After the nation’s capital spent weeks girding for a repeat of the insurrection, the small crowd who came to the national mall in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol on Saturday to show support for the rioters who stormed that very same building seemed like an embarrassing sideshow. While the paltry crowd made no new attempt to breach the Capitol, they also didn’t have to. The extremist contingent has already established themselves inside the Republican Party, as evidenced by the multiple candidates who were in attendance at their event. A rally that seemed like a joke was actually a deadly serious warning of how combustible our current political climate is — and how many in the GOP insist on playing with fire.
Arizona’s Jeff Zink was one of at least three GOP congressional candidates who attended Saturday’s rally. Zink has admitted he was in Washington on January 6 as a mob broke into the halls of Congress to disrupt the certification of former President Trump’s election loss. And Zink suggested Trump supporters may resort to further violence due to their dissatisfaction with the election results and the arrests that have stemmed from the Capitol attack.
“If people aren’t heard then they go to the ballot box … that ballot box, if it’s corrupt then we have to go to the next one, which is the jury box,” Zink said. “Well, now, what we’re finding out is … when we’re going to the jury box … it’s literally, you’re guilty until proven Democrat … so the last one, which we’ve only gone to once, is the ammo box.”
Zink, who sported a gray beard and a traditional political navy suit amped up with multiple lapel pins, was with his son, Ryan, on January 6. While the candidate told Rolling Stone the pair “didn’t do anything,” in February, Ryan was hit with multiple charges from federal prosecutors who accused him of breaking into the building. According to the FBI, Ryan described how he “broke down the doors” in private social media messages. Despite his bellicose rhetoric at the rally, the elder Zink insisted, “We do not want a civil war” and said, “I do not want to tear this country apart.”
Saturday’s “JusticeForJ6” rally was organized by a group named Look Ahead America. In addition to backing from Republican candidates, the organization has ties to Trump’s campaign operation. Sitting Republican members of Congress have also echoed the group’s message that the people who stormed the Capitol on January 6 are “political prisoners.”
Look Ahead America is led by a self-described “America First right” activist and campaign operative for former President Trump named Matt Braynard. With a clean shaven head and similarly sharp suit, Braynard stood on a small stage and praised GOP congressmen who have defended the rioters in hearings and at events including one outside the Washington D.C. city jail, where some of the more than 600 people charged in conjunction with January 6 are being held.
“There have been some members of Congress who have been stepping forward and helping to lead in this fight and were very grateful to them,” Braynard said before leading the crowd in a round of applause for their allies on The Hill.
While Braynard claimed “the political leadership” had “advised” these allies not to participate in his D.C. rally or the satellite events he staged around the country, he still had some support from GOP politicians. Along with Zink, two other aspiring Republican members of Congress who are currently running for office attended Saturday’s “JusticeForJ6” event; Joe Kent from Washington State, and Mike Collins from Georgia. Look Ahead America has also boasted of receiving $2 million dollars from their “big donor,” Jim Lamon, an Arizona Senate candidate. Braynard called the politicians who showed up for his D.C. rally “extremely courageous.”
In his own remarks at the demonstration, Kent outlined the basic argument of the event, which is that those arrested in conjunction with January 6 are being somehow treated unfairly. “We’re all here for the same reason, because we know our brothers and sisters, our fellow Americans, regardless of what walk of life they’re from, what political party they’re from have the God given right to due process,” Kent declared.
Like all of the speakers at the rally, which lasted just over an hour, Kent argued he supports law enforcement and insisted he is “extremely grateful for all of them that were present on January 6.” Over 100 police officers were reportedly injured that day in fighting with rioters that one Capitol Police sergeant later described as a “medieval battle” in a congressional hearing earlier this summer.
Collins, the Georgia congressional hopeful, articulated another one of the core arguments of the “JusticeForJ6” speakers, the idea that the people arrested in conjunction with January 6 are being subjected to worse treatment than those who participated in riots that took place during last year’s nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. Those demonstrations and riots followed the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by the police, in Minnesota.
“The facts are clear, we’ve got non-violent misdemeanor offenders that are currently being held with no bond … sometimes in solitary confinement,” Collins said as someone in the audience shouted, “Let them go!”
“I’ll tell you what, you won’t find an example of that from Minneapolis or from when this nation’s capital was on fire the summer of 2020,” Collins added, referencing the outcry over Floyd’s killing.
However, there were over 10,000 arrests associated with last year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations and, in July, the Washington Post reported “the 13 percent of Jan. 6 defendants held in jail before trial is much lower than the roughly 75 percent of federal defendants held in jail before trial nationwide.”
After his speech on Saturday, Rolling Stone asked Collins if he had “any concerns” about the treatment of those who were charged in conjunction with the George Floyd protests.
“I don’t even follow your question,” Collins said.
The rally was a mix of conspiracy theories and revisionist history of January 6. Even as the speakers praised law enforcement and insisted they only want due process for people who were engaged in nonviolent activity that day, they ignored the fact the people who have been charged with trespassing and parading through the Capitol on January 6 were only able to access the building due to the violent breach of the barricades. That attack on the Capitol was fueled by false claims about Trump’s loss that have been spread by the president, his allies, and right wing media. Braynard and Zink have both been part of organized attempts to question the election through partisan audits of the vote. On stage, Braynard and other speakers also repeatedly implied law enforcement and the judiciary were part of some nebulous plot to target the right wing.
“They actually want you to do what happened on January 6. They want violence from us. They want us to cross the line. They want us to destroy property,” Braynard said. “They want us angry, because when you break the law, they can deal with you very easily as you’ve seen. They send the FBI after you, you go into the gulag.”
But even as he railed against those who supposedly are suppressing the right wing, Braynard never explained who he believes “they” are.
With the incoherence and inconsistencies in their message coupled with the low turnout at their marquee rally, it might be easy to dismiss Braynard and his followers. However, like so much of the modern meme- and irony-fueled far right, “JusticeForJ6” and the organization that sponsored it are simultaneously fundamentally unserious and deeply dangerous. Saturday’s event didn’t shut down D.C., but it did underscore just how much support there is for extremist messages in the main line of the Republican Party.
January 6 has descended into partisan debate, in part, due to the unique incentive structures that drive the right wing in the Trump era. Braynard was little known in the pro-Trump microcelebrity ecosystem during last year’s presidential campaign. Following Trump’s loss to Joe Biden, Braynard and his organization have drawn attention and attracted allies in far right media and politics for their work on election audits and the “JusticeForJ6” events.
The rally was a dramatic example of how feverish claims about the election and January 6 fueled by the Republican establishment are adding to an already combustible climate. Washington and the country have seen sharply escalating political violence over the past few years including the riots alongside the George Floyd protests, the mass shooting at the congressional baseball game, and increasingly routine clashes between right and left wing activists. This history of violence put official Washington on high alert for Saturday’s rally with streets near the site locked down and a stepped up police presence. On Friday morning, the House Sergeant At Arms sent out a security bulletin warning members of Congress and other staffers “to avoid” the Capitol complex. Officials also reinstalled the security fencing that became a familiar sight on The Hill after January 6.
For the staffers, police officers, members of Congress, and others who were deeply traumatized by the violent attack on the halls of Congress, those black metal barriers are a stark reminder of their pain — and the fact there are some who want to support those who caused it. The false narratives about the January 6 attack have been enabled, in part, by the fact that — thanks to the steady drumbeat of mass shootings and political violence in recent years — the American public has become relatively inured to violence. And only a handful of people died in conjunction with the January 6 attack. However, that death toll is likely the result of a series of small miracles rather than an actual reflection of the danger that day.
None of the bombs that were placed on January 6 went off. Though both sides were armed, police officers refrained from opening fire on the crowd that broke into the Capitol. A single Capitol Police officer somehow managed to deflect the mob from the Senate chamber.
Since that day, D.C. has been similarly lucky. A man who made a bomb threat outside the Capitol last month didn’t actually have bombs and was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And no one answered the call to come to Washington that he issued in the bizarre and delusional live social media rants he broadcast during a standoff with police. Another heavily armed man with a car covered in swastikas was apprehended by police in Capitol Hill this month before he was able to do any damage. So far, the people who have targeted the nation’s capital in the wake of January 6 have been lone lunatics.
Braynard’s rally on Saturday also attracted people who were clearly unwell. At one point, a man interrupted the proceedings to shout that he was “master of the universe.”
“I’ve been expressing myself and saying hello to everybody as master of the universe, God,” the man, whose name we are choosing to withhold due to his apparent distress, told Rolling Stone after the outburst. “I was supposed to go to the singularity to interface and it has all been obliterated, the universe fractured. I had to implode it.”
Overall, the Capitol Police claimed “approximately 400 to 450 people were inside the protest area.” In an email, Braynard similarly said his security “estimated 500 of our people” though he added, “I personally have no idea.”
While there were clearly hundreds of people at the protest, many of them were members of the media. As he walked off the stage, Braynard suggested the presence of press made the event an unqualified success regardless of who showed up to join him. When Rolling Stone asked if he was happy with the turnout, Braynard said, “Yeah, all you guys came.”
The crowd inside the barricades also included a robust security presence. Braynard took the stage and walked out surrounded by a group of mostly Black bodyguards. One of them, who said his name was Eric, was wearing a mask bearing the Black Lives Matter slogan, “I Can’t Breathe.”
Eric, who declined to give his last name or to identify the security company he worked for, said he didn’t support Braynard’s message. Specifically, Eric argued the circumstances that led people to take the streets after George Floyd’s death were “totally different” than the rage that was displayed on January 6.
“That man got beat to death. A police put his knee on that man’s neck,” Eric said of Floyd’s death. “This is something totally different with Trump. What they’re doing to the Capitol, that’s totally something different to me.”
Eric went on to argue the Trump supporters actually met a softer response from law enforcement on January 6.
“What are you so mad at the world for?” he asked. “Just think, if that was all Black people that did that, everybody would be dead on the concrete.”