Hundreds of demonstrators took to the United States Capitol grounds in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, demanding the release of people incarcerated in the wake of the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol attack that has led to hundreds of criminal cases and precious little reflection on the far right.
The event failed to draw the massive pro-Trump crowds who gathered in January, and the area was heavily patrolled by law enforcement. Attendees hit on the usual themes—complaining about the media, and portraying themselves as the victims of state persecution.
One speaker compared the treatment of the Capitol rioters—who included, infamously, a man wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt—to the persecution of Jews under Nazi rule. Calling the D.C. jail a “gulag,” she read off a letter that she said was from an imprisoned rioter, who complained, “this reminds me of how the Jewish people were treated by the Nazis.”
As the crowd gathered in the Union Square area of the Capitol grounds, “We Didn’t Start The Fire” by Billy Joel blared from speakers.
Tensions flared from time to time with counterprotesters. A man claiming to be an Afghanistan veteran showed up with a megaphone and spoke negatively about Trump and COVID. The crowd surged towards him and one man accused him of stolen valor. Capitol Police had to intervene to prevent violence.
The organizers of the “Justice for J6” rally believe that those still being detained at the D.C. jail for their alleged roles in the attacks—which unsuccessfully sought to prevent Joe Biden from becoming president despite a clear election victory–are languishing under unconstitutional conditions and being held as political prisoners.
They also somehow question whether the FBI played a role in the attack, even as they downplay the unprecedented assault on the rule of law that day.
“We have almost a hundred people who were nonviolent protesters being held in solitary confinement,” Matt Braynard, a former Donald Trump campaign staffer and the event’s primary organizer, said in a video promoting the event. “All for walking through an open door and then walking out, never laying a finger on anyone or causing any violence.”
D.C. Department of Corrections director Quincy Booth told The Daily Beast that all Jan. 6 detainees were treated with “dignity and respect.”
“All residents have access to health care services to treat any illness or medical emergency experienced while in our custody,” Booth said in an email. “Residents are provided with out of cell time, recreation, and visitation as permissible by any COVID-19 health restrictions that may be in place or the terms of their confinement. DOC also provides residents with the access and ability to meet with their attorneys or legal representatives.”
After reportedly expressing either indifference or a desire to distance himself from a potential sequel to the deadly insurrection in his name, Trump himself released a statement on Thursday with words of support for the detainees.
“Our hearts and minds are with the people being persecuted so unfairly relating to the January 6th protest concerning the rigged presidential election,” Trump said. “It has proven conclusively that we are a two-tiered system of justice. In the end, however, JUSTICE WILL PREVAIL.”
The Jan. 6 attack began after those at a conspiratorial “Stop the Steal” Trump rally near the White House—falsely alleging election fraud last fall–marched to the U.S. Capitol Building while Congress voted to certify the results of the 2020 election. At the rally, President Trump said the election had been “stolen” and told supporters that if they did not “fight like hell,” they “(wouldn’t) have a country anymore.”
After rally-goers reached the Capitol, under-manned and overwhelmed U.S. Capitol Police Officers protecting the building were hit in the head, pushed down stairs, and stabbed. Capitol Police were eventually supported by the National Guard, and hours later the building was secured.
Soon after, a large fence was erected around the Capitol building. Five people died in the attack, and several officers died by suicide in the months after.
Tensions have been high on Capitol Hill since the Jan. 6 meltdown, and several eerie incidents have sparked an enduring atmosphere of anxiety in Washington.
In April, a man rammed his car into a Capitol Police officer, killing him in an attack that appears to have been ideologically unrelated to Jan. 6. But just last month, a North Carolina MAGA fan parked his truck in front of the Library of Congress and demanded airstrikes on the Taliban, claiming to have a bomb. (The man eventually surrendered to police, and no one was injured.)
Mere days before the Justice for J6 Rally, Capitol Police Officers arrested a man with a machete and a truck painted with Nazi symbols who claimed to be “patrolling” South Capitol street.
Though the fencing around the Capitol was taken down in July, it was re-erected before the Saturday spectacle. And according to Charles Allen, a local politician on the Council of the District of Columbia who represents an area including Capitol Hill, locals were nervous in the runup to the rally.
“We saw not just an attack on our democracy but an attack on our neighborhood and our community on January 6,” Allen told The Daily Beast. “Groups that want to whitewash what happened that day, to try to make it out that somehow the people who tried to overturn our country’s elections and tried to run roughshod on our community… (are) a peaceful group… It runs counter to what we saw and lived through.”
Adding to the tumult, according to the National Park Service, Braynard’s group Look Ahead America did not have a permit for a gathering on the National Mall, though it was unclear if the rally would veer deeply into that property.
In the weeks before Justice for J6, the Department of Homeland Security released an advisory bulletin that warned of “calls for violence on multiple online platforms associated with… conspiracy theories on perceived election fraud and alleged reinstatement…”
That said, a top FBI official indicated this past week that the agency was not aware of any specific violent plots tied to the rally.
And despite fears about violence at the protests, several far-right groups whose members attended the Jan. 6 protests urged supporters to stay away from Saturday’s protest, often claiming without evidence that it was a government scheme meant to entrap Trump supporters.
The far-right Proud Boys men’s group claimed their members wouldn’t attend the rally, and threatened to excommunicate any Proud Boys who did. Ron Watkins, a far-right personality who has been accused of being behind the QAnon conspiracy theory, urged his audience to “do yourself a favor” and avoid Washington during the rally.
The Saturday rally also lacked the support of much of the pro-Trump media, as well as even Trump’s most vocal supporters in Congress. While Trump endorsed, at minimum, the idea of protesting outside Congress on Jan. 6, even falsely saying he would meet the protesters outside the Capitol, nearly all right-wing personalities have either denounced Braynard’s event or ignored it.
While Braynard claimed members of Congress would speak at the rally, no lawmakers publicly committed ahead of time to appearing. (Congressional candidates Mike Collins and Joe Kent did take to the stage to speak.)
Casey Crawford, 28, traveled from Idaho and compared the MAGA rallies to the anti-brutality protests of last summer.
“Would people have stopped rioting if George Floyd’s death wasn’t righted?” Crawford said. “They would have never stopped rioting. So why should we ever stop assembling either whenever justice isn’t served? That’s the whole point of America.”
Steve Rusciano, 58, of Georgetown, Delaware, said the continued jailing of Jan. 6 defendants did not prompt him to attend.
“I’m more here to support the United States,” Rusciano said. “I don’t like what’s going on in this country. Like, God forbid you say the Pledge of Allegiance or have a flag. It’s terrible.”