Six-and-a-half months after the worst attack on the US Capitol since 1814, Washington DC is on alert for another threat to the seat of Congress: the so-called “Justice for J6” rally, an event ostensibly advocating for better treatment for the more than 600 people arrested over their alleged involvement in the 6 January insurrection.
Scheduled for this Saturday, 18 September, the rally is being treated as a potentially serious threat. According to the Department of Homeland Security, some 700 people are expected to attend, though how many will actually show up for the scheduled noon start time remains unclear.
The rally’s chief organiser is Matt Braynard, a onetime staffer for Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign who has been working hard to make a name for himself in the Trumpist far-right ecosystem since the 2020 election – and in particular since the insurrection.
He has become one of the most dedicated pushers of the narrative that most of the people who entered the Capitol on the day had only peaceful intentions, and that the hundreds of them who have been arrested and charged by law enforcement are being abused as “political prisoners” for their conservative beliefs.
He has determinedly insisted that this protest will be peaceful, and even insisted that attendees should refrain from wearing any pro-Trump apparel or bringing signs with his bearing his name. “Anyone not honoring this request will be assumed to be an infiltrator and we will take your picture, find out who you are, and make you famous,” he wrote in a stern tweet. “This event is 100% about #JusticeforJ6 and not the election or any candidate.”
Nonetheless, preparations are underway to make sure the Capitol and its working population are kept safe.
Members of Congress and their staff have been told by the House sergeant-at-arms to avoid the Capitol complex on the day of the rally, and to use tunnels between buildings if they have no option but to come to work. Besides that advice to the people who were targets of the January attack, the US Capitol Police and other law enforcement are posting extra officers in the area; street closures are expected, and a temporary perimeter fence has been erected around the complex.
That fence has gone over poorly with more than a few people on the pro-Trump right. In a Facebook livestream on Thursday, far-right Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor-Greene showed her viewers the temporary fence around the Capitol complex, which she contrasted with the supposed lack of security measures at the US’ border with Mexico. “On Saturday there’s people comin’ into town to protest how the 6 January defendants are being held like political prisoners,” she said.
“No chance of getting out on bail, no-one wants to remember them, no-one wants to talk about them. But you wanna know something, look at that: there’s that fence!...There’s going to be people – probably, hopefully just peacefully protesting on Saturday, there shouldn’t be any violence, I don’t believe in that and support it – but they just want to make sure that you’re not allowed to go anywhere near the Capitol. You’re not.”
The congresswoman’s contorted analogy with the southern border aside, her video points to several important facts about the rally: one, that even she, one of Congress’ most determined pro-Trump insurrection revisionists, is not a part of it; two, that the security measures being put in place around Congress are far stronger than those on 6 January; and three, that sympathetic voices on the right are working hard to downplay the possibility of violence and distance themselves from it in advance, should any break out.
It is not in fact clear that any members of Congress will be addressing the rally. Several key far-right members, among them Ms Greene and Matt Gaetz, are known not to be attending. (Other similar-minded representatives including Lauren Boebert, Paul Gosar and Mo Brooks, have not responded to The Independent’s requests for comment.) That reticence to be linked with the rally reportedly even extends to Mr Trump himself. At the moment, the speaker the organisers are most excited about is Mike Collins, a congressional candidate in Georgia.
Meanwhile, even some of the most openly violent and dangerous groups associated with the 6 January attack are warning their members to steer clear the protest, which they say is effectively a lure set by government forces to round them up.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Cassie Miller, “People in DC are rightly worried about Sept. 18, but there is basically no evidence of widespread right-wing mobilization. Groups like the Proud Boys are actively discouraging people from attending and online chatter is almost exclusively about why no one should attend.”
Threats against public officials with responsibility for Covid-19 measures, she tweeted, are at a disturbingly high pitch – but “since January 6, people in the far right are rightly paranoid about attracting the attention of federal law enforcement. For them, Sept. 18 looks like a trap set to catch people in a dragnet of surveillance or arrest. Many are calling it a false flag.”
There is some concern that there could be outbreaks of violence at simultaneous protests organised by Look Ahead America at state capitols around the US – where security measures are necessarily more lax than those in Washington, and where aggressive anti-lockdown protesters have repeatedly made themselves heard over the past year.
But with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies investigating not just the January rioters but other far-right groups – among them the self-styled militiamen who plotted to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer – there is just as much reason for groups to avoid scheduled mass action at the state level.
Meanwhile, Washington’s preparations for 18 September go on. At the moment, it looks like this protest could go the way of many others that failed to ignite major violence – the predicted 4 March assault by QAnon believers, for instance, ultimately came to nothing. But for all the obvious reasons, Congress and the Capitol Police are taking no chances.
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