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Did race play a role in police treatment of Capitol mob?

“If my two Black sons did that, they would be laying on the Capitol floor not breathing.”
Trump supporters gesture to U.S. Capitol Police in the hallway outside of the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday. Watching from afar, some Tampa Bay leaders noticed a contrast with how Black protesters have been treated by law enforcement over the last year.
Trump supporters gesture to U.S. Capitol Police in the hallway outside of the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday. Watching from afar, some Tampa Bay leaders noticed a contrast with how Black protesters have been treated by law enforcement over the last year. [ MANUEL BALCE CENETA | AP ]
Published Jan. 7
Updated Jan. 7

When Christina Boneta, a Pasco Black Lives Matter protest leader, saw photos of right-wing rioters storming the United States Capitol on Wednesday, she felt she recognized them.

They had the same angry faces as the pro-Trump groups that sometimes yelled threats or flashed their guns at Black Lives Matter protesters in New Port Richey. Police always seemed to ignore them, she said.

Now the nation was seeing them on a much larger stage.

Weapons waving. Glass windows shattered. Civilians taking over the U.S. House floor and the desk of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. A Pro-Trump mob threatening people in the highest halls of power in the country, leaving four dead.

To her, the disparity was clear.

“If Black Lives Matter protesters even decided to step close to the Capitol we would probably be immediately pepper sprayed and treated with violence,” Boneta said. “People would be going to jail, people would be getting hurt, and it would not be met with understanding.”

Black Lives Matter Pasco activist Christina Boneta poses for a portrait in November in Hudson. Boneta has received $2,500 in fines for using her megaphone during protests.
Black Lives Matter Pasco activist Christina Boneta poses for a portrait in November in Hudson. Boneta has received $2,500 in fines for using her megaphone during protests. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Over the summer, demonstrators with Black Lives Matter in New Port Richey were fined thousands of dollars for using megaphones. Boneta was arrested and charged with resisting arrest after questioning an officer.

But the counter-protesters who came to heckle them were treated different, she said. They used megaphones, waved guns and almost ran people over — all with no consequences.

“We are considered violent and considered not peaceful — and the other side does what they want,” she said.

The scene at the Capitol hit close to home for Black leaders who watched aggressive police responses unfold against Black Lives Matter protesters over the summer only to see the mostly-white mob in Washington push past police and storm the highest levels of government.

“If my two Black sons did that, they would be laying on the Capitol floor not breathing,” said community leader Rene Flowers, who was recently elected to the Pinellas County Commission.

Flowers believes the mob was partially a response to historic political gains across the nation by Black and brown candidates this election cycle. The scenes at the Capitol reminded her of the Civil Rights era when Black people were hung and lynched during their fight for equality in an attempt to maintain the status-quo.

It’s the threat of “loss of power and perceived control,” said Flowers.

That history of injustice still casts a long shadow, experts say.

“Here we are in the 21st century and we’re still wrestling with the issues around the color line in America,” said Fred Hearns, a Tampa historian. For Hearns, watching the mob storm the Capitol reminded him of W.E.B. Du Bois, who predicted the color struggle would persist through the 20th century. Yet, Hearns sees it extending into the present.

He said the siege didn’t surprise him, but the lack of response from the people in power did. The police in riot gear who confronted Black protesters this summer were largely missing early on Wednesday as the mob pushed into the Capitol.

Hearns can’t think of a time when Black protesters have taken over a government facility with little to no resistance.

Kenneth Nunn, a civil rights law professor at the University of Florida, compared the mayhem Wednesday to another moment in front of the White House last summer: The day riot officers unleashed flash grenades and chemical spray at peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters and clergy members to secure a photo opportunity for President Trump.

“The bottom line is when they are ready to clear the individuals off those steps and out of the Capitol they have the capacity and ability to do it,” he said. “It looks like a double standard.”

In the past, Trump has called Black Lives Matter protesters “thugs” and threatened anyone who damages federal buildings with 10 years in prison.

But on Wednesday, after the rioters fought police, infiltrated the Capitol building and destroyed journalists’ equipment, Trump called them “very special people.” He said he backed their cause and that they should “go home in peace.”

Local Black lawmakers are speaking out against the president’s actions.

“This country has watched its leadership defend and engage with racists and white supremacists since the Trump administration took office,” state Rep. Michele Rayner said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. “This country is reckoning with the reality that Black people face everyday — that the threat to democracy isn’t diversity, it’s bigotry.

I’m calling upon all our elected officials, public servants, and the American people to condemn the actions of domestic terrorists and to work together to restore integrity in our government.”

State Rep. Frentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, agreed.

“These protesters are not patriots and it is beyond reprieve that they were able to penetrate a federal building and inflict violence, when Black Americans who were protesting peacefully were pinned down for far less.” Driskell said. “This is a crisis of the outgoing president’s own making, and anyone who doesn’t condemn these actions is complicit.”

The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.

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Tampa Bay Times U.S. Capitol coverage

REACTING TO RESPONSE : Did race play a role in police treatment of the U.S. Capitol mob?

CALL TO ACTION: Charlie Crist: Remove Donald Trump from office by invoking 25th Amendment

25TH AMENDMENT: When can it be used against a president?

EDITORIAL: The ugly spectacle perfectly captured the Trump-era GOP.

CLASSROOM TOPICS: Tampa Bay teachers, parents brace for tough conversations after U.S. Capitol siege

POLITIFACT FACT-CHECKS THE SIEGE: Here’s a look at the day’s short session, and the chaos that interrupted it.

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