The False Equivalence of the Capitol Attack and BLM Protests

I’m a fan of Sam Harris. His recent episode (full video above) about the attack on the U.S. Capitol is excellent. But he makes a couple of uncharacteristic errors in his argument.

Sam’s a talented debater and I’m less talented, but I wonder how he’d respond to this criticism.

We’ve all heard the right-wing say that the attack on the U.S. Capitol was no different than the destruction to public property caused during some of the BLM protests over the summer. This is a ludicrous false equivalency. Harris recognizes it as such, calling it “idiotic”. Yet, he goes on to rationalize the MAGA perspective by saying that the BLM protests were equally violent.

A study of violence during the summer’s BLM protests concluded that 93% were peaceful. When violence did break out, it was often either directly instigated, or at least inflamed, by right-wing counter-protesters and legions of heavily armed police, not to mention unmarked federal forces.

By stark contrast, at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, there were no left-wing instigators or legions of heavily armed police. The insurrectionists were on the offensive, not the defensive.

The enormous difference in scale also makes comparison difficult. The BLM protests consisted of more than 7,750 protests in all 50 U.S. states, plus the District of Colombia. All together they involved millions of people. At that scale, it’s unlikely to achieve better than 93% non-violence. Especially when at many of those events the protesters faced aggressive police and racist counterprotesters. The fact that 93% of the protests were peaceful shows a laudable level of civility and restraint on the part of the protesters.

We need to be clear-eyed about the fact that the BLM protests were collectively the costliest civil disorder incident in American history (data below), but that needs to be taken in context of the enormous scale of the BLM protests and the aggressive, heavily-armed counterprotest that they faced.

Table of costliest civil disorder incidents in U.S. history. Data from Insurance Information Institute.
image source: https://www.axios.com/riots-cost-property-damage-276c9bcc-a455-4067-b06a-66f9db4cea9c.html

What about the right wing’s favorite bogeyman, Antifa?

The well-regarded think tank CSIS states that Antifa played “a minor role in violence” in this summer’s BLM protests. There is evidence however, that right-wing extremists were posing as Antifa and trying to get them blamed for violence.

Is the flip side true? Was Antifa involved in the Capitol attack?

No. The FBI says that there’s “no indication” that Antifa took part in the January 6th attack on the Capitol. USA Today has a post on exactly how Antifa got wrongly blamed for January 6th.

Finally, let’s look at the underlying justifications given for the attack on the Capitol versus the BLM protests.

An insurrectionist carries a Confederate flag through the U.S. Capitol, January 6th 2021.
image source: Erin Schaff/The New York Times

The Capitol attackers’ primary cause was to overturn a legitimate democratic election. An election that the federal government’s own CISA called “the most secure in American history”.

On the distant other hand, the BLM protests were in response to a decades-long, well-documented problem of systemic racism and police violence targeted towards people of color.

Data from FiveThirtyEight on how getting arrested is deadlier for Black people than White people in the U.S.
image source: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/being-arrested-is-nearly-twice-as-deadly-for-african-americans-as-whites/

The Capitol attackers’ cause was patently unjust, while the BLM protesters’ cause was patently just.

Yet, Harris refers to the BLM protests as a “sickening eruption of criminality”.

Really Sam? Let’s keep the context, scale, and proportionality in mind. You’re better than that. We all should be better than that.

Sam continues on in this episode to critique Biden and Harris for calling out the fact that if an angry mob of people of color had stormed the Capitol, they would have been met with far more violence. He cites the footage of officer Eugene Goodman desperately trying to hold back the mob and says that use of force wasn’t a viable option for Goodman. Sam says that if enough police were at the Capitol that day, they would have met the insurrectionists with more force.

Perhaps. We’ll never know.

But the fact that there wasn’t a large police presence at that Capitol that day is the very point. There was a mountain of public evidence prior to January 6th that an attack might be coming. The President was calling for one. And yet, our nation didn’t take the MAGA threat seriously.

Biden and Harris were absolutely right: if an angry mob of people of color had stormed the Capitol, after days of copious public evidence that they would do so, they would have been met with a far larger police force and the casualties would have been far higher.

Harris says it’s wrong to “dunk on the right” if we want to attempt to heal the divide in our country.

Yes, we urgently need think about how to heal and act.

But there must be accountability for an insurrection against the United States government spurred on by the sitting President of the United States. There also must be a good-faith effort by the Republicans to return the party to civility, truth, and the rule of law.

Those are prerequisites if our nation is to sincerely begin the effort of healing.

That said, credit where credit is due. Some Republicans, like Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski, are trying to rescue the party, and are putting their careers on the line to do so. Some may say too little, too late, but better late than never.

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Jonathan Falker

VP of Marketing at Redica Systems. Ex @Intel, @Sunrun, several startups. Hoya, Trojan. Enjoying mountain life in Truckee.