As the mob violence at the United States Capitol died down later Wednesday evening, right-wing rioters remained in front of the building to bask in what they saw as the glory of a day that will likely go down as one of the darkest in American history. Even as people around the country saw an unruly mob attacking the redoubts of democracy, the participants themselves saw themselves as heroic defenders of the president and America.
“I was right up there at the top steps of the Capitol,” said Brad Drew, who traveled to Washington from Alaska. “I didn’t go inside – I’m not trying to break and enter. Besides going to the Capitol today, I always say, we’re peace-loving people.”
Drew was one of the thousands of alt-right demonstrators who flocked to Washington, D.C. to protest what they call a fraudulent election, eventually storming and breaching the Capitol building in a move incited by a sitting president and fueled by antisemitic conspiracies.
Numerous reports on the violence, including in the Forward, spotlighted alt-right insignia, slogans and leaders among the mob. But the protesters saw themselves as patriots doing their duty.
“What would white nationalists be doing right now? I don’t know. But they’re not here,” said Paul Sheridan, who traveled to Washington from Detroit and watched the mob storm the Capitol earlier in the day.
When asked about the man seen inside the Capitol wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” shirt, Sheridan said: “He was probably an agitator. Look around. There’s no fires, no broken windows. I’m here to support my president. I’m not hurting anybody…Trump asked us to come, so we’re here to show support.” Sheridan said the agitators on Wednesday were “Antifa and BLM,” though there was no reported presence of either group inside the Capitol building.
Despite assurances that no violence or destruction ensued, rioters did break windows in the Capitol building and destroyed property inside.
A demonstrator who refused to provide his name was among the people climbing the scaffolding outside the Capitol building earlier in the day. “You’re always gonna have a few people who get a little more aggressive, and they have their reasons for it,” he said. A veteran of the Second Marines who grew up in New Hampshire, he said he took an oath to protect the Constitution. “That oath doesn’t expire,” he said, standing near the police line defending the Capitol building with a black American flag gaiter around his neck.
But the day was not peaceful by any means. Four people died on Capitol grounds Wednesday, one of whom was shot and killed by police, and three of whom died after facing medical emergencies on Capitol grounds. MPD arrested 52 people and recovered firearms, two pipe bombs, and a cooler full of Molotov cocktails, D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee III said in a press conference. Additionally, 14 officers were injured, according to Chief Contee.
Hours later, after the building was cleared and Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers regained control of its perimeter, hundreds of demonstrators remained to voice their opinions well past D.C.’s 6 p.m. curfew.
“I came here because I knew the hardcore patriots were gonna be here, and I knew they’d be ready for the recall,” said Eric Warren, a Trump supporter who flew to D.C. from Las Vegas for the demonstrations.
Warren maintained amidst a crowd of white demonstrators that this protest was open and inviting to all. “Look at the people who are part of this,” Warren said. “It’s multiracial, just like Trump’s coalition.”
That wasn’t the experience of at least one Black person who found himself among the mob. Andre Bastian, a former Marine and D.C. native, was present observing the mob when a group of white men carrying an American flag yelled “Where’s your BLM now? They’re nothing compared to us.”
Despite the presence of many alt-right and neo-Nazi symbols in the crowd at the Capitol, demonstrators immediately rejected any connection to the groups. Dean Underwood, who was standing along the police line as it pushed protesters toward Pennsylvania Avenue, traveled from Texas and had different ideas about the day’s connection to Nazi Germany.
“We were trying to stop the Constitution from being overthrown,” Underwood said, denying that white supremacy had any part in Wednesday’s events. “The police are working to overturn the law. That’s what Nazi Germany is all about – the police overthrow the law, and then they claim they are the law…the police are helping ‘them’ steal the election.”
Underwood, dressed in a brown zip-up sweatshirt and jeans, stood calmly in front of the line of police. “Trump is not the law, he’s not Hitler. He’s trying to follow the Constitution. That’s why we’re here.”
President Trump, however, has stepped up his baseless claims of widespread voter fraud in recent days. The president also urged Vice President Mike Pence not to preside over the Electoral College vote count, a constitutionally prescribed moment in front of a joint session of Congress.
Violent protests will likely continue in D.C. as right-wing demonstrators continue to eschew election results. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has extended a public emergency by 15 days, expecting for it to end on January 21, one day after President-elect Joe Biden is expected to be inaugurated.
“I’m planning on staying for a while,” Underwood said. “I’ll be here for as long as it takes to get the vote right.”