United States Capitol Police and the FBI are on high alert ahead of a rally in Washington, DC, planned on September 18 to demonstrate support for people arrested after the January 6 pro-Trump riot at the Capitol – an event that continues to shape American politics.
The protesters’ message: the January 6 rioters arrested in the breach of the Capitol are “political prisoners” who are being unfairly prosecuted by the FBI and the Department of Justice. They contend Ashli Babbitt, a Trump supporter and QAnon adherent shot by police while part of a mob storming the Capitol trying to get to legislators, was wrongly killed on January 6.
Organised by a former staffer for Donald Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign and labelled with the hashtag #JusticeforJ6, the rally in Washington, DC, has a permit allowing 500 people to gather.
Two other #JusticeforJ6 rallies are planned in North Carolina and Washington state on the same day with 14 more scheduled in other states on September 25 and one on October 2.
“We’re going to raise our voices in defence of our fellow Americans who’ve had their rights and due process violated,” rally planner Matt Braynard said in a video posted on his organisation, Look Ahead America’s website.
“We’re going to raise our voices demanding justice for Ashli Babbitt and for the government to come clean on whatever involvement the FBI might have had in the events of January 6,” Braynard said, referencing a false conspiracy theory circulating on right-wing media that FBI agents planned and executed the attack on the Capitol.
On January 6, thousands of supporters of former President Donald Trump marched on the US Capitol as Congress was meeting in a joint session to formally ratify Joe Biden’s election as president.
They overran police barricades, forced their way into the building and marauded through the hallways, vandalising offices and chasing US legislators into hiding in secure rooms.
The FBI has methodically combed images from social media feeds and used the information to hunt down and arrest more than 600 individuals in 44 states. Of those, more than 185 have been charged with assaulting or impeding police.
Depicting the rioters as “political prisoners” is a propaganda tool reminiscent of 1980s-era Republican accusations against Communist bloc countries, said Monika Nalepa, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.
“Accentuating how it is going to be a peaceful rally, and how it’s going to defend prisoners, they are definitely trying to put a more mainstream spin on this,” Nalepa told Al Jazeera.
The FBI is continuing to seek out dozens of others and has offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of whoever planted pipe bombs at two political offices on Capitol Hill.
Braynard said the January 6 riot at the Capitol was not an insurrection but rather a “largely peaceful” political demonstration. Experts and video evidence dispute that.
“We are in a really different point that the US has not been in for probably a century,” said Gary LaFree, a professor of criminology at the University of Maryland.
“We’ve seen this kind of violent, ideologically driven exchange during the Civil War (1861-1865) and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. A number of things about US politics right now I find really concerning about the future of democracy and this certainly highlights it,” LaFree said.
The protest in Washington, DC, will take place where the National Mall meets the Capitol grounds in an area called Union Square that is separated from the Capitol by a reflecting pool. It will be monitored by private security hired by the organisers.
It is unclear what kind of attendance the rally will draw. Leaders of far-right groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers – who were prominent instigators of the mob that attacked the Capitol on January 6 – have told media outlets they do not plan to attend the #JusticeforJ6 rally.
Former US President Donald Trump called the rally a “setup” for Republican voters, in an interview on Thursday with the Federalist, a conservative news site.
“If people don’t show up they’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s a lack of spirit.’ And if people do show up they’ll be harassed,” he said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has condemned the planned #JusticeforJ6 rally as supporting people who came to the US Capitol on January 6 to kill her, Vice President Mike Pence and other political leaders.
The US Capitol Police have briefed members of Congress warning of an uptick in violent online discussion on alternative chat sites like 4chan, including calls to “do justice” against “local Jews and corrupted officials”, according to Roll Call, a congressional news outlet.
“We would be foolish not to take seriously the intelligence we have at our disposal,” US Capitol Police Chief Thomas Manger said at a media briefing on Friday.
“The fact of the matter is, we are hearing some chatter” about threats, Manger said, adding “it’s tough to say whether they are credible or not”.
US law enforcement intelligence indicates some members of far-right groups do plan to attend the rally, the Associated Press has reported. Capitol Police have asked for US Defense Department back-up and a 100-person, unarmed force of the DC National Guard will be available, Manger said.
The city of Washington, DC, will activate an emergency management center to coordinate law enforcement actions on the day of the rally. Extra DC Metropolitan Police will be deployed around the city and there will be street closures at the Capitol and the National Mall, officials said.
“It shows if nothing else that the far right is still mobilised to some degree,” said Kurt Braddock, a professor at American University who studies political extremism.
The #JusticeforJ6 messaging mirrors what pro-Trump Republicans like House of Representatives members Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar are doing to attract right-wing support with “little winks and nods” and “dog whistles”, Braddock told Al Jazeera.
“They deliberately pander to the far-right types, but only in a way that they have a kind of plausible deniability. They can walk it back so they can still maintain the support of the mainstream,” Braddock said.
With Trump banned from Twitter and without the megaphone of the presidency, he is unable to generate significant interest in events like the #JusticeforJ6 rallies.
But it still serves a purpose in helping to support his continuing claims that the 2020 election was stolen through voter fraud – claims that have no factual basis and have been repeatedly rejected in the courts.
“This is an attempt to keep ‘The Big Lie’ that the election was stolen, alive,” said Carolyn Gallaher, a dean at American University’s School of International Service.
“This is a way to try to gain sympathy by saying ‘Oh look, these poor people are in prison still’ but it’s not really about them,” Gallaher told Al Jazeera.
“What they’re trying to do is to keep the fires burning so that they can maybe bring Trump back to run for the presidency in 2024. It’s about keeping the MAGA momentum going.”
Braynard declined a request from Al Jazeera for an interview and disputed any characterisation the rally would be a “right-wing” event.
On his website, he has asked rally attendees not to display Trump flags or other insignia and to keep their signs and clothing “red, white and blue”, focused on “patriotism”.
The goal, he said, is “to raise awareness of this tragedy of this grave violation of civil rights of hundreds of our fellow Americans”.