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As rioters broke into the nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6 seemingly met by little police presence, observers around the country reacted with outrage at the stark contrast with how police and National Guard troops treated last year’s nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.
Even President-elect Joe Biden commented, in a speech the following day, on the disparity, saying, “No one can tell me that if it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesting yesterday, they wouldn’t have been treated very, very differently from the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol. We all know that’s true and it’s unacceptable. Totally unacceptable.” Added Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in a tweet: “We have witnessed two systems of justice: one that let extremists storm the U.S. Capitol yesterday, and another that released tear gas on peaceful protestors last summer. It’s simply unacceptable.”
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with one of the co-founders of the movement, activist and producer Patrisse Cullors, who is executive director of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, about her reaction to the “double standard” evidenced by Wednesday’s events, what it was like seeing the Confederate flag raised inside the Capitol building, and what allies in Hollywood can do right now.
What was your reaction yesterday to the news out of the Capitol?
The word I keep using is “disturbed.” I’m really disturbed by how far we’ve allowed white supremacist violence to reign in this country. And I was the most disturbed by the double standard. I’ve spent the last 20 years being a protestor, a community organizer, and, in the last seven years, supporting and helming the protest movement that is called Black Lives Matter, and we’ve experienced military, National Guard, militarized police, rubber bullets and tear gas at protests which are largely peaceful and protests that are talking about racial injustice and the fight for Black lives. And so, to watch mostly white people, white men, storm the U.S. Capitol with no consequence or accountability was shocking. We have to come to terms in this country about who this country truly protects and who it does not.
What was it like seeing images of the Confederate flag held aloft in the Capitol building?
It’s all very clear that what we witnessed on Jan. 6 for the better part of the day in D.C. was not just white supremacist terrorism, but also law enforcement allowing for these white supremacist terrorists to run amok in the nation’s Capitol. Witnessing the confederate flag being raised was both ironic but also reality — plain and simple — which is that this country is still dealing with its origin story, which is an origin story of white supremacist violence and the symbol of that white supremacist violence is the Confederate flag and it has been for a very long time.
Do you feel any hope that things can change?
Things are changing. Right before white supremacists stormed the Capitol, we got the first Black senator from Georgia, Raphael Warnock. We got the first Jewish senator since the 1880s from a Southern state, Jon Ossoff. Change is happening. It happens often slowly and it happens especially in this country with a significant amount of white backlash. We have to be prepared for it. History has shown us time and time again. While it was disturbing and shocking, it was not a surprise. When Black people rise up, when we challenge the status quo, when we push back, white supremacist terrorism has a temper tantrum. It has happened for years and that temper tantrum often leads to people dying. We saw that in Charlottesville. This is what this country is made of but we are changing it and it’s happening every single day.
What did you think of the response of the Capitol police and reports that some were taking selfies with the people who had breached the building, as well as footage that appeared to show some police letting people in?
I think we all understand that there was some level of — well, let me back up. Whenever there is a Black Lives Matter protest, many of the people leading that protest are called by the police ahead of time. They have already created a full-on tactical unit to respond to us and that’s for people who come with bullhorns and wearing face masks. These people [in D.C.] had actual weapons. They had bombs. They came nearly with pitchforks and there were only pats on the back and gently removing them from the sidewalk. One of the men, the one who went into Nancy Pelosi’s office — this is hearsay at this point — said the police got tired and gave up and asked them to go politely. For years, Black people, especially Black organizers, have talked about the difference in treatment between Black protestors and white protestors. Yesterday, we witnessed that as a country and as a world.
What can Hollywood and allies in the entertainment industry do in this moment?
I want to warn people as the shock wears off that people are going to start calling for harsher laws and calling for more police. But we have to steer away from that rhetoric because we already do have harsh laws for people who storm the Capitol for treason. We already have harsh laws for terrorists. But those laws are not actually practiced when it comes to white terrorists. So we have to have a different conversation right now, and I want to use Hollywood to take a pause and listen to grassroots organizers; listen to Black Lives Matter leadership and take a moment. We’ve been saying these things for years. When we call for the defending of the police, we are calling for the defending of white supremacy. Those are synonymous and we saw how synonymous it is yesterday. The call isn’t for punishment and revenge right now. The call is for reflection. The call is for accountability, and the call is for us to get Donald Trump out of the White House as soon as we possibly can before this inauguration.
Politically what is your focus on going forward?
Most important for us is ensuring that President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris get into office safely. I think the win of the Democratic party being the majority in the Senate is huge and I think the next phase of our work is holding all of these people accountable that we worked to get into office. We have to have the conversation about policing, focusing on climate change, and focusing obviously on COVID. But I’m not hearing the conversation around policing happening and we must have an honest conversation about reinvesting in our communities and divesting from police violence. I’ll say that I’m ready for a new team to get into office so that we can stop the unnecessary deaths of people dying from COVID-19. We need infrastructure across the country to really deal with this pandemic and this crisis, especially the impact it’s having on Black communities.
The last thing I’ll say is that I don’t believe what we experienced yesterday is the last of white supremacist violence. I believe that was a warning for the Democratic party in particular and all of us who have supported the party getting into office. So I think it’s important that we don’t see it as a one-off moment and that we see it as part of a long history of white supremacist violence that has impacted the entire country since the inception of the United States.
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