In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, law enforcement officials have been engaged in the slow process of identifying and arresting the members of the mob who besieged, occupied and vandalized congressional offices. At least 50 arrests had been made by Thursday, on charges ranging from illegal entry and activity on designated ground to assaulting a federal law enforcement officer and threatening House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The work has been made much easier, though, by the fact that the rioters made little effort to disguise themselves, posting selfies and boasting of their exploits to anyone who pointed a camera at them. “We’re storming the Capitol, it’s a revolution,” a woman who identified herself as Elizabeth from Knoxville, Tenn., told a Yahoo News reporter outside the Capitol moments after she said she was maced while trying to force her way into the building.
Considering that they face possible sentences of up to 20 years in prison, that would seem somewhat self-defeating behavior, worth an effort to explain.
And the explanation appears to be that, by and large, they don’t think they did anything wrong.
As many of them said at the time, and was obvious to anyone watching, including Pelosi, they had been sent there by President Trump, who urged them to “fight like hell” to overturn the election of President-elect Joe Biden. And having been fed a steady diet of disinformation and mythology by their online influencers, many of them seemed to believe that they were implementing Trump’s plan to overthrow the “deep state” and the traitors in Congress — which if successful would make moot any possible crimes they committed in the process, such as hanging Vice President Mike Pence.
Styling themselves as patriots, they seemed to imagine their places alongside Paul Revere and Nathan Hale in future history books — not to mention in the pantheon of right-wing saints. Within days of the riot, participants and sympathizers began an effort to turn Ashli Babbitt, the QAnon-supporting Air Force veteran who was killed in the melee, into a MAGA version of Joan of Arc, a martyr to the cause of Donald Trump.
“Her name was Ashli Babbitt, she was murdered by an agent of the system. She was a Trump supporter like many of you are or were at one time,” read the caption beneath a video of Babbitt marching to the Capitol, which was posted to a Proud Boys channel on Telegram’s encrypted chat service Sunday. “There will be no riots, no mass media outrage, no White Lives Matter for her. It is up to YOU to honor her memory, and continue what she started.”
Others on the far right have also embraced Babbitt, who was shot by a Capitol Police officer while apparently attempting to crawl through the broken window of a door leading to the Speaker’s Lobby inside the Capitol, as a symbol of their cause. Some have even rebranded the “Million MAGA March,” planned for Inauguration Day in D.C., as the “Million Martyr March” in Babbitt’s honor.
It’s not clear how many people actually plan to attend the Million Martyr March and others slated to take place in D.C. and state capitols across the country in the days leading up to Biden’s inauguration; the Proud Boys and other groups have been urging members to avoid these events out of concern that they are a trap set by the feds, and researchers who track extremist activity online say they haven’t seen the same type of chatter among extremists about logistical planning for these upcoming rallies as they did in the lead-up to Jan. 6.
That said, Alex Friedfeld, a researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, warned that even if the protests planned for the days ahead don’t materialize into anything significant, the continued belief in conspiracy theories about the incoming Biden administration combined with violent rhetoric “that is allowed to fester and exist online” creates “a very dangerous concoction that could easily lead to violence.”
Rather than triggering a reality check, for many, the fallout from last week’s events seems to have only reaffirmed the conspiratorial beliefs and manipulated outrage that drew them to Washington in the first place.
“The fact of the matter is, after the storming of the Capitol, we did not see those on the far right have a reckoning,” said Friedfeld, who monitors extremist networks online. He told Yahoo News that instead of attempting to consider “how their beliefs and rhetoric directly led to the storming of the Capitol,” many on the far right have retreated further into conspiracy theories, and embraced narratives that have been swirling within the right-wing ecosystems online that portray them as the victims.
As a result, Friedfeld said, “The underlying conditions that led to the storming of the Capitol are still in place. And that ground is still fertile for violence.”
In the hours and days immediately after police regained control of the Capitol, allowing those who’d just been rioting inside to walk away freely from the scene, many of the insurrectionists boldly documented their illegal actions on social media, effectively leading federal investigators directly to them.
Before his arrest this week on charges relating to his involvement in the riot, Jacob Fracker, a Virginia police officer, even dismissed concerns from some about a photo circulating on social media showing Fracker and another cop inside the Capitol building.
“Lol to anyone who’s possibly concerned about the picture of me going around… Sorry I hate freedom?” Fracker reportedly wrote in a since deleted Facebook post. “Sorry I fought hard for it and lost friends for it? Not like I did anything illegal, WAY too much to lose to go there but, ya’ll do what you feel you need to lol.”
The idea that the occupation was intended to redress the theft of the presidency by Democrats coexists on the far right with the wholly contradictory notion that the riot was actually precipitated by antifa provocateurs who only pretended to be Trump supporters.
This fantastical false flag narrative was quickly adopted and circulated on social media by followers of the QAnon conspiracy, right-wing militia groups and even some members of Congress.
That is belied not just by common sense, and the fact that none of the hundreds of rioters captured on video have been identified as supporters of the antifa movement, but by a pledge to “turn out in record numbers on Jan. 6th” from leaders of the Proud Boys, the self-described “Western chauvinist group,” which received what many interpreted as a public endorsement from Trump during a presidential debate last fall. In the days since Jan. 6, Proud Boys leaders have defended the rioters.
On Telegram, an encrypted chat service that has become an online oasis for the growing diaspora of online extremists booted from other social media platforms in the wake of the Capitol riots, channels associated with the Proud Boys have been flooded with a mix of insolent threats and complaints about what they allege is systemic bias against Trump and his white supporters.
“Can you think of any time in our lives or even the lives of your parents where the pentagon had 10k-13k national guard troops stationed in DC?” read one post from a Proud Boys Telegram channel over the weekend. “If this is the response to the storming of the capitol by the right which by comparison doesn’t hold a candle to the months and months of extreme violence and rioting from antifa and BLM, just imagine how scared they will be when we bare our teeth for real?”
A variation of the “blame antifa” narrative, echoed by some members of Congress during Wednesday’s impeachment debate, is that the riot was a reaction to perceived leniency toward protesters who joined last summer’s nationwide demonstrations, some of which turned violent, against police killings of unarmed Black people.
“If we had prosecuted BLM and antifa rioters across the country with the same determination these last six months, this incident may not have happened at all,” Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., said on Wednesday. Fellow Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, of Florida, made a similar argument, insisting that “the left in America has incited far more political violence than the right.”
“A lot of what drives far-right recruitment is grievance,” said Friedfeld, describing the kind of dissonance expressed by the Proud Boys and others as “a way for them to have their cake and eat it too, for them to participate in the rally but then frame themselves as victims.”
Of course, there are some who have taken responsibility and expressed remorse for their participation in the Capitol siege once they were faced with federal charges. For example, Josiah Colt, the Boise, Idaho, man who was seen scaling a wall inside the Senate chamber, posted several videos to Facebook in which he boasted about his role in the riot before he was identified by U.S. Capitol Police as a person of interest, prompting him to apologize for his behavior, insisting that he got “caught up in the moment.”
Bradley Rukstales, a 52-year-old executive from the northwest suburbs of Chicago, was similarly prompted to issue a public apology for participating in the attack on the U.S. Capitol after he was arrested and fired from his job.
“It was the single worst personal decision of my life,” Rukstales said in a statement. “I have no excuse for my actions and wish that I could take them back.”
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