Workers erected fencing overnight at the Capitol, along with concrete barriers and surveillance cameras ahead of a Saturday rally that law enforcement officials fear could lead to violence. (Photo by Diannie Chavez/Cronkite News)
WASHINGTON – Fences, cameras and barricades went up around the Capitol early Thursday, as federal and local police braced for possible violence at a Saturday rally defending those who were arrested in the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Organizers of the “Justice for J6” rally said they expect as many as 700 people – but if anyone is coming from Arizona, they were not saying. GOP Reps. Paul Gosar of Prescott and Andy Biggs of Gilbert, who took part in rallies this summer for the Jan. 6 “political prisoners,” did not respond to repeated requests for comment this week.
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While organizers were promising a peaceful event, police were preparing for the worst, putting outside police agencies and the National Guard on standby, monitoring internet activity and setting up the fencing around the Capitol grounds and the Supreme Court.
“We are here to protect everyone’s First Amendment right to peacefully protest,” U.S. Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger said in a statement earlier this week. “I urge anyone who is thinking about causing trouble to stay home. We will enforce the law and not tolerate violence.”
There were no such preparations on Jan. 6.
That’s when thousands of protesters left a “Stop the Steal” rally near the White House and marched to the Capitol, where Congress was in the process of certifying the Electoral College vote that confirmed President Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump. They were met by outnumbered Capitol Police officers behind waist-high, movable metal barricades who were quickly overwhelmed.
The mob breached the Capitol, sending members of Congress and the vice president scrambling for safety. In the hours of confrontations with police that followed, hundreds of people were injured, five people died and the Capitol sustained about $1.5 million in damages.
More than 600 people have been arrested in connection with the attack, including seven from Arizona, according to the Justice Department. It is those people who are the subject of Saturday’s rally, whose organizers have called the defendants “political prisoners.”
This is an “effort to raise awareness of this tragedy of this grave violation of civil rights of hundreds of our fellow Americans,” said Matt Braynard, executive director of Look Ahead America, which is organizing Saturday’s event.
It is not the first such event Braynard’s group has organized. In late July, it hosted events at the Justice Department and the D.C. Jail where members of Congress, including Biggs and Gosar, told camera crews they were pressing for information on the treatment of those arrested in connection with Jan. 6.
At the July 27 event at the Justice Department, Gosar said those “arrested for illegal acts on Jan. 6 deserve to be treated fairly,” referring to them as “political prisoners.” Biggs echoed that, saying most of those arrested for their part in the deadly insurrection were “peaceful protesters.”
Despite the violence of the Jan. 6 attack that Saturday’s event will highlight, Braynard said in a tweet that this weekend’s rally will be “a 100% peaceful event in support of the nonviolent offenders from January 6th who have been charged.” Organizers have asked those planning to attend the rally to not wear clothing – or use signs – that show their political affiliation.
“Anyone not honoring this request will be assumed to be an infiltrator and we will take your picture, find out who you are, and make you famous,” Braynard tweeted.
But Capitol Police are still preparing for the possibility of violence. In addition to reinstalling the fence that just came down in early July, the department has also “asked the Department of Defense for the ability to receive National Guard support should the need arise on September 18.”
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Many of the tourists wandering around Capitol Hill on Thursday said they were not aware of the upcoming protest, and did not know why the fences were up.
Diego Treviño, a tourist from Mexico who was visiting Washington for the first time, said Thursday that he was surprised to see the Capitol barricaded. He said he was disappointed that he did not have a chance to see the Capitol in more detail, because of the security measures.
“It’s a little bit weird,” Treviño said. “Why is it closed if it’s a really touristic thing?”
Despite the presence of fencing and video cameras, however, the mood on Thursday was mostly relaxed. A small contingent of police patrolled the Hill, while others appeared to be checking out positions for Saturday. Unlike this spring and summer, there was no razor wire on the fences and gun-toting soldiers were nowhere to be seen.
But Manger said the fence won’t be up forever. If everything goes well on Saturday, he said, the fence should “come down very soon after.”
“We want to reassure everyone these are temporary measures to ensure everyone’s safety,” Manger said. “We are extremely grateful for the support we continue to receive from the local community and our congressional stakeholders as we carry out our critical mission.”
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