This article was originally published by 100 Days in Appalachia, an independent, non-profit digital news publication incubated at the Media Innovation Center at the West Virginia University Reed College of Media. Sign up for their weekly newsletter here.
By Chris Jones
On January 6, a violent mob of Pro-Trump supporters and far right extremists stormed the U.S. Capitol as members of Congress were meeting to accept the 2020 Presidential Election results. In the days following, national media have attempted to make sense of the events for you, members of the public.
But mis- and disinformation about the attack, especially on social media, have made it difficult to decipher truth from fiction. So we asked you: What do you want to know about what really happened last week in Washington?
Below are questions we received from social media, from our own friends and family members and even some of our colleagues in the journalism field. The answers come from Chris Jones, our Report for America corps member covering domestic extremism, who was at the Capitol and documented the violence that day.
These answers are meant to help you and your friends, family members, colleagues, anyone in your life, understand the situation as it stands now and to address some of the misinformation that’s being spread, but it is far from complete. Jones will continue his reporting, alongside our editorial team, into the events of January 6 and their continued fall out, as well as potential related incidents that may occur in the future.
Who organized the attack on the Capitol?
The crowd began gathering the morning of January 6 to participate in a “Stop the Steal” rally, listening to political speeches near the White House, including from President Donald Trump, before marching to the Capitol several blocks away. The rally was organized by various conservative political groups and donors.
From the outside, the attack appeared organized in the sense that participants knew to leave the area where President Trump was speaking that afternoon, walk to the U.S. Capitol Building,, and disrupt the Congressional sessions in progress.
Federal law enforcement is actively investigating the attack, and it remains unclear if a core group of attackers had a specific plan and/or the intent to kidnap or harm Vice President Mike Pence, the Speaker of the House and various members of Congress.
President Trump and his allies, including Turning Point USA, America First, and support from Republican congressmen, promoted and organized the “Stop The Steal” rally through social media for weeks leading up to the event. Some organizations, as well as popular Republican political figures, helped with transportation and lodging for those who participated. Many of these groups are funded by donations and political lobbyist organizations, rather than a single funding source.
During the rally, many speakers and participants used language indicating the intention to use force in an effort to prevent the election results from being certified. According to an NBC article, a Republican Attorneys General group sent robocalls to supporters urging them to attack the Capitol at 1 p.m., which is when people first began moving away from the rally towards the Capitol building.
While there is clear evidence that many Republican lawmakers in Congress openly helped plan the “Stop The Steal” rally, at this point there is no evidence that any federal elected official or federal government employee used their position to directly assist or enable the attack that followed on the Capitol.
Were there weapons used during the attack?
Yes. The attackers brought their own pepper spray, pyrotechnic devices, smoke bombs, knives, firearms, metal pipes, baseball bats and other weapons, and I witnessed them use them on police at the Capitol.
I personally saw two firearms in the crowd as well as many knives and blunt objects. I personally witnessed Trump supporters–people wearing Make America Great Again hats, waving Trump flags, and vocally expressing their support of Trump–attack law enforcement with metal pipes, wooden planks, flag poles and pepper spray.
Two explosive devices were also found at the RNC and DNC headquarters in D.C. that day, and there were many reports of law enforcement confiscating firearms and other weapons from people arrested after the 6 p.m. curfew put in place by the mayor of D.C. was enacted that evening.
What did the attackers hope to accomplish?
While it’s too early to tell if there was a core group of attackers with specific intention to capture and/or injure members of Congress, something federal law enforcement is aggressively investigating, a number of speakers at the “Stop the Steal” rally used language that alluded to using violence to prevent Congress’s acceptance of the election results, including President Trump.
But the language used that day is the result of months of heightened rhetoric from the President and other Republican political leaders who, months before voting began, had already decided they would not accept the election’s results. The rhetoric continued as legally cast early and mail-in ballots continued to be counted after Election Day and more than a dozen courts across the country dismissed Trump campaign cases to stop voting or discount votes.
On January 6, the mob was successful in delaying the verification of the Electoral College votes, however, Vice President Mike Pence, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ensured that the verification process was completed as soon as they were given the all clear by law enforcement to return to the floor, concluding around 4 a.m.
Why have there been so few arrests?
More than one hundred people have been arrested in connection to the attack, though most of these arrests took place after the city wide curfew took effect at 6 p.m. Many of those arrested were charged with violating the curfew rather than for any role they may or may not have had in the attack itself.
However, there have been many questions raised about why more people weren’t arrested at the Capitol itself. Capitol Police were quickly overwhelmed and reinforcements from D.C. Metro Police and the National Guard did not arrive until around 6 p.m. to help enforce the curfew, well after the initial attack had concluded.
Most of the people who stormed the Capitol were able to walk away, get in their cars or on planes or buses and return home without ever being stopped by law enforcement. Because of this, arrests will likely occur all over the country, and it will take time for law enforcement to investigate and verify before making those arrests.
Those who have been arrested so far are primarily being charged with trespassing and vandalism and are facing no more than one year prison sentences and fines. As of this reporting, no one has been charged with treason or other serious offenses.
Perhaps most notable so far for Appalachians is the arrest of newly elected West Virginia House of Delegates member Derrick Evans of Wayne County. Evans resigned from the state legislature after he live streamed himself on social media directly participating in the attack on the Capitol. He was arrested at his home in West Virginia by the FBI on January 8th.
Are a lot of the people who attacked the Capitol in the military? Members of law enforcement?
While there have been multiple arrests of active and retired military personnel who participated in the attack on the Capitol (with more expected in the coming days), there is no evidence that a coordinated group of military personnel were part of a plot to attack the government. While it’s too early to tell conclusively as investigations are ongoing, what evidence we have suggests that the military personnel who took part in the assault did so on their own.
The same is true of off-duty police officers. There have been reports of their participation, but there is no evidence currently that they participated in the riots in any coordinated manner but as private individuals.
Did Capitol Police let the rioter into the Capitol?
While there have been videos circulating on social media suggesting that some Capitol Police officers allowed the mob to reach the doors or assisted them in entering and moving throughout the Capitol building, these videos should be understood in the context of what these officers were facing. A crowd of thousands – many using mace, bricks, large metal pipes and batons to attack the officers – quickly overwhelmed the Capitol Police force. Once the police lines were broken, there was little direction from Capitol Police leadership, leaving many officers to fend for themselves. I watched some officers choose to get out of the mob’s way, while others defended entrances and hallways throughout the day. Multiple Capitol Police officers have been suspended or are being investigated for their actions during the attack.
Did Antifa infiltrate the “Stop the Steal” rally and the attack on the U.S. Capitol?
There is no evidence that anyone participated in the January 6 attack other than supporters of President Trump, members of the QAnon conspiracy community, and members of far right extremist organizations like the Proud Boys, Oathkeepers, III%ers and militia members. As of this writing, there have been no arrests or statements from law enforcement that indicate there were members of left wing activists such as Antifa present.
Did Antifa kill rioters?
No. So far there have been five deaths attributed to the violence at the Capitol, none of which have been attributed to Antifa.
I watched as Brian Sicknick, a Capitol Police officer, was beaten to death with flagpoles with American flags affixed to them, and other objects wielded by the attackers. While a federal murder investigation is ongoing, video evidence suggests that he was attacked by Trump supporters at the Capitol.
Four of the attackers also died. Ashli Babbitt and Rosanne Boyland were both in their mid-thirties and deeply involved in the QAnon conspiracy. Babbitt was shot by a Capitol Police officer as she and others attempted to reach an area of the Capitol where Congress members were sheltering. Boyland’s cause of death is still unclear.
Kevin Greeson, a fifty-five-year-old Alabamian, died of a heart attack on the steps of the Capitol right in front of me, and Benjamin Philips, a fifty-year-old man from Pennsylvania, died of a reported stroke.
Since, Capitol Police Officer Howard Liebengood also took his own life. The fifty-one-year-old had been at the Capitol during the attack.
What was the timeline of contacting the National Guard and what authority would they have had at the Capitol?
According to various reports, the National Guard was first requested by the Capitol Police around 2 p.m., more than an hour after the Capitol itself was breached.
This article from Defense News explains that the National Guard and D.C.’s Metropolitan Police – which is a different entity than the Capitol Police with different leadership – have no jurisdiction on federal property. Even if there had been one thousand Guardsmen standing on the street just outside of the Capitol building, they couldn’t have stepped foot in the building without permission from the federal government.
Did the White House know about the demonstration plans? What specific contingencies did they have set up?
Extremely little information about the White House’s plans and actions during the attack has come out so far, so there is no information about whether the White House had specific plans regarding the Capitol attack.
However, such an incident is part of the Secret Service “playbook,” so in regards to safeguarding the President and national security figures, there was a protocol in place that was enacted. We saw this when Vice President Pence and other Congressional leaders were quickly pulled from the House and Senate floors as the rioters breached the Capitol building.
Former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, who resigned after last week’s events, has told reporters that he requested the National Guard be put on alert and provide assistance six times before and during the attack on the Capitol. On a conference call with Senior Army official Lt. Gen. Walter E. Piatt, director of the Army Staff, Sund says he was told they would not send National Guard members. “I don’t like the visual of the National Guard standing a police line with the Capitol in the background,” Piatt said.
How many people, if any at all, were added to the no-fly list after January 6?
There are anecdotal reports that people who participated in the Capitol attack were unable to fly home from Washington, and viral videos of people who participated in the Capitol attack harassing flight crews. But as of this time, the TSA and FBI have not acknowledged whether or not anyone has been placed on a no-fly list in relation to the Capitol attack.
What was the socioeconomic makeup of the mob?
There is no data driven reporting yet on the incomes of the people who participated in both the rally and the attack on the Capitol, but I can share my personal experiences and conclusions as anecdotal evidence. I believe the crowd was diverse socioeconomically, but trended towards middle to upper class participants.
Most of the mob that I interacted with before they began attacking journalists were from urban or suburban areas. Most had flown or driven their own vehicles and had booked their own lodging – all things that require financial means. I spoke with small business owners, blue collar workers and medical professionals.
The equipment and clothing that many of the attackers wore that day are expensive – plate carriers often cost more than $100, the cans of mace that some in the crowd used to attack police are also relatively expensive products.
I would say that most of the people who rushed the Capitol building itself had, at the least, disposable income to the tune of hundreds if not thousands of dollars considering the cost of just getting to D.C. that day as well as affording the tactical equipment many were wearing.
Is removing the President from Twitter a violation of the First Amendment?
No. The First Amendment does not require private companies to provide a forum to anyone, it only applies to the protection of your rights from infringement by the government. To put it plainly: private social media companies can moderate speech on their platforms however they like because the First Amendment only protects from limits by the government.
Twitter is not a part of the United States government, nor is access to their platform regulated as a public utility or constitutionally protected right.
It’s important to remember exactly what the First Amendment says:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Popular understanding of what “free speech” and “censorship” mean online have morphed in recent years, driven in large part by a lack of understanding about the Terms of Service that companies like Facebook and Twitter employ (and that all users agree to abide by). Informal and inaccurate use of these terms – as well as inconsistent enforcement of Terms of Service and their own community guidelines by social media companies – contributes to this confusion and often distracts from the actual constitutional protections of free speech as defined by the First Amendment.
Who controls the Executive Branch of the government now? Who controls the military and our nuclear weapons?
The President of the United States, Donald Trump, is still the president and controls the Executive Branch. Unless the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet invoke the 25th Amendment. That process can remove the President from office if he is deemed “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”
Impeachment could also remove the President from office, an act that takes a coordinated effort by members of Congress. A single article of impeachment was introduced by members of the House Monday, and Democrats say they have the numbers to pass it, sending their article to the Senate for an impeachment trial. There are, however, only 8 days left in the Trump administration as of this writing and the likelihood that an impeachment trial will take place and conclude before the end of Trump’s term is slim.
President Trump is also still the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. The Joint Chiefs of Staff are still in charge of the various military branches, but it’s clear that many top level politicians and defense officials are concerned about the precariousness of our national defense.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff released a statement that Joe Biden will be sworn in on January 20th, 2021 as the President of the United States and the Joint Chiefs will honor this process. While the statement was directed at the members of the US Armed Forces and the American public, it also serves as a clear message to the rest of the world that the United States military is honoring the peaceful transfer of power, and remains vigilant against any threats from other countries who may see an opportunity to attack the United States during this domestic unrest.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi revealed last week that she spoke with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and they specifically discussed precautions for preventing an “unstable president from initiating military hostilities.” While the Department of Defense acknowledged that the conversation took place, no one with knowledge of the conversation has spoken about what was discussed.
Knowing that there are people with extremist views…how dangerous is it for us? Will this mostly be felt in the economy?
Black and Brown members of communities, religious minorities and other targeted groups have long felt under threat, and white domestic extremism in Appalachia has been a documented growing threat for years.
There are credible risks of violence against government buildings, critical infrastructure such as power or communication grids, as well as against government employees, law enforcement and the press, but there is little evidence suggesting that white Americans at large are at risk in their homes and communities.
Be aware that community members have vastly different experiences of risk and threats, and targeted community members’ concerns should be taken seriously.
As for the economy, so far there seems to have been almost no impact. All the major stock indexes, like the S&P 500 and NASDAQ, closed higher than they started on January 6 – though they did experience a slight dip in the early afternoon.
Are there other attacks planned?
There appear to be calls from various far right groups, conspiracy theorists and some Trump supporters for another round of violence and protest to occur in Washington, D.C., on January 17. There are also calls for Second Amendment rallies to be held in state capitals across the country on the same day.
There is concern from law enforcement, researchers, analysts and journalists that these events will be used as a cover for more targeted attacks on government property, personnel, tech companies and media on the state and national level. ■
Cover image: A Trump supporter wielding an axe handle alongside other far right groups battle Capitol Police officers in a cloud of tear gas on the eastern side of the United States Capitol building. Photo by Chris Jones for 100 Days in Appalachia.
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