As he watched TV coverage of the mob invading the U.S. Capitol, Ali Hussein thought back to the moment police shot him in the head with a projectile during George Floyd protests.
Like many of his peers, Ali, 20, who was born in Somalia and came to the U.S. when he was 13 years old, went to his first protest after the release of the graphic video showing Floyd’s murder.*
A dedicated YouTuber, he joined a rally May 27 outside the Minneapolis Police Third Precinct with the intention of documenting it. He had just finished filming a segment and was walking away from the precinct when police positioned on the roof shot him in the head with a projectile, he said. He fell immediately, bleeding near his eye. A crowd, including a volunteer paramedic, rushed to help. Later, at the hospital, he would learn that he had a hairline fracture of the skull.
On Wednesday, he watched pro-Trump crowds walk by police officers on the way to storming the Capitol. The experience did not look familiar.
“It was very, very different from what happened in Minneapolis and what happened to me,” Ali said. “They didn’t use tear gas or rubber bullets.”
Ali wasn’t the only local activist to note the difference between the treatment of insurrectionists at the U.S. Capitol and racial justice protesters in south Minneapolis. After Minneapolis police killed George Floyd this summer, police used rubber bullets and tear gas against peaceful protesters for days, even as they failed to stop fires and looting.
During the protests, police made 570 arrests. Seven months later, the sound of police helicopters over the city has grown familiar. Since Floyd’s death, the governor has called in the National Guard three times to address real or anticipated civil unrest.
None of these measures seemed to apply to the overwhelmingly white, pro-Trump insurrectionists.
For Ali, the unequal treatment stemmed from more than just race. He connected it to the central cause of the protests: how police feel about Black Lives Matter versus the grievances of Trump supporters.
“I’m not that angry,” he said. “It is what it is right now. You can see the different ways they treat different people.”
While Ali has followed the case of Dolal Idd, he now avoids protests. Instead, he does what he can to support them over social media. He’s recovered from his injury and the concussion, but he’s afraid he would get hurt again.
Doesn’t the FBI surveil white radicals?
As Burhan Israfael watched the mayhem Wednesday afternoon, he thought of his upbringing in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis. Burhan, a 30-year-old community organizer, described a community with a constant and heavy police presence. Young people frequently got arrested and released on the same day, seemingly for doing nothing more than loitering. Police targeted others with offers to drop criminal charges in exchange for acting as confidential informants and spy on their neighbors.
Burhan says his own activism—he’s protested against police violence since the early 2000s—led FBI agents to visit his home and workplace, part of the federal government’s Countering Violent Extremism program, which has targeted suspected radicalism in the Somali community. The restraint of law enforcement on display during the Capitol riots seemed alien to him.
“You’re telling me that they organized that type of infiltration of a federal building without any of them being on the radar of the FBI?” Burhan asked.
As immigrants, as Black people, and as Muslims, Burhan said, his community encounters more oppressive law enforcement, because “we’re seen as the real threats to this nation.”
Burhan wished law enforcement would treat his community with the same restraint.
“They weren’t quick to hit them or start shooting at them or to disperse the crowd,” he said. “They treated them as human beings. We’re not afforded that same right.”
Avoiding the term ‘terrorism’
Minneapolis-based writer and organizer Ramla Bile said she wasn’t surprised by what she saw in Washington. As the footage flooded TV and social media feeds, she worried that commenters were employing the word “terrorists” too freely to describe the people who forced their way into the Capitol.
“I’m not comfortable with the use of ‘terrorism’ because I’ve seen how arbitrarily it gets used on Muslims and has far-reaching legal consequences,” she said. Because of the Patriot Act”–the sweeping “anti-terrorism” law passed in the wake of 9/11—“we see specific cases involving conspiracy where you don’t even need evidence of a crime for people to get a decades-long sentence.”
Law enforcement at the Capitol didn’t always stay restrained on Wednesday. One officer shot and killed Ashli Babbitt, a Trump supporter who joined in with the mob.
Iman Hassan, a Minneapolis attorney who has participated in protests against police violence for several years, said the sympathetic framing of Babbitt in the media and national discussion reflects bias.
“To name her as a victim who’s a mother, a daughter, a wife, a service member, all of that is correct,” Iman said. “We must humanize people who pass away from police violence. But there’s a reason she’s given that.”
If Babbitt were Black or Muslim—or both—her participation in terrorism and extremism would be the only topic of conversation, said Iman, who is Somali American. Terrorism, in the American conversation, often has an intrinsic connection to Muslim identity and Blackness.
“I don’t agree with this language that we were seeing ‘white privilege’ at play,” Iman said. “It’s white supremacy we are witnessing play out at our Capitol. It’s white nationalism, domestic terrorism, and militant police violence that’s complicit in this attempt to stop the business of our nation.”
‘When it’s mostly Black bodies staring at police officers, it gets violent very quickly’
In protests against police violence for the past decade in Minneapolis, including this past summer after the police killing of Floyd, Iman has had police spray her with chemical irritants. She’s watched people on the front lines of a protest “take some awful blows” and heard stories from friends who’ve been beaten by police. She’s also stopped to give impromptu legal advice to Black minors in the process of being arrested.
“When it’s mostly Black bodies staring at police officers, it gets violent very quickly and they are not inclined to deescalate anything,” she said.
As Abena Abraham, an immigrant of Liberian and Ghanian descent, watched the attack on the Capitol unfold, her thoughts flew to Congress’s members of color—particularly Representative Ilhan Omar. “I knew they were specifically going to target those folks,” she said.
She noticed that elected officials like Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan condemned events in Washington. “Where was this energy when her good old buddy Tim was deploying the National Guard?” she said, pointing to racial justice protests in Minnesota. “Especially in communities where we have large refugee populations that are triggered and traumatized from this?”
She believes that pro-Trump protesters at the governor’s mansion in St. Paul have not encountered much of a police response.
“For weeks and weeks and weeks, we’ve had white supremacist Proud Boys going outside of the governor’s mansion and doing whatever they wanted,” she said. “They’ve never been matched with the same type of police or law enforcement presence we see for BLM peaceful rallies.”
Abraham says she’s concerned that after the violence at the Capitol, white supremacists will come to attack Black and brown people in their own communities. “These elected officials who are so surprised and shocked at what happened,” she said, “what is their plan to support vulnerable people in their communities?”
While activists and pundits debate the phrase “defund the police,” she said, right-wing radicals took bold action without worrying about messaging.
“I feel like it’s disappointing that white supremacists have been more bold than the folks that say they’re fighting for racial equity and justice for Black and brown folks in the US,” she said.
It was no mystery why the white insurrectionists received different treatment from Black Lives Matter protesters, she said.
“We have officers, for crying out loud, taking selfies with people,” she said. “You would never see that. Where were the rubber bullets? Where was the tear gas?”
*Correction: This story has been changed to reflect Ali Hussein’s actual age when he moved to the U.S.