No one overran the U.S. Capitol this time or tried to subvert American democracy. What the people who came to the rally on a stretch of grass near the Capitol Reflecting Pool on Saturday afternoon really wanted to do was talk. Talk and argue. And then talk and argue some more.
The “Justice for J6” rally was supposed to highlight the plight of those charged with nonviolent crimes in the January 6 insurrection who, the organizers claim, have been denied fast and fair trials. In reality, the afternoon was a forum for any number of grievances, some difficult to discern. One guy walked around in a Batman costume. Another was accompanied by a service dog whose collar read Abolish the Democrats. Two men argued about whether the 2020 election was stolen, as former President Donald Trump has falsely claimed. Two others argued about God. A retired firefighter in a navy-blue uniform, complaining about the election results, said the U.S. had become a “banana republic.” “I’m a firefighter too, and this guy is talking pure bullshit,” a man who’d been listening in said. If there was any mortal danger, it was a blend of heatstroke and tedium.
Still, authorities prepared for the worst, not knowing who might show up. “I’ve certainly gotten messages from all over the country telling me to be careful and not to go near the Capitol on Saturday,” Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, the lead manager in Trump’s second impeachment trial, told me earlier in the week. “So they’ve got people worried, there’s no doubt about that.” Ahead of the rally, the Capitol police had warned about “concerning online chatter.” They ordered temporary fencing around the building and brought in reinforcements to prevent a recurrence of the January 6 melee that left five people dead. In a show of force midway through the event, dozens of officers clad in black riot gear arrived and took positions near the stage.
But it wasn’t that sort of crowd. Or much of a crowd at all. A few hundred people might have attended, though it was hard to say for sure, because so many were journalists. There were even a few anti-Trumpers who came to see the spectacle (and argue). Elected officials stayed away.
The most prominent speakers were on nobody’s A-list: Joe Kent and Mike Collins, who are running for Congress in Washington State and Georgia, respectively. Both are pro-Trump Republicans. Trump has already endorsed Kent, and it’s easy to see why. He’s running against the incumbent, Jaime Herrera Butler, who was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in January. If Kent wins in 2022 and the GOP retakes the House, he told me after the rally, as a newly minted congressman, he’ll dig into the 2020 election. Did Trump win? I asked. “Yes,” he said, without hesitation. Kent said he wants the GOP-led House to hold a “full congressional inquiry” into the election, where members would subpoena witnesses and evidence “and have it done once and for all.” (Joe Biden’s victory has already been validated in post-election audits.)
Other speakers included family members and friends of various people charged in the storming of the Capitol. One read aloud a letter from a “concerned mother” of a man who’s been denied bail despite a nonviolent offense and, the writer said, has been suffering in prison. “He’s lost his job, lost friends, and is in the process of losing his home. He’s been denied visits from family. His jailers treat these men like scum … I just wanted to let your organization know of the terrible conditions these brave men are being subjected to. Even death-row inmates get haircuts and are allowed to shave. This reminds me of how the Jewish people were treated by the Nazis.” (From the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website: “The Holocaust was the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its allies and collaborators.”)
Organizers also showed video from January 6 that included a picture of Jacob Chansley, who has become known as the “QAnon Shaman.” Chansley has been in jail since his arrest in January. He pleaded guilty earlier this month to obstructing a congressional proceeding: Congress’s certification of the 2020 results. Chansley is among the best-known of the Capitol rioters, having shown up shirtless in face paint and a fur hat sprouting horns.
“This man has not been accused of violence,” Matt Braynard, a former Trump-campaign aide who helped organize the protest, told the crowd. “This man has not been accused of destruction of property. He has been accused of dressing horribly, I think. It’s a matter of opinion … What he did that day, and if anybody did anything similar, does not deserve nine months” in jail. Earlier in the week, I spoke with Chansley’s attorney, Albert Watkins. Chansley’s sentencing on the felony count is scheduled for November 17. He told me his client does not want to be thought of either as a “martyr” or a “political prisoner,” but “rather someone who wanted to be accountable and held accountable for his actions on January 6.”
When I went inside the Capitol afterward, it was empty except for clusters of police at various entrances. Congress isn’t in session, and members had been advised by law enforcement to avoid the complex. A couple of riot shields were propped up against a wall, unused.
“Quiet day,” I said to one of the police officers.
“I’ll take it,” he said.