Capitol Attack Was Culmination of Generations of Far-Right Extremism
Ryan Devereaux / The Intercept
(January 24, 2021) — The flag over the Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, hung at half-staff Sunday. Set atop a hill overlooking the Susquehanna River, the entrance was guarded by police in riot gear. Lower down, at the street level, intersections were blocked by law enforcement vehicles. On each of the Capitol’s four sides, camouflaged National Guardsmen in masks clutched rifles to their chests. A handful of stocky, middle-aged men with wraparound sunglasses lingered about. Whether they were cops or militia was unclear. If they were trying to keep a low profile, their efforts were falling short.
Police officers on horseback rode down the middle of North 3rd Street, past Sammy’s Authentic Italian Restaurant and Old Town Deli, toward Liberty Street. The horses’ hooves clacked against the pavement. A young couple sat on stoop taking it all in. Between them was their 3-year-old boy, dressed in a winter coat and light-up sneakers. T
he man was 27, and the woman was 20; both were Black and lifelong residents of the city. They asked that their names not be used in a story. Given that rioters carrying Confederate flags had just laid siege to the nation’s Capitol, leaving five people dead, and that law enforcement in Harrisburg was bracing for similar acts of insurrection, it felt like a reasonable request.
“It’s crazy,” the woman told me, as she looked out at the armed forces occupying her city’s streets. The man agreed: “It’s just shocking that all of this comes after a presidential election.”
Like just about everywhere else in the country, Harrisburg was touched by last summer’s protests against police brutality and killings. The demonstrations cast a new light on the city’s unique history. In the mid-19th century, the area of Harrisburg where the Capitol now sits was known as the Old Eighth Ward: a Black cultural hub and the city’s most diverse area.
With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, it transformed into a hotbed of abolitionist activism, and Harrisburg, in turn, became a vital juncture on the Underground Railroad.
An expanded war on terror would threaten legitimate resistance to state violence.
Following the Civil War, the government invoked eminent domain and took the land that the ward was built on, wiping away the vibrant multicultural community to make way for the Capitol complex. Last summer, a long-running effort to correct the record and officially recognize the Old Eighth’s existence succeeded, with a monument to the ward unveiled on Juneteenth.
The ceremony took place against the backdrop of protests in the city, which to many were the historical extension of abolitionist struggle that the Old Eighth was known for. Though the demonstrations drew a response from local authorities, the man said, it looked nothing like the militarized posture the city was now witnessing.
“We don’t know if this is it, if it’s just getting started, if it’s over,” he said, adding that everyone had seen the footage from Washington, DC “People that reside here want to know: Is that going to be a possibility here?”
The question hung over the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency. While all presidential transitions are historic, pervasive fear of political violence and a militarized government response to those concerns set this transfer of power apart. In the wake of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, federal law enforcement warned of armed Trump loyalists descending on all 50 states.
In Richmond, Virginia, the feared rallies would coincide with a Second Amendment event that last year drew 20,000 mostly gun-toting demonstrators. But when the day finally came, little happened. Because of the pandemic, organizers had already planned to gather in a caravan of cars, and many local militias backed out all together in the wake of the January 6 siege; at least one militia leader reportedly bowed out because he was a member of the National Guard and he’d been called to Washington, DC
In the end, fewer than 200 demonstrators turned up in the streets. Among the most vocal was Mike Dunn, the leader of a Virginia-based crew of Boogaloo Bois whose nicknames included “Ice,” “Goose,” “Zulu,” and “Shadow.” Too young to remember the September 11 attacks or the invasion of Iraq, the Gen Z militia commander had nonetheless absorbed the look of a post-9/11 tactical warrior.
Rifle in hand, Dunn spoke with the conviction of a 20-year-old convinced of his own worldview. He made a point of telling reporters that he wasn’t like the members of the Proud Boys circulating through the crowd. The neo-fascist Trump supporters were “boot-licking, statist cucks,” Dunn said. A Proud Boy who was selling T-shirts responded by saying that the Boogaloo Bois — a loose network of individuals and groups broadly devoted to armed confrontation with the state — were nothing but “anarchists.”
With a pistol stuffed down the front of his pants and an American flag gaiter wrapped around his face, the Proud Boy, who said he attended the January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally in DC, became visibly agitated when asked why violence seemed to follow his organization wherever it went. Later that day, the man was filmed sexually harassing a journalist; by the evening, his purported identity was circulating online.
Suspects in Cleveland bomb plot: Brandon Baxter, Anthony Hayne, Connor Stevens, Joshua Stafford and Douglas Wright. (Photo: FBI)
The lackluster attendance in Richmond was seen in cities across the country. The armed pro-Trump rallies never materialized. But while the week mercifully concluded without any significant acts of violence, the fact remained that 25,000 troops were deployed to Washington, DC, with a mission to stave off a right-wing insurgency loyal to the embattled president that included and recruited from current and former law enforcement and members of the military.
Fueled by the myth that the election had been stolen, it was a movement that just two weeks earlier executed the first successful mass breach of the US Capitol since the War of 1812. Now there was a “green zone,” a callback to the US military’s fortified zone of operations during the occupation of Iraq, in the heart of America’s capital.
Whether all of that militarization and effort, coupled with waves of siege-related arrests across the country, prevented further violence is difficult to say. What is clear is the conditions that led to this historic state of affairs did not evaporate when Joe Biden took office Wednesday morning. Historians and extremism experts who spoke to The Intercept in the run-up to the inauguration situated the Trump years in a longer story of contestation in the US.
They linked Trump’s border and immigration policies, justified as they were on the purported threat posed by hordes of foreigners, to the right-wing violence that was seen in cities across the country and to decades of war abroad. They pointed to the 1990s, when bloody exchanges between the federal government and the far right culminated in the Oklahoma City bombing, as a potential model for understanding the years ahead. And they tied the Capitol insurrection to last summer’s historic protests against police brutality, warning that the creation of an expanded war on terror in the name of countering domestic terrorism would pose a direct threat to the movement that carried those demonstrations.
“There’s a profound historical change taking place in the United States,” said Yale University historian Greg Grandin. In 2019, Grandin published “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America,” a sweeping Pulitzer Prize-winning analysis of the historical conditions that gave rise to the Trump years.
Grandin argues that from the outset, frontier wars — from the genocidal Indian Wars, to the blood-soaked creation of the US-Mexico border, to the building of a global empire through campaigns of military conquest around the world — provided a “release valve” for the nation’s various internal conflicts.
That mechanism, which turns on a notion of “freedom as freedom from restraint,” no longer functions as it once did. Undermined by the transparent hollowness of the Iraq War, the Great Recession, and other factors, the project of channeling the nation’s internal conflicts into messianic campaigns on distant fields of battle has collapsed, according to Grandin, and now the wars are coming home.
“Trump’s whole presidency confirmed that argument, and the fact that it’s wrapping up now with a Green Zone in Washington, DC, is pretty amazing,” Grandin said. “Climate change, the disaster of the wars, the economic restructuring of the global economy — all of these things have limited the United States’ ability to channel that kind of extremism outwards.”
In the past, Grandin explained, the US has been able to avoid social revolution through political realignments within the two-party system. Economic exploitation of the developing world, wealth extraction, and war “all were part of process in which the US could use foreign policy in order to organize domestic politics.”
“That’s no longer possible,” Grandin said. “We’ll see how Biden handles it.”
For Daryl Johnson, the attack on the US Capitol was shocking but not surprising. The right-wing violence that followed Trump’s ascent to the White House — not just the siege, but the Charlottesville white power riot, the massacre of Mexicans and Mexican Americans at an El Paso Walmart, and the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue, among other incidents — was part of a movement he had been following since he was a teenager.
Johnson was working as a counterintelligence analyst in the US Army when Timothy McVeigh, himself an Army veteran, launched his attack on the federal government in Oklahoma City in 1995. Given his lifelong interest in domestic terrorism, Johnson requested and received a transfer to a detail where he could work on the issue full time. From there, he moved to a similar beat at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Then, in 2004, the newly created Department of Homeland Security came calling.
The Bush administration initially resisted the massive reordering of the national security apparatus — the largest since President Harry Truman signed the National Security Act in 1947, which restructured the Pentagon and established the CIA — but eventually came around to the idea. Signing the legislation that would bring more than 20 agencies together under one roof in November 2002, George W. Bush said, “Because terrorists are targeting America, the front of the new war is here in America.”
In an attempt to prevent the kind failures that preceded 9/11, one of the core objectives of Homeland Security was the fusion and dissemination of terrorism-related intelligence. That mission fell to the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, or I&A, where Johnson was assigned.
In some ways, Johnson said, the office was hamstrung from the start. The creation of DHS had set off turf battles within the federal bureaucracy in Washington, DC The FBI, then led by Robert Mueller, was none too interested in giving up ground as the nation’s premier agency investigating terrorism.
The bureau blocked an effort by DHS’s new Immigration and Customs Enforcement office to take part in counterterrorism funding investigations, and when the agency considered using the word “investigation” in its title, Mueller reportedly responded, “Over my dead body.” Despite its high-stakes counterterrorism mandate, I&A to this day has no investigative authority, and the office’s work relies heavily on open source research.
Johnson spent his first year as I&A’s lone analyst tracking domestic terrorism. When he was granted the resources to bring on some full-time colleagues in 2007, he went on a “hiring spree,” adding five new analysts to the domestic terror desk. By 2008, the new team was up running, just in time for the election of Barack Obama.
The analysts witnessed an explosion in far-right activity online. Johnson documented the observations in an April 2009 report, which detailed how the election of the first Black president had invigorated the extremist right. The report drew several parallels to conditions in the 1990s, when McVeigh carried out the Oklahoma City bombing, concluding that a combination of the economic downturn, anxieties over immigration and gun control, and active recruitment of military and law enforcement on the far right were making for a highly combustible situation.
The document leaked and all hell broke loose. Republicans howled that Obama was weaponizing DHS against conservatives and veterans. The report was retracted a week after it was published. Johnson was driven out of the department, and his team was gutted.
Problems at I&A have persisted in the years since. In September, the former head of I&A filed a whistleblower complaint accusing the former acting secretary of DHS, Chad Wolf, and his deputy, Ken Cuccinelli, of pressuring the office to downplay intelligence of threats from the far right and emphasize threats from the left in a manner that would be more consistent with White House talking points.
Wolf, who was illegitimately serving in his role to begin with, abruptly stepped down from his post following the siege on the Capitol. He exited the position just days before the inauguration, having never provided a briefing on the role homeland security analysis did or did not play in the run-up to the assault.
As the Biden administration takes office, Johnson, who now runs a private security consultancy firm, is once again looking to the 1990s as a potential model for what might come next. The former homeland security analyst expects that the fallout from January 6 will play out a bit like the fallout from the Oklahoma City bombing: Lawmakers will call for a crackdown on right-wing extremist groups and those sympathetic to the movement will make decisions about how serious they really are. “
You’re going to have a certain segment of them walking away, being scared off by what happened,” Johnson told me, and there will be a segment who do the opposite. “People that are going to be drawn to this movement over the next four years are going to be more hardcore, true believers who are content on continuing.”
To tip the balance away from further violence, Johnson favors a massive campaign aimed at “discrediting the lies and disinformation that have occurred over this past year, not only regarding the presidential election and the voter fraud and everything, but also the coronavirus.” Republicans, in particular, would need to carry that message. “These people won’t believe the Democrats,” Johnson said. “They believe that they’re evil.”
As for longer-term solutions, Johnson supports ramped-up state and local programs to educate government officials on right-wing extremism, outreach in schools, and better monitoring of extremist content by social media companies. He cautions, however, that actions like the recent purging of the right-wing social media platform Parler can have the opposite of the intended effect. “Yeah, that’s a quick, fast, easy least expensive option, but it may further the problem,” he said.
Within law enforcement and the military, Johnson said “there needs to be a paradigm shift” away from treating extremism in the ranks as a First Amendment issue and toward treating it as an operational security and insider threat issue. Officers and service members may have a right to hate, but they are also entrusted with special powers and authorities including the deprivation of life and liberty. “It really calls into question these people’s ability to be objective, to be equitable in enforcing the laws, when they have these extremist beliefs,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to send a message that these types of First Amendment protected speech have consequences.”
Johnson takes no satisfaction in the fact that he and his team’s 2009 analysis was correct. “I was just doing my job, and I was experienced and knowledgeable about what I was talking about,” he said. “I just wish the message would have been taken more seriously 10 years ago, because we would be in a better place today.”
As the sun went down on Trump’s final night in office, a quiet settled on the intersection of East Capitol and 3rd Street in southeast DC Passersby paused at the police line that ran from street corner to street corner, snapping photos of the building that two weeks before was overrun by the president’s mob. Joggers and cyclists took advantage of the closed streets. A trio of young guardsmen took a cigarette break in a back alley. A tour bus idled in the road; transportation for the troops. A woman carried pizza to those on duty.
The morning that followed was cold and windy. Trump trudged across the White House lawn and boarded Marine One, taking off at approximately 8:18. a.m., bound for Andrews Air Force Base and on to Florida.
The former president left behind a city under heavy military occupation. Navigating the fortified perimeter encircling the Capitol — manned by thousands of well-armed National Guardsmen, Capitol and Metropolitan Police, and a noticeable number of Border Patrol agents — I made my way to the green zone. Set behind a tall steel fence, the homeland security checkpoint featured rows of tables where Transportation Security Administration agents searched through entrants’ bags.
I was asked to leave my gas mask behind but was permitted to hold onto my goggles and KN95 masks. I cleared the checkpoint, passing a uniformed Secret Service agent with a thin blue line patch fixed to his sleeve. Blocks away, journalists were gathering at Black Lives Matter Plaza. The White House and the Washington Monument were visible in the distance. Access to Lafayette Square, where Trump’s forces were infamously deployed against racial justice protesters, was cut off.
The plaza was christened last summer, with the movement’s name painted on the pavement in giant yellow letters. Lingering graffiti on the surrounding buildings bearing the slogans of the summer uprising offered an additional reminder that the change in administrations comes less than a year after the largest civil rights protests in the history of the country.
Robin D.G. Kelley, an American history professor at UCLA, said he’s been thinking a lot about the relationship between the protests and the Capitol riot. The author of several books exploring the history of social movements and race in the United States, Kelley’s forthcoming title, “Black Bodies Swinging: An American Postmortem,” aims to provide a “genealogy of the Black Spring protests of 2020 by way of a deep examination of state-sanctioned racialized violence and a history of resistance.”
In the wake of the siege, Kelley said he’s been particularly focused on the relationship between the police, the military, and conventional notions of radicalization. “I’m really thinking hard about the notion of a thin blue line, and what does it mean when the very forces that many of us were fighting in June are the forces that ended up trying to take the capital?” he told me.
Kelley sees the Capitol insurrection not as a backlash so much as an ongoing historical pattern of right-wing violence responding to moments of pressure from the left. “I actually think they’re responses to insurgency,” he said — the insurgency, in this case, being a historic mass movement challenging the power and role of the police in American society.
The Trump administration’s exit from power was without a doubt a positive development, Kelley said. “I do feel relieved,” he said, adding that the past four years were bigger than the president alone. “All the people around Trump, everyone that he brought in, they’re all unhinged,” Kelley said. “They’re all the worst expression of racial, capitalist violence.”
At the same time, the historian said the Biden-Harris administration carries its own kind of risks, especially for the movement that was in the streets last summer. Should the Biden administration expand law enforcement authorities in the name of some new war on domestic terrorism, Kelley explained, history tells us to expect to see those authorities eventually used against individuals and organizations who challenge the power of the police.
“Domestic anti-terrorism legislation and executive orders will make it much harder and create even greater dangers for a lot of us doing this work,” Kelley said. “We have to be really, really careful to resist that, and not just resist it over issues of free speech and civil liberties — that’s important — but just resist it for political reasons, because the left is always a victim of this kind of counterterror.” He added: “I’m also terrified, and I say this honestly, that we’re going to basically breathe a sigh of relief and come to the conclusion that their election was the struggle, rather than creating the conditions to continue to struggle.”
When millions of people marched through the streets last summer, often in the face of tear gas and police crackdowns, they were challenging institutions that did not pack up and leave with Trump. Since then, Kelley said, there has been a concerning “demobilization” of organizing around police and state violence.
He attributed the slowdown to multiple factors, including a “political calculus” on the part of some activists and organizations heading into the presidential election, and the enormous challenge of organizing in the middle of a pandemic and economic crisis. Kelley now worries that the downturn in organizing, coupled with the Biden-Harris victory and the spectacle of right-wing violence at the Capitol, could make that demobilization permanent.
“What we end up doing is demobilizing the very anti-fascist movements that many of us were in the streets fighting for this summer,” he said. “And then re-mobilizing it against these mobs by giving the state a pass.”
The challenge in a post-Trump United States is “reminding people that there’s a long history of racism, and it doesn’t come from white men with horns. It comes largely from state policy and a long history, and a deep history, that we have to contest,” Kelley said. Otherwise, he said, “I fear that the summer of 2020 is going to be forgotten.”
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