WASHINGTON — The 7-foot, black metal fences surrounding the US Capitol were back, congressional offices were closed, and Washington on Friday was once more on edge, as law enforcement officials prepared for a gathering of far-right protesters expected on Saturday, just over eight months after a mob of insurrectionists stormed the seat of democracy on Jan. 6.
Organized by a former Trump campaign staffer, Saturday’s “Justice for J6” rally is an attempt to rewrite the history of the violent Capitol attack, casting the more than 600 rioters who face federal charges as “political prisoners” and their anti-democratic desire to steal an election as a noble truth-telling mission.
But unlike on Jan. 6, Donald Trump won’t be there to fan the flames, and no Republican member of Congress has announced they are attending, dampening enthusiasm among potential attendees who are speculating online it could be a trap.
Even so, federal and local law enforcement stressed they would not to be caught unaware this time around, erecting barricades around the Capitol and providing ample security ahead of time.
“We are not going to tolerate violence, and we are not going to tolerate criminal behavior of any kind,” US Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger said in a security briefing Friday, adding that officials had been working to ensure “that we don’t have a repeat of Jan. 6.”
Officers said they were expecting a peaceful protest but that they had received threats of violence and were prepared for possible “lone wolf attacks,” as well as potential clashes between demonstrators and groups of counterprotesters who could be in attendance.
Since Jan. 6, extremists and white supremacists have continued to stoke anxieties on the Capitol grounds. In April, a man from Indiana crashed a car into officers at a nearby police checkpoint, killing officer William “Billy” Evans, a North Adams native. A California man was arrested just after midnight on Monday outside of the Democratic National Committee headquarters after Capitol Police found a bayonet and machete in his pickup truck, which was emblazoned with a swastika and other white supremacist symbols.
The rally has been planned by the far-right group Look Ahead America, which is led by 2016 Trump campaign operative Matt Braynard, who has been advocating to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Organizers were granted a protest permit for 700 people, but law enforcement officials said the number of people it could ultimately attract was uncertain.
The event has raised concern among national security officials and domestic terrorism researchers for the underlying message it attempts to spread — that the more than 600 people who broke laws and vandalized the nation’s most iconic symbol of democracy are being persecuted for their beliefs. It is the latest in a push by Trump, far-right groups, and some Republican members of Congress to sanitize the defendants and obfuscate the memory of the most violent assault on the Capitol since the War of 1812 as they continue to falsely insist the election was stolen.
And for a city that only recently had begun to see some semblance of normalcy, the reinstallation of the barriers around the Capitol was yet another reminder that one of the greatest security threats facing the nation is coming from within its own borders — a toxic strain of anti-democratic and white supremacist extremism infiltrating its politics and dividing its people.
“The challenge that you see when mainstream actors are engaging in the exact same language as a neo-Nazi or white supremacist Telegram chat is that a far wider range of people are going to start getting the messaging, if they don’t already have it,” said Jon Lewis, a research fellow with the program on extremism at George Washington University. “In the long term, that is a significant concern.”
At least this time, domestic terrorism and disinformation analysts say they have not tracked the same level of interest in the rally online as they did ahead of Jan. 6, when extremists broke through the Capitol’s doors, smashed its windows, and scaled its walls in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s election victory. Ahead of the attack, attendees saturated social media with travel plans and Capitol maps, and amplified Trump’s baseless allegations of massive voter fraud and lies that he had won the election.
Mary McCord, executive director of Georgetown’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, said the signs that Jan. 6 was going to be violent were so clear, she and other researchers “were waving red flags for law enforcement.”
”Here, there’s a lot of extremists saying, ‘Don’t go, it’s a law enforcement trap, it’s a honey pot,’” she said, adding that it is still important for law enforcement to prepare for the worst-case scenario.
Law enforcement and national security officials have opted for a hard-line stance, a move likely taken to avoid the security failures and mishaps that overwhelmed their agencies on Jan. 6.
Capitol Police officials have been monitoring “online chatter” since Monday and warning people to stay home. On Wednesday, the agency announced it had requested the Pentagon to keep the National Guard on call should it need additional assistance. And that night, work crews re-installed the metal fences and concrete barriers around the Capitol that closed off the building to visitors for months after the Jan. 6 attack. It was the kind of response that counterterrorism and national security officials said was missing the day of the insurrection.
“You are seeing them prepare for [the rally] through what I think, in some ways, is an excessive show of force compared to the number of people who are likely to appear, and I will tell you I am OK with that,” Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary for homeland security under President Barack Obama, said of Capitol Police. “Sometimes security theater is essential theater.”
Braynard did not return requests for comment.
Federal prosecutors have charged more than 600 people in more than 40 states with participating in the Jan. 6 riot, nearly 90 percent of whom are men, according to the program on extremism at George Washington University.
On the Hill, congressional leaders, including Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressed confidence in the measures after meetings with Capitol Police officials. Karine Jean-Pierre, the principal deputy press secretary for the White House, this week told reporters the rally was “something that we do not want to see.“
“The president has been very clear on the events of January 6th, that they were unprecedented in our democracy,” she said. “But if people come together, they should come together peacefully.”
House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern of Worcester who was the last person evacuated from the House floor and was present when a rioter was shot by police, used sharper language, calling the upcoming rally an insult to those who had seen the violence with their own eyes.
“These people were not arrested because of who they voted for, they were not arrested because of what they believe, they have been arrested because they broke the law,” he said. “These people are not patriots, and they are certainly not political prisoners, they are cowards.”
Jess Bidgood of the Globe staff contributed to this report.