Life

When Someone You Know Went to the D.C. Riot

“I love all my family. That doesn’t go away. But I don’t know how to deal with it.”
January 13, 2021, 6:13pm
A group of Trump supporters stand in front of the U.S. Capitol, seen from the back.
Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol following a rally with President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. Photo via Getty Images.

The Oklahoma man’s relationship with his family fractured slowly, and then all at once. By the time he discovered his father had driven to Washington D.C. to attend the January 6 protest-turned-riot in support of President Trump, the two hadn’t spoken for a few months.

Instead, the Oklahoma man—who asked that his name and other identifying details be withheld to protect his privacy, and his father’s—quietly watched his family’s radicalization on Facebook. His dad, who hadn’t voted in 30 years, was suddenly echoing the same talking points that other family members had been posting for the last four years: about a great president under ceaseless attack from corrupt forces, the obligation to support him, and, finally, the need to show up in D.C. 

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“I hoped he didn’t go,” the man told VICE recently, referring to his father. “I hoped it was all bluster.”

It wasn’t. The man’s father drove—apparently alone—thousands of miles, from his small town in Oklahoma to the nation’s capital. Thousands of people joined him, many armed with weapons, some known members of neo-Nazi and far-right paramilitary groups, or sporting extremist imagery on their flags and bodies. A smaller number breached the U.S. Capitol building, ransacking lawmakers’ office, driving members of Congress and the press into hiding, and committing acts of domestic terror. At least five cities are investigating allegations that their officers and first responders participated in the riot. Five people are dead: a police officer, a rioter who was shot while entering the Capitol through a window, and three protesters whose families say they were not engaged in illegal activity when they died.

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And across the country, many people are grappling with the fact that someone they know, maybe even someone they love—a family member, a friend, a colleague—was among the people who converged on Capitol Hill, marching literally shoulder to shoulder with Nazis and other extremists. The damage and bloodshed even surpasses the violent and deadly Unite the Right rally in 2017, making it that much more surprising that it was marketed as a “civilian” event.

On Twitter, multiple people have written about seeing their relatives among the rioters. 18-year-old Helena Duke recognized her mother, uncle, and aunt in the crowd, and tweeted a now-viral denunciation of her actions. “hi mom remember the time you told me I shouldn't go to BLM protests bc they could get violent...this you?” she wrote. (The rioters on January 6 were overwhelmingly white. Many people involved in Black Lives Matter protests have pointed out how much more gently the police treated violent white rioters.) 

“I have definitely heard from others all over who have had parents in attendance,” Duke told VICE this week. At least one man accused of invading the Capitol, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Larry Brock, was arrested by the FBI after multiple people identified him, including his ex-wife. Adam Johnson, the man accused of carrying off Nancy Pelosi’s lectern, only pausing to pose for a highly incriminating photograph, was identified by a neighbor’s friend in Florida, where he lives. An exasperated letter-writer asked an advice columnist at Slate what he should do about his 19-year-old nephew, who’d been caught on video waving a Confederate flag and trying to break into a building, and was now asking for help paying for a lawyer. The family members of Ashli Babbitt, the rioter who was shot and killed while climbing through a Capitol window, have said they did not realize how extreme her views had become until her death. The number of families and communities dealing with the fall-out from the riot grows clearer, and more depressing, by the day. For some, it will—or should—constitute a reckoning, a realization that their loved ones aren’t just conservative or Trump-supporting, but truly and dangerously radicalized. 

“I love all my family. That doesn’t go away. But I don’t know how to deal with it.”

The Oklahoma man was baffled by his father’s turn from apolitical towards Trump devotion, let alone his decision to drive to D.C., he told VICE. 

“I think he probably voted for Reagan and Bush Sr. but past that I don’t think he’d voted [in decades],” he said. “Him or my mom. He just never saw the point. He said it didn’t matter. That’s the thing that blows me away. We went from ‘my vote doesn’t matter’ to picking up and driving two days across the country.” 

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At the time of the riot, the Oklahoma man said, he and his father had taken a “time out” from speaking for a few months, after a series of painful disagreements, over both politics and basic lifestyle choices. He’d also chosen to pull back from other family members. But he still made a habit of checking what they were saying on Facebook. Around Christmas, his father posted something proclaiming the need for all patriots to go to D.C., a message written in the drearily familiar tone of grievance, calling out Bill Gates and George Soros by their first names, claiming the “stolen” election needed to be taken back from the “radical left.” 

“It looked like he’d copied and pasted it from something as best as I could tell,” the Oklahoma man said. A few days later, his father asked if anyone wanted to join him in D.C. and offered to pay for their hotels. And finally, he posted from after the event itself, saying that he hadn’t gone inside the Capitol, but that he was convinced emerging reports of violence were all lies. “He said everything on the news was fake, and that he didn’t see any of that happening.” 

The Oklahoma man believed that his father had turned to his right-wing family, and Facebook, after his wife got sick and ultimately died. But what he found there was equal parts support and poison. 

“When my mom got sick he got back on it because he was getting support from people,” the Oklahoma man said. “Which is great. I’m glad he found support. But I’m sad he got radicalized from that. It makes it difficult for us. How do we go forward with you when you have such a cognitive dissonance about what’s real and what’s not? How do I explain to your grandson when he gets old enough to have this moment of, ‘What is he talking about?’ There’s certain conversations we’re going to have to have.” Nor was it his father alone; the Oklahoma man said his sister, too, had begun sharing more extreme content, and had asked if anyone wanted to go to DC with their father.

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“It’s saddening is what it is,” the Oklahoma man said. “I love both of them to death. I love all my family. That doesn’t go away. But I don’t know how to deal with it.”

Thousands of miles and worlds away, a Brooklyn man—who also asked that his name be withheld—told VICE that his social circle had been thrown into an uproar by the news that one of their number, a man we’ll call “Matt,” an old friend from college, had attended the demonstration. Matt was not among the rioters who breached the Capitol, he told his friends.

What We Saw at the Capitol Hill Insurrection

“We were all in shock,” the Brooklyn man told VICE. Matt had always been “a little off” and his politics skewed conservative. But on a Zoom call with friends, the man revealed that he’d gone to D.C. with a church group he declined to reveal the name of. “He calls it a prayer group and he says they do spiritual warfare,” the Brooklyn man said. Matt told his friends the group had attended the rally, followed by a night of spiritual battle around D.C.’s political landmarks. “He said the entire night until 6 a.m. they went from monument to monument praying.” 

Matt’s college friends asked to talk to him, less out of concern, the Brooklyn man said, and more out of an overwhelming sense of curiosity, tinged with a little horror. “A bunch of people who still talk to him jumped on a Zoom call and said, tell us everything, what’s your point of view of the world, what kind of shit are you into right now?” The Brooklyn man wasn’t on the Zoom call, but as he heard about it from their mutual friends, he slowly began to realize that Matt’s beliefs had transcended religion, jumped the train tracks altogether, and veered directly into common QAnon talking points. “He seems very motivated by pedophiles and anti-trafficking stuff, but he says ‘Don’t call me QAnon,’” the Brooklyn man said, laughing a little bit, seemingly in disbelief. “He didn’t seem to identify as a Q guy. But all those fun tidbits were there. He believes adenochrome is real.” (This is a substance QAnon followers believe the Satanic world-dominating cabal extracts from children through torture.) “He believes the Vatican is all pedophiles. I had absolutely no idea he was into any of this. Absolutely not.”  

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This group of friends are and have always been what the Brooklyn man classifies as “very normie,” a group of “straight white males” in the Northeast who have all—except for one—taken conventional life paths. “There’s a wide range of professions. Some work a 9-5 and some don’t. Some work for the government… Nobody is by any means a far-right person,” but some had gotten more Republican in their middle age, he said.

Unlike the sadness and horror some people are experiencing when realizing their family members attended the riot, the friend group has mostly treated Matt’s turn towards QAnon as a joke, the Brooklyn man said. “Nobody is like, ‘Let’s save him,’ at least not openly. It’s more sort of mocking. I say that with a mixed conscience, but it’s true.” Matt, for his part, seems serene and utterly confident in sharing his beliefs with his old friends, the Brooklyn man said. “He thinks he can persuade us.”

The Oklahoma man, meanwhile, has found himself hoping that, in the days after the riot turned deadly, his father might have watched news coverage of the event and come to realize how bad it truly was.

“I hope that he goes back and watches those videos again and says, ‘Maybe I was in the wrong.’ He’s—he’s so prideful, I don’t know that he will.” The Oklahoma man sighed. “I don’t know, from his point of view, that they did anything wrong.”

Follow Anna Merlan on Twitter.