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On Inauguration Day, Police Nationwide Went After Left-Wing Protesters

The increased police response following the events of January 6 ended up being directed toward anti-racist protesters.

Sacramento police in riot gear on bikes stay close to antifa protesters marching near the California State Capitol on January 20, 2021, in Sacramento, California.

The storming of the U.S. Capitol by armed far right activists shifted the political climate for much of the U.S., despite the fact that anti-fascist activists and researchers had been warning for years that this type of response was imminent. While the tone and behavior of the far right had escalated since the election — a result of Donald Trump’s failure to win a second term and his explosive conspiracy theories — the events on January 6 showed that the risks were not just street-level violence that had been seen for years. Inauguration Day, where Trump would be officially replaced, was then the next assumed flashpoint, and state officials and anti-racist activists were bracing themselves for violence as armed far right rallies were planned in every U.S. state.

This anticipation was met by a change in circumstances: a much more subdued far right presence at state capitols, major cities and Washington, D.C., itself. Instead, the police’s response to many anti-racist protesters, who outnumbered the far right in most locales, gives us insight into one of the threats that left-wing activists may face under the Biden administration.

A Climate of Fear

Since the violence of January 6 had outpaced predictions, and the rollover from 2020 into 2021 had been marked by such profound violence from pro-Trump groups like the Proud Boys and “patriot” militias, organizers around the country mobilized counterdemonstrations. Across far right social media platforms, pro-Trump activists seemed poised to escalate the behavior that was on display on the 6th and ramp up potential acts of violence. Since Trump has mainstreamed a conspiracy theory about shadow governments, pedophile cabals and a stolen election, the response from Trump loyalists is one of total government takeover and counterrevolutionary revolt. In the days since the events of the Capitol breach, these same activists have also seen a massive backlash as Trump was removed from social media, alternative platforms like Parler were taken down and law enforcement is rounding up those who stormed the Capitol.

Since there is often a reliable pattern of far right violence, and because heated acts of seemingly impulsive violence often follow in moments of decline or failure in their movement, it was reasonable to assume that violence at the far right’s January 20 events was possible. In cities around the country, there were dueling protests arranged: where the far right would stage a rally (often armed and threatening), left-wing counterdemonstrators would show up to challenge them, and some also wanted to challenge the incoming Biden administration for its assumed neoliberal policies. As January 20 rounded the corner, the U.S. collectively held its breath as the National Guard was deployed, city law enforcement fortified the areas, and there were concerns that dissidents inside of law enforcement and the military could turn on the state.

As Inauguration Day proceeded, there was a deviation from this predicted situation despite there being rallies all across the country. In Sacramento, California, many activists expected a mass showing of far right Trump supporters, but only a handful arrived. “There were very few Trump worshipers on the ground,” says Abner Häuge, who was in Sacramento and who monitors the far right for Left Coast Right Watch. “I think they come out [in] force when they have the green light from the cops behind the scenes…. It’s obvious the cops aren’t [going to] get away with letting them [engage in violence].” The large outcry after January 6 created a climate of pressure on police departments, who have often been criticized for perceived soft-handed approaches to the far right, to respond with indictments and arrests.

Instead, when around 80 anti-racist protesters marched from Sacramento’s Fremont Park to a local facility for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), that is where the police and the National Guard focused their energy, including detaining three people.

In Denver, Colorado, the sight was much the same. “The organized far right was not visible really. It was hodgepodge of a few evangelicals and a handful of Trump supporters who were interspersed and not together,” says Asher Crowne of the Capitol Hill Outreach Medics, a Denver-based mutual aid network that supports anti-racist protest movements. “It was announced here [that the] FBI and [Department of Homeland Security (DHS)] would be monitoring here today on the news … [so] they knew the FBI, DHS, [Denver Police Department and] Colorado State [Patrol] were present and/or monitoring from their cyber-command bases here in Denver, and after seeing what happened to their fellow [fascists] in D.C., they didn’t want to risk charges.”

In anticipation of the far right coming out, and to protest the complacency of the incoming Biden administration, the anti-racist protesters took to the streets in Denver, leading to two arrests.

Many activists were concerned about what might happen in Salem, Oregon, after two recent incidents of far right violence, including attempts at occupation of the capitol buildings. Anti-racist protesters who came to Salem instead found just a handful of far right activists, only a fraction of the hundreds who had been staging armed actions. “Pretty pathetic. I think after [January 6], reality finally started to kick in for them. They finally realized they lost and now they’re feeling their defeat,” says Trenton Barker, who has been watching the threat of far right groups in the area and says that only five Trump supporters were poised at the capitol building upon arrival, none with the flags and signs that had typified earlier demonstration. In towns like Carson City, Nevada, and Topeka, Kansas, tiny contingents, a number that could often be counted on one hand, came out for quiet protest actions.

While people were expecting a threatening presence from far right activists, ramped up after the January 6 events, the actual presence was muted as many stayed home. Instead, a different type of violence was on display as police departments around the country resumed the use of force on anti-racist demonstrations, a common pattern that was seen in 2020.

In Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon, police responded to protests at federal facilities involved with immigration. Despite some vandalism, protesters were reportedly nonviolent at demonstrations in Portland, yet police shot teargas canisters and pepper balls. “Their response felt wildly out of proportion to the minor vandalism that was mostly done to plywood attached to the building’s facade,” says Daniel Vincent, a photographer who was at two demonstrations in Portland on January 20 and reported being hit with a teargas canister after police fired them into a crowd of protesters and reporters.

The increased tensions around the Inauguration Day protests, which were the result of threats of far right violence, had the effect of leading to increased law enforcement presence. Since left-wing demonstrations were also planned for January 20, police turned their attention to anti-racist demonstrations. In Portland, police connected their ability to stage mass arrests (14 anti-racist protesters were arrested) to the fact that their resources had been fortified in advance of Inauguration Day. This means that because of the increased law enforcement response to the far right, police had the resources to sweep the left-wing protest instead.

Why It Happened

There was a reason the protests on January 20 didn’t meet most people’s expectations. The brazenness of the Capitol siege displayed a certain hubris in how this radicalized section of Trump’s base was willing to take action in public view of cameras and police. This came, to a large extent, because of the light hand that law enforcement has often taken with far right protests and the lack of a large and visible presence from anti-racist counterdemonstrations on January 6 in D.C. In the days that followed, law enforcement ramped up their response to those who had stormed the Capitol, throwing a wrench into Trump loyalists’ feelings of impunity.

“In the aftermath of January 6, the FBI moved quickly to investigate and arrest suspected insurrectionists, and many far right individuals, organizations and forums lost their social media platforms and web providers, after their inflammatory rhetoric, and direct ties to rioters, were exposed,” said Ben Lorber, a research analyst with Political Research Associates who tracks the far right. “In the wake of this, many far right leaders advised followers to lay low and avoid public rallies for fear of government crackdown, and in many cases, those who advocated to take the streets were even suspected of being federal instigators.”

Much of the leadership of the white nationalist community in the “alt-right” showed their opposition to participation in both the January 6 and January 20 protests, suggesting that those involved, particularly white nationalist leaders Nick Fuentes and Tim Gionet (known as Baked Alaska), were about to face serious criminal charges.

“An example will be made of them, and it will be the organizers,” said white supremacist Richard Spencer on an episode of his podcast in advance of the Inauguration Day protests. “In storming the U.S. Capitol, the people who participated in the Capitol siege attacked the seat of government of the United States to dispute the outcome of an election … there’s no comparison between what Charlottesville was and what this was.”

The lack of participation on Inauguration Day should not be seen, however, as a sign of the movement’s decline or in their willingness to engage in violence. While most far right members chose not to repeat a siege less than two weeks after the first, noting the law enforcement and public response, the numbers of those willing to take this kind of action, or support it in some way, are enormous, as we saw from the size of the violent “stop the steal” and “anti-mask” protests across 2020. The majority of Republicans say that the election was stolen by fraud and conspiracy, and major GOP figures have played a role in radicalization as they mainstreamed militia talking points, “birther” and QAnon conspiracy theories. Instead, this is a sign of the regrouping the movement is attempting and their responsiveness to the conditions they are creating. In the coming month, as anti-racist protest actions continue and Joe Biden continues his new presidency, we will likely see a Trumpian movement, now dispersed and decentralized, that will lead people into further confrontations.

“In this atmosphere of fear and paranoia, January 20 proved to be a no-show for the far right,” says Lorber. “But in months and years to come, as the dust settles, the far right could mobilize in fiercer form, viewing the January 6 insurrection as inspiration for bolder and better-organized attacks against multiracial democracy.”

And while the threat from the far right remains immanent, so does the increased state repression against anti-racist protesters that many experienced in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of 2020. While the new Democratic administration gave many hopes for law enforcement reform, in cities like Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, we are seeing the continuation of aggressive law enforcement responses — not toward the far right but toward the left-wing counterdemonstrators. With many calling for increased law enforcement attention toward the far right, even potential counterterrorism measures, it is clear that those measures are often turned against anti-racist protesters despite not presenting anywhere near the threat that the far right does.

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