PROVIDENCE — They left their homes in Richmond, Johnston, and Cranston, in Newport, West Greenwich, Providence, and Warwick, responding to the call of a leader who needed his “Patriots.”
The election had been stolen from him, he said, over and over again, on social media platforms and videos, in fundraising emails and interviews. It was imperative that they “stop the steal.”
The claims of election fraud were baseless and have been debunked repeatedly by the courts, state officials, and even high-ranking members of the Republican party. Still, Rhode Islanders — include a sitting state representative, people who ran quixotic campaigns for political office, blue- and white-collar workers, largely middle-aged and white — heeded the President’s call, traveling to Washington, D.C., on January 6th.
They share a fervent passion for President Donald J. Trump, who was impeached today in a bipartisan vote for inciting the riot at the Capitol, making him the first United States President ever to have been impeached twice. Many of his most-vocal supporters traffic in online conspiracy theories from right-wing extremists and QAnon that describe Trump as a messianic warrior against the “Deep State,” Democrats, and the mainstream media.
The Rhode Islanders who attended the rally-turned-riot publicly posted pictures from their trip on Twitter and Facebook, crediting “patriots” for breaching the Capitol and insisting that lawmakers “asked for it,” while simultaneously blaming “antifa” and even Capitol Police for the violence. They avoided noting the Nazi and Confederate paraphernalia, the people holding both Trump flags and weapons, the gallows that was erected nearby. In interviews, they expressed a deep distrust of the media, but were willing to talk to a reporter on-the-record anyway.
So far, no Rhode Islanders have been charged with crimes at the Capitol, and those who spoke with the Globe over the last several days said they remained outside or left the area as people stormed into the building, where lawmakers were working to count the electoral votes for President-elect Joseph Biden during a joint session of Congress. In interviews, they downplayed the mob violence, the murder of a Capitol Police officer, and deaths of four other people, and accused the media of vilifying Trump and his supporters.
“S--t happens. Accidents happen,” said Deborah Nagle, 48, of Newport, in response to a question about the death of Capitol Police Officer Brian D. Sicknick. “It sucks, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be there. People need to stop fear-mongering.”
Nagle said she’d gone to the “Save America” rally because she cares about “freedom,” and has had it with people telling her to wear a mask during the pandemic.
“We’re still in trouble because of the global agenda,” said Nagle, who works for her parents’ hardware store. “It’s not just about the election, it’s about small businesses being destroyed, being terrorized for no reason at all. Saying it’s about the election is shallow.”
Nagle said she tried to explain her views about the “global corporate governance” to a Capitol Police officer as he and others tried to control the crowd behind the Capitol building.
“The Capitol Police looked like they were in anguish — you could see it in their eyes,” said Nagle said. “I said to one of them that we all have to make a choice one day.”
She said that she and others ended up being sprayed with tear gas.
George M. Gregorian, 56, of Cranston, was also at the Capitol when he posted on Facebook: “lots of patriots doing what needed to be done. They gave us no choice” and “they asked for it!!!”
Gregorian said later that he went “to show Congress we know about election fraud and to show the people who are certifying that we want our vote to count, and we are here in a mass display of people.”
He admitted that his views about Trump have cost him relationships with friends and relatives. Gregorian runs a landscape lighting business and Frenchy’s popcorn, a vendor at events like Waterfire. He said he’s gotten some backlash from strangers because he went to the Capitol.
“We didn’t need calming down. We weren’t doing anything,” Gregorian said later. “But as soon as they find out you went to Washington, they think you’re an insurrectionist.”
State Rep. Justin Price, a Republican from Richmond, is facing calls for his resignation after he acknowledged going to the Capitol and tweeting conspiracy theories. He later deleted the tweets, but not before they were screenshot and shared by others on social media.
“Yes I marched to the capitol with 1 million peaceful patriots,” Price said in a tweet that has since been deleted. “Unfortunately ANTIFA /BLM infiltrated our peaceful movement and they got caught in the act.”
The FBI said last week there was no indication that people associated with anti-fascism activists, or antifa, disguised themselves as pro-Trump supporters to cause violence at the Capitol. Many of those arrested have since been identified as ardent Trump supporters, members of white-nationalist organizations, and militant right-wing groups.
In interviews with the Globe and in posts on social media, local Trump supporters were clear about not believing it.
Jeffrey Lemire, a Providence scrap-metal dealer and perennial Independent candidate, livestreamed the rally that morning, walking with other people carrying Trump flags who said this was a “second revolution.” Anne Armstrong and Alan Gordon, former candidates for governor and attorney general, respectively, were at the rally as well, blowing shofars and later posting about antifa.
Some people edited disclaimers into their earlier social media posts, perhaps unaware that the edit histories of public posts are visible; some deleted posts entirely or shared new ones insisting the agitators were not Trump supporters. Others simply hoped Trump could still be declared the winner of the election after all.
“I would hope that by a miracle that a legal standpoint could show this was a stolen election,” Gregorian said. “You don’t have to resort to violence and intimidation when the truth is on your side.”