Rally for Capitol riot suspects draws small crowd of protestors amid heavy security – USA TODAY

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WASHINGTON – A redux of Jan. 6, it was not.

A far-right rally staged near the heavily-guarded Capitol opened and closed Saturday with a modest gathering of demonstrators who appeared at some points outnumbered by police and journalists.

Planners for the much-anticipated event had projected up to 700 protesters, but far fewer turned up for an event billed to raise support for hundreds of rioters arrested in the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol assault.

Capitol Police estimated that the gathering numbered up to 450. But that did not account for a legion of journalists who descended on the Union Square plaza along with counter-protesters who joined the group.

Organizers and demonstrators immediately attributed the sparse gathering to the heavy security presence, fears of violence and unfounded chatter on social media that the event was designed as a set-up for a new sweep of arrests by law enforcement.

Police reported just four arrests, including an unidentified man with a gun who was spotted about 1:30 p.m., shortly after the gathering broke up.  

Throughout the 75-minute program, organizer Matt Braynard urged the group to refrain from violent outbursts, as the former Trump campaign staffer and a small number of speakers described most of the Jan. 6 rioters as “political prisoners.”

A small army of law enforcement, some outfitted in full body armor and riot shields, had been assembled to confront the demonstrators, just eight months after the Capitol building was breached by violent supporters of former President Donald Trump.

The demonstration sputtered to life against the imposing security backdrop with the Capitol grounds once again sheathed in iron fencing.

More: Fencing returns to Capitol ahead of right-wing rally. What we know about ‘Justice for J6’ protest

More: ‘Justice for J6’ organizers urge rallygoers not to wear Trump, Biden clothes to DC protest

Police detain man with knife at rally

Police also arrested a man who was carrying a large knife and appeared to be dressed as a journalist.

Authorities detained the man, who was not immediately identified, against a bike-rack barrier, before taking him away.

Metropolitan Police said the arrest was made by Capitol Police, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

— Kevin Johnson

Rally draws counter-protesters among modest crowd

Counter-protesters easily infiltrated the rally, some of them carrying signs criticizing the J6 cause.

“There Is No Right of Insurrection,” one sign said. The other side of that placard said, “Do The Crime. Do The Time.”

Doug Hughes, the sign bearer, said he flew to DC from Tampa, Fla., to make his statement. “I had something to say, and it was worth the cost to come up here and say it,” said Hughes, a retired mail carrier.

Rick Fiori, 53, a company manager from Washington, carried a sign with a portrait of Benedict Arnold and a pointed message for the Jan. 6 rally: “Traitors – All of You.”

Blaming Republicans for the protest, Fiori said: “This is a party that no longer believes in a transfer of power.”

The rally attendees had signs of their own.

Said one: “8th Amendment. No Excessive Bail. Presumed Innocent.” Another: “Corruption of Justice Is Evil.”

Stephanie Lu, 50, a research assistant who traveled to the rally with about 20 people from New York City, said the treatment of the Jan. 6 prisoners is another sign of a nation in decline.

“I don’t want to see this country go down, like communist China,” Lu said.

— David Jackson

More press than protesters at Freedom Plaza ahead of rally

Media members outnumbered early-arriving attendees at the rally site near the Capitol and at Freedom Plaza, the site of a planned counter-protest, in the 30 minutes before the rally was to begin.

A few police vehicles and news station vans lined Freedom Plaza, but the scene otherwise resembled be a typical D.C day with tourists riding by on bikes and eating at restaurant patios outside just across the street. About 20 organizers sat about surrounded by cases of waters and grocery bags.

— Savannah Behrmann and David Jackson

Rallygoers call security excessive

The few rallygoers who got to the site early said the protest is not about Trump or politics, but about what they call an “abuse” of the justice system regarding jailed Jan. 6 rioters.

“There are a lot of people in there who are not violent offenders,” said Anders Bruce, 30, a test tutor who said he lives in northern Virginia. “The punishment is disproportionate to the alleged crime.”

Bruce and a friend stood near a small stage, just across a reflecting pond from the massive equestrian statue of victorious Civil War general and President Ulysses Grant.

After a weapons-sniffing dog trotted up and inspected Bruce and a friend, they criticized the heavy security precautions.

“It’s excessive and it’s theatrical,” Bruce said.

— David Jackson

Meet the organizer of the Capitol demonstration

Braynard, a former campaign data strategist who was dismissed from the Trump campaign in 2016, has emerged as the unlikely face of the demonstration aimed at recasting the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Before driving promotion for the rally, Braynard worked in the trenches with Trump allies in the months after the election pushing the false narrative that gave birth to Jan. 6: that President Joe Biden’s election was illegitimate.

Last year, Braynard was listed in court records as a paid “expert” witness involving alleged voting irregularities in Arizona. The court documents include a biography, identifying Braynard as a principle of External Affairs Inc., which claims to have represented more than 200 candidates for public office, “from president to town council.”

— Kevin Johnson

Joggers, tourists meet security ahead of Capitol demonstration

Police blanketed the protest area with armed security in the hours leading up to the rally.

Dozens of blue-uniformed police roamed the streets, by foot and by bike. Police vehicles, blue lights flashing, flanked the protest site, a rectangle of grass just west of the lawn of the U.S. Capitol building.

A helicopter buzzed the area from above.

Road-scraping dump trucks normally used to remove snow blocked access to 3rd Street, which runs along the protest site. Their purpose: Prevent an attack by a ramming car, as happened in Charlottesville, Va., a few years back.

Even some of the anti-Trump counter-protesters who gathered near the sites thought the security a bit much, noting that the protestors were expected to draw only hundreds of people.

“We have all of this for 700 people?” said Nadine Seiler, 55, a home organizer who lives in Waldorf, Md. “This is a waste of money … I think it’s totally overcompensating for what happened on Jan. 6.”

Seiler said she came to the rally to “shout down fascists.”

Her friend Karen Irwin, 46, a bartender who came down from New York City to counter-protest, said she felt obligated to offer “a dissenting voice” and show the protesters “they don’t speak for us.” Irwin mocked the rally organizers complaints about the incarceration of Jan. 6 rioters.

“Terrorists are not political prisoners,” she said. “That’s what my sign says.”

There were also signs of Saturday morning normalcy downtown: Joggers, guided tours, and people in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue snapping photos of the Capitol building. Music blared from boom boxes, including the protest anthem “Fight The Power.”

— David Jackson

‘It might just be me and a bullhorn’

In recent days, rally organizer Matt Braynard has appeared to downplay expectations for the size of the gathering, contending that the heavy security measures are more aimed at “intimidation” than protection and designed to discourage people from attending the so-called “Justice for J6” event.

“It’s all meant to deter people from coming,” said Braynard, a former Trump campaign staffer whose group has cast most of the more than 600 arrested in the Capitol attack as “political prisoners.”

“It’s all about dragging down attendance. In the end, it might just be me and a bullhorn,” he told USA TODAY.

Trump, who lauded the Jan. 6 rioters as patriots, later this week appeared to whip support for Saturday’s event, referring to rioters as “persecuted” protesters.

“Our hearts and minds are with the people being persecuted so unfairly relating to the January 6th protest concerning the Rigged Presidential Election,” Trump said in a statement. “In addition to everything else, it has proven conclusively that we are a two-tiered system of justice. In the end, however, JUSTICE WILL PREVAIL!”

But Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said the event is not generating the same social media excitement that accompanied Jan. 6.

Some groups, including the far-right Proud Boys, have been “mocking” the event, suggesting it’s a set-up by law enforcement to conduct a new sweep of arrests,” Beirich said.

“This is not an event that is being celebrated by far-right extremist groups,” she said.

Capitol Police, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department and Homeland Security

Early estimates have projected a crowd of up to 700 demonstrators who are expected to gather at Union Square, a public plaza just west of the Capitol.

If accurate, even that number would represent a fraction of the violent throng that ultimately swarmed the Capitol building in January, leaving five dead and nearly 150 police officers injured. 

Yet that horrific January scene and a deadly April incident in which a car rammed a Capitol barricade, killing officer William Evans, remain fresh reminders that the iconic domed building not only serves as a symbol of American democracy but a looming target.

The anxiety was on display as recently as last month when parts of the government complex were evacuated after a North Carolina man, suffering from mental illness, warned that he was carrying a bomb in a pickup truck parked near the Capitol. No explosive was recovered, but the incident prompted an all-out response by law enforcement.

Little, apparently, is being left to chance Saturday, as federal and local law enforcement officials were called this week to brief lawmakers about their preparations.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sent a letter to colleagues Wednesday promising that security officials would be better prepared for Saturday than on Jan. 6.

“The Leadership of the Congress, on a bipartisan and bicameral basis, has been briefed by the Capitol Police Board on the nature of the threat and the unprecedented preparations to address another attempt to defile our national purpose,” Pelosi wrote.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., also has expressed satisfaction with the security plan.

“I think they’re ready for whatever might happen,” Schumer said earlier this week.

In addition to the fencing and the full deployment of the Capitol Police, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department has activated its entire force for the event. 

The Department of Homeland Security also said it was coordinating with Capitol Police and public safety partners “out of an abundance of caution,” while others have urged preparations for a worst-case scenario.

Retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who oversaw a critical review of Capitol Police operations in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot, said security officials “must assume that this rally has the potential to become a terrorist attack” and officers should be prepared to use lethal force, if necessary.

More: Local, federal police brace for upcoming rally supporting Jan. 6 Capitol riot defendants

Honore’s report, released in March, called for a revamped training program, intelligence gathering system and an effort to fill hundreds of positions.

“I’ve got confidence in them (Capitol police). They now have equipment to use in civil disturbances; they have been getting recent training. I don’t think they want to take another … whoopin,” Honore said.

“We ought not be stupid again,” he said. 

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the law enforcement think tank Police Executive Research Forum who has talked with security planners, said Saturday’s rally represents the “first major test” for local authorities since the deadly Capitol riot.

“So much happened on Jan. 6 that underscored the importance of intelligence, mutual aid, communications and the need for a ‘Plan B’,” Wexler said.

Organizer: Event designed to be ‘peaceful’

While the rally is pushing a politically-charged counter-narrative of the Jan. 6 violence, organizer Braynard maintains that the event, and other similar gatherings planned Saturday in more than a dozen states, are designed to be “peaceful.”

In a video message, Braynard has urged demonstrators to be “respectful and kind” to law enforcement officers. He has discouraged attendees from openly supporting political candidates with distinctive clothing, flags and other symbols that associated Jan. 6 with Trump.

Instead, Braynard said the purpose was to call attention to what he described as “grave violations of civil rights” involving hundreds of those charged in the January riot.

“We’re battling disinformation,” he said in an interview.

Even if the event lacks numbers, Beirich, of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said the group’s message will likely resonate with the far-right.

“One of the biggest concerns is this narrative that they have been pushing, as if these (Jan. 6 rioters) were on the level of Martin Luther King,” Beirich said. “It’s part of an attempt at undermining our democratic principles.”