WASHINGTON – The Capitol Police department is preparing for potential violence at a Sept. 18 protest that members of Congress have been invited to attend.
The organization Look Ahead America — led by Matt Braynard, a former Trump campaign employee — requested a permit for up to 500 people to demonstrate at noon Sept. 18 in Union Square for a so-called #JusticeForJ6 rally. The event is intended to support those arrested as a result of storming the Capitol on Jan. 6 and to call for justice for a rioter who was fatally shot that day. More than 570 defendants have been arrested in connection with the attack, according to the Department of Justice.
An intelligence evaluation from the Capitol Police said there could be violence at the rally.
“Though outwardly Matt Braynard has instructed attendees to remain peaceful, given the propensity for this group to attract domestic extremists, their support for the insurrectionists, and their continued challenges to democratic institutions, it is not unreasonable to plan for violent altercations with those associated with this demonstration,” a department assessment said.
Far-right websites, including patriots.win, have featured discussions flagged by the department.
“Tyrants want us to live in fear. They want us to fear being labeled ‘domestic terrorists,’’ one post says. Another says, “I sure hope people will show up and not coward to these rotten people in DC.” Some commenters offered advice like telling prospective attendees not to bring their cell phones and to stay in hotels outside of D.C.
The Proud Boys put out a video that encourages members of the far-right extremist group to attend the rally, and White Lives Matter is promoting a nationwide protest on Sept. 18 that includes the District of Columbia, according to Capitol Police intelligence. White Lives Matter is described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a neo-Nazi group.
The Capitol Police Board will likely meet this week to consider the security posture for the rally, which could include the construction of a fence around the Capitol complex, a source familiar told CQ Roll Call. The board that will ultimately decide whether the fence goes up is composed of three voting members: House Sergeant-at-Arms William J. Walker, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Karen Gibson and J. Brett Blanton, the architect of the Capitol. J. Thomas Manger, the Capitol Police chief, is an ex officio member of the board.
“We are closely monitoring September 18 and we are planning accordingly. After January 6, we made Department-wide changes to the way we gather and share intelligence internally and externally,” Manger said in a Sept. 1 statement. “I am confident the work we are doing now will make sure our officers have what they need to keep everyone safe.”
The Department of Homeland Security assigned the Look Ahead America protest a special event assessment rating of five. The scale ranges from five— “Events that may be nationally recognized but generally have local or state importance” — to one, described by DHS as “Significant events with national and/or international importance that require extensive federal interagency support.” That rating is subject to change as the rally date approaches.
“In anticipation of First Amendment activities on Saturday, September 18, 2021, the Metropolitan Police Department will be fully prepared,” Kristen Metzger, a spokesperson for D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department, said in a statement. “As with all First Amendment demonstrations, MPD will be monitoring and assessing the activities and planning accordingly with our federal law enforcement partners. MPD will have an increased presence around the city where demonstrations will be taking place and will be prepared to make street closures for public safety.”
Braynard, the executive director of Look Ahead America, said in a rally guidance video that the protest’s focus is on “demanding justice” for what he called “political prisoners,” and for Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran and QAnon follower fatally shot by a Capitol Police officer as she attempted to breach the Speaker’s Lobby through a broken window during the insurrection. Braynard did not respond to a request for comment.
The Department of Justice declined to pursue criminal charges against Capitol Police Lt. Michael Byrd, the officer who shot Babbitt. Further, the Capitol Police said Byrd acted “within department policy” and that it would not discipline him. Still, far-right groups view Babbitt as a martyr and her death has served as an impetus for action by Look Ahead America and some Republicans in Congress.
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., has questioned “who executed Ashli Babbitt?” and used his official website to allege a “cover up.” Gosar, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., have been associated with Look Ahead America.
Look Ahead America held two previous events in D.C. to raise awareness for arrested rioters. One was held at the Department of Justice in June and one in July at the D.C. Jail.
Republican Reps. Louie Gohmert of Texas, Bob Good of Virginia and Andy Biggs of Arizona joined Gaetz, Greene and Gosar at a July 27 news conference outside the DOJ on the treatment of the insurrectionists in prison. The event was cut short by protesters. Greene, Gosar, Gaetz and Gohmert later went to the D.C. Jail and said they wanted to speak to prisoners, but they were not let in.
Violence and the threat of violence has been a constant on the Capitol grounds this year. Over 140 Metropolitan Police Department and Capitol Police officers were injured in relation to the Jan. 6 riot.
Shortly after the insurrection, Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick died; Officer Howard Liebengood later died by suicide. In April, Officer William “Billy” Evans was killed when an attacker slammed a car into him and Officer Kenny Shaver, who was injured. And in August, law enforcement arrested a man claiming to have a bomb in his truck near the Capitol after a hourslong standoff with police.
Story by Chris Marquette, CQ-Roll Call