World

The Long Prologue to the Capitol Hill Riot

During the past year, Portland, Oregon, has been the site of frequent public demonstrations by right-wing extremist groups. There have been events staged by the Proud Boys and another group called Patriot Prayer; anti-lockdown protests; counter-protests to the Black Lives Matter movement, pro-police “Back the Blue” demonstrations, and, eventually, in the fall, “Stop the Steal” rallies, which were focussed on the alleged threats to the integrity of the Presidential election. Whatever the protest of the day, the faces in the crowd were often the same. Some, like Joey Gibson, a man from Washington State who founded Patriot Prayer and was charged with inciting a riot in 2019, have become a little bit famous. (Gibson has pleaded not guilty to the charge.) Sergio Olmos, a journalist on the protest and extremism beat for Oregon Public Broadcasting, compared Portland’s right wing to a punk scene in a college town: some people come and go, but, over time, you begin to recognize the mainstays. You learn who’s likely to start a fight, and who’s eager to explain why they’re there. You notice when someone shaves his beard.

Shortly after the riot at the U.S. Capitol, on January 6th, Olmos got a tip from someone who said that a man in photographs from the attack in Washington appeared to be the same person who had taken part in an occupation of Oregon’s capitol, in Salem, in November. In images from both events, the man was burly, with a prominent lower jaw and a thick brown beard. In Salem, he’d gotten in the face of a journalist and screamed at him, a memorable moment in a lengthy live stream. In Washington, he’d drawn attention to himself by posing with a statue of Gerald Ford, which had a Donald Trump flag tucked under its arm and a MAGA hat on its head. Olmos compared the images, taken on opposite ends of the continent two weeks apart. “You never think it’s the same guy at first,” Olmos said. “But some of these streams are really nice quality, with multiple angles.” There was the same blue cap and what looked like the same hoodie. “So you think, all right, looks like the same dude,” Olmos said. “Then you see the tattoos”—in particular, one on the inside of the man’s right forearm—“and it’s like, oh, fuck me.”

Scrolling through the videos taken by right-wing live-streamers of the incursion in D.C., Olmos recognized other familiar faces. One was a thirty-one-year-old man named David Medina, who had challenged Olmos at an “Oregonians for Trump” election night party, yelling about the fake news. Another was a fifty-nine-year-old named Tim Davis, whom Olmos remembered as having been “very confrontational” at a rally in Salem. Olmos called Davis, and Davis confirmed that he had been at the Capitol on January 6th. Four days after the riot, Olmos and a colleague, Conrad Wilson, published a story about Medina, Davis, and the bearded man with the blue cap and the two tattoos, whose name they didn’t know. It was clear to them that the chaos in Oregon over the past year had been a prologue to the insurrection at the U.S Capitol.

In the days since the attack, that prologue has become easier to see. In Minnesota, Unicorn Riot, an independent media outlet that covers street protests, identified seventeen extremists from the state who had been at the Capitol. One, Corey Nielson, had been arrested for participating in the “mob-style” beating of a Black man last month. The stories of the Capitol rioters told in the press last week often described their personal radicalization. But in Minnesota, Oregon, and elsewhere there was a larger pattern, of extremists forming groups and demonstrating in their home towns, and of police not knowing exactly what to do. Olmos said that the intensity of reactionary protests in Portland had escalated steadily. For most of 2020, right-wing extremists tended not to confront the police. “It was very much, back the blue,” Olmos said. But, by the end of the year, “they were going toe to toe with cops.”

In Oregon, these events culminated on December 21st, when a crowd protesting COVID-19 restrictions tried to break into the state capitol. A twenty-seven-year-old man named Chandler Pappas, who had come armed with an AR-15, pepper-sprayed a line of officers. (He was later arrested and faces several felony charges.) Closed-circuit video shows Medina leading a group that was trying to break into the building through a side door. The rally was often aggressive and violent. But the confrontation did not end with the police subduing the rioters, or vice versa. Instead, it ended when a Republican state representative named Mike Nearman opened a door and let the crowd inside.

“Leaders encourage them. A state representative let them in, and there were few consequences,” Olmos said. “And then they do it again two weeks later, when a guy with a bigger platform says, ‘Come.’ ” He meant President Trump. “When local governments don’t punish the behavior, when the federal government doesn’t punish the behavior, then what can we expect?” Olmos said. “I think we can expect them to keep going.”

From one perspective, the far-right movement swelled right on schedule. Kathleen Belew, a historian at the University of Chicago, is the author of the book “Bring the War Home,” from 2018, which documents the growth of the white-power movement in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. “We see a spike in activity after every major war. Spikes in Klan membership align with the aftermath of warfare; the early militia movement aligns with the aftermath of warfare,” she told me. In the past decade, Belew saw a deep pattern at work, involving not only the election of the first Black President, but also wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that had involved rhetoric of racial demonization. To Belew, it was significant that the rioter who was killed on January 6th, Ashli Babbitt, had served fourteen years in the Air Force—and that, appearing on video as she approached the Capitol, Babbitt referred to the Trump supporters as “boots on the ground.” (Ronan Farrow identified, among the most prominent rioters, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel named Larry Brock, who was photographed in the Senate chamber carrying handcuffs, and a former Marine named Donovan Crowl, who appeared to stand guard on the Capitol steps.) Belew said, “I don’t think we have to look very far to see this as a ricochet of warfare.”

Sociologists monitoring the far right also noticed a subtle but important shift during the past year. The rally in Charlottesville, in 2017, was, as its name made clear, an effort to “Unite the Right,” but the idea of a white-supremacist coalition collapsed in its aftermath, owing to infighting and to investigations by the F.B.I. Subsequent mass killings by white supremacists—in Pittsburgh, in 2018; in El Paso, in 2019—were attributed to individuals who had radicalized on their own, rather than members of organized groups. Cynthia Miller-Idriss, who directs the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab, at American University, told me that she had “started to get nervous” after a rally for gun rights in Richmond, Virginia, drew about twenty thousand people last January. After the Oklahoma City bombing, in 1995, the anti-government fringe “had fragmented and gotten a lot quieter,” Miller-Idriss said. The Richmond rally was a signal that “the militia and anti-government side is back, and starting to build a bigger narrative and get some momentum.” She also saw right-wing energy coming from other sources: the shelter-in-place orders during the pandemic and the George Floyd protests. What initially seemed like a resurgent militia movement “gets muddier and messier, and that rolls right into the election rhetoric,” she said.

Miller-Idriss’s work requires making distinctions among groups—QAnon and the Boogaloo movement, for instance—that to a less practiced eye tend to scan as the same kind of crazy. But she said that, during the past year, a general pattern has become clear across the extremist factions: far-right and conspiratorial movements were, in effect, “mainstreamed and normalized” as they were channelled into the protests over the election results. “In a way, these organized groups had tried to unite themselves in Charlottesville, and they failed,” Miller-Idriss said. “And, now, they really have come together, in the attack on the Capitol, and found a unifying issue, which is the election being stolen.”

I asked both Miller-Idriss and Belew what they had noticed in the images from the Capitol. “There were a lot more women than you normally see,” Miller-Idriss said. There have long been women in extremist movements, but on January 6th they seemed closer to the violence: “They’re right in there, like, next to the zip-tie guy.” Belew noticed something else: the white-power iconography of the early nineteen-eighties and nineties was everywhere. Some demonstrators had brought a gallows to the Capitol—a callback, Belew said, to a scene in “The Turner Diaries,” a novel published in 1978 that serves as a central text of the white-power movement, in which right-wing revolutionaries stage a mortar attack on the Capitol and also hang representatives. (There was a guillotine at a protest outside the Arizona state capitol.) Belew said, “They’re still using ‘The Turner Diaries.’ They’re still using the Rhodesian flag patch and the ‘Pinochet Did Nothing Wrong’ shirts.” These observations—of the central presence of women, and of the vivid white-power imagery—are even more interesting in combination. They suggest a coalition that has been able to broaden without, so far, being forced to change.

In the days since the riot, the investigations have proceeded rapidly. Seamus Hughes, the deputy director of George Washington University’s program on extremism, told me that, by his count, there had been twenty federal charges issued in six days. “My old colleagues from the Washington field office are working double shifts,” Hughes said, comparing the atmosphere at the F.B.I. to the aftermath of 9/11. “In a sane world, there’s enough confidence in the F.B.I. to track these folks down.” Among those arrested have been law-enforcement officials and politicians. A Republican state legislator from West Virginia has resigned his office, and one current and one former lawmaker from Arizona are said to be under investigation. Larry Brock, the retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, has been arrested, and so have two police officers from Rocky Mount, Virginia, who participated in the riot. (One officer, when pleading not guilty, argued that they were let into the Capitol by officers stationed there.) Reporters, activists, and ordinary citizens have been doing en masse what Sergio Olmos has been doing in Portland, canvassing and comparing images online, matching faces and hats, and accomplishing some remarkable feats of correct identification.

That so many of these faces were familiar to people like Olmos and the Unicorn Riot journalists, who had studied local riots closely, suggests that the universe of potentially violent extremists might not be vast or unknowable. Hughes, who worked at the National Counterterrorism Center, during the Obama Administration, said, “The circle of radicalization is very broad, but the circle of mobilization is small indeed.” When it comes to the potentially violent, he added, “You’re looking at a relatively manageable problem. . . . The vast majority of these individuals have some touch point with law enforcement before they commit an act or get arrested. They’re basically known commodities.”

Mike German, who investigated white supremacists as an F.B.I. agent in the nineteen-nineties, and now studies law-enforcement response to these radicals at N.Y.U.’s Brennan Center for Justice, said he believed that, for decades, the Department of Justice had simply not paid enough attention to the problem. “If the F.B.I. just focussed on the public violence, they could do a tremendous amount of good,” German said. “They could do that with the authorities they have today, with the resources they have today. This isn’t rocket science.”

There is also the question of how much influence Republican politicians have over this mob. The extremist movement has been, as Miller-Idriss put it, “normalized and mainstreamed” by politicians who saw opportunity in leveraging it. The rioters who stormed the Capitol have almost invariably said that they believed they were following orders from Trump. One positive shift in the period since January 6th is that many politicians who recently encouraged the conspiratorial mob have now sought to position themselves as opposed to it. Trump, under threat of an impeachment trial, released a five-minute video disavowing the riot at the Capitol. Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader, although he still voted to challenge the certification of the election results, denounced the President for inciting the riot. Can these figures, having long stirred up conspiracy among their political base, now help quiet it? All fifty state capitols are on alert for rumored attacks by extremists in the days before the Inauguration. If the moment passes without violence or disruption, perhaps we will have an answer.


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