clarification

A caption with the photo of Maureen Cohen Harrington previously stated that she was attending the rally. This caption has been updated to clarify she was covering the rally as a freelance journalist.

The most anticipated visit by right-wing activists to the nation’s capital since a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 ended with a whimper Saturday, as demonstrators supporting the rioters found themselves far outnumbered by police, journalists and counterprotesters.

Although the protesters returned to the scene of a historically grievous attack on American democracy, it was immediately obvious that much had changed. The Capitol grounds — where poorly prepared police fought a losing, hand-to-hand battle against 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, delivered a bellicose speech urging that his election loss be overturned.

Police made just four arrests throughout the day, seizing two weapons. The relative peace and quiet was a welcome turn for the U.S. Capitol Police, whose leaders endured blistering criticism in the months after Jan. 6 for inadequate security.

In recent weeks the agency had repeatedly warned that it would have a large force in the field, aided by police departments from across the region and the National Guard. The entire D.C. police force was activated Friday and Saturday. The massive law enforcement presence Saturday was unmistakable, with many in full riot gear and others on horseback.

D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III spoke to reporters in the District on Sept. 18, as the “Justice for J6” rally began to get underway. (Reuters)

As evening approached, police remained concerned about the risk of clashes between pro-Trump protesters and others on a busy Saturday in Washington that included the annual H Street Festival in Northeast D.C., a Howard University football game and a baseball game at Nationals Park. Counterprotesters held their own event about a mile from the Capitol rally. Some wore black helmets, gas masks and flak jackets.

The rally’s poor attendance came as no surprise — and did not necessarily signal a weakening of attempts on the right to falsely recast the deadly riot of Jan. 6 as something more benign. Organizers of the “Justice for J6” rally argued that many of the hundreds of people charged in connection with the breaching of the Capitol were not violent and were exercising their constitutional right to engage in political protest. Similar claims have been made by Trump and embraced by many of his supporters, including some Republican lawmakers.

Influential figures on the far right actually discouraged their followers from showing up Saturday, asserting the event was a trap. Baseless rumors ricocheted through social media alleging that the federal government was attempting to lure demonstrators to Washington to arrest them. The Proud Boys, a group with a history of violence that includes participation in the Jan. 6 insurrection, discouraged their members from attending.

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.”

Simultaneous demonstrations elsewhere in the country were also sparsely attended. In Seattle, a group of about 15 stood in the rain, chanting “USA.” Some 20 people gathered across the street from the federal courthouse in Charlotte, where they were observed by joggers and heckled by a man who shouted out the window of his car as he drove by: “They’re all insurrectionists! Get over it! They deserve to be in jail!”

The D.C. rally’s low turnout, combined with a robust news media presence, led to sometimes surreal scenes. Protesters were so scarce that reporters and television news crews began queuing up to obtain interviews. By afternoon the rally had settled into a predictable cycle, as journalists swarmed to minor altercations or police inquiries that quickly evaporated.

Among those at the rally 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, allegedly ripped the badge and stole the radio from D.C. 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. He has was arrested in March on various charges stemming from the incident and is now awaiting trial at the D.C. jail.

Eugene Sibick said his son’s ongoing detention 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 bologna 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 was a success by dint of the overwhelming 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.

Law enforcement taking precautions

Law enforcement was conspicuously prepared for trouble Saturday 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 Defense Department approved a request from the Capitol Police for 100 members of the D.C. National Guard to help with security Saturday. (Stationed at the D.C. Armory, they were never needed.) Police from at least eight agencies were present, including suburban departments in Maryland and Virginia and mounted officers from the Maryland-National Capital Park Police.

Temporary perimeter fencing was reinstalled around the Capitol, just two months after the barrier — erected in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot, and a lingering symbol of that day’s security failures — was removed. Members of Congress and their staffs were urged to avoid the Capitol.

“What we do know is the chatter we heard before January 6th, the threats turned out to be credible,” U.S. Capitol Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said at a news conference Friday. “So we’re not taking any chances.”

Matt Braynard, the former Trump 2016 campaign staffer who leads Look Ahead America, has repeatedly insisted that the rally would be peaceful.

“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.

Police said two people were arrested during the rally, one with a knife, the other with a gun. (In both cases, authorities said it was not immediately clear if those arrested were protesters.) Police 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.

Nearby gatherings

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 effort to throw some food on the grill was halted by the U.S. Park Police.

Bob Myers, a white-haired 66-year-old, stood out in his green polo shirt and brown khakis amid a crowd of 20- and 30-somethings in mostly black attire.

“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.”

Late in the afternoon, some counterprotesters put on helmets and protective vests in anticipation that some of those who had attended the “Justice for J6” rally might come their way. But those who had voiced their support for the pro-Trump rioters were nowhere in sight, and eventually the counterprotesters also dispersed.

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 D.C. 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 Saturday, 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 demonstrators 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.”

Teo Armus, Sarah Hosseini, Ellie Silverman, Peter Hermann, Julie Zauzmer Weil, Jasmine Hilton, Michael Brice-Saddler, Amy Gardner, Nicole Asbury, Rachel Weiner, Hannah Allam and Karina Elwood contributed to this report.