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Black activists compare police treatment of Capitol insurrectionists to Rochester protests

State, local NAACP leaders question role of race in how Capitol mob was treated
Trump supporters gesture to U.S. Capitol Police in the hallway outside of the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Washington, D.C./Rochester, N.Y. - Millions around the world have expressed their personal shock, horror and anger following this week's insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

For social justice advocates in Rochester, the attack was also proof of a double-standard in the United States.

Members of Free the People ROC say local protests over the summer and subsequent months, which called for an end to racial inequality, have been met with much stronger law enforcement responses compared to what happened Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

"We’ve been advocating for an actual cause all summer long – not just all summer, but for years – advocating for actual change," said Avis Reese of Free the People ROC, "and (Wednesday) was a display based off of folks who lost an election."

Reese and other members of the organization gathered Thursday for a virtual roundtable discussion about Wednesday's attack.

Over the summer, Free the People ROC and other groups protested in Rochester in response to racial injustice in America. In May, protests followed the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. In September, protests focused on the death of Daniel Prude in Rochester.

The protests that followed in the days after Prude's death became public resulted in numerous arrests and, at times, the use of rubber bullets and pepper balls by police against protesters. Rochester Police said items including rocks, bottles and assorted debris were thrown at officers. Those who took part in the protests disputed the police department's characterization of events, arguing gatherings were peaceful and that officers' responses were not warranted.

MORE: Thousands march in Rochester at Daniel Prude protest; officers, protesters injured

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With those memories in mind, Reese said the response to Rochester protests, in contrast to what happened this week in Washington, is an example of inequity.

"The level of restraint they showed (Wednesday) versus what they showed in Rochester is infuriating," she said. "In terms of the media response too, I think of the number of times it was written up how the officers’ actions were warranted towards us because of a water bottle being thrown. You had people allegedly physically attacking officers yesterday, and there was restraint shown."

"Yesterday was just another telltale sign that we’re living in two Americas, for sure," said Serena Viktor of Free the People ROC. "But we also have to protect the sanctity of protesting, because it is a right to do that. We can’t afford one group or one group that is a specific skin color kiddie gloves, and then another group of people that have another skin color being terrorized by police forces."

MORE: Racial double standard clear in police response to rioters' Capitol insurrection

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The underlying motivation, activists say, is a source of frustration for them. Activist Reenah Golden says local protests have been aimed at ending injustice and bringing about equitable change.

"That’s not what we saw (Wednesday) at all," she said. "We saw an intention that was very, very clear. It was about destruction of property. It was about breaking and entering. It was about harming other individuals, holding people hostage. Those intentions were very clear. I think we’re all a little confused why those intentions and why those actions weren’t met with a call for restoring ‘law and order.'"

They say Wednesday's attack should provide for a moment of reflection, not only for the impact it has on the nation, but on how we discuss it, too.

"What they did (Wednesday) was not a protest," said Breyana Clark of Free the People ROC. "They had very clear goals to basically overthrow democracy, to overturn something that’s already set in place, which is the transfer of power, to basically show an excessive amount of force and reintroduce the amount of privilege many of us already knew they have and show how much they can get away with, how above the law they actually are. And I think that when reporting this, we have to be mindful of how we frame this, and we have to understand that this was an act of white supremacy."