Since the events at the Capitol earlier this month, one question has been bothering many people: Why are the images we saw so different from images seen at protests over the summer?
If you’re critical of law enforcement, you wonder why you didn't see officers responding more aggressively. If you're sympathetic to law enforcement, you wonder where the national outrage was during violent protests this summer. And if you are law enforcement? You're probably just really exhausted by all this.
We are all consumers of social media. Through text messages, news clips and conversations with friends, we’re constantly exposed to some filtered version of reality, neatly packaged for us in short snippets of tiny videos and 2-line sentences that have been pre-selected for us by those we trust. Police know this well, which is why the introduction of body cameras has been generally well received by officers, who are almost always happy to add more context to the story.
Knowing this, I sat down to watch an entire timeline of footage taken from Parler on January 6th, compiled by Pro Publica in an excellent work of journalism. It’s the most comprehensive source I’ve seen of on-the-ground footage presented chronologically, and though there are pieces of the puzzle missing, it’s the only way I can think to allow people to judge for themselves. I watched all 500+ clips and came to the the same conclusion I started with – the quality of the police response to the January 6th riots depends on whatever it is you believe to begin with.
Reality provides an a-la-carte menu of alternate timelines you can use as you wish on your social media accounts to create a “choose your own ideological adventure” story.
For example, If you’d like to see cops seemingly “doing nothing” you’ll be delighted to share some moments seen at 2:50 and 3:22. If you want cops attacking crowds, please point your attention to this clip at 4:23 well as this one at 4:38. Scary riot gear? We got you. Want to see some action with “cops shooting crowds” (beanbags I believe)? Here you go. And, if you’re just a fan of the comically absurd, may I suggest the black lady helping the white guy who got tear gassed by cops at 3:36? Please retweet. (By the way, if you’d like to see video of “cops randomly shooting into crowds of people like they did at Black Lives Matter protests all summer,” please let me know when you find them)
Policing isn't a Hollywood movie with a flawless arc and refined character development. It’s chaotic and confusing, and you can find yourself moving barriers around for 8 hours before things go from zero to 100 real fast. And yet it has become incredibly symbolic, with cell phone videos spreading like wildfire online to prove a pre-determined narrative. Sometimes it seems that every incident caught on camera exists to serve our own confirmation bias, proving to you that "see? This is how it REALLY is." And it's not just the critics of police who are quick to judge. Pro-cop crowds aren’t immune to this either, magnifying videos, headlines and stories that fit their narrative just as gleefully online without always looking at the full picture.
The images shared on both sides are always emotional, and are always going to move anyone who has strong feelings about either law enforcement, civil rights or both – which is pretty much everyone. The impulse for Monday morning quarterbacking is real across the board, but in this case and many others, we never even watched the game. Instead, we watched a 5-second highlight reel, likely focused on the team we were rooting from the beginning.
And while we are all entitled to our knee-jerk emotional reactions, we don’t deserve knee-jerk policies. All too often our national hyperventilating leads to politicians implementing ridiculous policies, which are put together hastily when they confuse Twitter for their constituents. Policing requires split-second decisions, policy doesn’t.
In any case, cops don't choose who and what to protect, just like store employees don't choose which shoes to sell. They are guided by protocol and standards, and we can and should debate whether or not those were effective last week and over the summer. I can't tell you what the successes and failures were that day. Conclusions regarding police action or inaction should be drawn by experts after a careful review of footage, interviews and countless hours of after-action meetings and reports, and hopefully will result in continued improved practices. But meaningful shifts in policy stem from work that is thorough and complex, and rarely do thorough and complex things go viral.