The Relative Ethics of Occupying Capitol Buildings

In my own state of Wisconsin, one find a useful illustration of the double standard operating on the progressive left: the occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol building. Everybody around me glorified the moment protestors occupied the structure during the Act 10 protests in 2011. The occupation lasted several days. The number of occupiers put the alleged January 6, 2021 Washington DC coup to shame. “It’s the people’s house!” “We have the right to be here!” “We will not be moved! Occupation of the state capitol was justified as legitimate protest. Attacking the car Governor Walker rode in when he came to Green Bay to meet with business leaders was legitimate protest because the grievances were legitimate.

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Thousands storm Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin 2011

I witnessed all of it personally because I took part in it. Colleagues took their children to the occupation to share in the thrill of “what democracy looks like.” It was a family affair. Administrators excused public employees from work to go protest. When conservative employees complained, they were marginalized, scolded, and shamed. Public employee’s had a right to be angry because Walker and the Republicans were messing with their interests in preserving their right to unionize “We know we have a right to peaceful protest,” said Candice Owley, a Milwaukee nurse with the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals. “We don’t believe they should be removing us from the State Capitol.” Well, they did. And there were no arrests to my knowledge.

I am not the only one who thought of the comparison. Fox 11 News in Madison put up an article that, using the two sources rule, was a clinic in differential perception rooted in ideological commitment: Comparisons made between Washington D.C. and Wisconsin’s Act 10 protests. “It reminds me a lot of the actions that liberals in Wisconsin took back in 2011 when they stormed the capitol back then,” said Republican State Rep. Jim Steineke, Assembly Majority Leader. “They took it over. It was despicable back then. It’s despicable now.” “It was not a liberal movement,” objected Toni Baeb, former president of the Green Bay Education Association when asked about Steineke’s comment. “It was a movement about education and about a case and an issue that was important to educators and supporters of educators.”

First, if by “liberal” we mean progressive, which is what Steineke probably meant, then, yes, it was liberal in character (but that’s not really what liberal means). But, second, what difference does it make? Baeb admits that the 2011 protests were to try to stop Act 10, legislation that took away most collective bargaining rights for most of the state’s public employees. “There were thousands of people at the Capitol at that time,” said Baeb, “but I would venture to say that nobody felt the kind of danger that we saw today at our nation’s capitol.” Is it fear that decides whether occupying a capitol building is justified or is it politics, Baeb? But speaking of fear, “It was frightening,” Steineke responded. “A lot of us were being personally threatened, our families were being threatened, our homes were being protested at in some cases.” You know, like what we saw at the Black Lives Matter protests (which I blogged about extensively on Freedom and Reason).

Alongside the progressive double standard are the progressive false claims of double standards. We are told in memes and social media posts, even in the legacy media, that had the rioters at the Capitol been black and brown they would have been killed. It seems they missed entirely all the black and brown people at the protests and in the Capitol building (some of whom are being sought by the FBI). Perhaps that’s because they were too busy falsely characterizing this as the work of “white supremacists.” In one popular meme, we are shown a June 2, 2020 image of National Guard surrounding the Lincoln Memorial during the June Black Lives Matter protests. The soldiers were decked out in intimidating riot gear. Where was the riot gear on January 6, 2021? Progressives asked. Apparently they missed that, too.

Pro-Trump Mob Storms US Capitol
US Capitol Police push back protestors trying to enter the Capitol building Jan. 6, 2021.

However, those sharing the June 2, 2020 meme get the Lincoln Memorial picture entirely wrong. The GettyImages photo they’re sharing carried the headline, “US Cities Clean Up Damage As Riots Continue Across The Country,” it’s caption: “Anti-racism protests have put several US cities under curfew to suppress rioting, following the death of George Floyd in police custody.” The National Guard was called out only after widespread violence. You can figure this out by asking simple questions: What was happening on June 1? What is the context of this photo? The evidence is easily found by searching Google images. During the day the DC marches were peaceful. As you can see below, a massive BLM crowd marched on the White House without any significant police controls. This despite evidence that BLM had demonstrated an appetite for violence during the nights leading up to the march.

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Black Lives Matter at the White House, June 1, 2020

Nor did Black Lives Matter encounter any significant controls at the Capitol during the day.

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Black Lives Matter at the Capitol building, June 1, 2020

It’s what happened over several nights that caused the DC Police and National Guard to break out the riot gear. Do I need to show you all the fires, overturned cars, and looted stores? Do a Google search. See for yourself. Just make sure you identify the right city, because a lot of cities were on fire in those days. The mayhem was based on the false claim that there is systemic racism in civilian-officer encounters. The media has yet to educate the public on the voracity of Black Lives Matter claims (I am sure they have checked). For the record, the claims are false, as I proved on this blog.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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