Washington is bracing for Saturday’s “Justice for J6” rally where demonstrators will be backing people who invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6 — a scarring memory for many in the Capitol Hill community worried about a potential repeat of that day’s terror.
Security officials are under intense pressure to ensure nothing like that happens again and prove they’ve learned from their failures to anticipate the chaos from more than eight months ago when a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol while Congress was in session.
The tall, imposing fence that was erected around the Capitol grounds the day after Jan. 6 was reinstalled Wednesday night in preparation for this weekend. And the Department of Homeland Security warned of the potential for violence in a memo obtained by CNN, though officials said they were not aware of any specific plots.
But there are also signs that Saturday’s rally is unlikely to devolve into the kind of mayhem seen in early January. Authorities are more prepared this time around, and they do not have the added worry of protecting lawmakers or congressional staff in the building.
The rally will take place on a weekend when neither chamber of Congress is scheduled to be in session. And unlike the “Stop the Steal” rally at the White House that preceded the January attack on the Capitol, no lawmakers have said they plan to participate in Saturday’s demonstration.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District of Columbia’s nonvoting representative in Congress and a vocal opponent of permanent fencing around the Capitol, said the security preparations are “an overcompensation for the failures of Jan. 6.”
“It looks like the authorities, especially the Capitol Police, have been taken aback by how unprepared they were on Jan. 6. So now they’re coming back overprepared,” Norton told The Hill.
She lamented the “unsightly” fence — which is taking up the sidewalk around the Capitol grounds — but said she understands why Capitol Police decided to reinstall it.
“I can understand that the authorities want to make a show of force. And because this is the first such demonstration since Jan. 6, I can excuse it, so long as it doesn’t become a habit,” Norton said.
A Department of Homeland Security official said earlier this week that about 700 people are expected to attend the demonstration, a much smaller crowd than the thousands who converged on the Capitol grounds in January.
Rally organizers also have sought to calm fears about a repeat of Jan. 6, telling attendees not to wear pro-Trump clothing, “be respectful and kind to all law enforcement officers” and behave peacefully.
Matt Braynard, a former Trump campaign staffer and leader of the group organizing Saturday’s rally, maintained in a series of Twitter posts Thursday that the rally will be a “100% peaceful event in support of the nonviolent offenders from January 6th who have been charged.”
“We are cooperating completely with multiple different police forces to ensure that everyone is safe. Anyone with the intent of committing violence has no business at our rally,” Braynard wrote.
Even some of the House Republicans who, like the rally organizers, have portrayed people jailed for crimes related to storming the Capitol as “political prisoners” are staying away from the event.
Aides to GOP Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) and Louie Gohmert (Texas) — who previously held a news conference outside the Justice Department to protest the treatment of people arrested over Jan. 6-related crimes and tried to visit a D.C. jail to personally view their conditions — confirmed to The Hill that the lawmakers won’t be at Saturday’s rally.
A spokesperson for Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), who called the jailed defendants “political hostages” and suggested that “people whose only crime was just simply trespassing” were treated too harshly, also confirmed he won’t be in attendance.
Still, law enforcement officials aren’t taking any chances.
Capitol Police asked the Pentagon for National Guard support “should the need arise” on Saturday. Officers from the Metropolitan Police Department will also have an increased presence around the city, with numerous street closures set to go into effect.
The Capitol has already been on high alert, with numerous security incidents unfolding near the building since Jan. 6.
Early Monday morning, Capitol Police arrested a California man who had multiple knives in his truck — which had a swastika and other white supremacist symbols on it — outside the Democratic National Committee headquarters, just a few blocks from the Capitol.
Last month, a North Carolina man drove his truck onto the sidewalk in front of the Library of Congress, across the street from the Capitol, and claimed he had a bomb, causing a tense five-hour standoff with law enforcement.
In April, a man rammed his car into a Senate-side security barricade, killing a Capitol Police officer and injuring another. A month before that, the House cut its legislative session for the week short due to concerns about a possible plot by a militia group to attack the Capitol, with followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory believing that former President Trump would be re-inaugurated at that time.
This time, however, some of the extremist forums that showed enthusiasm before Jan. 6 say Saturday’s event is a “honeypot” in which they’ll be entrapped by federal agents, NBC News reported.
But even with the newly erected fence, Capitol Police officers were not preventing members of the public from entering the Capitol grounds or checking IDs on Thursday afternoon as they did in the aftermath of Jan. 6.
The fence, nevertheless, was a preview of the show of force expected on Saturday as law enforcement seeks to ensure the Capitol is protected.
“I hope it doesn’t send a message that every time there’s a demonstration at the Capitol, we’re going to call out the troops as if this were a war,” Norton said.