The FBI’s warning of another right-wing march on the Capitol, scheduled for Sunday, has been billed by some news reports as a sequel to the attempted insurrection of Wednesday or as a protest of calls for President Donald Trump’s impeachment. But in fact, militant groups have been advertising the upcoming march for several weeks.
An online flyer sent around to various groups in mid-December proclaimed, “When democracy is destroyed, Refuse To Be Silenced: Armed March on Capitol Hill & All State Capitols, January 17th, 2021 @ 12PM.”
It adds, in smaller print, “Over two hundred years ago, our founding fathers fought for the rights and liberties of this nation. Don’t let their efforts be in vain. Demand freedom. End the corruption. Stand up for liberty.”
An organization called the Defensive Training Group—which touts gun rights and instructs followers on how to protect their neighborhoods from left-wing marauders—featured this flyer on its website on Dec. 23, though it was only forwarding the message. It’s unclear when it was first sent out or who conceived of the protest.
It is also not entirely clear whether the protest, armed or otherwise, will actually take place. The violence on Wednesday, the subsequent arrests of nearly 100 insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol (with more to come), the placement on no-fly lists of many others, and the Pentagon’s announcement that up to 15,000 National Guard troops will be deployed around the Capitol, possibly for the entire period between Sunday and President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration three days later—all of these factors could prod would-be demonstrators to back away. Or it could make some of them double down in their determination to press on with what they see as their “1776.”
David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency consultant who closely tracks militia groups, says it’s hard to say what will happen, owing in part to the shutdown of Parler, where many of the groups communicated. The prospect of a heavy National Guard presence makes a Capitol Hill protest “completely unrealistic,” he told me in an email. “But,” he went on, “the plan to target all 50 state capitols with ‘armed peaceful protests’ seems very much alive.”
These state and local protests could spread violence and mayhem nationwide. However, if not much happens in Washington, the other protests might not even attract much notice in the national media. Relatively few news watchers took note of the fact that pro-Trump rallies also took place in nearly a dozen states on Wednesday, with marchers in several of them storming the capitol buildings, just as their counterparts were doing in Washington.
Then again, the whole thing could get called off. Tree of Liberty—a site that describes itself as “an aggregate of content aimed at informing the public about events and news surrounding the Boogaloo Movement”—declared on Sunday that plans to demonstrate in Washington next week “are cancelled and will not move forward.”
Their reason is that the plans for the march have already been counterproductive to the movement. For instance, the site notes, the Jan. 17 march and its potential for violence were cited by Twitter as the rationale for permanently banning Trump.
Still, the site continues to encourage the rallies at state capitols. The message here, though, is a bit muddled. On the one hand, it warns, “Using the 17th as a time [to] push a violent political agenda is not condoned!” On the other hand, it says that the rally is “about coming together peacefully, armed, and standing together as Americans! Being peacefully armed is not about projecting or even inciting violence. On the contrary. Being armed will be a deterrence against those [who] wish to use violence or force against peaceful demonstrators.”
At the same time, other right-wing sites, including some comments on the Defensive Training Group’s site, have warned that the whole Jan. 17 event—at the U.S. Capitol and the 50 state capitals—is a “trap,” designed to destroy the “patriot” movement. “DO NOT GO,” one blogger warns. “This’s a plan to rob us of the 2nd Amendment when, even if no one on our side actually pulls a trigger, all it takes is one dead body and the 2nd goes ‘Buh-Bye’ forever.”
Then again, none of these sites is in charge of the entire movement. As Kilcullen puts it, “Nobody is in charge, least of all Trump. This is a disaggregated, self-synchronized network of individuals and small groups. It includes lots of different affinity groups with differing agenda, who cluster together, in ad hoc, local groupings of convenience and then go their own way. It’s kind of a real-world version of the online behavior we saw from Anonymous a decade ago, mediated through local social networks. Pretty classic early-stage resistance movement / guerrilla organizational behavior.”
Whatever happens on Jan. 17 and Jan. 20, a crucial question is how the police and National Guard respond. This time, unlike earlier this month, they are likely to amass an overwhelming superiority of force. If there’s a mere flicker of violence (from, say, a small band of violent infiltrators amid otherwise peaceful protesters), will the cops and the troops respond too slowly and cautiously to keep it from spreading, thus emboldening the radicals to push on—or will they overreact and start beating up people at random, thus further radicalizing the disaffected?
It’s a delicate balance—and one that law enforcement agents have often proved unable to strike in similar situations in the past. This time the stakes are much higher: not just law and order but the future of democratic rule and civil rights. More than almost any other time in our history, the whole world is watching