The quest for safety and accountability after last year’s Jan. 6 riot is tangled up with partisanship
Three weeks after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a bulletin with an ominous warning. It said that violent, anti-government extremists opposed to the election of President Joe Biden “could continue to mobilize to incite or commit violence.” House Democrats cited the bulletin in their resolution to form a select committee to investigate the causes and circumstances of the riot.
A year later, the Department of Justice has charged hundreds of alleged rioters, the United States Capitol Police have updated equipment and procedures, and the groundswell of extremist violence that DHS and others feared has not materialized. Extremist groups appear to have shifted their focus away from Washington and toward local governments. But the Capitol Police are still understaffed by about 400 officers as threats against Congress increase.
In the past 12 months, Capitol Police have made a string of changes in an effort to prevent a repeat of last year’s riot, an event sparked when protesters amassed outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6—the day Congress met to certify the results of the Electoral College vote that named Biden the winner of the election. The crowd broke down barriers and doors and overwhelmed police, forcing members of Congress, staffers, and journalists to hide for hours while law enforcement pushed back the crowd.
In July, the department tapped J. Thomas Manger, a longtime Maryland police chief, as its new head. Manger said officers now carry official cell phones that receive daily security alerts to avoid the overwhelmed radio traffic of Jan. 6. The force also has new riot control equipment and regularly drills evacuation and shelter-in-place procedures, and rank-and-file officers now get regular intelligence briefings. After the riot, Capitol Police leaders claimed they did not receive advance warning from intelligence agencies that could have helped them prepare. But the FBI said it shared raw information with the police department about known threats before Jan. 6.
Former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund complained after the attack that the U.S. Army delayed sending assistance when police asked for it. Congress has since made it easier for the Capitol Police to summon National Guard support and sent more than $100 million in extra funding.
But challenges remain. Capitol Police Inspector General Michael Bolton said in December the department had fully implemented only 30 of 104 recommended security changes. The police department said that number is now 34, and leadership has detailed plans for another 60. Manger said that since Jan. 6, 2021, the department has lost about 135 officers and needs to hire about 400. COVID-19 and understaffing have made it difficult to schedule training. And while Manger said Tuesday the department did not have “great concern” about any events planned for the one-year anniversary of the riot, the department has faced a growing number of threats. In 2021 it saw 9,600, Manger said, up from the 902 it investigated in 2016. Some are vague, involving threatening emails or phone calls. But the department also sees specific bomb and shooting threats, and in December, an officer running security screenings at a House office building overlooked a gun in a bag. It took Capitol Police 12 minutes to locate the staffer carrying it, Manger said.
Though the Justice Department has arrested and charged about 700 rioters, neither the FBI nor the congressional committee investigating Jan. 6 has reported evidence of large-scale planning leading up to the attack on the Capitol. Four men who belong to the Proud Boys organization were indicted for conspiracy to obstruct Congress and law enforcement the day of the riot. The indictment explained that the men belonged to a subset of the mob that encroached on the Capitol. They followed a larger crowd of protesters that first broke down barricades outside the building. Another indictment against a member of the Oath Keepers, Jessica Watkins, explains how she trained and plotted her incursion on the Capitol on Jan. 6, “unlike the vast majority” of people who participated in the riot.
As arrests skyrocketed after the riot, leaders of groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers urged their members to avoid political rallies and events, according to an Atlantic Council report by Jared Holt, resident fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab. The report focused on right-wing extremism and did not examine threats by groups on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum such as antifa.
Group members have found other ways to protest and organize since social media platforms disrupted much of their communication. Members of Proud Boys chapters attended school board meetings to protest mask mandates. Some sat in on county meetings to demand election audits. Others attended pro-life prayer rallies or protests against removing Confederate monuments. Proud Boys members in Illinois marched into a suburban school board meeting to protest pro-LGBT library materials. In New Hanover, N.C., the Cape Fear Proud Boys chapter donned uniforms and face masks, which they said were to hide their identities, and stood in the back of the room at a school board meeting.
“The domestic extremist landscape was battered by Jan. 6,” Holt said. “But extremism is dynamic and fluid. It is always trying to adapt to fit the container that it’s in.”
Meanwhile, Democrats in the U.S. House have spent much of the year trying to build a legal case that former President Donald Trump caused the riot with his rhetoric at his “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6 and in the days leading up to it. They impeached him on a single charge of insurrection but could not muster the two-thirds majority needed to convict him at trial in the Senate. The seven Democrats and two Republicans on the House committee investigating the attack have subpoenaed numerous former Trump aides and White House communications, sparking a battle over executive privilege.
“That committee has clearly been established by the Democratic leadership in order to find something against Donald Trump and against other conservatives, who they think may have been involved in this in some way,” said Mark Clauson, professor of history and law at Cedarville University. “On the one hand, it’s supposed to be a nonpartisan gathering of facts. On the other hand, it is clearly also political, as any congressional committee is bound to fall into at some level. That’s just impossible to escape.”
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