The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sen. Josh Hawley says ‘Antifa scumbags’ terrorized his family’s Virginia home. Police called the protesters ‘peaceful.’

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) speaks at a Senate hearing last year. (Susan Walsh/AP)

The activists said they had staged a peaceful vigil Monday night to protest a GOP plan to object to Congress’s certification of the presidential electoral vote this week. On the sidewalk in a Northern Virginia suburb, a group of 15 people chanted while holding candles and signs reading, “Protect democracy.”

But Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) had a different description for the scene outside his family’s home in Fairfax County: “leftwing violence.”

“Tonight while I was in Missouri, Antifa scumbags came to our place in DC and threatened my wife and newborn daughter,” he wrote on Twitter late Monday. “They screamed threats, vandalized, and tried to pound open our door.”

Vienna police said they did not see anyone pounding on the Hawleys’ or their neighbors’ doors, did not hear any threats and did not see any vandalism other than chalk on the sidewalk. And as of Tuesday afternoon, they had not received a formal complaint from the Hawleys, Officer Juan Vazquez said. Vazquez told the Associated Press that when police arrived, they found that the “people were peaceful.”

“Officers are only allowed to put in the report what they see,” Vazquez told The Washington Post. “We can’t get warrants on something we didn’t see. If someone wants to make a complaint, they’re more than welcome to file a police report,” which police would then investigate.

Vazquez said when police arrived at the protest, they spotted three potential violations and advised the protesters of them. “We like to give people one chance to address the violations before we move forward with summonses,” Vazquez said. “They were advised of the violations, they understood, and they left within 10 minutes.” There was no indication in the police report that officers spoke with Hawley’s wife or any indication of who called police, Vazquez said.

Vazquez noted that under Virginia law it is a misdemeanor to protest outside a private residence. The law prohibits any person from engaging “in picketing before or about the residence or dwelling place of any individual” and assembling “in a manner which disrupts or threatens to disrupt any individual’s right to tranquility in his home.”

The protesters also violated the Vienna town code for noise and litter, Vazquez said. The town code prohibits the “creation and continuation of any excessively loud, disturbing noise” which can be heard more than 50 feet from the source. Vazquez said an officer’s report indicated the group had two electric bullhorns. The town also prohibits dumping trash on private property, and some debris could be seen on the Hawley property when the officers arrived, though it was later picked up, Vazquez said.

Demonstrators with ShutDownDC, which organized the protest, also told The Washington Post that they did not engage in vandalism or even knock on Hawley’s door. A 50-minute video shared by the group shows protesters writing in chalk on the sidewalk, chanting through a megaphone and at one point leaving a copy of the Constitution on Hawley’s doorstep.

“This was not threatening behavior,” said Patrick Young, a ShutDownDC organizer. “This is people engaging in democracy and engaging in civil discourse. … This was a pretty tame and peaceful visit to his house.”

The group’s video shows several officers asking protesters to quiet down, but then standing by as the crowd continued with its demonstration.

On Monday evening, Hawley spokeswoman Kelli Ford issued a statement saying “the left-wing activists refused to disperse until the police showed up.” Ford noted that when Erin Hawley, the senator’s wife, stepped outside with a child in her arms and asked the protesters to leave, "they instead screamed threats through blow horns at Erin, a newborn baby and their neighbors, and then they followed up by stepping onto their porch to pound on the front door and peer inside the house at Erin.”

As Hawley’s social media posts drew mounting attention from conservative critics Monday night, the incident pointed to growing tensions in a week when Washington is bracing for protests and partisanship.

With Congress set to confirm President-elect Joe Biden’s victory on Wednesday, thousands of members of far-right groups, including the Proud Boys — whose leader was arrested in D.C. on Monday — are expected to assemble to falsely claim that President Trump was reelected.

Young, a 37-year-old research analyst at a nonprofit organization, said that ShutDownDC targeted Hawley because of his role in promoting unsubstantiated theories about widespread election fraud.

Last week, Hawley became the first senator to announce that he would object when Congress convenes Wednesday to certify the electoral college vote, thus forcing a contentious floor debate. More than 10 others have since said they would join him in challenging votes from some battleground states.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) on Dec. 30 pledged to challenge President-elect Joe Biden's victory next week when Congress convenes to certify the electoral (Video: Reuters)

Growing number of Trump loyalists in the Senate vow to challenge Biden’s victory

Those efforts, Young said, had also encouraged the Trump supporters who are expected to descend on D.C. this week for a “Stop the Steal” protest, in turn putting the city at risk of violent clashes and hurting trust in the democratic process.

Given that the coronavirus pandemic has shut down many of the offices where the group might usually protest, Young said it decided to bring its demonstration to Hawley’s doorstep. (Congress nonetheless continues to meet in person.)

“If we want to talk to powerful people, we need to talk to powerful people where they are,” Young said, “and more often than not, that’s home right now.”

It is hardly a new tactic for protesters to take their message to politicians’ doorsteps, but activists across the political spectrum have increasingly adopted such a strategy over the past year: Racial justice protesters last summer targeted the homes of Democratic mayors in cities such as Chicago, St. Louis and Seattle, while armed protesters alleging voter fraud surrounded the home of Michigan’s secretary of state in December.

Closer to the nation’s capital, figures including Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, then-acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement director Tony Pham and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) — as well as a host of city council members — have had crowds large and small gather outside their doors with signs and chanting.

On Monday night, ShutDownDC took a cue from that playbook as members assembled in Vienna. Outside a tall green house on a residential street, they chanted: “Hawley, Hawley, shame on you” and “Due diligence has been done, Biden-Harris have won.”

A few minutes later, the group’s video shows, a woman opened the front door to Hawley’s house and appeared to admonish the group, telling them she has “neighbors and a baby.” Then, a man approached from across the street and asked the crowd, “Why are you disturbing our neighborhood?”

Young said that three police cruisers were present for most of the brief demonstration. About 15 minutes after the group arrived at Hawley’s residence, a law enforcement officer can be seen on the live stream asking them to quiet down until her supervisor arrives.

On Twitter, Hawley wrote that the group’s vigil consisted of “screaming threats through bullhorns, vandalizing property, pounding on the doors of homes and terrorizing innocent people and children.”

But Young said the group made a point not to knock on Hawley’s door, instead ringing the doorbell as he left a copy of the Constitution on the senator’s door. Members of the group also read messages from people in the contested states whose votes Hawley, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and other senators have said they plan to challenge.

Responding to the senator’s tweet, Young said he proudly identifies as an anti-fascist, yet added that he was disappointed in Hawley’s rhetoric.

“That’s not the level of discourse that we would want to engage in,” he said. “But if he wants to call us scumbags, then we’re happy to call him a snowflake.”

Tom Jackman contributed to this report.