A Chance to Be Heard: A Citizen Journalist’s Account of the Capitol Protest
We were there, my husband and I, at the Washington D.C. rally on January 6th, 2021. So were thousands upon thousands of other people. We are not unique. Yet, as nonpartisan, politically left-of-center Millennial college professors who voted for Sanders in the 2016 primary and Trump in the 2020 election, we have a somewhat unique perspective to contribute on what we saw there. Further, in the startling dearth of press at the rally (we saw one group from the press the entire time we were there), it becomes incumbent upon informed citizens to take on the role of journalists and talk about the people who were there, why they were there, and what they wanted. In the current political climate, in which massive news and social media companies gleefully engage in Orwellian censorship of the public and have been repeatedly exposed publishing opinions and outright fabrications as if they were facts, a climate in which a vote for Trump is seen as being akin to a treasonous act and a call for mere investigation into the claims of electoral whistleblowers is summarily dismissed as unhinged “conspiracy theory,” where complexity, nuance, and subtlety are eschewed in favor of neatly simplistic narratives, the only logical course for the critical thinker is to embrace and share complexity. Our experience was complex. Everyone is talking about what happened, but what they are saying often does not jive with our experience. This was our experience.
We chose to go to Washington D.C., a trip we could ill afford financially, for multiple reasons. One reason was that it was almost certain to be historical. I teach English and critical thinking, and my husband is a trained historian who briefly taught critical analysis at UC Davis before he became a stay-at-home dad. Both of us are interested in the story of humanity that is history. Another reason was that we had seen court after court dismiss case after case regarding accusations of both illegalities and irregularities in the November 2020 election without even engaging with the allegations. The cases were dismissed on a variety of procedural grounds – lack of standing, too early, too late – but not one was allowing evidence to be presented, let alone be examined. Not even the Supreme Court was willing to sit down with the evidence and address it. So, we went to Washington D.C. to march for due process and electoral transparency, because we believe in lawful governance and that everyone, regardless of who they are, deserves their day in court. On our way, we met a number of people who were going to the same place for the same basic reason – to march – but each person we met had their own story, their own personal reasons for being there. These are stories that matter.
The first people we met were a group of travelers at the Detroit airport during a layover from Seattle. Henry and his young adult daughter were fellow Washingtonians from Walla Walla and were traveling with another Washingtonian, a middle-aged gentleman from Wenatchee. Bob was a white-haired Baby Boomer from Buffalo, New York. Though I intruded on their conversation, they were immediately friendly and welcoming towards me. Bob even offered to let us stay with him in his hotel in D.C. if we needed to, even though we were complete strangers to him. When I engaged in conversation with Bob, he expressed frustration that he couldn’t trust the electoral process in the United States anymore. “It’s up to Trump what happens, really, whether he invokes the Insurrection Act or institutes martial law,” he said. It was clear from the conversation I had overheard from them before that Bob felt one of these drastic actions might be necessary to get past the career politicians mired in corruption, enforce constitutional law, and only count legal votes. I said, “Trump is trying to exhaust every other possible option before he does that, and that’s good.” Bob agreed, especially “because of the people who are sort of so-so about it all.” When I told him that, as a nonpartisan left-of-center liberal who hated everything about Trump when he was first elected and came slowly to my current position, I was arguably one of those “so-so” people, he simply nodded and asked for more information. He did not reject me, judge me, or rescind his offer to let us stay with him if we couldn’t find another place. The layover in Detroit was not long, so I didn’t have much time to talk with them about their reasons for marching, but my impression was that these were fundamentally decent people who simply wanted to see our laws followed, laws which, from their perspective, had not been.
The next morning, as we walked to the rally, we saw a group of three Gen X-aged men walking ahead of us. One, a bow-legged man, had a MAGA hat, another was carrying a Trump 2020 flag, and the third wore black leather and had a single diamond stud in his left ear. We ended up catching up to them when the bow-legged man dropped his glove, and we picked it up for him. As we walked together, we talked. Brandon mentioned that we were college professors and that I taught at a technical college, and the bow-legged man said, “Oh, my second degree was from a technical college.” He mentioned that, in his experience, many people believe that Trump supporters are universally uneducated. “I don’t like being stereotyped like that,” he said. He wouldn’t be the only one to express this sentiment.
When the man with the Trump flag pulled out a vape pen, and my husband, who is prone to migraines, ran ahead to get away from the odor, the bow-legged man flinched a little. “We’re kind of all potheads,” he said, and laughed. I said, “It’s all good. We don’t care about that. Brandon will just go ahead.” As I moved forward to join my husband, the bow-legged man called to the man with the flag, who was walking slightly in front of him, and told him to hang back so that my husband could go first because he was allergic to smoke. The man with the flag laughed as he caught up with Brandon at a crosswalk, holding his vape pen behind him. “I thought you were rushing forward to push the button for us,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m sorry. I’ll stay behind you.” Brandon was struck by the apology. “It’s fine. No need to be sorry. We’re outside. It’s still a free country,” my husband said with a smile and a shrug. “S**** man,” the man with the flag said, “I don’t want you hanging out with us and breaking out into hives or whatever!” We all laughed. “It’s not like that,” Brandon said, and “It’s okay. We take personal responsibility.” The three men agreed enthusiastically.
After that, we all got caught up in trying to figure out where exactly on the national mall we were supposed to be, and we got separated. Brandon and I walked on down the mall towards the Washington Monument. On our way, we saw other small bands of protesters heading in different directions. There was some confusion over where everyone was meeting, and I commented that the entire event seemed rather poorly organized. I was having a hard time finding specific information online as we walked. We passed several Chinese-Americans handing out pamphlets about ending the Chinese Communist Party and one woman who presented a petition to sign. We accepted a pamphlet and signed the petition, to grateful nods and smiles behind masks.
Finally, following the sound of singing, we arrived at the Washington Monument, where there was a large gathering of people, and worked our way through the crowd to a place southeast of the Ellipse, where a man we could barely hear was just finishing up speaking. The wind was streaking down Constitution Avenue, where we were standing, bitingly cold, and people were huddled together for warmth. As we zig-zagged through the crowd trying to get closer to the stage and away from clouds of recreational smoke, a remarkably pretty woman complimented my coat, and we ended up staying there and engaging in conversation with her and her teenage son. They told us they were from Ohio and when we mentioned we were from Washington State, it resulted in some lighthearted ribbing over Washington’s status as a “deep blue state.” Brandon corrected them, pointing out that most of the counties in Washington State are actually red-leaning, and the woman, Ruby, said, “Well, we’re all Republicans here.” “We’re not,” Brandon replied, gesturing to himself and me. Ruby was clearly surprised. “Welcome!” she said cheerily, “Why are you here?” We explained our sense that no one was taking the allegations of voting irregularities seriously and received enthusiastic agreement. In the context of joking about what it was like to live in “blue Washington,” we also told them about how my speaking up against ideological indoctrination and racial segregation at a June 19th racially segregated diversity training at my college had resulted in me being on administrative leave and under investigation since June. Ruby was horrified. “I’m so sorry,” she kept saying. “That makes me weep.” Her eyes were indeed watering. This led us to the topic of race.
Ruby, comparing herself to Lynda Carter, the original Wonder Woman actress, told us, “My mother is English, and my father is Hispanic. Do I look it? No. To them, I’m just white.” I agreed. “Indeed, to them, I’m just white, too,” I said, “but I’m actually 50% Ashkenazi Jewish. Some people include Jewish as a kind of ‘white,’ and some people don’t, but, either way, I came from a melting pot background – growing up, we celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas, Passover and Easter, etc.” “That’s what’s great about America,” she said brightly, “the melting pot!” As the conversation shifted to American history, Ruby kept pausing to look at me and say, “I’m just so sorry about what’s going on at your college.” The information had clearly affected her on a deep level. Like the bow-legged man, Ruby and her son were frustrated by the negative stereotyping of Trump supporters. “They think we’re all so dumb,” she said, “that we’re all uneducated hicks or something.” We sympathized.
As we talked about our mixed racial backgrounds and what had happened at my college, including how many of my colleagues emailed me in support but how they were all afraid to say anything because they might be fired, another woman holding a US flag slowly drew near to the four of us. “Ya gotta stand up for what’s right,” she said with a heavy New York City accent, though she told us later she now lived in Nevada. “At my work,” she continued, “people know my personality, so they come to me. They want me to speak for them, and I always say, ‘okay, but ya gotta stand with me.’” We all nodded in agreement and, after a bit more conversation, she wandered away.
Around us was a sea of class and racial diversity. Standing next to me on one side, there was a short, stocky, forty-something mestizo man with cinnamon-colored skin, black hair, and a black beard with graying edges, clad in blue jeans and a dark jacket that said “Fire Rescue”. On the other side, there stood a couple of chatty, portly, nicely-dressed black women. A middle-aged WASPy woman with a tiny dog in her purse took out a small Tupperware of water and held it under the dog’s head so it could take a drink. Then Trump came out to speak, and everyone became attentive, listening and responding with enthusiasm. The atmosphere was determined but jovial. It was clear everyone felt we were all in this together. When Trump did his normal thing and wandered off-topic, people chatted quietly amongst themselves until he got back on point, which Brandon found remarkable. Though everyone was enthusiastic and pumped up, almost no one was a sycophant hanging on Trump’s every syllable. People were chuckling about it and saying things like, “There he goes again.” Brandon did see a handful of people near us holding Bible-related signs, probably evangelical Christians, who seemed to be utterly absorbed in Trump’s speech. Some of the women in the group of Christians were crying, and Brandon could see them mouthing what we deduce were prayers. This wasn’t surprising to us, since Brandon had read that Trump’s popularity among evangelicals was very high, so we expected to see some at the rally, but most of the people around us seemed realistic in their assessment of Trump as a flawed human being, just like everyone else.
At one point during the speech, some people were trying to get a woman in a wheelchair to the sidewalk, but it was difficult for them to get through the dense crowd. The diminutive fireman saw them and shouted, “Wheelchair! Move! Make a hole!” Everyone looked over and then instantly parted and created a lane which lasted until the end of Trump’s speech. The fireman remarked on it at the end, saying with surprise and an amused grin, “hey, the lane’s still here!” We saw more people with wheelchairs and walkers go through it in the interim. Everyone there just seemed to want to help.
After the speech, the swarthy fire rescue man mentioned to his friends that he had to pee. “Man, I gotta go so bad,” he said. “I want to find a tree or a bush. I don’t even care if there’s an audience, I gotta go so bad.” He was laughing, and Brandon and I laughed, too. “Find a storm drain, we can stand around you,” Brandon said, looking for one. “I’ll just tell the ladies that it’s cold outside,” he said with a warm-hearted, mischievous grin. I laughed. “She gets it!” he exclaimed, pointing at me and laughing. Then, looking at me, he said, “there’s only so long you can keep telling a woman that,” and we chuckled together. All in good fun; no offense or outrage to be seen. Notably, he didn’t end up going in public and, instead, wandered off after voicing his intention to find a bathroom.
Even before the end of Trump’s speech, people began moving towards the Capitol Building, as Trump had mentioned earlier in his speech. “After this, we’re going to walk down and I’ll be there with you… We’re going to walk down to the Capitol,” he said, which caused a murmur of excitement in the people around us. “He’s going to go with us?” someone near us asked nobody in particular. “Maybe he’ll talk again.” When Trump’s speech ended, we had only to turn directly to our right and we began heading towards the Capitol down Constitution Avenue. We had been so far in the rear during the speech that it was hard to hear, but we now found ourselves nearly in the very front of the marching crowd.
While marching, we looked around at the array of people around us. The many flags, in particular, drew our interest. We saw a group of Amerindians carrying a blue flag emblazoned with what appeared to be a rawhide drum or shield with feathers dangling from it, diagonally crossed by some sort of plant frond. We saw a group of white and black people carrying several versions of what is commonly thought to be the CSA flag but is, as Brandon has taught me, actually the battle ensign of the Army of Northern Virginia. Later, when we told this detail to Brandon’s mother, it elicited a dismissive “you can pay people to do anything.” She seemed to think that the simplest explanation was greed, not that the biracial group of people carrying the flags shared a common heritage and regional culture. We saw a man carrying a flag of the Knights Templar of Jerusalem: a red knight’s cross on white background with the words Deus Vult written in red blackletter text. We saw a white flag with a green pine tree on it that had “Appeal to Heaven” written along the top in black. There were also, of course, Trump campaign and meme flags (Trump riding a velociraptor and Trump as Rambo were particularly humorous) and yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags with and without the typical snake. There were American flags in full color and in black-and-white and “Thin Blue Line” flags as well. We saw quite a few signs – in both yellow and white – quoting the Bible or proclaiming “Jesus Saves!” We also saw various Jewish flags, including an Israeli national flag, and a woman carrying a trio of flags – a white dove, a Mogen David, and a regal crown with a cross on top. We saw multiple flags bearing the Mogen David in blue on white or, once, gold on cream. We did see one sign that said something along the lines of “The Goyim will not be ruled by the [Hallakim?]” The man probably intended the last word to be “Halakha,” which is the Hebrew word for Jewish religious law. This sign left me confused because I didn’t know what it meant and Brandon a bit startled because he recognized it as probably intended to be a deliberately anti-Jewish statement. Notably, that was the only overtly bigoted sign or flag we saw, and the people around the man carrying it, like me, didn’t seem to know what it meant. We also saw a variety of Asiatic national flags, including Taiwanese, Japanese, South Korean, and a single flag of the now-defunct Republic of Vietnam. A Jewish man had taken it upon himself to be the gathering’s personal shofar player and blew his horn every few minutes as we walked. We heard people speaking Russian, German, Chinese, and Hebrew, in addition to English and Spanish. We even met a young, flamboyantly gay Trump supporter with a conspicuous rainbow flag on his backpack; no one gave him any grief. This was a genuinely diverse and inclusive gathering.
On the march down Constitution Avenue, multiple chants came and went, circulating through the crowd. “USA!” was the most common, with laughing boos as we passed the IRS building, a loud chorus of “Do your job!” in front of the Department of Justice building, and a few refrains of “Drain the swamp!” As we passed a building on the left that had the full text of the first amendment draped from it, Brandon spontaneously began to sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, colloquially called “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah,” which is of historical interest to him, and though few people knew the words to the verses, many people around us joined in each repetition of the chorus. Afterwards, people clapped and cheered. As we continued, we saw two men in mock-up Continental Army uniforms from the Revolutionary War and one in a reenactor’s Union Army uniform from the Civil War. None of the three historically clad men were armed, even with prop weapons. At one point, a young family of four was walking just ahead of us. The mother was trying to help her daughter, maybe age 5, to take off her coat. The zipper got stuck, so Brandon took position between the family and the advancing crowd from the Ellipse, outstretched his arms, and acted as a sort of road flare so they wouldn’t be hurt, though at that point there was little risk of them being trampled in the slowly plodding crowd. After the mom unstuck the zipper and took off the girl’s coat, she thanked my husband effusively, and we started talking. The family was from Utah and told us that they couldn’t afford to fly, so they had used sick days to take time off from work and driven from Utah to Washington D.C., which resulted in looks of amazement from us. While we were talking to the Utah family, a man on the right-hand sidewalk angrily shouted to nobody in particular, “I can’t trust the system!” The Utah dad yelled back at him, “Yeah, tell me about it!” So the man did. “I can’t trust my vote anymore!” he said, clearly exasperated. “Who’s looking into all of this?! Anyone?!” “I hear you, man!” shouted the Utah dad. Brandon shouted an affirmative “Yeah!” to the man and gave him an acknowledging hand signal. The man smiled in a manner that conveyed relief, presumably at having been heard and listened to by somebody, even complete strangers he would almost certainly never see again.
When we arrived at the base of Capitol Hill, spirits were high, and the mood was warm. People, now more tightly-packed than before, pushed forward up the steps of Capitol Hill, still chanting “USA!” intermittently, but most were chatting and smiling. At the base of the Capitol Hill steps, we saw a man dressed as Uncle Sam standing on top of one of the stone plinths with the little green and white houses on top speaking through a bullhorn while goofily dancing to a small boom box by his side. “You’re on the right side of history; don’t let them get you down!” he was saying. Text on his hat read “Uncle Jam.”
We continued, forward and up the steps of Capitol Hill, maneuvering as best we could to dodge smokers and pausing occasionally to take stock of what was happening around us. Near the bottom of the stairs, we heard an explosion that startled all of the people around us. “What was that?” someone said. “Was that Antifa?” “Probably an M80,” Brandon surmised. The mood tensed a little. As we continued, we passed people with identical bullhorns and walkie-talkies interspersed regularly standing on the short concrete walls on either side of the stairs. We spent some time standing by one of them closely on the right. He was wearing a full camo outfit, plus camo mask and helmet. The walkie-talkie on his hip periodically buzzed to life, though we couldn’t make out the voices on the other end in the din. He took it up and listened to it frequently but never spoke into it. He spoke frequently through his bullhorn, exhorting others to violent acts, saying things like, “Get in there, the revolution is now! Down with liberalism, hang Pelosi!” He also said, “They’re right up there taking your country away from you! Go hurt them!” This struck Brandon as strange. At one point, the man tried to start a chant among the crowd of “Fight for Trump!” but it only caught on with a small number. A counter-chanter began a “USA! USA! USA!” chant, and the camouflaged man’s chant was drowned out and abandoned. At another point, he took a phone out of his pocket, looked at it, then said into his bullhorn that Trump had just tweeted “Pence is a traitor and refused to decertify! Go get him!” Later, we learned that Trump also tweeted to the crowd to remain calm and stay peaceful. The strangely-behaving man failed to read out those tweets, and he misquoted the tweet about Pence, as verified by reading the original tweet later. Other people around us looked at their phones and shook their heads, shouting things at him like “Trump didn’t say that! You liar!” At the time, we weren’t entirely sure what to make of it. Only later did it occur to Brandon that the man was most likely an agent provocateur.
We pressed slowly forward, pausing to make way for two large groups of people carrying enormous American flags over their heads like a Chinese New Year dragon. There were people blowing horns, and a man passed with a rolling luggage speaker system blasting “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” by Twisted Sister. People were singing and swaying to the song while cheers and laughter erupted; the whole event around us by this point had taken on a party atmosphere while we waited for Trump to show up and speak again, which he never did. We later hypothesized the many pipe bombs found may have had something to do with this.
Then we saw a puff of green smoke ahead of us. “CS,” Brandon said with an upwards nod toward the growing cloud of miasma. Confusion followed. We started to see people struggling their way back down the stairs through the press of the crowd with great difficulty, their eyes and noses streaming fluid. Most notable was a forty-something white man leading his two children. He kept muttering, “No one was doing anything. They shot tear gas at my children. No one was doing anything.” His children were pale and wide-eyed, clearly shaken. We were close enough that Brandon’s nose began to tingle from chemical irritation, but we continued forward to get a better vantage point. A little while after we saw the tear gas, I received an Emergency Alert on my phone informing me that the mayor of Washington D.C. had imposed a curfew of 6 pm. Others around me received the same alert. “What’s going on?” we heard people say. “Why is there a curfew?” There were viewing platforms set up in intervals along the Capitol Hill steps, crowded with people. At one point, Brandon helped several women and a man climb down the front of a platform. The man was furiously shouting that the cops were out of line and that he was going to go assault the police. Brandon took him gently by his right shoulder and said, “I hear you, but that’s not up to us, we have a system for that. It’s okay, man, it doesn’t look like anybody’s been hurt so far, so we can chill here for a sec. Cool?” The man replied in defeated anger, “What the fuck are we supposed to do? Nobody listens anymore.” Brandon empathized with him and advised him to move to a state that better fits his politics, since paying tax to support an unresponsive government only enables its complacency. This visibly calmed the man, and he nodded and wandered off into the mass of people.
When we got to the top of the stairs, I looked back. Behind us, Constitution Avenue was filled with people about seven or so stoplights back, almost to the Washington Monument. In front of us, we could see people filling the square in front of the Capitol Building and climbing the scaffolding where the inauguration platform and bleachers were being set up, waving flags. The stairs of the Capitol itself were packed with people and there appeared to be a few people on the veranda. The police were calmly patrolling the south side of the veranda. A man on the scaffolding ahead of us started shouting into a bullhorn that people should break into the Capitol. Brandon said to me, “Oh? Everybody else but me should force their way into the Capitol? Really? What a two-fisted coward. If it’s so important to you, why don’t you go first, asshole? I hate people like him.” Another agent provocateur? When a red puff of tear gas appeared just behind the man’s perch, we decided to leave and began to thread our way sideways through the crowd and southward towards our hotel. We passed a young mulatto woman leaning against a short concrete wall to our right. Her eyes and nose were gushing fluid and were extremely red and irritated. Brandon stopped to ask her if she needed his help in any way. She indicated she would be alright, so he nodded and we kept moving.
We were not the only ones who had decided to leave. A large number of protesters were streaming away from the crowd in various directions. We, like others, began to head down Washington Avenue, in the general direction of our hotel, but we were stopped by a police roadblock at Spirit of Justice Park. They informed us that there was a suspicious package and that we should shelter in place at the park. Instead, we went through the park and around it, on the opposite side of the block from the police stop. We found ourselves in a series of parking lots that we crossed and eventually figured out how to get back on track towards our hotel. While we were meandering, a bit lost, we heard an explosion behind us, the second one of the day. We later learned that one of the explosions we heard was a pipe bomb exploding at the RNC headquarters that had caused a fire. The suspicious package that blocked our way to the hotel turned out to be another pipe bomb at the DNC headquarters, and I heard that others were found closer to the Capitol.
We spent most of the next day at the Baltimore airport waiting for our flight. While there, we got a chance to talk to a number of other people who had been at the protest in various places, including Chronic, a late twenty-something, bearded man with tussled, sandy-blond hair; George, an early thirty-something man with short-cropped dark brown hair and a five o’clock shadow; and Pollock, a Baby Boomer who proudly stated he was a commercial fisherman from Alaska. Chronic had the personality of a 21st-century hippie, very laid back and soft-spoken, with an underlying attitude of mild arrogance, a sort of “I have more life experience than you, man.” George, a quietly attentive man who exuded calm, was wearing a black shirt with a skull on it and black boots, very heavy metal. Pollock enthusiastically joined the conversation through what Brandon jokingly called overactive listening, chiming in frequently about his family, his experiences living in Alaska, and his troubles with overseas megacorporations and government regulators there, whenever he felt it was relevant to what we were saying, which was often. It was clear that he was proud of his family and career, and very much wanted someone with whom to share his pride, so everyone politely weathered his frequent interruptions with smiles and questions.
The three men told us stories of their experiences on the opposite side of the Capitol from us and showed us many pictures in which everyone had the look of tourists, not terrorists, smiling, looking around with curiosity, and photographing art. They told us that the police took down the barriers on the east side and escorted the people in, saying “don’t push us over; we’ll walk back while you walk forward.” Dozens to hundreds entered and walked through and exited through the opposite entrance, they said, while some (such as Chronic and his friends) took the opportunity to explore the building, open closed doors, and find a place to camp out, sit tight, and smoke pot. We cannot personally confirm their story, but it concurs with the photo evidence Chronic provided and the video evidence I later saw. Chronic also showed us a photo he had taken just inside the doors on his side of the building, which was of a guy he said he found suspect, since he was just standing there in a black mask and an overabundance of Trump paraphernalia, making wide arm gestures and telling everyone to go and find the Chambers of Congress and hurt the Senators and Representatives that were surely inside. Brandon looked closely at the photograph and noted what appeared to him to be a black hammer and sickle tattoo peeking out from underneath the man’s sleeve as he gestured. Chronic agreed with Brandon’s assessment.
Pollock wondered out loud how many Antifa were in the crowd with everyone. My husband pointed out that there is a classic communist tactic called “brigading” in which communists will join other groups and organizations, pretending to be sympathetic to their cause, but subvert the groups from within. We have no way of knowing how many brigaders there were in the crowd on January 6th. We personally saw two people we found suspect based on their attire, their accoutrements, and the words they shouted through their bullhorns, and we saw pictures or videos of at least two others. Many were dressed in camo or camo and black. All remained masked in a mostly maskless crowd.
The questions we most frequently asked were, “Why were you there? What were your reasons?” Chronic said he had been to many protests and that he and his friends were planning a sit-down protest in the Capitol if the doors were open to the public. He didn’t make it clear what he was protesting, and it seemed like he didn’t particularly care. George said he participated for several reasons: due process, electoral transparency, redress of grievances. Essentially, he was demonstrating for representative government, “to voice our opinion the old fashioned way, chanting and cheering,” he said, because, like most people there, he felt unrepresented. He also secretly hoped he might be able “to tell any congressman or senator or even a staffer that it’s very destructive to the confidence one has in the consented authority our government has if an election isn’t optically fair.” Cyrus, a young American-born man of Persian ancestry whose family had survived the Iranian Revolution of 1979, told us that he was at the march because he found similarities in the details his parents told him of the political climate in Iran just before the revolution and the political climate in the United States in 2020. Lacey, a late-middle-aged white woman who showed me pictures of her grown children, said, “Because Trump asked us to,” and immediately started crying. “He’s done so much for us, it’s the least we can do for him.” I was touched by a devotion that was clearly born out of love that had been earned, not fanaticism, but even she was an outlier. When, in conversation at the Baltimore airport, Brandon mentioned that, for us, this wasn’t about Trump, the sentiment carried quickly, with a crowd of maybe fifteen people repeating loudly, “This isn’t about Trump!” It was not a chant in unison but rather the disparate voices of various people communicating agreement. At one point, a family of four dark-skinned east Asian people with various articles of MAGA clothing tried to start a chant of “We love Trump!” but the chant didn’t take and was, again, soon replaced with a “USA!” chant. Almost all of the people we met said it was about upholding the Constitution and the law. It is certainly true that there exist diehard Trump lovers, Trump fanatics, members of a Trump cult of personality, but most of the people we talked to were not that in the slightest.
When we got home, I logged onto Facebook, something I almost never do, to get in touch with a concerned friend who lives far away. And I saw it. The misinformation, the accusations, the hatred towards Trump and anyone who might even remotely support him. So I posted that I had been at the rally and that, from where I stood, it wasn’t like what people were saying. The vitriol turned my way like an angry cobra. One person who had not attended the rally accused me of being blind if I didn’t see it. Another person posted a carefully edited corporate media video of a few people at the rally saying it was a “revolution” or an “insurrection” and asked if I was still on that “side.” Two of our friends who lived in Baltimore had offered to let us stay with them until I mentioned that we would be there for the rally and had voted for Trump. Then, they dropped me like a hot potato. One was a friend my husband and I had known for more than twenty years, the person who introduced us to each other. Another old friend of mine mentioned in conversation that she only tolerates Trump supporters if she has known them for a long time. Of all of my 170 Facebook friends, two “liked” my posts. I engaged politely with four others and talked to a handful of friends without discussing politics, but even some of my closest and oldest friends expressed genuine shock that I had attended the rally. Shock, dismay, horror. With these emotions pushing their way to the forefront at the very mention of Trump, it’s no wonder no one can talk anymore. Ultimately, when Facebook stated that they would not allow protesters to post any of their pictures or videos and scrubbed the #WalkAway group, I deleted my account permanently.
We have seen what happened in D.C. being called a coup, an insurrection, domestic terrorism. If this was a coup, where was the decisiveness? If this was an insurrection, where were the weapons? If this was terrorism, what were the demands? It could accurately be called a riot, but with the extremely limited property damage, limited number of injuries, and two deaths by violence, both of which are being seriously investigated, even that seems a bit heavy. It is right to condemn violence and bemoan the loss of life, and we do both, but deliberately using charged language to provoke a desired emotional reaction is propaganda, pure and simple, and it will only result in more frustration and anger. As it was, if the far-left brigaders in the crowd wanted to see mass destruction and death, they failed, and failed miserably, primarily because so many on the left do not understand Trump supporters, as clearly illustrated by what the likely brigaders shouted into their bullhorns. When I posted that I had attended the rally on Facebook, one of my friends asked me to clarify what the purpose of the rally was, and another said that she never understood the position of people who believed the election had irregularities or unlawfulness. Those who didn’t turn on me outright still expressed confusion. With the corporate media incessantly repeating for four-years-straight that Trump supporters are uneducated, drooling, violent bigots who worship Trump as a god on Earth or Il Duce reborn (these are real accusations I’ve heard on Facebook and network news), it is difficult for anyone to understand, to hear the voices of individuals through the cacophony of name-calling and groupthink. The truth is nuanced, complex, and subtle, as is almost always the case. The people we spoke to who were at the rally had shared values – support of liberty, a dedication to the notion of live and let live, an emphasis on personal responsibility, and a general aversion to prejudice, whether the prejudice is based on one’s political views, race, ethnicity, or sexuality. They all shared concerns about the current functioning of the Republic, and many of them were clearly angry. But it was a hopeless, frustrated, futile anger, not a violent anger. They simply didn’t feel heard. Above all, though, they were just people – with diverse viewpoints, life experiences, and thought processes that had brought them there.
Elisa Parrett and Brandon Parrett are college professors from Washington State taking on the role of citizen journalists amid the January 2021 Capitol protest.