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Chaos at the Capitol

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NEWSREEL: Breaking right now, an external security threat has now interrupted house and the Senatorial electoral vote count...both House and Senate are in recess amid protesters breaching the Capitol building...events in Washington have taken a violent and tumultuous turn in the past few hours…we saw Capitol police trying to push people back, hold them back, just right next to me there is a massive amount of what appears to be blood on the ground here...Things are happening very quickly there on what appears to be the east side of the Capitol, people have now moved past the police and into the building...the images are astonishing, rioters on the Senate dais, in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office, ransacking the hallowed halls of our government...this is a moment I never saw in my life, these individuals just rushed through security...

 

RANEY ARONSON: On January 6th, as Congress met to certify Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States, a violent mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol.

 

NEWSREEL: There's been a death. I just got off the phone with the spokesperson for MPD who tells me that the adult woman who we reported was in critical condition earlier today, she has now been pronounced dead...Three other people have died during today's events due to medical emergencies...The fallout from the siege has been swift but there are still more questions than answers about how the massive security breach unfolded so quickly. 

 

ARONSON:  Just before they stormed the Capitol, President Trump and others egged them on. 

 

TRUMP: We will never give up, we will never concede. It doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved.


GIULIANI: Let’s have trial by combat.

 

ARONSON: ProPublica Reporter and FRONTLINE correspondent A.C. Thompson has covered right wing violence and white supremacist groups over the years for our "Documenting Hate" series. 

 

A.C. THOMPSON: What we had seen was sort of increasing levels of violence. And then what happened this week is the sort of apex of that.

  

ARONSON: He joins me now to discuss what happened in the Capitol and the forces behind it. I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE and this is The FRONTLINE Dispatch.

 

ARONSON: A.C., I'm really, really looking forward to talking to you today. 

 

A.C. THOMPSON: Hey, thank you for having me on. 

 

ARONSON: So I know you're in Washington right now, tell me what it's like.  

 

THOMPSON: You know, at Congress, there is this real sort of sense of shell shocked-ness. I think fear and anxiety about the future. One of the things that's quite clear, as we talk to members of Congress is they are now very, very aware that the security protocols for the Congress and for the Capitol are really insufficient. And as we were talking to members, they were saying, look, you know, we had never really drilled for a moment like this. We got these chemical, biological masks with big ventilators on them. And we didn't know how to use them. We've never used them. It seemed like the security plan to get us out of the chamber was kind of ad hoc, sort of essential, fundamental questions about the capacity, and the intelligence gathering abilities of the Capitol Police and the sort of whole security infrastructure in D.C. 

 

ARONSON: I mean, what's incredible, if you think of school shootings and other environments in which, you know, people have been planning, it's like how many times my own kids have had those drills? So, I mean, that's, that's really disturbing to hear. So I know, you talked to a couple of people who were there when this happened, tell me what they told you. How did, how did they feel as it was happening? 

 

THOMPSON: The thing that we're hearing on the media side is that there was a sense of fear from the people who were covering the events. And for us as having covered a lot of these rallies and events, the media is quite often a pretty intense target of this group of protesters. So that is, was one thing that happened. We know that media members were attacked that media equipment, cameras and so forth, were destroyed. Another thing that we're hearing is this sort of sense that it was really right on the edge of being a very, very violent, even more deadly situation. So we now know that five people died. But what we've heard from people who were there and people that were right up on the front lines is that it could have been a lot worse. 

 

ARONSON: I know that, you know, in the lead up to this, you were, you know, reporting to us, and we were seeing ourselves that there are posts on social media leading up to Wednesday. Did you expect to this type of show of force, what was your expectation? 

 

THOMPSON: So if you go back over the past year, you could start early on and you could start in Virginia, and you could see that tens of thousands of people rallied with weapons in front of the Virginia State House.

 

NEWSREEL: USA! USA! Flags held high, AR-15s slung over their shoulders. More than 20,000 gun rights advocates descended on Richmond today for what used to be a small annual event, a state of emergency declared, the crowd protesting the state's efforts to overhaul gun laws...

 

THOMPSON: You would go on through the summer of BLM protests and anti-lockdown protests which sometimes turned violent. 

 

NEWSREEL: Overnight, Minneapolis on fire… I can’t breathe! Fury on the streets, Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter protesters square off, protesters punched, flags burned, and it culminates with a violent confrontation with police...We want to go back to work, we have employees, we need to open our businesses.

 

THOMPSON: Right wing protesters protesting against the lockdown in Michigan storming the statehouse there with weapons with with assault rifles, you would go on to a series of incidents in which pro-Trump protesters went into government buildings, or state capitol buildings. And when you put it on like that, then you realize like this was definitely something that you could predict. And that could have been futurecasted by people who, whether we were journalists, whether we were intelligence agencies or police agencies looking at this. So at a certain level, it's just not surprising. For the last three years, people have been talking about civil war, people have been talking about overthrowing the government, the people that we've been hanging out with, and there are a lot of them, that is what they talk about every day, is revolution, overthrow the government, we have a tyrannical and repressive, deep state that's preventing Trump from doing what he wants to do, we need to get rid of anybody who's standing in the way of Trump. Is one thread and then the other thread would just like to overthrow the government period. 

 

ARONSON: One of the things that was striking immediately to me when I started to see this was, you know, there was just no shame. Nobody was covering their faces, barely anyone was even wearing a mask. But beyond that, the idea that you had to hide your identity had disappeared over the last couple of years since Charlottesville. So who was there? And what was your first impression, as you started to see the images?

 

THOMPSON: A thing that we've seen since Charlottesville is that the overt white supremacist movement has faded into the background. And this ultra-nationalist movement, which is the sort of broad coalition we saw in D.C. has come to the fore. And that includes people who came from the white supremacist movement, but maybe are no longer quite so obvious about that. That includes anti-Muslim groups, anti-immigrant groups, super hardcore, Second Amendment groups, and super hardcore Trump supporters. And so that's the sort of far right movement that has the energy now. And those people as a general rule, are less worried about hiding their identities than the hardcore neo-nazis and white supremacists. 

 

ARONSON: Yeah. Okay. So being a little bit more specific here. What were the groups that you saw participating? And can you just talk about them? 

 

THOMPSON: Right, so we saw members of the Proud Boys which is sort of a ultra-nationalist street fighting outfit that has come to real prominence in the last several months and is sort of leading the vanguard of the violent edge of the Trump movement. So their members were there, we saw members of a group called America First also known as the Groypers, which is another sort of ultra-nationalist outfit that has a podcast and does a lot of very online organizing and is an anti-semitic, borderline white-nationalist outfit, we saw the Oathkeepers, who are a patriot-militia type group who have been talking about civil war for years. And they've been talking about having to overthrow repressive governments for years. We saw QAnon supporters and QAnon is the sort of vast, insane conspiracy that posits that Joe Biden is a member of a sort of satanic cabal of child abusers. And so those were some of the kind of characters that breached the Capitol.

 

ARONSON: A.C. we decided with you and others on your team, to do a big look at the increasing rise after the amazing work that you guys did on “Documenting Hate,” right after the first presidential debate. What have you guys seen since then I know you were focusing in part on the Proud Boys, so what did you see come to fruition this week from the reporting that you all had been doing? 

 

THOMPSON: So we had come to D.C. several times for rallies with the Proud Boys and other groups. And what we had seen was sort of increasing levels of violence. Every time we came to D.C., people got stabbed or beaten. And the stabbing thing is quite specific to D.C., because D.C. has very strong prohibitions on guns. So we had seen these increasing levels of violence. And I think that was a concern for us. And then what happened this week is the sort of apex of that for now. So you've got the Capitol being breached, five people die, you've got pipe bombs that were left around the Capitol, you've got a whole bunch of Molotov cocktails. We don't know everything that happened at this point. And I think the concern going forward, is that there may be planning for a mass casualty event, for a significant terrorist event. And the reason we have that concern is we were out at Trump rallies, we were out at militia rallies, we were out at these protests that were attended by Proud Boys and others. And there was a very, very widespread sense that the only way Donald Trump could lose the election was if there was massive fraud, corruption in the electoral process. Now, the outgoing president has repeatedly told them that that's what happened. And so they are acting in a way that is rational for them, because they feel that democracy has been stolen away from them and subverted. And so that's why we're getting such extreme and violent reactions. 

 

ARONSON: Speaking of Trump, let's talk about his role, not only in Wednesday, but the lead up, in particular, his comments about proud boys and how you see that laced throughout this ideology. 

 

THOMPSON: You know, I think if you think about the far right groups now, you sort of think about there being two main components, and there's a component that is utterly aligned with Trump. And they are Trump loyalists, they hang on his every word, and they are absolutely down to die for the man. And that's what we saw. There's another component that sort of falls more into a traditional militia framework where they're just skeptical of all governments, and they're willing to overthrow a government, whether it was led by Trump or led by Joe Biden or led by anybody. And that's the sort of Boogaloo boy movement, which has been a big thing over the last year and has been those are some of the people who were targeting governor Gretchen Whitmer, in Michigan, allegedly. So those are your two main components. You have a, like a group that's essentially sort of libertarian anarchists that are like — overthrow the government. They're kind of coming in the vein of Tim McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, then you have a group very, very strongly aligned with Trump and they see Trump as sort of a savior figure. It's nearly religious. So when you have President Trump over and over and over again, promulgating false information, and conspiracy theories and constantly saying, ‘Look, journalists are the enemy of the people. These groups are enemies, these groups are against me, the deep state is against me. The Democrats are bad people and they're stealing the election. It's fraud, fraud, fraud, the only way I can lose is fraud.’ Then you're going to get sort of this whole range of what I would describe as behavior that makes sense in that context, but is, in fact, crazy and dangerous, and highly worrisome. 

 

ARONSON: One thing that you and I have long talked about, and I mean, this goes back to the early days, is really the collaboration and the collusion between these groups. And I know, you know, years ago, there wasn't a lot of collaboration. What is the catalyst right now to all of these groups convening together?

 

THOMPSON: I really think, in a lot of ways, it's, you have the groups that are true believers of Donald Trump, and they're saying, ‘We can't let him be forced out of office by this bogus election process.’ And some of those people, they're Second Amendment absolutist. Some of those people, their big thing is to QAnon conspiracy theory, some of those people, they are hardcore anti-immigration, anti-LGBTQ. So there's a range of issues that are the central issue for these different groups, but they're united in their support of Trump, and they think that he's the only one that will advance their issues. On top of that, you have opportunistic actors who say, ‘Oh, there's a riot at the Capitol, there's an insurrection at the Capitol, there's a revolt? Well, we want a piece of that, let's jump in.’ Those actors are more, are less excited about Trump and more excited about the prospect of setting off a second Civil War. And so I think those are the kind of the, that's the kind of energy that's out there. What what we saw in Charlottesville, really was this attempt to bring the white supremacist movement together with other far right groups and form a kind of unified front. And that didn't work out so well that day for them. But what we've seen in the years since is that coalition has come together, the white supremacists sort of quietly put their overt racism into the background, and joined up with the Trump coalition. The Trump groups, which often have slightly different orientations, have all been working together, and they're all out in the streets together.

 

ARONSON: What does that make you think about the future? Just circling around that question, again, what — let's start with the immediate future of the next number of days while President Trump is still in office. 

 

THOMPSON: So I think that we need to be highly concerned and aware, we don't want to be paranoid and freaked out. But we do need to be quite concerned and have our eyes open about security threats for the next several months, and honestly, for the next couple of years, because you have this very large contingent of people who believe that they are seeing the end of American democracy in this transition in this electoral process, because they believe it was bogus. 

 

ARONSON: I want to shift gears, A.C., to talk about preparedness. Talk to me about first, your impressions when you saw the Capitol Police overtaken and then also, you know, a lot of questions are now emerging, of course, and you've asked them yourself — why weren't they better prepared? What is actually going on here? What are you finding in your early reporting? 

 

THOMPSON: I spoke to the former chief of the Capitol Police. And he said, yeah, this was a massive failure. I'm not totally clear on what happened yet. But clearly, there needed to be more personnel at the entrances to the Capitol there needed to be more police there and that was a key problem. He said, ‘Look, this is an organization that had basically an emergency operation center that was tracking what was happening in real time, in coordination with federal and local law enforcement. And the question is, as the group starts moving en masse from the rally up to the Capitol and surrounding the Capitol, why were more police not dispatched at that time to respond to that movement? We've spoken to Capitol Police Officers who say, ‘Oh, yeah, I had the day off, they called me in at three, I wasn't there.’ For an event like this, you want to mobilize every officer you have. I mean, the thing, one of the things that’s shocking right — is the footage of Capitol Police officers and security using firearms to shoot at people inside the building. That is fundamentally a breakdown of modern police practice. If you're dealing with a potential riot with a crowd that may turn violent, you should have officers equipped with less lethal options to go to immediately and so that means tasers,  that means batons if they have to, that means pepper spray and pepper balls, that means beanbag rounds. This is all stuff that you should be going to before you go to the gun. 

 

ARONSON: So I mean, a lot of people, obviously on social and all over and articles and on television are really comparing this type of response to the BLM marches this summer. And I'm just wondering if you can comment on that — the show of force, the multiple forces, what do you make of the lack of that here and the show of force that we saw over the summer and even the fall? 

 

THOMPSON: So we interviewed Rep. Andre Carson, who's a Democrat from Indiana, and he said to us, ‘Look, if this was a BLM protest, you would have had way more security there, you would have had police making sure that there was no way that anybody ever got near the building.’ And in fact, that's what we saw in the spring and summer. And it's hard to get away from that comparison, because we have the images from a few months ago, and we know that there was very militant policing at that time. And we know that what we just saw was not particularly effective policing. It was worst case policing. 

 

ARONSON: So, A.C., when you looked at Trump on the day that this was happening taking, you know, a long time to respond at all. And then later in the day, his encouragement — what were you making of his first, you know what he was saying in the first place about this?

 

THOMPSON:The first piece is that we have to acknowledge that he has been inciting these groups for months, if not years, and that he was very directly inciting them that day, when he finally said, ‘Go home,’ it was a pretty half hearted, go home. 

 

TRUMP: We don't want anybody hurt. It's a very tough period of time. There's never been a time like this where such a thing happened, where they could take it away from all of us, from me, from you from our country. This was a fraudulent election. But we can't play into the hands of these people. We have to have peace. So go home, we love you. You're very special. 

 

THOMPSON: And I think for people in this movement, they're gonna say, ‘Oh, well, he was forced to say that he didn't have a choice. It doesn't mean that Joe Biden didn't steal our democracy.’ I don't think anything that he's done, really reduces detention in a significant way that it reduces the potential for conflict in a significant way. 

 

ARONSON: So you know we're looking ahead to the inauguration. It's a little over a week away. What are you hearing and seeing right now?

 

THOMPSON: Yeah, concern. There's a lot of worry in D.C. now, there is a heightened sense that there could be a bloody or violent scene around the inauguration. I think the bombs that were discovered here, maybe stick out the most for people. 

 

ARCHIVE: We had to earlier heard that there were suspicious packages found before the people stormed the building. That was the sort of focus of concern. Now we're told that at least one improvised explosive device has been found on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol… An improvised explosive device has been found at the Capitol, it did not detonate, and it has not harmed anyone.

 

THOMPSON: I would expect that we will see a very stepped up policing and security in the weeks to come. And already we have seen they're putting fences up around the Capitol, we are seeing police almost everywhere you go now there's a lot of police and security. 

 

ARONSON: A.C., with your future reporting here in our upcoming documentary with ProPublica — what are some of the biggest questions you'll be asking? 

 

THOMPSON: For us, what we think that what we may see is a movement that's been further radicalized by this event that's going to be talked about for decades. And so the people who were there, that they are going to feel empowered, they're going to feel that this was the first step towards a future violent struggle that they're going to pursue. And I think for a lot of the people that were there, they're going to feel like look, the only way forward now is violence. The only thing that we can do is use the gun or the bomb, or whatever, to resist this government that we see as illegitimate. And I think that's the concern going forward. And the question that we'll be chasing is what happens next. And I think I think we have a big concern that what happens next may be more radical, more violent, and more damaging to the culture than what we've seen so far.

 

ARONSON: I'm glad you're on the case. Really appreciate all the hard work that you and all of the others on your team are undertaking right now. Be safe. Thanks for talking with me. 

 

THOMPSON: Thank you.

 

ARONSON: AC Thompson is a ProPublica reporter and FRONTLINE correspondent. He’s currently working on a new film for FRONTLINE.

 

You can watch AC’s work with FRONTLINE covering the rise of far right movements — Documenting Hate: Charlottesville and Documenting Hate: New American Nazis — at FRONTLINE dot org. 

 

Our podcast producers are Max Green and James Edwards.

 

Our production assistant is Lucie Sullivan. 

 

Katherine Griwert is our editorial coordinating producer. 

 

Lauren Ezell and Sarah Childress are our senior editors. 

 

Andrew Metz is our managing editor.

 

I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE. 

 

Original music in this episode by Stellwagen Symphonette. 

 

The FRONTLINE Dispatch is produced at GBH and powered by PRX.

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