WASHINGTON — A small band of protesters decrying the treatment of the mob that overran the U.S. Capitol was dwarfed by hundreds of police officers and news reporters Saturday, as the most anticipated visit by right-wing activists to the nation’s capital since Jan. 6 unfolded with relative peace and quiet.
Although the protesters were returning to the scene of a historically grievous attack on American democracy, it was immediately obvious that much had changed. The Capitol grounds — where a poorly prepared police fought a losing, hand-to-hand battle against former President Donald Trump’s supporters just over eight months ago — were secured Saturday with metal fences and hundreds of officers. The halls of Congress were all but deserted. No president — or former president — appeared to deliver a bellicose speech urging that his election loss be overturned.
By midafternoon, the rally’s speeches had ended, and its few participants milled on the grass near the Capitol Reflecting Pool. The mood was calm. Police said they had made four arrests throughout the day and seized two weapons.
Shortly before 2 p.m., Capitol police broke up a confrontation between protesters and counterprotesters at Pennsylvania Avenue and 3rd Street. The afternoon settled into a predictable cycle, as reporters swarmed to minor altercations or police inquiries that quickly evaporated.
Police remained concerned about the risk of clashes between the pro-Trump protesters and others on a busy Saturday in Washington that includes the annual H Street Festival in the District of Columbia; a Howard University football game; a baseball game at Nationals Park; and a Harry Styles concert at Capital One Arena downtown.
A counterprotest was also underway at Freedom Plaza, about a mile from the Capitol rally. Organizers of that event said it would be a celebratory gathering with food and music to denounce the presence of “Jan. 6 insurrectionists, Nazis, and white supremacists” in Washington, and encouraged families to attend with children. There were at least as many people there as at the Capitol.
Organizers of the “Justice for J6” rally argue that many of the hundreds of people charged during the breaching of the Capitol were not violent and exercising their constitutional right to engage in political protest. Similar claims have been embraced by many Trump supporters, including some Republican lawmakers.
The rally’s poor attendance came as no surprise. Organizers originally said they expected about 700 attendees, but many influential figures on the far right actually discouraged their followers from showing up, asserting the event was a trap. Baseless rumors have ricocheted through social media to the effect that the federal government was attempting to lure demonstrators to Washington to arrest them, and that left-wing activists disguised themselves as Trump supporters would deliberately cause trouble.
The Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violence that includes participation in the Jan. 6 insurrection, discouraged members from traveling to the District on Saturday. After videos posted last month on social media showed Randy Ireland, who claimed to be president of a New York Proud Boys chapter, urging others to attend the rally, the Proud Boys quickly disavowed the message and told their members to stay home.
Capitol police said Saturday afternoon that between 400 and 450 people had been observed at some point inside the protest zone. But many of them were journalists and other bystanders.
“There are more hurdles here in place than reasons for people to come out to this event,” said Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “People are simply just too fearful after all of the arrests related to Jan. 6 to go out and do this kind of big nationwide event.”
The rally’s low turnout, combined with a robust news media presence, led at times to a surreal scene. Protesters were so scarce that reporters and television news crews began queuing up to obtain interviews. Among those who spoke was Eugene Sibick, a 63-year-old from Buffalo whose son is among the more prominent criminal defendants in the Jan. 6 riot.
Thomas Sibick, also of New York, was arrested in March and charged with entering a restricted building, disorderly conduct, obstruction of law enforcement during civil disorder, and taking something of value by force. He allegedly ripped the badge and stole the radio from District police officer Michael Fanone, who was beaten and Tasered by pro-Trump rioters while attempting to defend the Capitol. Sibick later buried Fanone’s badge in his backyard, prosecutors said.
Eugene Sibick said his son’s ongoing detention at the District jail was “a disgrace to this country.” He said he speaks to Thomas on the phone almost every day and is distressed by his son’s description of the food given to him, such as baloney and slices of bread with tartar sauce, but no fish.
“There were things that happened last summer in Seattle and Portland that were more egregious than what happened here, and those people were let out,” he said.
Beverly Foley — a Texas coordinator for Look Ahead America, the organization that planned Saturday’s event at Union Plaza, near the Capitol Reflecting Pool — said the demonstration would be a success by dint of the overwhelming news media presence, even if few protesters actually showed up. Many around the country, she predicted, would now take greater interest in the rights of those jailed because of their roles in the riot.
“We need to allow these people to get back to their lives,” she said.
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Law enforcement was nevertheless prepared for trouble, particularly after a series of threats and attacks in the months following the insurrection.
In April, a man rammed his car into a barricade outside the Capitol, killing a Capitol police officer. Last month, a man who claimed he had a bomb parked a truck near the Capitol and demanded to speak to President Biden. And earlier this week, a man with a bayonet and machete was arrested near the Democratic National Committee headquarters.
The Department of Defense approved the Capitol police’s request to provide 100 members of the District National Guard to support law enforcement efforts for the rally, according to department spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell. They will be stationed at the District Armory and deployed if requested to protect the Capitol and Congressional office buildings.
Temporary perimeter fencing was reinstalled, just two months after the barrier — which had been one of the last remaining symbols of the inadequate security response to the riot — was removed. Because the rally is on a Saturday, Congress won’t be in session and members aren’t expected to be in the building.
After enduring blistering criticism for security failures on Jan. 6, Capitol police asked for help. Police from at least eight agencies were present, including suburban departments in Maryland and Virginia. On Saturday afternoon, a row of Maryland-National Capital Park Police officers wearing body armor and mounted on horses stood at Constitution Avenue and 2nd Street, District police activated their entire force on Friday and Saturday. Members of Congress and their staffs were encouraged to avoid the Capitol.
“What we do know is the chatter we heard before Jan. 6, the threats turned out to be credible,” U.S. Capitol police Chief Thomas Manger said at a news conference Friday. “So we’re not taking any chances.”
U.S. Capitol police reported making at least four arrests before and during Saturday’s rally, and seizing two weapons. D.C. police reported no arrests as of 2 p.m.
Capitol police said two people were arrested during the rally, one with a knife, the other with a gun. In both cases, Capitol police said it was not immediately clear if those arrested were protesters. Capitol police said they also stopped a vehicle Saturday morning on Louisiana Avenue and arrested two people wanted in Texas on outstanding felony warrants, one for possession of a firearm. Authorities did not say if any weapons were found in the vehicle.
Matt Braynard, the former Trump 2016 campaign staffer who leads Look Ahead America, has argued that the Justice Department is treating the Jan. 6 defendants more harshly than people arrested during last year’s racial justice protests or those arrested in the District after Trump’s inauguration.
“This is a purely patriotic exercise of First Amendment rights of fellow humans, fellow Americans who have been denied their civil rights because of their political beliefs,” Braynard said, insisting that his rally would be peaceful.
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The counterprotest at Freedom Plaza was also subdued. About 100 people were present, lounging in the shade and eating vegan macaroni and cheese and potato chips. An attempt to start grilling food was cut short by the U.S. Park police.
Bob Myers, a white-haired 66-year-old, stood out in his tucked green polo and brown khakis from the crowd of 20- and 30-somethings who wore mostly black.
“I want people to see that there’s another side,” he said. “It seems to me the right is getting more press because they’re louder.”
Washington’s other weekend routines continued. A group of family friends from New Jersey stepped off a tour bus and posed for photos in front of the Capitol’s perimeter fencing.
“The bus driver mentioned we might have to reroute because of the protest and we were like, what protest?” said Olga Novak, a 39-year-old who was visiting the District with her 8- and 9-year-old children.
She said she was surprised, but had no inclination to interrupt her family’s day of sightseeing.
Jay Dackman, 63, moved to Washington several months after Jan. 6. When a friend’s son arrived for a visit this weekend, he wanted to take him to the Capitol.
“Take a look at this,” Dackman said, gesturing to the building’s familiar dome, glowing in the midday sun. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
He surveyed the lines of police holding riot shields, the journalists prowling for protesters to interview, and the Washingtonians whose curiosity had led them to gawk at the small rally.
“We wanted to see this for ourselves,” Dackman said. “[Police] overdid it today for sure. But that’s because they underdid it on the 6th.”
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The Washington Post’s Sarah Hosseini, Ellie Silverman, Julie Zauzmer Weil, Jasmine Hilton, Michael Brice-Saddler, Amy Gardner, Nicole Asbury, Rachel Weiner, Karina Elwood, and Peter Hermann contributed to this report.