PROVIDENCE — A Rhode Island legislator is facing mounting pressure to resign after acknowledging he marched to the US Capitol on Wednesday and espousing the debunked conspiracy theory that Antifa was to blame for the ensuing riot.
In a series of tweets, Representative Justin Price, a Richmond Republican, said that he “marched to the Capitol” with “peaceful patriots,” but said he didn’t enter the building and claimed Antifa “false flagged” the “Trump rally.”
The FBI has said there is no evidence that Antifa activists were involved in the violent riots in and around the Capitol. And those identified as having taken part in the riot include white nationalists and noted conspiracy theorists such as Jake Angeli, the “Q Shaman,” who was pictured in the Capitol in a viking helmet and furs.
Price traveled to Washington one day after refusing to wear a face mask when the House convened at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium for the opening day of the 2021 legislative session. He ended up being sworn in and voting in a separate room along with Representative Robert J. Quattrocchi, a Scituate Republican who also did not wear a mask.
Those back-to-back actions prompted Democratic General Treasurer Seth Magaziner to issue a statement on Saturday night, calling for Price to resign.
“At a time when American democracy is under siege from conspiracy theorists and white supremacists determined to overturn the free and fair presidential election, Representative Justin Price has abused his platform by amplifying false conspiracy theories surrounding the attack on the US Capitol,” Magaziner said. “His behavior risks inflaming an already charged situation by encouraging those seeking to overturn the election.”
Also, he said that by refusing to wear a mask during the House session, Price was “putting his colleagues and staff members at risk.”
“As elected officials we are duty bound to defend our democratic system of government, to tell our constituents the truth, and to promote public health in the midst of this pandemic,” Magaziner said. “Representative Price’s actions of the past week demonstrate that he lacks the judgment to hold public office.”
If Price does not resign, the House GOP caucus should expel him “to make clear that his behavior does not represent the Republican Party in our state,” Magaziner said.
Price did not respond to the Globe’s repeated requests for comment.
On Sunday, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, issued a statement saying he would pursue punishment, up to expulsion, if a legislator is found guilty of having committed a crime at the US Capitol on Wednesday.
“The acts of domestic terrorism in Washington, D.C., last Wednesday, aimed at overturning the presidential election, were treasonous, illegal, and despicable,” Shekarchi said.
He noted that the US Attorney for Rhode Island has vowed to prosecute anyone who traveled from Rhode Island to commit federal crimes at the Capitol.
“If any state representative committed such crimes, the House of Representatives will act swiftly and decisively to the fullest extent possible under Article VI, Section 7 of the Rhode Island Constitution,” Shekarchi said. “Let’s not forget that five Americans died on that tragic day.”
That section of the Constitution allows the House to “punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member.”
In response to Shekarchi’s statement, House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi, a Block Island Republican, tweeted, “House members are expelled for bad acts, not bad thoughts. There are no allegations that Rep. Price did anything other than attend what he believed to be a lawful protest, and to express his opinion about what happened that sad day – and this is where a House inquiry ends.”
Meanwhile, Representative Brandon Potter, a newly elected Cranston Democrat, is calling for Price to resign.
“In light of Rep. Justin Price’s admission to being present at the US Capitol and his public comments regarding the attack, it is clear he is unfit for office,” Potter said in a statement. “I ask my colleagues, on both sides of the aisle, to join me in demanding accountability and demonstrating responsible, bipartisan leadership at the time when we need it most.”
The Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus also called for Price’s resignation or expulsion.
“Representative Price admits to enthusiastically attending the January 6 Washington DC event – an event where many of the participants wore or carried racist, anti-Semitic, anti-democratic items such as shirts saying ‘Camp Auschwitz’ and other pro-Nazi slogans, Confederate flags, and signs and shirts boasting of the subversion of the democratic process,” the group said. “Marching alongside these people marks Price as an anti-American, anti-democracy seditionist.”
University of Minnesota Professor Emily K. Vraga, an expert in misinformation at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, on Sunday said that conspiracy theories can be harder to correct than concrete, specific misinformation. Conspiracy theories can incorporate a lot of incomplete information, and are so flexible that even a lack of evidence can be presented as evidence of a conspiracy, she said.
Vraga said the most effective means of debunking a conspiracy theory is a response from a trusted voice within the same group. So in this case, a Democrat challenging the conspiracy theory is not going to be believed, but a Republican leader would be much more effective, she said.
“You need elites within the party to hold each other accountable,” Vraga said.
Unfortunately, she said, Republicans at the highest levels of government have promoted and enforced baseless claims of widespread voter fraud and a stolen election.
“What happened at the Capitol happened in large part because of the encouragement by President Trump and by members of Congress,” Vraga said. “They really gave fuel to the fire that wouldn’t necessarily have had as much traction if not for those really powerful voices. It let people coalesce around something that changed from backroom talk to something they were willing to put their faces and bodies behind.”