the capitol riot, one year on

Trump’s ‘manufactured martyr’: How Ashli Babbitt’s death was weaponised by the MAGA movement

In a less polarised era, American politicians in both parties might have rallied around the officer who shot Ashli Babbitt. Today, though, she has become a martyr to many of Mr Trump’s followers, writes Io Dodds

Thursday 06 January 2022 19:15
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“Every time he talks about her, he says her name. He could say ‘her’ or ‘she; or whatever. But he says ‘Ashli Babbitt’."

That is how Micki Witthoeft, the mother of Capitol rioter Ashli Babbitt, described the way Donald Trump talks about her daughter, who died one year ago today on 6 January, 2021, while trying to overturn the former president’s election defeat.

Babbitt, a 35-year-old US Air Force veteran from San Diego, California, was shot dead by a police officer as she climbed through the window of a barricaded door inside the Capitol building. She was part of a crowd of Trump supporters that had stormed the seat of the US Senate to stop it ratifying the election result, with some allegedly planning to do so by armed force.

In a less polarised era, American politicians in both parties might have rallied around the officer who shot her. Today, though, she has become a martyr to many of Mr Trump’s followers, praised and venerated by a movement that is increasingly willing to endorse political violence to keep its opponents out of power.

Republican members of congress including Paul Gosar of Arizona, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, and Matt Gaetz of Florida have taken up her cause, as have Fox News, the pro-Trump TV station Newsmax and even Vladimir Putin.

One right-wing group, Look Ahead America, has called for a vigil in Babbitt’s name for those in prison awaiting trial for their alleged actions on 6 January. Donations to a "Justice for Ashli Babbitt legal fund" continue to pour in, with more than $378,000 (£278,500) raised as of Wednesday.

Mr Trump himself has been her cheerleader in chief, referring to her death as a murder. and offering her family his "unwavering" support". "To Ashli’s family and friends, please know that her memory will live on in our hearts for all time," he said in a video specially filmed for her birthday on 10 October. "There was no reason Ashli should have lost her life that day. We must all demand justice for Ashli."

Terrorism experts and anti-racist groups find the former president’s intervention deeply disturbing, comparing it to the way Islamic fundamentalists and the Nazi Party in the 1940s used manufactured martyrs to inspire further acts of violence.

For Cara Castronuova, a pro-Trump activist who co-founded the group Citizens Against Political Persecution to advocate for alleged January 6 rioters, it is a vindication of many months fighting to reframe the storming of the Capitol as a peaceful protest and its alleged invaders as political prisoners.

"At first her name was taboo, even in conservative media," Ms Castronuova tells The Independent. "Nobody would talk about her, nobody would mention her, nobody would mention anybody’s name from 6 January. There was a three to four month block of time at the beginning of 2020... and then it just snowballed."

Who was Ashli Babbitt?

When Ashli Babbitt quit the US military in 2016, she left at the rank of senior airman with 12 years of service and eight deployments behind her. Having enlisted in the US Air Force (USAF) straight out of high school in  2003, she protected bases in Afghanistan, Iraq, protected USAF bases in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Katar, and the United Arab Emirates.

At one point, she had even guarded the seat of the US government, serving in an Air National Guard unit known as the "Capital Guardians" at a base near Washington DC. In 2013, she was part of the DC Air National Guard’s security detail for the second inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Babbitt grew up in Lakeside, California, not far from San Diego, the oldest sister to four younger brothers. One former classmate told Insider that she was "disruptive" in class, highly opinionated and always trying to be "one of the guys".

That bolshy nature survived throughout her service, with former comrades saying she struggled to be promoted and was demoted at least once due to spats with superiors. One friend described her as "small but mighty" (Babbitt was 5 feet 2 inches tall), unafraid to contradict her officers when she disagreed.

"Ashli was headstrong and impulsive," said Sgt Eirik Blackwolf, who served with her in the DC Air National Guard. "She didn’t hold back on her opinion to anyone, no matter their rank, especially if she thought they were wrong or behaving unethically."

During one deployment Babbitt was injured in a mortar strike that knocked her onto a pile of debris. Augustine Luna, a close friend, told Insider that the impact damaged Babbitt’s uterus and left her unable to bear children, but that Babbitt rarely mentioned this.

In 2015 Babbitt began working as a private security guard for a nuclear power plant in Maryland, where she met her future second husband Aaron Babbitt. That was also the year Mr Babbitt’s then-girlfriend Celeste Norris first encountered Ashli.

Ashli Babbitt

In an interview with the Associated Press, Ms Norris said Mr Babbitt at first described the new girl as "this foul-mouthed chick that’s on shift". Later, Ms Norris found out the two were dating, and broke up with Mr Babbitt.

The next year, Ms Norris said, she was waiting at a stop sign when a white SUV barged through nearby traffic and repeatedly rammed into her car. When they stopped, Babbitt got out and began hammering with her hand on the window. "It took me a good 30 seconds to figure out who she was," said Ms Norris. "Just all sorts of expletives, telling me to get out of the car, that she was going to beat my ass."

A court acquitted Babbitt of criminal charges, but Ms Norris secured a restraining order against her, and later mounted a personal injury lawsuit that Babbitt settled out of court. In court documents from 2017, Ms Norris wrote that Babbitt had continued to follow her home from work and harass her. "I lived in fear because I didn’t know what she was capable of," she told the AP.

Meanwhile, Babbitt moved to San Diego to help buy out and run a swimming pool supply company where her brothers, her uncle and her husband all worked together. "It was kind of nice, a family affair," her brother Roger said.

Babbitt and her husband became daily customers at a brewery near the San Diego sea front, often with their three ex-military dogs in tow. According to brewery owner Jim Millea, the pair had a polyamorous relationship with one of his bartenders. Babbitt herself often arrived fuming about a political issue that had grabbed her attention.

Yet the pool supply business quickly got into trouble. Babbitt took out a short term business loan with a steep interest rate and was sued by the lender for failing to make payments, ultimately being ordered by a judge to pay it all back. In 2019, she sold the house where her parents had lived for nearly 20 years, reportedly making them feel "kicked out of their own home".

By this time, Babbitt was a staunch Trump supporter and an opponent of lockdown measures. Her company’s office bore a sign reading: "Mask-free autonomous zone, better known As America".

Her brother told the New York Times that she had felt free after leaving the military, and had been angry with the number of homeless people in San Diego and the challenges for small business owners.

One customer told CBS 8 San Diego that he dropped Babbitt’s company after she went on an unprovoked political rant. “She just started talking about people who oppose Trump and about Nancy Pelosi and [Chuck] Schumer and homeless people," the customer said. "A lot of it didn’t even make any sense. It literally went on for about a minute and a half... it was shocking that she would be talking to a customer the way she was talking to me."

Even so, Babbitt’s death inside the US Capitol was a shock to her parents. "I don’t really know why she decided to do this," her mother-in-law toldFox 5 Washington DC last year.

Her social media accounts, however, told an all too familiar story.

‘Nothing will stop us’

On 7 September, 2020, tweeting under the username @CommonSenseAsh, Ashli Babbitt posted a photo of herself smiling in sunglasses and a black tank top, posing in front of an old-fashioned boat in the harbour of San Diego.

To many the photo might have looked innocuous, a happy selfie from a nice day out. But her shirt bore the slogan "We are Q" – a reference to the anonymous purported government insider who inspired the cult-like millenarian movement known as QAnon.

For almost a year, Babbitt had been posting in support of QAnon, which believes Mr Trump’s Democratic opponents are part of a global Satanist paedophile ring. Adherents think Mr Trump himself is the figurehead for a secret plot by "white hats" (ie, good guys) to sweep the Satanists from power in a military coup, resulting in mass imprisonment or execution.

The movement has been tied to violent acts including murders, kidnappings, terror plots, attempted bombings, and vehicular attacks, as well as campaigns of online harassment and death threats.

Babbitt’s radical shift came gradually. Back in 2018, she had told another user that she had voted for Barack Obama and still believed he had done "great things", but had turned to Mr Trump because she could not stomach Hillary Clinton.

Michael Byrd, the officer who shot Capitol rioter Ashli Babbitt, speaks to NBC News

According to Ms Luna, Babbitt had voted for Trump in 2016 because he was not a career politician, but soon began calling Democrats "commies" and skirmished aggressively offline and online with anyone who disputed her anti-mask beliefs.

In November 2019, she tweeted about Pizzagate, a conspiracy theory that went viral among Trump supporters in 2016 and was a key precursor to QAnon. Online activists had fixated on chance words in hacked emails from Democratic Party leaders as evidence of a secret child sex dungeon beneath a Washington, DC pizza restaurant. Later one of them stormed the restaurant with a rifle to rescue the supposed children, but found nothing.

In February 2020, Babbitt tweeted her first of many QAnon slogans. Most often she retweeted QAnon influencers such as the lawyer Lin Wood. Ms Luna told Insider that Babbitt was drawn in by the idea that children were in danger, spending hours every week reading about missing kids and appalled that QAnon’s claims were not being taken seriously in the mainstream media.

According to Prof Mia Bloom, a terrorism researcher at Georgia University, QAnon’s appeals to "save the children" are "almost verbatim" how the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) recruited three British schoolgirls from Bethnal Green, London, in 2015.

"This kind of message that builds upon someone’s innate goodness is a very different pathway into terrorism than we ordinarily think," says Prof Bloom. "We assume that it’s about hatred, it’s about violence, it’s about racism and white supremacy on the Right and jihadi ideology for [Islamic] groups, when in fact a lot of the pull factors can be based in what we would consider to be very positive attributes."

Like many Trump supporters, Babbitt did not accept the results of the 2020 election and plunged wholeheartedly into the "Stop the Steal" movement. On 1 January, 2021, Babbitt tweeted that she would be in Washington DC on the 6th for a rally addressed by Mr Trump.

On 5 January, she boarded a plane in San Diego and texted to her friend that there were "tons of Trump supporters" flying with her. Another user tweeted that some flights to DC were being cancelled, supposedly to prevent people from attending the 6 January rally.

Babbitt replied: "Nothing will stop us. They can try and try and try, but the storm is here and it is descending upon DC in less than 24 hours."

When Trump’s army stormed the Capitol, Ashli Babbitt was among the mob that gathered in a stairwell near the chamber of the House of Representatives, where up to 80 members of congress and staff were sheltering. She was wearing a Trump flag on her shoulders like a cape.

The crowd began hammering on the doors out of the stairwell, which were barricaded from the other side with furniture. One window broke, and Ashli Babbitt, who was unarmed, climbed through. A gunshot rang out, and she fell back with a bullet in her shoulder.

Pro-Trump activists have found their George Floyd

Last August, the police officer who killed Ashli Babbitt finally broke his silence. For months Lt Michael Byrd, who is black, had been in hiding due to repeated death threats and racist attacks after Mr Trump falsely claimed he worked for a "high-ranking" Democratic politician.

"I know that day I saved countless lives," Lt Byrd told NBC News. “I know members of Congress, as well as my fellow officers and staff, were in jeopardy and in serious danger. And that’s my job.”

Babbitt did not become a Trumpist hero overnight. The day after the riot, Republican congressman Markwayne Mullin, who saw Babbitt’s death, said that Lt Byrd had not had any choice. "The mob was going to come through the door," he told ABC. "There was a lot of members and staff that were in danger at the time."

In the immediate aftermath, many Trump supporters believed she was a plant or a stooge, put into the crowd by the FBI or other dark forces. In April, the US Department of Justice closed its investigation with no criminal charges.

By the time of Lt Byrd’s interview, however, Babbitt’s name had become a clarion call in what Ms Castronuova calls the conservative "underground" of alternative media and social media. Ms Castronuova was among the first people to interview Babbitt’s family on InfoWars, a fringe news site that often promotes conspiracy theories and has been banned from most major social networks for hate speech.

Capitol Riot Images of the Day

"[Trump] is really in tune with the community, his base," Ms Castronuova says. "The underground will start to buzz, then Donald Trump picks up on it." Soon enough, at rallies and in interviews last summer, Mr Trump was calling Babbitt "an innocent, wonderful, incredible woman, a military woman", someone who was on his "side", and said there was "no reason for" her to die. Ms Castronuova says his backing was "instrumental".

Mr Trump’s efforts increased after a personal phone call to Mrs Witthoeft, who had become politically active. She has now spoken at a Trump rally and has backed her daughter’s actions, saying: "She made the ultimate sacrifice to bring attention to a stolen election."

Ms Castronuova says: "[Babbitt’s] mother has been really instrumental too. She became quite an advocate. She was afraid to speak out at first... but when she finally started speaking out, things really started to change."

Babbitt’s family sued the District of Columbia to uncover Lt Byrd’s identity, and plans to file wrongful death lawsuits against Lt Byrd himself and the Capitol Police. Terrell Roberts III, a lawyer for Babbitt’s husband Aaron, declined to comment and declined an interview on Mr Babbitt’s behalf.

Donations to Mr Babbitt’s legal fund continue to roll in, with many donors identifying themselves as military veterans. Others left messages such as "Pelosi’s police murdered a patriot", "SAY HER NAME!", and claims that Babbitt was set up or suggestions that Mr Byrd was guarding a hard drive full of incriminating Democratic secrets.

Many Trump supporters have compared Babbitt to George Floyd, a black man murdered by police in Minnesota, lifting the Black Lives Matter slogan "say her name" used in reference to many victims of police brutality.

On the private messaging app Telegram, which is popular on the far right, pro-Trump channels frequently invoke Babbitt’s name, sharing news articles about her family’s lawsuit or claiming that she was set up by informants. Many asked the question "who killed Ashli Babbit?" which Mr Trump later echoed.

"The entire scenario looks to be staged. So who is the rotting fish head of what appears to be a deliberate false flag? Who or what group set this up?" said the evangelist channel Veteran Patriots. The Proud Boys, a fascist militia, have begun using a stylised image of Babbitt as a logo, with the slogan: "They can’t kill us all."

British radicals have also taken up her cause. "Her name was Ashli Babbitt," said British neo-Nazi Mark Collett. "She was murdered by the state and her name was dragged through the mud by the media." An account identifying itself as former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson has invoked her name several times.

Some appear to believe she is not even dead. "Ashli Babbitt false [is a] flag, she’s alive living underground," said a QAnon channel called Gitmo TV.

‘A weapon of mass radicalisation’

To Prof Bloom, Babbitt’s transformation into an innocent victim of Leftist injustice has a worrying historical echo: Horst Wessel, the young Nazi street-fighter who was turned into a symbol of fascist heroism by Josef Goebbel’s propaganda apparatus.

Wessel was shot in 1930 by two members of the Communist Party, probably as part of a dispute over unpaid rent with his Communist landlady. By 1936, after the Nazis took power, official media referred to him as greater than Jesus Christ and the Horst Wessel Song was Germany’s joint national anthem.

"Fake martyrdoms succeed because they feed off the shared grievances and anger of the crowd, serving as justification for future retaliatory violence," wrote Prof Bloom and another researcher, Sophia Moskalenko, with whom Prof Bloom has co-authored a book about QAnon. "Ashli Babbitt’s unfortunate death is a weapon of mass radicalisation, just like Horst Wessel’s death was manipulated by Goebbels."

Indeed, the Nazis’ modern successors have particularly embraced Babbitt, turning an enthusiastic Trump supporter with a chequered past who was killed in a chaotic riot into a towering hero or innocent victim of police brutality while seeking to pin the blame on black and Jewish people.

"Unlike ‘Saint Floyd’, Ashli Babbitt will receive no justice from this sick anti-white system," said one white supremacist Telegram channel. "But we will always remember her sacrifice and she will never be forgotten. There is a day coming not far from now when we will erect statues in her honor."

Flowers and candles are seen at a memorial for Ashli Babbitt, the woman who was shot dead at the U.S. Capitol after U.S. President Donald Trump's supporters stormed the building, in Washington, U.S. January 7, 2021.

The same channel referred to Lt Byrd as a "black parasite who gets to kill an unarmed white woman and walk around unbothered", threatening to make him "account for his actions". Another neo-Nazi channel claimed that "Ashli Babbitt was killed because she was white".

Alex Friedfeld, an investigative researcher for the Anti-Defamation League, which advocates against antisemitism and other forms of racism, says such messages are part of a widespread effort by white supremacists to lure recruits from the broader pro-Trump community.

"White supremacists will always try to twist whatever major story is in the news to fit their agenda," says Mr Friedfeld. It’s unclear how successful these efforts have been, but the fact that they are trying to leverage the Babbitt story is deeply concerning because it raises the likelihood that someone is radicalised."

Prof Bloom agrees, comparing it to the Proud Boys’ attempts last summer to recruit "incel" anti-feminists. She says that while many QAnon believers are not consciously racist, and not all are white, the movement has a pervasive racial bias, with trafficked children usually depicted as white whereas real world child trafficking disproportionately affects children of colour.

Prof Bloom also points out that another protester, Rosanne Boyland, died during the riot but has not been turned into a martyr in the same way. The reason, she argues, is that unlike Babbitt’s family, the Boyland’s have blamed Mr Trump for their loved one’s death.

A threat from within America’s military

The martyrdom of Ashli Babbitt paints a foreboding picture of where American politics is going. To Prof Bloom and Prof Moskalenko, martyrs are a ubiquitous manufactured product of radical movements, useful because of their potency in rallying followers to stay in the fight and seek revenge against the enemy.

Ms Castronuova stops short of saying Babbitt was an example others should follow, describing her as a good person sucked into an "emotionally charged" and chaotic situation. She is happy to call Babbitt a martyr, claiming: "She was killed because of her political beliefs, and they continue to kill her image and her memory because of her political beliefs. If she was a liberal and she hated Donald Trump, she would be remembered very fondly by the media."

Mr Friedfelder, however, fears that Babbitt’s lionisation could contribute to an escalating cycle of conflict, and considers politicians’ embrace of Babbitt to be dangerous. While most Republicans have not embraced the idea that she was unjustly killed, few have publicly rebuked it, apparently reluctant to openly challenge Mr Trump even now he is out of office.

That does not mean they are happy behind the scenes. On Wednesday Mr Trump cancelled a press conference on the anniversary of the riot, reportedly under pressure from mainstream Republicans. Senator Lindsey Graham said he had played golf with Mr Trump at the weekend and warned him that there "could be peril" in such an event. Still, history suggests that Mr Trump’s concessions to moderates are rarely permanent.

Mr Friedfelder says: "Her martyrdom turns her into a call to action... it is one thing for extremists to embrace Babbitt, but it is another for the former president and several high-profile members of the Republican Party to do the same. These officials are supposed to be trusted figures and people look to them for guidance when trying to understand national events."

Claims that Babbitt was murdered or assassinated continue to spread on social media, according to data from the online discussion tracking firm Zignal Labs. Mr Trump’s and Mr Putin’s comments caused spikes in mentions of Babbitt, and the general discussion around 6 January has barely waned over the past year.

Prof Bloom believes there is a more acute threat too: Babbitt’s military record. According to a report from START, an academic coalition that studies terrorism, at least 118 of the 719 people charged in connection with the riot, about 16 per cent of the whole, are veterans. In a START extremism database, about 7 per cent of all far-right cases had military experience, with the rest simply listed as unknown.

"We don’t know how many American military [members] have been radicalised, either by MAGA or specifically by QAnon and white supremacy," says Prof Bloom. "There has been a problem of white supremacy in the military for decades that the military has been reticent to deal with.

"It’s dangerous because it’s not just some flunky who wants to make a name for themselves. It’s someone with military training who has weapons and knows how to use them." She compares most pro-Trump extremists with the bumbling jihadists in 2010’s Four Lions, with lots of anger but limited ways to direct it. "When you have someone who has been trained by the military or law enforcement, they know how to use that anger."

Prof Moskalenko worries that the conditions are set for yet more political violence in America. "A martyrdom is a symbol of perceived widespread injustice and suffering. There’s a lot of that going around," she says. "With or without Ashli Babbit, we have problems. Addressing them, rather than getting stuck in the never-ending cycle of rhetoric, competing narratives, and shifting moral frames, is our only hope."

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