Jonathan P. Baird: Questions in the wake of the riot

For the Monitor
Published: 1/17/2021 6:11:25 AM

Like millions, I was glued to the TV watching the events of Jan. 6 unfold. Information remains limited and questions abound about the riot at the Capitol and what happened. While much more information will no doubt be emerging, I wanted to address some questions that stand out.

Was the riot spontaneous?

The evidence clearly shows it was not spontaneous. President Donald Trump tweeted on Dec. 19: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild.” ProPublica reported that his supporters took up the name “Wild Protest.” Other pro-Trumpers under the name “Stop the Steal” railed that the election was stolen. On Dec. 23 online, they promised an occupation of the Capitol.

For a period of time prior to Jan. 6, extreme right-wing websites discussed Operation Occupy the Capitol and the question of violent protest if the Senate made Joe Biden’s victory official. On Dec. 12, a poster on the website explicitly urged violence if the Senate certified Biden’s win. The poster wrote: “If this does not change, then I advocate Revolution and adherence to the rules of war. I say, take the hill or die trying.”

On Jan. 7, the Washington, D.C., Police Chief Robert Contee said there was no intelligence that suggested there would be a breach of the U.S. Capitol. That is hard to understand since this assault was planned in public view. Rioters did what they said they would do.

Trump had told his followers to be in Washington on Jan. 6 and his followers obeyed the command. Anyone who bothered to look at extremist Trump message boards could have seen the handwriting on the wall.

Arieh Kovler, a political consultant in the U.K., accurately predicted these events on Twitter on Dec. 21. He wrote: “On Jan. 6, armed Trumpist militias will be rallying in D.C. at Trump’s orders. It is highly likely that they’ll try to storm the Capitol after it certifies Joe Biden’s win. I don’t think this has sunk in yet.”

The rioters appeared to have knowledge of the tunnels of Congress and the location of key congressional offices. They had radios and two-way communication with earpieces. There were police officers from across the U.S. among the rioters. A number of rioters came armed for battle with a background in military training. Pipe bombs were planted outside the DNC and the RNC. There was some degree of planning and coordination.

Should the Capitol riot be considered a protest, a demonstration, or domestic terrorism?

This went far beyond a protest or demonstration. It was a violent assault on the seat of government meant to overturn a free and fair election. That classifies as a seditious coup. As such, I think domestic terrorism is the most accurate characterization.

Back in December, Arieh Kovler had wondered if the way the protest might swing the election in Trump’s favor was by “forcing Congress to certify him as the winner at gunpoint.”

Ransacking the Capitol, smashing press equipment, trashing congressional offices and stealing government laptops all put this beyond mere protest. You had violent people swinging lead pipes at police and pepper-spraying them. The rioters built a noose and gallows outside the Capitol. They chanted “Hang Mike Pence.” Some rioters carried zip ties used by police. It is unclear if they intended to capture or execute members of Congress or Vice President Pence if they had intercepted them.

Five people died in the riot, including police officer Brian Sicknick. Chief Contee has reported 56 officers were injured after being beaten or tazed repeatedly.

How and why did law enforcement fail so epically?

The Capitol Police are supposed to protect Congress. You have to ask: How did the police let this happen? There was an intelligence failure and a substantive response breakdown. Mike German, a former FBI agent, wrote: “You don’t get to ransack the Capitol for hours, then calmly walk away unless law enforcement and its command share your views. What we saw yesterday was tacit approval of the rioters. Full stop.”

The delay in sending in the National Guard, especially after it was requested by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, raises the question of whether this was an inside job. We knew the threat of far right violence had been de-prioritized by Trump. Was the response failure a result of a coordinated plan by Trump and his allies? It needs to be asked and answered.

There is a sick, racist law enforcement culture that needs to be addressed. While many police did their jobs bravely, others were taking selfies with rioters. Black Capitol Police reported that they were repeatedly subjected to racist taunts and use of the n-word by the mob, which was overwhelmingly white and male.

Did antifa play any role in the Capitol riot?

With our own eyes, we saw the huge crowd of Trump supporters descend on the Capitol. They carried Trump flags, Confederate flags, Nazi swastika flags, and they wore clothing that identified themselves as Trump supporters. Proud Boys chanted “F--- Antifa”. Later on Jan. 6, Trump himself posted a video that expressed “love” for his supporters and he said they were “very special.”

Yet, somehow, after things went south, right wing commentators concocted a story that pro-Trump rioters were actually antifa in disguise. Please. This was a 100% Trump-incited riot. The Proud Boys, neo-Nazis wearing shirts that said Camp Auschwitz and 6MWE (which stands for six million weren’t enough), white supremacists, QAnon supporters and other Trump supporters all seemed very proud of themselves.

The idea of antifa involvement is a fantasy, akin to the Trump fantasy of a stolen election.

Is the fascist threat over?

The Capitol riot has echoes of the plot hatched by the Michigan militia against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. It is also reminiscent of the Turner Diaries, a 1978 novel famous in far right circles that prominently features an attack on the U.S. Capitol. The plot is about how a small number of white power fanatics overthrow the federal government and start a race war.

The failure of Trump’s coup attempt does not mean the domestic terrorist threat is over. That threat has been consistently underestimated for four years. The Capitol riot provides compelling evidence of that proposition. If the threat of right-wing extremism is to be reduced if not eliminated, perpetrators of the riot must pay a price. That is at least a first step.

The rioters seem to believe the law does not apply to them. This sense of entitlement is rooted in hundreds of years of white supremacy. The fascist threat is certainly not over.

It has barely been recognized.

(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot and blogs at

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