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The 550-plus Trump supporters facing federal charges for storming the U.S. Capitol on January 6 have been called traitors, insurrectionists, and domestic terrorists. On the right, they’ve been called antifa, FBI sleeper agents, and paid crisis actors.
But recently, the hundreds of accused Capitol rioters have been rebranded as “political prisoners,” a narrative that took hold on far-right fringes but has now migrated from right-wing media to mainstream GOP officials with huge platforms.
The idea that rioters are being jailed for their political beliefs, and not for the crimes they committed that day, is consistent with the lionization of slain Capitol rioter Ashli Babbitt, who was shot by police after refusing to heed a command to stop climbing through a broken window.
The use of “political prisoner” (which is defined as “a person imprisoned for their political beliefs or actions”) in this context also perpetuates conspiracy theories that the Biden administration is an authoritarian regime in sheep’s clothing, one that likes to round up and jail political dissidents.
Experts say this shift in narrative marks a dangerous development that legitimizes conspiracy theories and could encourage future acts of political violence.
“This rebranding effort blurs lines between the mainstream and extreme, and also legitimizes others who are sympathetic or considering acts of political violence,” said Brian Levin, who heads the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “The moniker ‘political prisoner’ is also further mainstreaming the idea that the government is illegitimate, and whitewashes the criminality that took place at the seat of our democracy.”
A recent drawing by the far-right’s favorite cartoonist, Ben Garrison, also reinforces this idea. The cartoon, titled “GULAG ARCHIPELOSI” shows House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wearing a Soviet soldier-style cap emblazoned with a big D, presumably for Democrat. Meanwhile, a group of men, some wearing MAGA caps and T-shirts saying “Trump Won,” are seen languishing in a cell. On the bottom left corner of the image is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet dissident who was sent to the Gulag for criticizing Joseph Stalin. “I tried to warn you,” a speech bubble from him says.
And if you’re one of the tens of thousands of people who got their news from Infowars, then you might have seen their recent headline, “AMERICAN GULAG: Political prisoners tortured in enemy-occupied DC jail.”
Fox News, which has been dutifully whitewashing and downplaying the events at the Capitol, has also dabbled in the “political prisoner” narrative: “If you are holding people in solitary confinement in DC jails for non-violent crimes, at some point they become political prisoners,” Tucker Carlson said in a segment last month. “I try not to use that phrase. You know, you don’t want to hype anything or sensationalize. But at what point does it become a political prosecution?”
The four members of Congress who are doing the most work legitimizing this new narrative are the so-called G4—Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Louie Gohmert, and Paul Gosar. Last week, joined by Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs and Virginia Rep. Bob Good, they held a press conference outside of the Justice Department, which was ultimately overrun by protesters, on the same day that the January 6 congressional commission began. In that press conference, Gosar called on Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the ACLU to investigate the treatment of Capitol rioters.
A couple days later, Gaetz, Greene, and Gohmert went to the DC jail where rioters are being held, and demanded to be let in. “We’re in totalitarian, Marxist territory here,” Gohmert told reporters after the three members of Congress were turned away. “This is the way Third World people get treated.” Gaetz posted a video from outside the jail and asked “What are they hiding?”
The Department of Corrections told The Hill that the trio of lawmakers had shown up at the jail “unannounced with an unauthorized camera crew requesting a facility tour,” and that granting them access would have violated the DOCs established procedures and protocols around visitations.
While it’s not anything new for extremists to claim “political prisoner” status when they’re facing a crackdown by authorities, the rebranding campaign takes on new dimensions when it gets backing from elected officials.
“One of the unfortunate developments that we’re seeing today is the role that mainstream politics has in fomenting extremist rhetoric,” said Levin. “As a result, we get these swamp meets where both dilettantes and violent extremists drink from the same well.”
Authoritarian leaders around the world have taken notice. Russian President Vladamir Putin, who expected to be lambasted by President Joe Biden at a summit earlier this summer over the jailing of his political opponents and protesters, tried to argue that what was going on in Russia was no different from the treatment of the Capitol rioters in the U.S.
Gaetz, Greene, Gohmert,d Gosar’s attempt to visit the D.C. jail came less than a week after a letter penned by Proud Boy organizer Joe Biggs, who is facing conspiracy charges for his alleged actions at the Capitol, surfaced online. Unlike the majority of jailed defendants, who are being held in D.C., Biggs is awaiting trial in Florida. In his letter, he painted a picture of dire conditions in the jail where he’s awaiting trial. While there’s likely some truth to his description of the jail (America’s jails are notoriously terrible), there’s no indication that Biggs or any other Capitol defendants is being subjected to harsher conditions than anyone else.
Of the more than 550 people arrested and charged with crimes related to the Capitol riot, only a fraction are actually in jail, either because a judge concluded they should remain in custody because they posted a flight risk or endangered public safety, or because they’ve been unable to post bail. An analysis of Capitol riot cases by the Guardian in May found that about 70 percent of the defendants had been released from jail before their trial, compared to about 25 percent of federal defendants nationwide.
In a few instances, the defendants have also received quite a bit of leniency. At least two defendants were granted permission to take vacations in Mexico. Another, the infamous QAnon shaman, won a court battle over the quality of food he was being served in jail, and now gets a special organic food menu.
In the letter, Biggs portrays himself as biding his time, monk-like, waiting for his moment of justice. “I tend to stay to myself alone in my cell,” Biggs wrote. “Reading the bible and other Christian books. The plus side to this God was able to get a hold of me in this place.”
A recent NBC4 report said that Capitol defendants in DC were being held in a separate part of the jail, which they’d dubbed “The Patriot Wing,” and had started a handwritten newsletter that they passed from cell to cell. They also sing the national anthem twice a day to “boost morale” per NBC.
Meanwhile, supporters of the Capitol defendants are rallying around the idea that they’re political prisoners. A Telegram channel dedicated to freeing “illegally imprisoned patriots” has amassed over 12,000 subscribers since it was created on July 22. The moderators of that channel have organized voice chats, in which they record prayers for the various Capitol defendants. They’re promoting a “Justice for J6'' rally, expected to take place at the Capitol in September.
The rally is being organized by a new political nonprofit group called Look Ahead America, which is run by Matt Braynard, the former director of data and strategy for the Trump campaign. Braynard recently joined former Trump adviser Steve Bannon on an episode of “War Room” to talk about the upcoming event. “I gotta ask you about the political prisoner situation,” said Bannon. “Give our audience an assessment of where we stand with the political prisoner situation.”
Braynard likened Look Ahead America to a Russian icebreaker boat, making inroads in “the frozen sea to make room for the giant ships behind them.” In this analogy, members of Congress were the giant ships. Braynard said that members of his group were the first to go down to the DC jail to protest against the alleged treatment of Capitol rioters, and inspired lawmakers to follow suit.
Braynard also touted the plans for the rally in September. “We’re going back to the Capitol, right where it started,” Braynard said. “We’re going to push back against the phony narrative that there was an insurrection…. And demand justice for these political prisoners.”
Members of the Proud Boys are also organizing around the “political prisoner” narrative. The group’s “chairman” Enrique Tarrio, who recently pleaded guilty to charges for destroying a Black Lives Matter sign outside a DC church, is promoting two “Free Our Political Prisoner” events in Florida in the next month.