I Was at the Capitol on January 6. This Is What I Saw.
A version of this story originally ran at Logically.
Before there was a riot at the Capitol, there were two other D.C. Stop the Steal rallies, where baseless fear-mongering and distortion of facts helped accelerate the rally goers’ acceptance of violence. At both events, members of the Proud Boys helped convince attendees that they were in constant danger of being attacked by random people who were secretly Antifa, and then used the fear they had created to “justify” attacking and terrorizing residents of Washington, D.C. The evening of the second rally, held on December 12, 2020, was particularly instrumental in ramping up tension and distrust between rally goers, local residents, and the various police forces in D.C.
After the speeches wrapped up on December 12, rally goers milled around in front of the Supreme Court stage. They made small talk with one another, casually making sure everyone had mace, and swapping stories about times they alleged they had been attacked by BLM and Antifa. One woman told me she was almost attacked after the November D.C. Stop the Steal rally; her phone was dead, she was separated from her group, and she was walking to the train station when a few guys ran by her. While she never quite got to the part where an attack almost occurred, she was sure to tell me that she was furious it had happened.
“I’m angry. I’m angry. Average American citizens being attacked, and nobody’s doing anything other than Proud Boys. The police don’t, they’re a joke. I back the blue, I do, but they have got to do something…[Today] is much more intense [than November’s rally]. I marched with the Proud Boys last night about 1 o’clock in the morning.”
Later that night, hundreds of people congregated downtown, holding what was essentially an unpermitted block party in the streets, primarily in front of Harry’s Restaurant, a place that served as a meet-up point for the Proud Boys. At some point there was a stabbing; information on the ground was confusing, and at the time, many people seemed to agree the Proud Boys had done the stabbing to save the rest of us.
Shortly after the fight and stabbing, someone yelled out for all the Proud Boys to get in formation, like they were the military responding to a threat. “Everybody get lined up, we’re gonna do it organized, and we’re gonna do them proud as fuck.” Hundreds of Proud Boys lined up, chanting “fuck Antifa” and “whose streets? Our streets” as we marched the two blocks to the JW Marriott, where Alex Jones led us in a chant of “1776.”
Once Jones was done whipping the crowd up, the men started splitting up into smaller groups. At first, I didn’t understand what was going on, but then I realized: they were going to march around the city to help ensure our safety. As they started marching off, the reaction of everyone around me was stunning. Instead of thinking it was weird that grown men were about to stomp around a mostly empty downtown area and terrorize any local residents who had the misfortune of walking by them, everyone looked on approvingly. They thanked the Proud Boys. I felt like I was intruding on fathers watching their sons go off to war.
Earlier that day, a group of Proud Boys went viral when they pulled up their kilts and revealed they had written “FUCK ANTIFA” on their butts. I thought it was to distract from the violence and terror they had been inflicting on the residents of D.C., but at that moment I realized it was something completely different. The stunt was juvenile; it reminded me of something a group of drunk fraternity brothers would do. There is a big difference between a handful of random drunk men exposing their bare butts in public and fraternity brothers pulling a similar stunt. Here, the Proud Boys were the frat, and to their target audience, it had been an endearing, silly stunt.
After the large crowd left, I walked by a couple in their 60s who were taking in the live music that had replaced Jones’s megaphone chants. “I don’t like violence either, but if a Proud Boy stabbed the guy, he must have had a good reason,” the husband said. His wife nodded. “True. Why was he over here, anyway? He was probably going to try to hurt us.”
As it turned out, multiple Proud Boys had ganged up and attacked a lone man, who then used his knife in self-defense.
Later I was looking for a scooter so I could grab my phone charger from my car about a half-mile away. As I walked away from the block party, a group of four Proud Boys approached me and asked what I was doing. I told them I needed a scooter, and they laughed. “We stabbed a guy who had a scooter.” Wanting to end the conversation, I joked that they were rude for not grabbing the scooter for me, and started to walk off. But the guys followed me, offering to walk me to my car so that I would be safe.
Safe from what? Walking a route I walk nearly every day of my life without fear? They were the only people I was afraid of. They were the ones starting fights, the ones violently assaulting people for abiding by D.C.’s mask mandate. No woman would want to wander off with random men who had just (falsely) taken credit for stabbing someone, yet everyone around me would have thought this was the best option. Downtown D.C. at 10 p.m. on a Saturday is a very safe place — yet all night, everyone around me was either convinced they were going to be violently attacked at any minute, or they were the people doing the convincing.
Every person I talked to that day, no matter their age or their gender, no matter what time of day it was, was deeply concerned that I was alone. During the day I would point out we were at a rally so crowded that no one was alone. “You never know where Antifa might be.” At night, my assurances that there were cops around were laughed at. “There are plenty of enemies afoot.” Women old enough to be my grandmother would frown at me and tell me to stick with them until we could find a Proud Boy for me to walk around with. It felt like a coordinated PR campaign; luring us into a strange city, telling us everyone there hates us, scaring us into believing that enemies are lurking everywhere, and convincing us only the roving gangs of drunk men can protect us.
For days, the only thing I could think about was the conversation I had with the woman in front of the Supreme Court. Being afraid she was getting attacked because people ran by her. Marching with the Proud Boys in the middle of the night, all because the police aren’t violent and aggressive enough. I figured the next rally, set for January 6, 2021, would follow the same pattern: tense during the day, a mess at night.
That misconception is how I found myself marching down to the Capitol around 12:45 pm on January 6, ten feet from the QAnon Shaman — without a gas mask. By the time I made it to the edge of the Capitol grounds, it was packed. A man with tears pouring down his face came up to me. “I just punched a fucking cop!! He was trying to hurt some lady, and I told him we don’t do that where I’m from, and I just hit him!!! I’m not crying, they’re gassing us.” His eyes focused on my shirt, which reads “Biden: Not My President” in the same font used by the real campaign. For a brief, terrifying moment he looked furious, before he laughed. “I thought you were one of them for a minute. Hey, I want you to know — I’m really not crying. It’s because of the tear gas.”
After he ran off, I joined the group marching forward. Having just had a conversation with a man who told me he was fighting with the police close to the Capitol, it was surreal to be surrounded by old ladies and young children as I headed in the exact direction he had told me violence was occurring. No one around me seemed to care. Every so often, small groups of men would against the crowd, one or two of them with chemically induced tears streaming down their faces, led by others who would clear a path yelling, “PROUD BOYS, COMING THROUGH. BACK UP! MEDICAL EMERGENCY!” At no point did anyone seem to think it was a bad idea to continue walking toward whatever was causing these “medical emergencies.”
A couple of times the police let off smoke bombs. Each time they would go off, people around me cheered. Where I was standing, the consensus was the cops were trying to clear out the counter-protesters who were hoping to keep us from getting to the Capitol — except, of course, there weren’t any counter-protesters; it was the police who didn’t want us in the Capitol. At no point did anyone around me consider we might be the bad guys.
When I left the throng of people moving forward, I ended up running into a Mother Jones reporter I knew. He had been in a different area of the grounds; there, he said, everyone was already blaming Antifa for the violence, and for trying to get into the Capitol. As he told me this, a man in a MAGA hat walked by, singsonging “back door’s open.” Two women draped in Trump 2020 flags applauded the efforts of the guys trying to scale the Capitol wall, yelling at them, “hell yeah, take it back!” Dozens of people chanted “OUR HOUSE!” It seemed impossible to believe there could be people standing 100 yards away from me who thought all of this was Antifa, and even more surreal than the version of “truth” you heard seemed to depend on what part of the yard you happened to be standing in.
Later, when I was leaving the Capitol, a reporter in all black passed me. She had on a helmet and a bulletproof vest, with “PRESS” scrawled on both. “Press? Yeah right. Press doesn’t look like that. She’s an Antifa,” the woman next to me hissed.
Over the last 12 months, I have heard a variety of explanations for what happened at the Capitol. The majority of the people who have shared their personal alternate realities with me were people who were physically present on January 6. Some of my favorites include “it was a big prayer circle, and I helped hand out Bibles to the homeless. It wasn’t us who did the violence.” and “I saw a bus pull up to the White House, full of people in black, and they changed into Trump clothes in the bushes.”
Many rally goers and rioters are still happy to talk about how much they hate D.C., how much everyone in D.C. hates them, how restrictive and tyrannical the COVID rules were, how the liberals in the overwhelmingly blue city were out to get them, as if Antifa members were hiding behind every parked car. The cultural differences between the city itself and many of the people who showed up for the rallies helped drive the narrative that simply being a Trump supporter in D.C. was dangerous. Most of these people feel terrible that there are actual “patriots” in prison. Most of these people have no problem dismissing violence against the blue they allege to back.
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