Extremist groups and prominent rightwing figures are warning supporters not to attend a far-right rally in support of the people arrested for participating in the 6 January Capitol attack, calling the event a “false flag” and a “trap”.
Capitol police are bracing for potential violence at the “Justice for J6” protest rally, which is taking place in Washington DC on Saturday, and security fencing has gone up once more around the Capitol building.
But local and federal officials have also said that they expect no more than 700 people to attend the protest, a far cry from the estimated tens of thousands of supporters of Donald Trump who converged on the Capitol in January.
Across rightwing social media platforms, “most people who are talking about the event in any capacity are telling people to steer clear of DC,” Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said. “Any extremist group that’s talking about it is warning people against attending.”
The common narrative in rightwing forums is that the rally is “a trap that’s been set by federal authorities” that will leave participants vulnerable to “surveillance and arrest”, Miller said.
While intelligence officials reportedly warned in early September that the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers were planning to attend the rally, both groups, whose members are facing some of the most serious charges in the 6 January attack, have since distanced themselves from the event. A Proud Boys social media channel posted “Sounds like bait” and wrote “We aren’t going and you shouldn’t either”. In an interview on his way to jail, the group’s chairman, Enrique Tarrio, said: “The Proud Boys will not be there,” WUSA 9 reported.
“I do not know of any specific plan to attend, other than what we are watching the media fabricate,” Kelly SoRelle, a lawyer for the Oath Keepers, told Mother Jones.
The Fox News host Laura Ingraham called the rally “stupid” and told her viewers she had never heard of it before she saw a report about it on CNN.
“Many people” see the protest as “even a false flag operation”, Ingraham warned on 10 September. “Have any big-name conservatives signed on? Of course not. Obviously there’s nothing legitimate about it.”
Even a Facebook discussion hosted by the group organizing Saturday’s rally features comments like “This will end badly” and “It isn’t us if anything goes down”.
Some prominent Republican members of Congress who have defended the Capitol rioters as political prisoners, including Marjorie Taylor Greene and Madison Cawthorn, told Politico a week before the protest that they would not be attending.
Donald Trump himself views the “Justice for J6” rally as a set-up and has made no public comments about it, the New York Times reported.
“I don’t know a single person in the Maga movement who is going,” the longtime Trump ally Roger Stone, one of the defendants in a new lawsuit brought by seven Capitol police officers against people they allege helped send a violent mob to the Capitol to attack them, told RT, the Russian state-funded television channel. “Patriots: stay away from Washington,” Stone added.
Saturday’s “Justice for J6” rally is being organized by Look Ahead America, a group run by Matt Braynard, who was briefly employed by Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign as the director of data and strategy, BuzzFeed News reported in August.
Look Ahead America is also organizing more than a dozen “Justice for J6” rallies at the state level on 18 and 25 September, most of them at state capitols, according to the organization’s website.
Braynard has said the protest was organized in support of the “non-violent offenders” charged in connection with 6 January. He continues to defend the event against criticism from all sides. He tweeted at Ingraham: “You claim ignorance despite us sending about thirty press releases to your network’s producers over this time” and asked to be featured on her show. More recently, he posted a list of TV networks that were interviewing him about the rally, which did not include Fox News, and wrote, “Who is missing? Hmmm.”
Asked to respond to the widespread rightwing comments about his rally being a “set-up” and a “trap”, Braynard called the questions “an encyclopedia of disinformation” and wrote that he was unlikely to “drop everything” to provide comments for what he believed would be a “hit piece”.
One former Trump campaign employee told BuzzFeed News Braynard “wasn’t really qualified” for his 2016 job, and that he was hired at a time when the campaign had no mainstream credibility, comments that Braynard called “lies”.
Braynard himself described being repeatedly shut out of his attempts to rejoin the Trump operation after 2016. He said he had been told that one person had blocked his efforts to brief the Trump campaign on voter fraud after the 2020 election, arguing that “Matt’s difficult to work with, don’t let him in,” BuzzFeed News reported.
More recently, Braynard has made headlines for his allegations and testimony about voter fraud in the 2020 election. He has raised more than $675,000 to investigate fraud allegations using GiveSendGo, a Christian crowdfunding site popular with the Proud Boys and other far-right figures.
The rhetoric ahead of Saturday’s rally marks a sharp contrast with the tenor and volume of comments that preceded 6 January, Miller and other experts said.
Analysts who monitor the far right “don’t expect for there to be a huge turnout for this event”, Miller, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said. Still, there are legitimate concerns that it might catalyze violence, particularly in the wake of recent incidents in DC, including a hours-long police standoff with a man who claimed to have a bomb outside the US Capitol, and the arrest of a man with a machete and bayonet in a truck decorated with white power symbols that was parked not far from the Democratic National Committee headquarters.
“There’s always the possibility for lone actor attacks in this kind of situation,” Miller said.
Regardless of what happened on Saturday, Miller said, the “dangerous” narrative that the 6 January defendants were “political prisoners” had begun to spread more widely in rightwing circles, and had been endorsed by Cawthorn, the freshman North Carolina congressman, and the Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
More than 600 people have been charged so far in connection with the 6 January insurrection, and federal officials continue to announce new arrests. Many of the people arrested face relatively low-level charges, and unlike most people charged in the federal court system, the vast majority of them have been released ahead of trial, a Guardian analysis found, treatment that some former federal defense attorneys said reflected racial bias in favor of the overwhelmingly white Capitol defendants.