openly online by well-known far-right radicals. The FBI’s Norfolk office even “issued an explicit internal warning that extremists were preparing to travel to Washington to commit violence and “war” – information that the then-Capitol police chief says he never received.

Pentagon officials report that in the days leading up to the siege, the chief repeatedly assured Congress that his officers could handle the expected crowds. They maintain that the Capitol Police did not ask for D.C. guard backup or request to put in place a riot contingency plan.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, D, even urged lighter security for the pro-Trump rally than she had for last summer’s protests for racial justice. But when 8,000 pro-Trump demonstrators marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, they overran the Capitol Police’s 1,400 officers and entered the Capitol.

When the Capitol Police needed backup, the bureaucratic nightmare began. Since the D.C. Guard does not report to Bowser, she could not authorize soldiers to go to the Capitol. Pentagon officials reportedly initially dismissed calls for reinforcement. (The Pentagon disputes those reports.) Then they claimed confusion over what resources were needed.

It took hours to scramble a proper response, despite members of Congress and staff pleading with everyone from presidential aides to the Maryland and Virginia governors for help as some sheltered in secure locations and others hid under furniture.

This debacle reflects the reality explained by policing expert Alex Vitale: “Threats from the left and from racial minorities are always exaggerated, while threats from the right and from nationalist groups are always diminished.”

These disparities can be traced to the institutional and implicit biases against people of color that infect the criminal justice system. Unconscious prejudices among law enforcement officials influence their day-to-day actions, leading to the situation in which the Capitol police found itself.

The nation’s capital has one of the most robust police networks in the country. The Capitol Police alone, responsible for security at the Capitol, have a half-billion dollar per year budget and over 2,000 sworn officers. Yet still the force was underprepared to manage the crisis.

But the Capitol Police were not alone in their failure to stop the mob violence on Jan. 6. The federal government chose not to use the tools at its disposal to limit the work of white extremists, in part because the tools were never designed to be used against them.

(Lauren Pearlman is an assistant professor of history at the University of Florida and author of the new book “Democracy’s Capital: Black Political Power in Washington, D.C., 1960s-1970s.”)




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