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Editor’s note: This story contains language that may be offensive.
“I was standing among thousands of Trump supporters on the lawn who stood up to the Washington Monument,” said NPR’s Tom Bowman. “Then Trump came on stage to fierce applause.”
Bowman reported from the “Save America” rally in Washington, DC on January 6th. Until the time former President Trump began speaking, the rally held a festive atmosphere, almost like a football game, he said. “Some Trump supporters sang YMCA but by using the letters MAGA. “
But things were different in the Capitol building, where I stood with Hannah Allam, the NPR’s extremism reporter. The far right group, The Proud Boys, had just turned up and were in the process of organizing a flock to host the convention. We had quietly nestled with them as they began to walk west on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Then suddenly they stopped. And turned around. The rally was on its way to us.
Moments earlier, Trump had claimed election fraud, called the results “bull ****” and asked the audience to meet him at the Capitol. Thousands complied, many did not even wait for Trump to finish his speech.
What happened next is still a bit blurry. Hannah and I saw a rushing sea of people and flags moving towards us. I barely managed to change the batteries in my recording equipment before we were surrounded.
And everyone knows what happened next.
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A makeshift gallows. A story in change
It is a year ago that the pro-Trump mob broke through the Capitol doors and windows, attacked law enforcement and the media and vandalized the building when lawmakers were rushed to secure places. Five people died in or as a result of the attack, and 140 police officers were assaulted along with members of the media.
As it unfolded, we asked one of the troublemakers, who called himself “Joe from Ohio,” what the goal was.
“The people of this house who stole this election from us, hanging in a gallows out here on this lawn for the whole world to see, so it never happens again,” he said. “That’s what’s going to happen. Four and four and four, hanging in a rope out here for treason.”
A makeshift gallows with a loop was actually built on the Capitol site that day, but was never used.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images
On the other side of the Capitol, Tom Bowman spoke with Natalie O’Brien and Chris Scalcucci, a couple from Detroit. He asked them why they were doing this.
“The Republic is falling,” O’Brien said. “And to become corrupt and unmanageable. And our voice means nothing at all.”
“Because we love our country,” Scalcucci added. “And we do not want it to fall into the hands of these evil people. The things they do, it is unforgivable.”
“Our tax dollars pay for this monument. This is a kind of our property,” O’Brien said.
For many who participated in the siege, it felt like a patriotic act. They were loyal Americans who protested what they had been told was a stolen choice.
But as arrests continue and prison sentences begin, how have the consequences reshaped the narrative?
Last month, the news broke out that Mark Meadows, Trump’s then chief of staff, texted Fox News hosts on Jan. 6. They asked Trump to make a public statement to his supporters and cancel the riots. But that night, the same hosts had a different story.
“There are some reports that Antifa sympathizers may have been sprinkled into the crowd,” Laura Ingraham said on her show that night.
And that story spread.
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We know who was there
Months later, Tom Bowman and I returned to the Capitol area in September for the “Justice for J6” rally. Many of the people we spoke to had also been there on January 6th. And yet, they repeated the story they had heard on Fox News.
“It was not Trump supporters,” said a man named Phil from Kentucky, claiming that the only people who broke in were dressed entirely in black.
“So it was black helmets, black clothes, black backpacks that started blowing the windows first,” said Janie, a South Carolina nurse who said she saw members of Antifa and Black Lives Matter commit the violence. She also claimed that Trump supporters were actually trying to fight them. But when we mentioned that we were at the scene that day, she admitted that she actually never got close enough to the Capitol to see any violence.
We let her know that the proud boys were dressed in all black that day when they had planned to give up their usual colors black and yellow to be “incognito”.
“I did not know that,” she said.
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But the thread that tried to blame Antifa and Black Lives Matter was repeated by former President Trump himself as recently as two weeks ago. In an interview with Candace Owens on December 21, he also said it was FBI informants who incited the crowd.
So far, more than 700 people have been charged. The defendants are largely white, and 13% of them are affiliated with the military or law enforcement. More than 100 of them have alleged ties to well-known extremist or fringe organizations, such as the pro-Trump conspiracy theory QAnon, The Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, part of the anti-government militia movement. But the majority had no ties to extremist groups.
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‘An American rebel movement’
Tampa Bay’s attorney Bjørn Brunvand represents several people who were at the Capitol that day, including Robert Scott Palmer, who was recently convicted to five years in prison for assaulting law enforcement with a fire extinguisher, a wooden plank and a flagpole. His is the longest such period yet.
“He believed in the lies announced by former President Trump and his accomplices,” Brunvand said.
But he said his client has had a major change of attitude since his arrest.
“It went from 100% support for President Trump and the idea that the election was fraudulent in the beginning … to the realization that he was being misled. He’s sitting in a jail here in Washington, DC and this great powerful former president who said ‘meet me at the Capitol’, he is too busy playing golf and has no interest in any of the guys who have been arrested, Brunvand said.
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He said Palmer took President Trump’s words that day as a directive. That he did it for him. And now he feels abandoned.
“Not only did he not show up, he is not there for anyone who was there and allegedly was there to save democracy and save the country. When they actually did the opposite,” Brunvand said.
But the thought of January 6 did not die with the day. The University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats has been tracking rebellion sentiment in the United States for a year now. It found that 21 million share the same beliefs that motivated troublemakers that day.
In other words, millions of Americans support the idea of political violence. Scholars call it “an American rebel movement” that a year after the attack on the Capitol is still alive and well.