On Thursday, Lt. Michael Byrd disclosed to NBC News’ Lester Holt that he was the Capitol Police officer who fatally shot Ashli Babbitt on Jan. 6. Byrd, who is Black, immediately became the target of racism and death threats from the right-wing extremists who thrive in fact-free social media echo chambers. Those racist rants exposed not only the violent mindset that has been growing over the past few years, but also a hateful hypocrisy.
The messagingplatform Telegram is popular with those seeking to avoid the public scrutiny of more widely used public apps because of its privacy and end-to-end encryption features. Users called Byrd racial slurs and described him as a dead man walking. One poster asked: “Why isn’t he hang (sic) yet?” Lynching references were rampant. “He should swing for treason,” read another comment.
Far from anomalies, these are a mere sampling of the hatred sparked by one single chat link. It was a thread in which spelling and grammar didn’t matter but hate seemed a prerequisite.
Even on a more mainstream platform like Twitter, the reaction was bigoted. Syndicated columnist and author Ann Coulter posted an article about Byrd’s NBC interview and remarked, “I guess now we know why the government (Trump and Biden) wouldn’t tell us who shot Ashli Babbitt!” Matt Walsh, a popular podcaster who describes himself as a “theocratic fascist” in his Twitter profile wrote, “Make this a white cop shooting a BLM rioter and the whole country would be on fire right now.”
The racist vitriol hurled at Byrd online echoed the slurs hurled at his police colleagues on Jan. 6.
The racist vitriol hurled at Byrd online echoed the slurs that were hurled at his police colleagues on Jan. 6. Testifying before Congress at the end of last month, Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn said members of the mob taunted him with racial slurs on multiple occasions. Other officers reported being attacked by rioters holding “Blue Lives Matter” flags.
The hypocrisy here becomes even more vivid when the reaction to Byrd’s use of force is contrasted with the far right’s shameful defense of white former police officer Derek Chauvin, convicted in April of killing George Floyd. Fox News hosts, including Tucker Carlson, portrayed Chauvin, not Floyd, as the real victim. Carlson had no such sympathy for Byrd, maintaining that he had “executed” Babbitt.
On the government-run Russian TV show called “60 Minutes” (no relation to the U.S. program), host Olga Skabeeva claimed that “the policeman got away with it because he is Black — and Blacks are permitted to kill white people.”
This, of course, is as insulting as it is untrue. Byrd was cleared of any wrongdoing in two separate investigations.
This, of course, is as insulting as it is untrue. Byrd was cleared of any wrongdoing in two separate investigations. The Justice Department and the Washington Metropolitan Police Department investigated Byrd’s actions for any violation of federal law, including violating Babbitt’s civil rights; they found no such violations. And Byrd’s Capitol Police Department determined that his actions were within its deadly force policy. That policy states that “an officer may use deadly force only when the officer reasonably believes that action is in the defense of human life, including the officer’s own life, or in the defense of any person in immediate danger of serious physical injury.”
Byrd described a harrowing ordeal in his NBC News interview: “We were essentially trapped where we were. ... There was no way to retreat, no other way to get out.” Byrd said he was barricaded with 60 to 80 House members and staffers — people he was responsible for protecting.
As he stood guard, he was also trying to quickly process the broadcasts streaming over his police radio. As described by NBC News, “there were shouts of officers down. Screams from his colleagues under attack by rioters with chemical agents. A report that an officer’s fingertips were blown off.” The 28-year veteran of the Capitol Police took out his gun as a mob started to break through glass and wooden doors standing between them and the lawmakers and staffers. Rioters ignored his and his colleagues’ commands that they stand back. Much of America has watched what happened next: Byrd fired once, striking Babbitt in the shoulder as she tried to climb through the smashed glass.
Importantly, Byrd noted in his interview that he had escorted former President Donald Trump through the Capitol on numerous occasions. “If he was in the Capitol and I was responsible for him, I’d do the same thing for him and his family,” Byrd said. “I do my job for Republican, for Democrat, for white, for Black, red, blue, green. I don’t care about your affiliation.”
While Byrd said political affiliation or skin color doesn’t affect how he carries out his duties, the same isn’t true for many in the mob now trying to vilify him for doing his job.
If Trump’s life had been in danger, you can bet the far right would have been screaming for officers like Byrd to neutralize the threat. But when one of their own, a martyr for a conspiracy-driven cause, is the threat, someone else has to pay. All the better if that someone is Black, and facts be damned. The hypocrisy isn’t hidden or surprising. You just have to know where to look.