Talking Points

How the George Floyd protests informed the military's slow response on Jan. 6

On Jan. 6, the Pentagon did the wrong thing for the right reasons.

The wrong thing, of course, was not responding quickly when it became clear that "Stop the Steal" protests had morphed into something much more treacherous. Defense leaders have taken a lot of heat for the military's sluggish reaction, but some of the blame surely goes to then-President Trump, who was reportedly "delighted" by the scenes of chaos, and who never got around to ordering the military to intervene.

A new Senate report on the security failures of Jan. 6 reveals that something else was going on, too: Having come under fierce criticism for their response to nationwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations during the summer of 2020, Pentagon officials were anxious not to be seen using force against a political protest at a highly charged moment.

"DOD's response to January 6 was informed by criticism it received about its response to the civil unrest after the murder of George Floyd during the summer of 2020," the report explains. "DOD was criticized for its heavy-handed response, particularly flying military helicopters over the protests... DOD officials cited lessons learned from the summer 2020 as guiding its decision-making for January 6."

That's actually pretty reasonable.

By the time the insurrection had occurred, Gen. Mark Milley had long since apologized for appearing in Trump's disastrous Lafayette Square photo op. The New York Times newsroom had torn itself apart over an op-ed urging the military be sent into the streets to crack down on the post-George Floyd unrest. And defense leaders had spent months before the election rightly signaling their desire not to be drawn into domestic politics.

That is the correct instinct. In the case of Jan. 6, however, the impulse also produced a dangerously insufficient response to an actual insurrection.

Perhaps we'll eventually learn that something more sinister was at work in the Defense Department's actions that day. Certainly, one can't help but note that the largely white MAGA crowd was treated with more deference than the previous summer's BLM protesters. But right now the evidence suggests we're left with an irony — in its desire to respect democratic rights, the Pentagon inadvertently allowed American democracy to be grievously wounded.