Americans are right to be concerned about a rally that’s been planned for Saturday near the U.S. Capitol by former Trump campaign official Matt Braynard. As the founder of the nonprofit group Look Ahead America, Braynard has called the 600 people charged for participating in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol “political prisoners.”
Braynard has promoted that rally and others like it around the country as “Justice for Jan. 6.”
Braynard’s organization is aptly named because looking ahead is precisely what we should be doing, not only to Saturday’s rally in Washington, but also to the deeper significance behind the rally and the challenges such events pose to the future of our security and our democracy.
“I am so proud of all of the brave patriots who participated in these rallies under the same threat to their rights of so many who are being held in prison now for a nonviolent expression of their First Amendment rights,” Braynard said after a day of multiple rallies in July, revealing how he views the people who attend his events and the people arrested for assaulting the Capitol.
The false notions that those who attempted to stop the peaceful transition of power by blocking the count of the 2020 Electoral College vote are “patriots” and that what happened at the Capitol on Jan. 6 was “nonviolent” complement the even larger lie that former President Donald Trump was the victim of a rigged election. That mindset has led to many Trump followers believing that Ashli Babbitt, who was killed by U.S. Capitol Police Lt. Michael Byrd in what was determined to be a justifiable use of deadly force, is a martyr whose death must be avenged.
The deep sense of grievance, combined with a misguided concept of patriotism, has fueled violent extremist groups whose online chatter has caught the attention of Washington-area law enforcement. Some Proud Boys have called for their members to avoid the Washington rally, while others are calling for members to “go local” and attend smaller rallies across America.
The police must protect the right of those assembled at Saturday’s rally to freely assemble and speak while they simultaneously safeguard our Capitol. That’s why the Capitol Police are playing it safe and will once again erect the fencing that went up between the Jan. 6 riot and President Joe Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration.
But the focus on the return of the fence and the fear of violence this weekend distracts us from much larger issues facing us now and in the future. In fact, the significance of Saturday’s rally is that it may serve as a bellwether for what’s ahead.
Here are three things I’ll be on the lookout for on Saturday.
First, even if those who attend are peaceful, what will their numbers tell us about the depth and breadth of passion of those who have been duped into the belief that the 2020 election was rigged and that it was OK to try to block the counting of certified election results?
Right now, attendance is expected to be around 700, but if the numbers climb into the thousands and participants travel from around the country to show support for a group of people accused of breaching our Capitol, then that’s an ominous sign that disinformation and deception remain deeply entrenched in our society — and that those same people could be motivated to mobilize in the months ahead.
Second, will violent extremist organizations be present and act out against police or counterprotesters? Will counterprotesters act out violently? If so, that would suggest the massive federal investigation into Jan. 6, which has thus far resulted in approximately 600 arrests and more than 50 guilty pleas, has had little deterrent effect on similar conduct. If there are large numbers of Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Three Percenters acting violently, despite their cohorts already facing serious charges, then law enforcement nationally may need to prepare for a semipermanent violent insurgency.
Also, if a violent mob breaches the Capitol even with fencing and a large law enforcement presence, then it’s way past time for Congress to pass much-needed domestic terrorism legislation.
The radicalization process responsible for the violence on Jan. 6 had many roots.
If members of violent extremist groups don’t turn out in Washington on Saturday, it may mean they’ve decided to avoid the hardened security there to instead attend over a dozen similar rallies planned by Look Ahead across America on Sept. 25. Those local rallies could pose a challenge for police departments in places like Phoenix; Denver; Atlanta; Boston; St. Louis; Des Moines, Iowa; and Orange County, California.
Third, who will be speaking from the podium — and what will they say? The radicalization process responsible for the violence on Jan. 6 had many roots, but one of them was the mainstreaming of disinformation and conspiracy theories by government officials, elected and otherwise.
Which current officials or candidates for office, and how many, take their turns at the microphone Saturday — or stay home — will signal whether support of the Jan. 6 rioters is a litmus test for holding office in some Republican strongholds. According to tweets from Braynard, scheduled speakers include Joe Kent, candidate for Washington state's 3rd Congressional District, and Mike Collins, candidate for Georgia’s 10th Congressional District. Braynard tweeted Monday that Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District is scheduled to speak at a Sept. 25 Look Ahead rally in Columbia.
This is why we should all be looking ahead to the next two weekends and beyond. Upcoming events represent much more than fencing and fear, and they may provide important clues about the challenges ahead. On Saturday, our Capitol will be secure, but when will we feel that our democracy is secure and unfettered by destructive disinformation, radicalizing rhetoric and violent domestic terrorism?