Insurrectionists at US Capitol: Who they were, how they planned the siege

Written by Rosalie Atkinson and Amy Ta

On Wednesday, hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building, ransacking the House and Senate chambers and the offices of some lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. 

The siege left four people dead and more than 50 Capitol and DC Metro police officers injured

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser criticized the Capitol Police’s response. “Obviously it was a failure, or you would not have had police lines breached, and people enter the capitol building by breaking windows and terrorizing the people, the members of Congress, who were doing a very sacred Constitutional requirement of their jobs. So clearly there was a failure there,” she said at a press conference. 

About 70 people have been arrested so far. The Justice Department is pledging to criminally charge more of the rioters, and the FBI asked the public for help identifying them. 

The big question is why the violence was able to get out of hand in the first place. 

The signs for pandemonium were there. A December tweet from Trump invited supporters to DC for a big protest on January 6, telling them to be there, and that it “will be wild.”

Leaders of far-right groups like the Proud Boys urged their followers to go. Trump supporters had clashed with police the night before, and they were openly planning violence on far-right social media sites. 

KCRW talks about all this with Elaine Godfrey, staff writer at The Atlantic who was among the crowds in DC on Wednesday, and Sheera Frenkel, New York Times reporter covering cybersecurity.

Language circulating online ahead of the rally

Sheera Frenkel: “The language on these forums from people who were gathering in the Capitol, on January 6, they were incredibly clear that they had an intention to occupy the Capitol. We saw them using words like ‘storm the Capitol,’ ‘occupy the Capitol,’ ‘occupy Washington.’ They were using militaristic language and talking about bringing weapons that I think left little in the way of nuance of what they wanted to do when they arrived in Washington.”

Organizing via smaller social media

Sheera Frenkel: “They’ve migrated over to places like Parler and Gab, which are these fringe social media sites, where people can really say or do whatever they want. And in real time, they were becoming more and more radicalized as they spent time on those sites. They served as somewhat of an echo chamber, where they could say anything they wanted, and there was no one to contradict them. They could amp up their rhetoric. 

And so in November, there was lots of talk of ‘stop the steal,’ and ‘the vote was fraudulent.’ … By December it progressed into ‘let's go to Washington and occupy the Capitol, and I’m even going to post photographs online of the guns and other weapons that I plan to bring with me to D.C.’”

The response from Capitol Police

Elaine Godfrey: “They looked totally outnumbered, totally outmanned. They didn't really seem to use any of the tools at their disposal to push back on the protesters as they were approaching the Capitol and going through that first layer of barricades. 

... I think once the Capitol had gone on lockdown, and they'd sent for reinforcements, I saw a lot more officers pulling up and putting on gas masks, and the situation seemed to calm down or at least get under control. That's about when I left. But it took a while. I mean, they had already gotten into the Capitol and caused a lot of damage by that point.”

Identifying some of the insurrectionists 

Jake Angeli, a 32-year old Arizona resident and self-pronounced member of QAnon, wore a fur hat with giant horns. Richard Barnett, an Arkansas resident who self-identified as a white nationalist online, sat in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and put up his feet. Adam Johnson, a Florida resident, walked off with Speaker Pelosi’s lectern. As of today, these men have not been arrested.

Sheera Frenkel: “There's at least a dozen others who, in live streams, can be heard saying their names, where they're from, how they arrived. There are people who are wearing work name tags on their shirts. … So I think that there is going to be a moment where the police need to decide, are they actually going to go and try and find the individuals who stormed the Capitol building? Or are they just going to make a handful of arrests of the top leadership?”

Possible repercussions for failure to secure the Capitol

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi today called for the chief of the Capitol Police to step down, and she said House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving will resign. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced that he will fire Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Mike Stenger. 

Sheera Frenkel: “I do think there's going to be a moment where there's an inquiry, and they will find that there was a massive intelligence failing here. There was no doubt that these people were coming and that they were coming armed. 

One of the people I spoke to yesterday by phone, I reached him as he was back in his hotel resting, he expressed shock at how easily they had gotten in. He had come armed. And at one point in the conversation, he laughed and he said, ‘Oh, I didn't even have to fire my weapon. And I got into the Speaker's office.’”