Any passing American could have been forgiven for thinking he had stumbled upon one of the great human rights struggles of our time.
Speakers managed to mention Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and the Nazi persecution of the Jewish people. They spoke of prisoners held in conditions with echoes of Soviet gulags.
Then there was the sheer injustice of the roundups. Innocent people taken away by the secret police for daring to criticize the government.
Except that it was a demonstration to demand the release of hundreds of people arrested for their part in the capture of the United States Capitol on January 6, with the aim of preventing Congress from certifying the victory of Joe Biden in the presidential election of 2020.
As the Republican Party and Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters struggle to rewrite the narrative of the attempted coup, supporters of those arrested in the aftermath have attempted to transform it from a political issue into a human rights issue with the “Justice for J6” rally near the Capitol on Saturday.
In protest, it was a flop.
The turnout was at best half of the 700 predicted by organizers, which in itself is far lower than the thousands who stormed Congress in January. Event organizer Matt Braynard, a former Trump campaigner, blamed the low turnout on government intimidation and the scare-mongering press.
“To those who showed up, I congratulate you on your courage,” he said.
This set a broad tone for a rally that sought to portray those arrested as brave Americans defending their democratic right to protest. No mention was made of the role Trump played on January 6 when he urged his supporters to “fight like hell” to defend his claim to winning the election.
About 650 people were charged with riot-related offenses and nearly 60 pleaded guilty, mostly to relatively minor crimes, including obstructing official proceedings and illegal demonstrations on Capitol Hill. Some are being held without bail.
Four people died in the riot, including a woman shot dead by a police officer as she tried to climb onto the floor of the house. Brian Sicknick, a Capitol Hill policeman attacked by protesters, died the next day. Other officers were beaten.
Braynard insisted he did not have a truck with those arrested for violence against police.
“That is not the goal of this rally,” he said. “It’s not about the people who were violent.
Instead, he attacked a “two-tier justice system” that allowed liberals such as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and environmentalists to protest inside Capitol Hill by occupying Nancy Pelosi’s office, but gathered a few hundred people just trying to get the government to hear their complaint about the election count.
“This is a disparate treatment of non-violent people,” he said.
Braynard deplored the violence of the system against demonstrators who “see their lives destroyed”. It was time, he said, for good men and women to cry out, “Let them go.”
Speakers spoke of family members arrested by the FBI who were now “political detainees” and “prisoners of conscience”.
A woman who identified herself as the girlfriend of Jonathan Mellis, a man charged with crimes including assault, said he was being held in solitary confinement. She read a letter in which he said, “It reminds me of how the Jews were treated by the Nazis. “
The organizers of the rally, Look Ahead America, told those in attendance not to wear paraphernalia to support Trump or political groups, in order to keep the focus on advocating for human rights.
Braynard spotted a man who identified himself as Adam from Florida holding an American flag with the Roman numeral III in the corner. This, Braynard said, was a symbol for a far-right militia, the Three Percent.
“It’s an outside group and it makes the optics look bad,” he said, telling Adam to put away the flag. “Anyone who does not agree to take it down, we have to assume it is an infiltrator. “
Adam professed ignorance of the association – but raised the flag.
Anders Bruce, a 30-year-old organizer of Look Ahead America, said he was there to seek justice for “prisoners of conscience” subjected to political persecution.
But who was responsible for this persecution when the prosecution began under the Trump administration?
“It shows that this is a problem with the government of the two political parties,” he said.
Others came to protest against the demonstrators.
Doug Hughes stood among the supporters of the prisoners with a sign: “There is no right to insurrection.
Hughes, a former postman, was jailed for four months for landing a gyrocopter in front of the Capitol in 2015, seeking to deliver letters to members of Congress professing objections to corporate money corrupting US politics.
“I knew there would be consequences. I am a criminal, I lost my job and I don’t regret anything I did, ”he said. “Now those people who broke the law on January 6 must accept the consequences.”
Was he worried about his safety in the midst of an unwelcoming crowd?
“Yes, but I feel more strongly that we must adhere to democracy. The loser of the election is supposed to accept the results.
In the end, no one disturbed Hughes or any of the other dissidents scattered around the crowd.
Trump was notable for his absence. The ex-president had gone to golf in New Jersey, but Trump’s usual hats and t-shirts were also missing. The only flag bearing his name was hoisted at the edge of the rally by a Black Lives Matter protester. “Fuck Donald Trump,” he said.
An African-American man selling Trump hats on the edge of the rally was not doing much business. When asked if he was sympathetic to the former president, he smiled.
“It’s money,” he said.