On June 26, 2020, in the midst of Black Lives Matter demonstrations against racism and police brutality, President Trump signed an executive order “protecting American monuments, memorials, and statues,” and calling for anyone who “participates in efforts to incite violence or other illegal activity in connection with the riots and acts of vandalism” to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Yesterday, a mob of violent Trump supporters stormed the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, destroying, vandalizing, and desecrating federal property in the process, including several sculptures in Statuary Hall. Yet no such indictment of their actions was expressed by the head of state, who was banned from Twitter and Facebook for inciting the insurrection and repeating unfounded claims of election fraud.
A tweet from last summer in which Trump authorizes “up to 10 years in prison” for anyone who vandalizes or destroys Federal property has resurfaced in the last 24 hours as a bitter reminder of the president’s hypocrisy. Critics have pointed to Trump’s negative bias toward social justice protesters, most of them peaceful, and unequal applications of the law.
The intruders breached the barricades of the Capitol — considered a monument in and of itself — shattering doors and windows, breaking into the offices of government officials, and looting and damaging furniture. A man carried off House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s lectern. Another ripped a scroll with Chinese characters from the wall of a room, according to the New York Times.
The mob also marched down the halls brandishing Confederate flags and decking statues in white supremacist and pro-Trump regalia, as seen in viral photographs that will forever alter perceptions of the historic building.
A bust of 12th US President Zachary Taylor was smeared in red liquid, presumably blood, by one of the agitators. Another climbed on top of a statue of 38th President Gerald R. Ford and outfitted the figure with a Make America Great Again cap and a Trump flag. An “America First” placard was rested on a statue of former US Senator Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and a stuffed eagle placed on his shoulder.
A Politico reporter shared a video clip that appears to show a group of rioters attempting to replace an American flag with a Trump banner.
Jillian McManemin, founder of the Toppled Monuments Archive Collective, an artist- and activist-led effort to document Confederate statues and other racist symbols dismantled by social justice protesters, called yesterday’s vandalisms “a display of white supremacist violence.”
“These actions are in opposition to the wave of topplings and defacements that continue to occur in response to racial injustice in America and worldwide,” McManemin told Hyperallergic. She notes the importance of focusing “on the event and on the people rather than the object.”
“In this focus, we consider each situation where a toppling and defacement has occurred,” McManemin added. “Who are the actors involved and what do their actions produce? Do these actions seek to dismantle the symbols of white supremacy? Or are they, as we collectively bore witness to yesterday, white supremacy in action?”
It remains to be seen whether the participants will be charged for their defacement of property and punished to the extent that the president’s executive order last year dictates. Though Trump eventually called for the violent mob to leave the premises, after much of the damage had already been done, he also described them as “very special” in a video that has since been taken down from Twitter for its inclusion of falsehoods regarding the 2020 election.
Regardless of any future punitive actions taken against the individuals who vandalized the Capitol yesterday, Trump’s nonchalance toward the group stands in stark contrast to his severe censure of BLM activists last year, as seen in his invocation of the phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The phrase, accompanied in the same tweet by the slur “thugs,” has known racist origins dating back to the civil rights era, when it was used by a white police officer to refer to a toughening of policies for policing Black neighborhoods in Miami.