The speaker at the podium was coming to the end of a stirring address in which she condemned the media for unfairly maligning the brave few hundred who turned out to rally on Saturday in front of the Capitol building in Washington DC. Today’s protest was not about condoning the violence that occurred in the building behind her on 6 January, but about due process for those who were arrested on that day. They were political prisoners and they must be freed, she said, to roaring cheers. But old habits die hard. Just moments later, at the mention of Nancy Pelosi’s name from that same podium, a familiar refrain rang out from the crowd: “Lock her up!”
The ‘Justice for J6 rally’, organised by former Trump campaign employee Matt Braynard, was always going to be many things to many people. In the week preceding the event, there had been warnings of a repeat of the violence of that day, when thousands of pro-Trump supporters overpowered police to force their way into the Capitol, where they were able to halt the certification of the presidential election. But many of the right-wing groups that led the violence had warned their supporters to stay away. Even Donald Trump, who urged his supporters to march on the Capitol in January, called Saturday’s rally a “set up”.
In the end, no more than a few hundred turned up. Unlike on 6 January, when Capitol police were quickly overwhelmed, security was tight around the building. Often, protesters were outnumbered by journalists. Anyone with a megaphone quickly found themselves surrounded by a dozen cameras. A minor verbal disagreement between a rally attendee and a counter-protester drew a crowd of around 40 journalists, who mobbed the pair and followed them down the street.
For Braynard, the organiser, the small and orderly crowd was a sign of vindication. “It took real courage to come out here today. You have my respect,” he said. “Peaceful community organisation from this day forward belongs to us.”
There was no single message to the day. Some were there simply to call for the release of the “political prisoners” held for their involvement in the Capitol riot. Some were there to decry what they called a stolen election. Some just wanted to shout. Others were there to revisit the events of the day, to change the narrative, and in some cases re-write history.
Cara Castronuova, co-founder of Citizens Against Political Persecution, was there to counter “the narrative of January 6 being an insurrection, when not one person has been charged with this crime”. She added that there needs to be a “real investigation” that looks into police brutality on that day.
Braynard came armed with something akin to a Powerpoint presentation, in which he presented photographs of other protests inside the Capitol, and who he claimed had not received such harsh punishments.
Andres Bruce said the rally was about supporting non-violent protesters.
“We came because there are more than 600 people who have been charged with January 6, and while the ones who committed violence should be punished, most of the charges are trespassing and other non-violent charges and people are being disproportionately punished and they haven’t even been convicted of a crime,” he said.
“If you committed a violent act then that’s a crime, and that can’t be defended. But we’re talking about people who wanted to express their grievances to the government in a constitutionally protected way and are getting swept up with a few violent agitators. The ones who didn’t commit the violence should not be lumped in with the ones who did,” he said.
There was much talk of Black Lives Matter protesters receiving lesser punishments for their roles in demonstrations (the Prosecution Project, which tracks cases related to the George Floyd protests last year, estimates that 1,425 people have been charged).
“There seems to be two different playbooks for two different ideologies,” said a man who called himself Carter Rocks. “If you’re supporting the DNC and you support Black Lives Matter and you support Antifa you can trash your city, but if you come down here to peacefully protest and you get swept up in a crowd, you’re sitting in jail right now with no bail. You’ve probably lost your job, and probably lost your house.”
A small number of counter-protesters mingled with the crowd throughout the proceedings. “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” read one sign. “Jan 6 rioters go to jail” read another.
Doug Hughes, 68, came from Florida with a very pointed message. His sign read “There is no right to insurrection”, and he felt as though he had earned the right to hand out some hard truths today. He was jailed for 120 days in 2016 for landing a gyrocopter on the lawn of the US Capitol to protest the campaign finance system.
“I am here because I have a perspective. I am a felon. I did four months in federal prison for a protest here in Washington DC in 2015. I violated national airspace. I knew that I would be taken into custody. I know that I was pissing off super powerful people. I accepted that before I did what I did. These people are saying there shouldn’t be inconvenience consequences for what they did because of their viewpoint. The department of justice doesn’t care about your viewpoint,” he said.
“If you committed a violent crime, or you participated in trespassing after that crime, and when you come out and announce that you are part of the revolution, and then the cops come knocking on your door, you can’t act surprised. I did what I did, it was non-violent, there was no property damage. You did a million dollars of damage, you injured over a hundred cops, suck it up, it’s not gonna be fun. But you did it, so face up to it.”
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