In the week since a mob laid siege to the Capitol in a stunning display of violence, police officers in D.C. and beyond have struggled to make sense of what happened. The Jan. 6 attack, which claimed the life of one responding officer and preceded the suicide of another, pitted law enforcement against one of its most loyal allies: Trump supporters.
Gruesome footage shows rioters in MAGA hats brandishing “Stop the Steal” signs and Trump flags dragging an unidentified officer by his helmet and beating him to chants of “Get him!” and “Take him out!” Another video shows the massive crowd crushing a young cop into a metal doorway as he screams and bleeds from his mouth. Brian Sicknick, the slain 15-year veteran of the Capitol Police department, was reportedly bludgeoned in the head with a fire extinguisher.
Inside cops-only message boards and other pro-law enforcement media groups online, police officers are grappling with how a group that usually proclaims “Blue Lives Matter” could turn its wrath on them. Instead of facing the uncomfortable implications of the siege, many are pushing the debunked conspiracy theory that the chaos was orchestrated by anti-fascist activists who disguised themselves in a scheme to make the president and his base look bad.
Other conversations are clear-eyed about who was responsible for the riot — and more sympathetic. “Just heard a report shots fired inside the Capital!! Like the ghetto hopefully the right people get shot!!! 😉” wrote one user on Thee Rant, a web forum popular among far-right current and former members of the New York Police Department.
The online ecosystem for law enforcement officers is shot through with right-wing politics and wild conspiracy theories. While not necessarily representative of mainstream beliefs among the nation’s police, there are already emerging signs that the toxic politics of online spaces like Thee Rant can spill over into real-life action.
At least 13 law enforcement personnel from eight states reportedly attended the riot and are under investigation for their alleged roles in the unrest — including a police chief and an officer wearing a hat with the text, “Trump 2020; Fuck your Feelings.” Many former cops joined the mob, too; a retired Oakland officer who rioted told local media that the insurrectionists would accept the legal consequences of their actions if “the Democrats who committed fraud take the criminal charges of treason.” A former North Miami Beach officer even livestreamed from inside the Capitol, telling his viewers, “The people give the power. And we’re here to take it back.”
Numerous officers who were dispatched to defend the Capitol were also caught on camera shaking rioters’ hands, posing with them for selfies and passively allowing them to bypass police barriers and launch their assault, which was inspired by Trump’s relentless, evidence-free claims that the election was stolen from him through mass voter fraud. The cops’ seemingly friendly demeanor harshly contrasts the brutal force with which American police descended upon racial justice protesters nationwide following the killing of George Floyd.
Police officers’ apparent involvement in last week’s deadly and unlawful insurrection makes clear just how effective the president’s onslaught of disinformation has been at radicalizing people — even members of law enforcement — to try to keep him in power by any means necessary. Some elements of the nation’s police have closely aligned with Trump and embraced anti-democratic conspiracy theories over the rule of law, and to anyone monitoring these online groups, that’s been clear for a long time.
Far-Right Online Echo Chambers
Outside of public scrutiny, numerous online groups exist for members of the law enforcement community where former and current police officers can express their views anonymously and without fear of accountability. These communities often become rife with racism and conspiracy theories.
Thee Rant promotes itself as a place for New York City cops to share their unfiltered opinions and requires members to be current or former officers. This week, the NYPD concluded a two-month investigation in which it discovered that its own top anti-harassment official had posted dozens of racist messages to the forum.
In recent days, many posts on Thee Rant have condoned the riot or promoted baseless conspiracies about the siege on the Capitol. After Capitol Police shot and killed rioter Ashli Babbitt as she attempted to smash through a door in the Capitol building, some posters on Thee Rant declared it the beginning of a revolution.
“That gun shot victim, if a true Trump supporter, just became a martyr to a just cause,” one frequent poster on the site commented. Another proclaimed “The Revolt has begun,” while one post celebrating the attempt to overthrow Biden’s election declared, “now that is Democracy.”
But other threads on Thee Rant tried to disconnect Trump supporters from the chaos and promoted the debunked allegation that “antifa” activists had posed in MAGA attire to carry out an elaborate plot against the president.
“The attack on the Capitol is their reichstag deception,” one poster, whose profile picture featured both a “thin blue line” flag and QAnon banner, commented. Others posted authoritarian fantasies of Trump taking fascist retribution against his opponents, referencing QAnon beliefs of Trump arresting government officials.
“At this point the only way to fight this coup is with another ‘coup.’ Obama purged many of the patriot/warrior types out of the military but Trump must have some idea of which generals he can call on,” one post read. “Do it, Donald. Military tribunals. Use the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) to run the story 24/7 while the traitors are rounded up.”
Amid the conspiracies, racism and far-right extremism on Thee Rant, a few posts on the forum pushed back.
“You guys are in some kind of right wing trance,” said one poster.
Cops also have a thriving support network of public and private Facebook groups. In “Law Enforcement Family,” a 69,000-member group “developed by law enforcement officers for the law enforcement community, family members, friends and those who support law enforcement,” people processing the violence are torn between condemning the Trump supporters responsible, scapegoating antifa and pushing other baseless conspiracy theories.
“It disturbs me that the right won’t admit what happened was wrong,” one person commented. “Antifa showed up on busses dressed like maga, they caused the drama,” another argued. “I pray for our capitol police,” a third added. “They were caught in the middle of a dem orchestrated set up and now are being blamed.”
Most siege-related conversations in the group convey a desperate refusal to believe that the president’s base would ever turn on police.
“Trump supporters have not attacked law enforcement. Instead they respect law enforcement,” one commenter reasoned. “No way you will convince me otherwise,” a woman agreed. “I can put my hand in a pot of boiling water that it was not President Trump nor the patriots ― they were trying to stop them.”
Law Enforcement Today, which claims to be the largest police-owned media company (and was founded by a police captain for a tiny Florida luxury island inhabited by the super-rich), has been conspicuously quiet about the siege; it made no mention of what transpired on Jan. 6 until days later.
Among the outlet’s limited coverage is an article with the headline, “Freedom and jobs at risk as online sleuths and federal authorities work to identify Capitol rioters, get them fired.”
LET, which regularly promotes far-right conspiracies, also published a piece on Sunday sympathizing with a handful of the riot attendees who were loudly chanting “USA” during their flight home to Phoenix from D.C. The pilot pleaded with the raucous passengers to behave and “threatened to divert and drop” them in Kansas, LET reported. That same day, the website ran another article about two Seattle Police Department officers who were placed on administrative leave over their alleged involvement in the insurrection, lamenting that they are now “being doxxed by [the] media.”
This is a drastic change from the usual coverage on LET whenever a police officer is injured while on duty or there is a perception that law enforcement is under threat. Over the past year of protests against police brutality, the site has featured profiles of many injured officers and published numerous far-right conspiracies against anti-racism protesters. On Tuesday, the site’s front page story was an article criticizing the president of a tiny Michigan liberal arts college for issuing a statement condemning the Capitol riot and defending the anti-racism and police brutality protests from the past year.
Other articles Law Enforcement Today published on the siege included an editorial from a former police chief who promoted debunked accusations of election fraud and questioned whether Trump supporters were really behind the riot, as well as another post that criticized elected officials calling the rioters “domestic terrorists” and linked to a far-right conspiracy site.
LET published just one post on Sicknick, the Capitol police officer who died from injuries sustained during the riot, but makes no mention of the events leading up to his death or Trump’s incitement of his supporters. It refers to the mob responsible for Sicknick’s death only as “radicals.”
‘It’s OFFENSE Time’
Police departments in states including Washington and California, as well as Washington, D.C., are investigating social media posts in which their officers reportedly sympathized with rioters, shared conspiracy theories about election fraud or both. The Secret Service is also looking into Facebook posts from a female agent, The Washington Post reported.
“Yesterday started out beautiful and as usual Antifa soured the mood and attacked police and an Air Force veteran was murdered,” she wrote. “It’s OFFENSE time finally!!”
Some officers who expressed support online for last week’s violence appeared to take inspiration from QAnon, which was a major promoter of the bogus and viral electoral fraud claims that led to the Capitol siege.
After attending the riot, a Philadelphia police detective tweeted at Vice President Mike Pence, who declined Trump’s instruction to reject electoral votes in favor of President-elect Joe Biden, calling him “a traitor and a cabal operative and pedophile.” The detective’s previous Facebook posts include explicit QAnon references. She has since been reassigned.
The willingness among some law enforcement to openly express beliefs in far-right conspiracy theories is disturbing, and does not appear relegated to fringe, low-ranking officials. The leaders of two major police unions are also facing investigations or calls to resign after expressing statements of support for the riot.
The president of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police lodge John Catanzara, whose organization represents 12,000 police officers, promoted baseless accusations of election fraud and referred to the rioters as “a bunch of pissed-off people that feel an election was stolen” while falsely claiming that there was no violence and little destruction of property.
Catanzara issued an apology amid public backlash and calls from religious and labor leaders for him to resign. The Seattle Police Officers Guild President Mike Solan is facing an internal investigation and similar push for him to step down after he retweeted a far-right activist and claimed the riot was perpetrated by both the “far right and far left.”