Desperate, angry, destructive: How Americans morphed into a mob

Most Jan. 6 defendants were not part of far-right groups or premeditated conspiracies to attack the Capitol.

Trump supporters crowd onto balconies at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Trump supporters crowd onto balconies at the Capitol on Jan. 6. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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Thomas Sibick was a star lacrosse player at his military boarding school. While court records show he has struggled with drugs and engaged in reckless and disorderly conduct, he pulled himself together, found a career in elder care and recently got a master’s degree in business administration. The son of a Navy captain, he mentored his brother through acceptance to the U.S. Naval Academy.

But during the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, prosecutors allege, he ripped the badge and radio from a D.C. police officer who had been pulled into a frenzied crowd, which assaulted the officer until he passed out.

Several dozen of those charged with storming the U.S. Capitol explicitly prepared for violence in the effort to thwart Congress’s confirmation of Joe Biden’s election that day, according to court records. Some arrived in combat gear, wearing the logos of self-styled militias or violent right-wing clubs. More than 30 of those charged in the Capitol attack face felony conspiracy charges, according to an analysis of court records by The Washington Post.

But court records show that the vast majority of the roughly 650 people federally charged in the riot were not part of far-right groups or premeditated conspiracies to attack the Capitol. Rather, many were an array of everyday Americans that included community leaders, small-business owners, teachers and yoga instructors. One wore his work badge, another a jacket with his phone number on the back. About 573 have no known affiliation with an extremist group, according to a Post analysis of court filings and public records as of Nov 3. Federal prosecutors have not identified serious criminal records in the cases of most suspects, although at least a dozen defendants have been accused or convicted of domestic violence.

In sentencing a man accused of illegally demonstrating in the building, Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell last month suggested all participants should face more serious charges.

“Countless videos show the mob that attacked the Capitol was violent. Everyone participating in the mob contributed to that violence,” she said, adding that the harm went beyond the immediate deaths and destruction to include “the damage to the reputation of our democracy, which is usually held up around the world."

Current charges in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot investigation, as of Nov. 3

More than 120 people have pleaded guilty to about 130 charges related to the Capitol riot. There are about 530 other people facing more than 2,500 other charges.

Charges pleaded guilty to 130

23 felonies, 107 misdemeanors

Ongoing charges 2,799

883 felony

charges

1,916 misdemeanor charges

A majority of the ongoing charges leveled against defendants are misdemeanors. More than half of the people charged face at least one felony.

Felonies

Assaulting, threatening or obstructing police*

362

Obstruction of an official proceeding or witness tampering

257

Trespassing with a dangerous weapon

163

Conspiracy

35

Misdemeanors

Disorderly conduct

in a Capitol building

379

Parading, demonstrating or picketing in a Capitol building

319

Entering without authority

427

Disorderly or disruptive conduct in any restricted building or grounds

397

Other

394

*Includes three false statements charges

Source: Washington Post Capitol riot database

DANIELA SANTAMARINA AND Sahana Jayaraman/

THE WASHINGTON POST

Current charges in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot investigation, as of Nov. 3

More than 120 people have pleaded guilty to about 130 charges related to the Capitol riot. There are about 530 other people facing more than 2,500 other charges.

Charges pleaded guilty to 130

23 felonies, 107 misdemeanors

Ongoing charges 2,799

883 felony

charges

1,916 misdemeanor charges

A majority of the ongoing charges leveled against defendants are misdemeanors. More than half of the people charged face at least one felony.

Felonies

Obstruction of an official proceeding or witness tampering

257

Assaulting, threatening or obstructing police*

362

Trespassing with a dangerous weapon

163

Conspiracy

35

Misdemeanors

Entering without authority

427

Disorderly conduct in a Capitol building

379

Parading, demonstrating or picketing in a Capitol building

319

Disorderly or disruptive conduct in any restricted building or grounds

397

Other

394

*Includes three false statements charges

Source: Washington Post Capitol riot database

DANIELA SANTAMARINA AND Sahana Jayaraman/THE WASHINGTON POST

Current charges in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot investigation, as of Nov. 3

More than 120 people have pleaded guilty to about 130 charges related to the Capitol riot. There are about 530 other people facing more than 2,500 other charges.

Charges pleaded

guilty to 130

23 felonies, 107 misdemeanors

Ongoing charges

2,799

883 felony charges

1,916 misdemeanor charges

A majority of the ongoing charges leveled against defendants are misdemeanors. More than half of the people charged face at least one felony.

Misdemeanors

Felonies

Assaulting, threatening or obstructing police*

362

Entering without authority

427

Disorderly or disruptive conduct in any restricted building or grounds

397

Obstruction of an official proceeding or witness tampering

257

Other

394

Disorderly conduct

in a Capitol building

379

Trespassing with a dangerous weapon

163

Robbery, theft, destruction of property

53

Parading, demonstrating or picketing in a Capitol building

319

Conspiracy 35

Other 13

*Includes three false statements charges

Source: Washington Post Capitol riot database

DANIELA SANTAMARINA AND Sahana Jayaraman/THE WASHINGTON POST

A law enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation, said that while many in the FBI underestimated the desperation, anger and conspiratorial nature of the crowd, the evidence gathered to date shows the vast majority of participants “didn’t have a plan” to overthrow the government: “They didn’t know what they were doing. A lot of them didn’t even know where they were going. But they had a message, and the message was, the pitchfork people will show up again, and you need to be afraid of us.”

The sheer number of people in the crowd overwhelmed police on Jan. 6, fueling a rampage. Five people died in the attack or in the immediate aftermath. In all, investigators estimate that more than 2,000 people entered the Capitol, many whipped up by President Donald Trump’s false claims that the election was rigged and that Vice President Mike Pence could halt the process and overturn the results.

“Once we found out Pence turned on us … the crowd went crazy,” an Alabama landscaper said two days after the riot, in a YouTube video cited in government filings. “I mean, it became a mob. We crossed the gate.”

Video evidence indicates that nearly 140 officers collectively weathered 1,000 assaults, according to prosecutors. Nine months after the attack, an FBI website showed photographs of about 350 suspects who have not been arrested for Capitol violence. Of more than 130 people charged with assaulting, resisting and impeding police, less than 10 are purported to be affiliated with or identify as members of organized groups such as the Oath Keepers or Proud Boys, according to a Post review of arrests and court documents as of early November. Small, angry groups formed one large mob in mere minutes, joined by common purpose.

“A riot cannot occur without rioters, and each rioter’s actions — from the most mundane to the most violent — contributed, directly and indirectly, to the violence and destruction of that day,” federal prosecutors have written in multiple sentencing arguments.

How was it that — as one federal judge asked during the plea hearing for a 59-year-old CrossFit trainer who talked about shooting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in the head — “good people who never got into trouble with the law” on Jan. 6 had “morphed into terrorists”?

Brian Levin, who runs the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, said that in the right circumstances, even those with weak attachment to extremist views can turn violent.

“Responsibility gets diffused across the group, and you have the immediate lure of peer validation, plus a cloak of anonymity,” he said. “It’s almost like a sport.”

Fiona Hill, who served on the National Security Council in the Trump administration, said that in her home country of Britain, police had success stopping violence and rioting that had often erupted around soccer games by identifying and removing key instigators.

“It’s hard when the person who was inciting it happens to be the sitting president of the United States,” she noted. “Makes it a bit difficult for the police to extricate him.”

Sibick had never been to a Trump rally before Jan. 6, according to his defense attorney Stephen Brennwald, who said at a recent hearing that “there is nothing in his life before this that would indicate a propensity for violence.”

“He’s just not that person," Brennwald added.

Yet, as D.C. police officer Michael Fanone lay on the ground, drifting in and out of consciousness after being beaten and shocked with a stun gun by other members of the mob, Sibick reached in and stripped him of his badge and radio, according to body-camera footage submitted in court.

“Just got tear-gassed, but we’re good, baby, we’re good! We’re pushing forward now!” Sibick shouted hoarsely in an Instagram post found by law enforcement.

Sibick says he was attempting to help Fanone. He has pleaded not guilty to assaulting a police officer, robbery and related crimes. Prosecutors allege that he repeatedly lied about his actions, and say that he could not have accidentally removed the officer’s badge and radio.

Though most Jan. 6 rioters were not affiliated with extremist groups, prosecutors say members of the Three Percenters, Oath Keepers and Proud Boys all girded for violent action in advance. Some Proud Boys, prosecutors say, were among the first to tear down barricades and attack police. At least 77 defendants were purportedly affiliated with those far-right groups, according to the Post analysis.

One member of the Proud Boys expressed surprise at their influence in the insurrection, telling others in a text message: “That was NOT what I expected to happen today. All from us … getting the normies all riled up.” Prosecutors discounted that member’s role in any charged conspiracy.

But there were also newer extremist groups in the mix — including several motivated by pandemic restrictions. A California yoga instructor named Alan Hostetter founded the American Phoenix Project in response to coronavirus lockdowns. In a December 2020 video, according to court records, he declared that the election was stolen and that “execution is the just punishment for the ringleaders of this coup.” He has pleaded not guilty to conspiring with five other Californians to recruit ‘armed fighters’ and obstruct the vote count.

The roughly two dozen riot defendants who have been sentenced as of early November have given apologies ranging from grudging to abject. While many have formally accepted responsibility, few have elucidated their motivations. It is not defendants’ political loyalty or passion that is being punished, judges said, but their willingness to impede the peaceful transfer of power, participate in an attack on the operations of Congress and serve the interests of one person, the former president, instead of democracy and the law.

“Democracies die, and we’ve seen it happen in the past when citizens rise up against their government and take part in the kinds of events that took place on January 6,” U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton said at one sentencing. “We’re tearing our country apart.”

One defendant, Robert Reeder of Harford County, Md., is a registered Democrat who told FBI agents he found the former president distasteful. But he liked the message of “Make America Great Again,” and after the election, he touted groundless claims of fraud on Facebook.

“Civil war is coming,” he wrote in December. “This time the conservatives will stand their ground and the radicals will die.”

He later said he only decided to attend Trump’s rally that morning. He had never been to a protest before.

“I wasn’t with anyone; I didn’t have any battle gear,” Reeder said in an interview with FBI agents. “The only thing in my backpack was two protein bars.”

Reeder told the FBI that he did not see himself as part of the mob that fought its way into the Capitol, even though he entered the building twice, going through tear gas and pepper balls and engaging physically with police officers, according to court filings.

“This is not me,” he told the agents, “and yet here we are.”

That night, he called his brother and said “how bad he felt about being there,” David Reeder testified at sentencing in early October. He said his brother wasn’t one of the “wack jobs.” The family was “appalled by his participation,” his brother said, but a harsh punishment would also be “appalling.”

Reeder — who pleaded guilty to demonstrating in the Capitol — apologized profusely at sentencing, calling the riot “disgusting” and his actions “shameful, inexcusable.” When pressed by U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan of Washington, Reeder admitted to shoving a police officer but said it was an accidental response to getting hit.

The judge, calling his account “disingenuous” and “prevaricating,” sentenced Reeder to three months in jail.

Reeder was not simply swept along by events, the judge said.

“It’s become evident to me in the riot cases, the post-riot cases, that many of the defendants who are pleading guilty are not truly accepting responsibility,” Hogan said. Reeder was present for large stretches of the riot and would have heard alarms, felt pepper spray and seen people pushing and charging in to police, the judge added: “It’s rewriting history and the facts to say you didn’t know what was going on. … I’ve had too many people say that to me.”

Still, supporters of the Jan. 6 defendants have escalated claims that they are being punished for their political beliefs. Pence said recently that the media’s reporting on the mob that chanted calls for his death is a tool to “demean” Trump supporters.

For his part, Trump has continued to falsely claim the election was stolen and he was merely exercising his right to say so on Jan. 6.

Judges have expressed concern that the ongoing misinformation will lead to a similar attack. Walton said he and other D.C. judges have gotten threats from people who continue to believe the election was stolen, even though no such evidence has emerged in dozens of audits and court cases around the country.

“Both of you were gullible enough that based on statements being made — for which there was no proof to support — that the election was unfair. You all bought into it, hook, line and sinker,” Walton told Lori and Thomas Vinson, a western Kentucky couple who pleaded guilty to parading in the Capitol. “And unfortunately, those same things that I assume motivated you to do what you did are still being said.”

Thomas Vinson, an Air Force veteran, told Walton that he and his wife had “no intention” of joining a mob on Jan. 6 and would do nothing like it again; previous Trump protests they attended were peaceful.

“I took an oath and I know I violated that oath,” Vinson said. “Joe Biden is our president, he was sworn in; that’s all I can say about it.”

Through attorneys, defendants have blamed Trump and his rhetoric for inspiring their behavior. But others continue to see their fate through a partisan lens.

Former model Nathan DeGrave, who is accused of fighting police to get inside the Senate chamber, said through an attorney in March that he was “mortified and remorseful.”

“This is certainly the first time a sitting president has claimed that a presidential election was fraudulent, that the election was stolen, and that his supporters needed to come to the Capitol to ‘fight like hell,’” his attorney wrote in that filing.

But DeGrave, who has pleaded not guilty, replaced that attorney with a conservative lawyer who is representing more than a dozen Jan. 6 defendants. On a fundraising website, he now describes himself as a “political prisoner” in jail “because he is a Trump supporter” who took part in “a peaceful protest, until police attacked nonviolent participants.”

(In a brief interview from jail, DeGrave said there was “culpability on both sides.”)

Sibick’s father, Eugene, has joined those protesting the treatment of Jan. 6 defendants. At a demonstration in September, he claimed there was violence during racial justice protests in the summer of 2020 that was “more egregious than what happened here, and those people were let out.” While some cases from racial justice protests were dropped, hundreds were not. Most federal defendants generally are detained; only about 13 percent of the Jan. 6 defendants are.

Amy Berman Jackson, the judge overseeing Sibick’s case, said recently that if a D.C. resident was caught on video doing what Sibick did and faced four felonies, pretrial release would not even be up for discussion. But on Oct. 26, she released Sibick, citing a recent mental illness diagnosis, jail guards’ praise of his model conduct behind bars, and his efforts to distance himself from more radical prisoners. In a handwritten letter from jail, he told the judge the events of Jan. 6 were “a disgrace to our nation.”

The blame, he said, lay “ultimately” with the president he once followed to the Capitol.

“While many praise Trump, I loathe him, his words and actions are nefarious causing pain and harm,” Sibick wrote. “I have vowed never to attend another political protest in my life, that was my first and last! In addition, I will never allow myself to be consumed by the mob mentality, it is dangerous.”

The word “never” was underlined twice.

Devlin Barrett contributed to this report. Journalism students at the American University School of Communication, including Aneeta Mathur-Ashton, Carley Welch, McKenzie Beard, Megan Ruggles and Sammy Sussman, contributed to the reporting.

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