How the Capitol Can Better Defend Itself From Riots
January 18, 2021 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: Capitol RiotInsurrectionSecurityCapitol PoliceDonald Trump

How the Capitol Can Better Defend Itself From Riots

There are several tactical lessons to be drawn.

The violent siege of the U.S. Capitol exposed serious security flaws and the influence of online platforms in organizing protests, offering lessons for law enforcement and future demonstrators. On Jan. 6, supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump besieged Capitol Hill and broke into the Capitol building in a violent confrontation that left four people dead, one a protester shot trying to break through a barricaded door and three others from unspecified "medical emergencies." Thousands of pro-Trump demonstrators had gathered in Washington in the third major preplanned demonstration in as many months to protest the outcome of the presidential election. This round of protests was timed to coincide with congressional certification of President-elect Joe Biden's victory — typically, a mere formality, but this year a high-profile political flashpoint — and came as Democrats were officially announced as winners in the two Senate runoff races in Georgia, thereby giving them control of both houses of Congress.

  • Trump supporters began arriving in the nation's capital in smaller numbers on Jan. 5 to attend the "Stop the Steal" rally that remained peaceful during the daytime, but escalated into confrontations with police that evening, leading to a dozen arrests. Unlike previous protests in November and December 2020, pro-Trump demonstrators primarily clashed with law enforcement rather than with counterprotesters, who mostly stayed home.

  • On the morning of Jan. 6, much larger crowds came out for the "Save America” rally at which the president, who had publicly promoted the event for weeks, began speaking shortly before noon. Following his hourlong speech during which he repeated unsubstantiated claims of widespread election fraud and urged attendees to take action, thousands of supporters walked toward the Capitol where they began clashing with police shortly after 1 p.m. as lawmakers gathered in a joint session in the House of Representatives chamber to count Electoral College votes.

  • Over the course of the afternoon, protests escalated, culminating in demonstrators breaching police lines and entering the Capitol, forcing the temporary suspension of Congress and the evacuation of lawmakers. In footage that received significant coverage on television and social media, Trump supporters overpowered the United States Capitol Police, the federal law enforcement agency responsible for protecting the Capitol Complex, and occupied its chambers, halls and offices, often stopping to pose for photos and videos.

  • It was not until after 7 p.m. that law enforcement officers began escorting lawmakers back to the House chamber and at 8 p.m. that Congress officially reconvened to resume counting Electoral College votes. Shortly before 4 a.m. on Jan. 7, Biden was officially certified as the winner of the 2020 presidential election.

The breach of the Capitol revealed significant security failures and drew widespread criticism that will inform future counterprotest efforts. Current and former law enforcement officials called the siege one of the biggest security lapses in recent U.S. history, saying it demonstrated that the Capitol Police were woefully unprepared despite advance warnings of potential violence and examples of similar scenes at state capitols since the November vote. On Jan. 7, amid widespread calls for the chief of the Capitol Police to step down, the House sergeant-at-arms said he would submit his resignation and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said he would fire the Senate sergeant-at-arms if he does not resign by the time Democrats take control of the chamber. At the same time, many commentators have complained of a double standard, drawing a stark comparison with the racial injustice demonstrations in Washington over the summer, when the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police and federal law enforcement officers were much more aggressive in confronting protesters. These critiques underscore the challenges security officials face in planning and responding to cases of unrest in racially charged atmospheres and point to the need to consider how law enforcement action can be perceived in different ways. 

  • Typically, representatives from a myriad of local and federal law enforcement agencies in the Washington area spend weeks planning for large protests, but this does not appear to have occurred — at least in any robust form — prior to the long-announced demonstrations called for Jan. 6. More information on the planning, or lack thereof, is sure to emerge in the coming days as officials trade recriminations for violence that clearly caught them unprepared. 

  • In contrast to events like the inauguration, at which law enforcement officers establish multiple perimeters (typically, a larger outer one, plus multiple smaller inner ones) to defend in depth, there was no outer perimeter around the whole Capitol Hill complex; instead, officers only established a barricade around the building itself, thereby allowing the protesters to get very close before ever being challenged.

  • According to Terrance Gainer, who previously served as chief of the Capitol Police and the Senate sergeant-at-arms, Capitol Police officers are trained to keep protesters off the outdoor marble steps on the western side of the building; however, protesters far outnumbering the deployed police officers quickly overran the barricade despite being tear-gassed. Once rioters took control of the western steps, they had easy access to the building's many windows and doors, which are difficult to fully secure. Similarly, on the east side of the building, those who broke through the relatively lighted manned barricade forced the line of officers to retreat up the stairs, enabling the protesters to follow them directly up the building, where they also entered.

  • Once inside the Capitol, rioters broke through hastily constructed furniture barricades, raising questions about the lack of secondary protections inside the building. After this point, they essentially went unchallenged and were able to roam freely inside for hours. In widely documented videos and photos, rioters were seen inside multiple theoretically secure locations, including the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Senate chamber, further demonstrating the lack of precautions for these highly symbolic rooms.

  • Other law enforcement arms of the federal government and local National Guard units were not mobilized until more than an hour after the protesters first breached the outdoor barricades on either side of the Capitol, and then took longer to arrive and begin clearing protesters from the building. Debates over who can request and approve District of Columbia National Guard support, combined with legal restrictions on military units operating on federal property, appear to account for part of the delay, but the belated mobilization will undoubtedly inform future protection efforts.

  • In taking a less proactive approach to confronting pro-Trump protesters, security officials may have wanted to avoid a repeat of last summer's racial injustice protests during which local and federal police officers were widely critiqued for overly-aggressive tactics. If so, they appear to have given the Capitol rioters too much latitude, renewing debate about racial disparities in policing. Many anti-Trump activists publicly noted that the Capitol demonstrators were mainly white, in contrast to the protest leaders over the summer who were mainly Black. 

  • The events of Jan. 6 revealed how laxer police activity can just as easily lead to violence as can aggressive tactics, which will surely inform ongoing efforts to find an appropriate balance.

The storming of the Capitol was organized and publicized online in easily replicable ways that other protesters with varying motivations will harness to facilitate future civil disturbances. For weeks, mainstream social media sites, niche right-wing forums and mobile messaging applications hosted open discussions about preparations for the violent takeover of the Capitol on Jan. 6. Some of this online activity was organic, while some materialized in response to the actions of Trump and his allies, who repeatedly used their social media feeds to encourage supporters to come to Washington and take action to try to overturn what they have continued to characterize as a fraudulent election result despite any evidence of such fraud.

  • Weeks before Jan. 6, Trump supporters in an interconnected digital ecosystem of both well-known and fringe platforms called for mass action — including many explicit appeals for violence — to prevent congressional certification. One former intelligence official who monitors online extremist activity told Reuters that starting Jan. 1, there were 1,480 posts from accounts related to the QAnon conspiracy theory that referred to the rally on Jan. 6 and included references to violence. Similarly, a nonprofit research group told BuzzFeed that 50% of the top posts between Jan. 4 and Jan. 6 on the prominent right-wing forum TheDonald, which was created after Reddit removed the forum for violating its hate speech policies, mentioned calls for violence. 

  • Beyond inciting violence in the abstract, protesters also used online platforms to plot concrete action. On Facebook, a group called Red-State Secession gathered nearly 8,000 members and linked to a website asking followers to send in the addresses and travel routes of perceived "enemies" to be targeted once protesters arrived in Washington. On Jan. 6, demonstrators exchanged logistical advice on niche right-wing sites like Gab and Parler, which hosted discussions about which streets to take to avoid the police and what tools to bring to break into Capitol offices.

  • Once inside the Capitol, rioters communicated with each other, documented their activities across multiple online platforms, and adjusted their tactics in real time. Shortly after the president tweeted that Vice President Mike Pence "didn't have the courage to do what should have been done" — a reference to Pence's refusal to block Biden's certification — messages on Gab called for those inside the building to hunt down the vice president and videos showed agitators chanting "Where is Pence?"

  • Rioters made concerted efforts to pose for photos and videos that were quickly uploaded or streamed online, indicating the value they see in promoting their message from such content and the ease with which online platforms can serve as dissemination mechanisms. Mainstream media outlets republished many of these photos and videos, amplifying the protesters’ message and probably helping to convince many protesters that they were successful at showing their power even if they did not succeed in preventing Biden's certification.

  • Before, during, and after the siege, protesters took steps to ensure their online accounts remained active, even as mainstream social media sites belatedly scrambled to remove violent content that violated their terms of service and niche platforms like Parler dealt with temporary disruptions amid surges in online traffic. Such tradecraft is easily replicable and demonstrates the challenges of combating online extremism.