The Capitol Riot
Four theories in search of facts - still
Fifteen months ago on Jan. 6, a riot broke out of the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. Or was it a peaceful protest that just got out of hand? Or was it an attempted coup d’état?
Was it the first salvo in what could be a violent civil war, or will secessionists – 30-44 percent of Americans according to one study – confine their activism to the ballot box in the upcoming mid-term elections?
We define a “conspiracy theory” as a narrative that departs from conventional notions of what happened – but more than a year after the events, the nation is still groping for the “convention notion.”
There is still no consensus on even what to call what happened on Jan. 6. Wikipedia calls it the “2021 United States Capitol attack.” Conservapedia – an admitted conservative-leaning aggregator – uses the title, “J6 Capitol protests.” Various news outlets use “attack,” “insurrection” or “riot.”
I find the latter the most neutral of the options. No one disputes that an angry mob descended on the Capitol that day and disrupted a joint session of Congress assembled to count electoral votes.
After four formal investigations (two ongoing), one impeachment trial, one criminal trial, numerous press reports and untold social media posts, four competing narratives have emerged to explain the facts – three involve conspiracies and two of those false flag operations.
The Four Narratives
At noon on Jan. 6, 2021, President Trump took the stage at a "Save America" rally in The Ellipse, a large park just south of the White House across E Street. He began by stating that the “fake news media” would downplay the number of supporters gathered, which he estimated in the hundreds of thousands.
“Turn your cameras please and show what’s really happening out here because these people are not going to take it any longer,” he said, echoing the last-ever post made by the infamous Q one month prior – a link to “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister. “They’re not going to take it any longer.”
He continued by claiming the 2020 election had been “stolen by emboldened radical-left Democrats” in league with the fake news media, and challenged the crowd to “take back the country.”
“Now, it is up to Congress to confront this egregious assault on our democracy,” he said after calling on Vice President Mike Pence and the Republican party to reverse the apparent election results. “And after this, we’re going to walk down, and I’ll be there with you, we’re going to walk down.”
Trump continued speaking (full transcript here, video here) but people began walking down Constitution Avenue towards the Capitol (yellow line above). By 12:30 p.m., thousands marched down Pennsylvania, Constitution and Madison avenues, converging at police barricades and officers patrolling the perimeter of the Capitol.
Just before 1 p.m., a group of protesters confronted police, tore down the barricades and ran towards the west-side portico, which was being prepared with scaffolding for the upcoming Jan. 20 inauguration.
Narrative #1: Trump supporters get out of hand.
In the least conspiratorial scenario, we find hundreds of people getting caught up in the heat of the moment. Some of them were tourists. Some of them – like Guy Reffitt of Texas, convicted in March on five felony charges – were members of armed militia groups with their own agenda.
The Justice Department has focused its prosecution on three such groups – Oath Keepers, Proud Boys and Three Percenters. But an early survey by researchers at the University of Chicago estimated that only about one-tenth of the first 193 people arrested were affiliated with those groups.
This narrative was recently supported by former Attorney General William Barr. "I didn't view it as an insurrection,” Barr told NPR’s Steve Inskeep. “I mean, I think it was a riot that got out of control."
Narrative #2: Antifa/Black Lives Matter provocateurs breached the Capitol to falsely smear Trump supporters.
Within minutes of the crowd pushing past police barricades on the west side of the Capitol, pro-Trump observers began tweeting that anti-fascist activists posing as Trump supporters had launched a false flag operation.
For example, at 1:51 p.m., conservative-libertarian talk-radio host and former FEMA director Michael D. Brown speculated on Twitter, “I would be cautious before jumping to conclusion that it is Trump supporters breaching security on Capitol Hill. It is more likely IMHO that Antifa or BLM or other insurgents could be doing it disguised as Trump supporters. Come on, man, have you never heard of psyops?”
Past GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin repeated the Antifa rumor to Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum that evening, as did Alabama Republican Rep. Mo Brooks on the Lou Dobbs show. The Washington Times posted a breaking story that New York software firm XRVision had used facial recognition software to identify Antifa members among the Capitol rioters.
Citing that Times article, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla), claimed on the House floor later that night: “Some of the people who breached the Capitol today were not Trump supporters. They were masquerading as Trump supporters and in fact, were members of the violent terrorist group Antifa.”
(The Times corrected the story after XRVision declared they had identified neo-Nazis and QAnon extremists, not Antifa members. However, the paper cited an anonymous law enforcement source who claimed “professional protesters were in the crowd posing as Trumpers,” preaching violence.)
The conservative Gateway Pundit, Jim Hoft, identified John Sullivan of Utah as a frequent Black Lives Matter activist seen in the Capitol videotaping rioters. Sullivan was arrested and released without charges.
Narrative #3: Trump orchestrated an insurrection.
At 4:05 p.m., President-elect Biden held a press conference in which he promoted a different narrative.
“I call on President Trump to go on national television, now, to fulfill his oath and defend the Constitution and demand an end to this siege," Biden said. “It's not protests. It's insurrection."
On Jan. 7, leading Democrats called for Trump’s removal from office for his role in inciting the mob, either through the 25th Amendment (which allows for a president to be replaced by the vice president if incapacitated) or by a second impeachment.
Within a week, the House of Representatives passed a single article of impeachment charging Trump with "incitement of insurrection" against the U.S. government and "lawless action at the Capitol." The four-day trial in early February – after Trump had left office – featured video from the attack, including police body camera footage.
Impeachment managers argued that lawmakers (especially Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) were put in danger because of Trump's speeches and tweets.
Only one witness deposition was allowed as evidence. Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler referenced a conversation with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
“When McCarthy finally reached the president on January 6 and asked him to publicly and forcefully call off the riot, the president initially repeated the falsehood that it was Antifa that had breached the Capitol [Narrative #2],” Beutler wrote. “McCarthy refuted that and told the president that these were Trump supporters.”
Trump’s defense attorney Michael Van der Veen countered that the Capitol riot was "preplanned and premeditated by fringe left and right groups” [Narrative #1]. Trump was acquitted in a 57–43 vote, 10 votes short of the two-thirds majority required.
The Senate had also launched its own probe on Jan. 8. The bipartisan Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) set out to “examine the security failures that led to Wednesday’s attack.”
The committee’s June report did not accuse Trump of inciting the riot, but pointed to, “the failure of the Intelligence Community to properly analyze, assess and disseminate information to law enforcement regarding the potential for violence and the known threats to the Capitol and the Members present that day.”
Which leads us to yet another conspiracy contender.
Narrative #4: The FBI coordinated a false flag operation to turn a peaceful protest into a riot.
On June 14, a week after the Senate HSGAC released its report, Revolver News asked if the Intelligence Community had made innocent mistakes or was “something sinister” afoot?
Revolver principal (and former Trump speechwriter) Darren Beattie tried to make the case that the “unindicted co-conspirators” referenced in the charging documents of Oath Keepers, Proud Boys and Three Percenters members might be federal informants or undercover operatives.
Citing March, 2021 news reports that the FBI recruited Proud Boys leader Joe Biggs to gather intel on anti-fascist activists in Florida, Beattie wrote, “This would imply that elements of the federal government were active instigators in … a monumental entrapment scheme used as a pretext to imprison otherwise harmless protestors at the Capitol.”
The next day, Tucker Carlson sent Beattie’s theory into the stratosphere on Fox evening news. “The government knows who they [unindicted co-conspirators] are,” Carlson said. “But the government has not charged them. Why is that? You know why — they were almost certainly working for the FBI.”
Within days, pro-Trump internet sleuths were asking what the government knew about Ray Epps, a middle-aged man sporting brown camo and a red “Trump” ball cap, known from FBI “Seeking Information” bulletins as Suspect 16.
Epps, a former Marine and Arizona Oath Keepers member, had been interviewed by the Arizona Republic days after the Capitol riot. He had appeared in an online video from Jan. 5 saying, "We’re here to defend the Constitution" and "We need to go into the Capitol,” as well as in a video of the first people charging past a line of barricades at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
That same day, after a failed attempt to form a bipartisan, “9/11-style” commission to investigate Jan. 6, Speaker Pelosi formed a House Select Committee. Seven Democrats and Republicans Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger comprised the panel and began hearings on the facts, circumstances and causes of the “domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol.”
The Jan. 6 Committee would eventually call Epps to testify, pressed by Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) and others. In November, Epps assured committee members behind closed doors that he has “never been an informant for the FBI or any other law enforcement agency.”
The Justice Department says it will provide a “disclosure” about Epps in response to requests by some defendants accused of leading the breach of police lines — including Ryan Samsel, who briefly conferred with Epps before charging the barricades.
Both the Jan. 6 Committee and the Justice Department are investigating whether or not Trump and attorney John Eastman developed a plan to obstruct the certification of Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 election (Narrative #3).
Oath Keepers member Joshua James has pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy in a deal to cooperate with the ongoing investigation of Stewart Rhodes and nine other Oath Keepers. Revolver has suggested Rhodes is also a government informant (Narrative #4).
As to which narrative will become the conventional notion and which will continue as conspiracy theories, the jury is – literally – still out.
Steven Saint Thomas leads discussion groups and classes in journalistic inquiry for Cal-Poly Humboldt’s OLLI extension. Here are some upcoming classes – click “Learn More.”
If you are not an OLLI member or cannot attend one of these, we’re scheduling other classes and discussion groups for Truthsmack subscribers - Click here to find out how to join in!