The Organizational Capacity and Behavioral Characteristics of the Capitol Rioters (First Cut)

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By Lambert Strether of Corrente

This post is a companion piece to The Class Composition of the Capitol Rioters (First Cut) from earlier this week. Unlike that post, which was data-driven, this post will be anecdote-driven (because that’s what we have). I will focus only what the rioters actually did. Hence, a very large number of topics are ruled out of scope, including liberal Democrat aghastitude (a.k.a “hot take”; I counted the number of hot take links I had collected: 47. What a bonanza!), Republican Party support (financial; electoral), tech (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, AirBnB), QAnon (too few rioters mentioned it in the previous post), those who did not attend (even Proud Boys), participants by type (cops, the military, militias), and wellness (!). These are all worthy topics, but they are not topics I will consider today.

So, what the rioters actually did: I’m going to throw my anecdotes into two buckets. I’ll focus first on organizational capacity, the ability to mobilize, because with Robert O. Paxton I believe that a “mass-based party of committed nationalist militants” (where the militants are the KKK or the SA) is an essential characteristic of fascism, and it’s important to know how far we are down that slippery slope. Then I focus on behavioral characteristics of the rioters, simply because I don’t understand so much of what they did.

As a sidebar, I’d like to update Table 4 in the Class Composition post with more examples (and this time I might look at the charging documents). If, dear reades, you want to help out by sending me examples, you can do so lambert [UNDERSCORE] strether [DOT] corrente [AT] yahoo [DOT] com. Please put “Capitol” in the subject line. If the links could be to local sources I would be not likely to find, that would be great. No Facebook please. End sidebar.

Operational Capacity

First, I’ll look at the seizure itself. Then, I’ll focus on various tactical issues. First, here’s a helpful video from Business Insider. It’s pretty short, so it’s worth watching in full.

Quick thoughts on the video: Whatever the Capitol Seizure was, is was not the assault on the Winter Palace. Participants estimate that from “700” up to “2,000 to 3,000” rioters entered. The crowd was not dense, except when packed together. When the cops threw tear gas, nobody knew what to do. (Didn’t anybody watching YouTubes from Hong Kong or Portland?) The sight of the rioters parading past the police is quite something. Note the number of people holding up phones and taking selfies. My favorite quote (almost as good as “While we’re here, we might as well set up a government”) is “What’s the plan? I have no idea.”

A couple of rioters speak of others who instigated action:

As Trump supporters began to storm the Capitol Building, Winchell and Boyland found themselves in the thick of it. Winchell said the trouble began when a few demonstrators began pushing people.

“They basically created a panic, and the police, in turn, push back on them, so people started falling,” Winchell.

The crowd then clashed with police, trampling over one another, pinning Boyland to the ground.

“I put my arm underneath her and was pulling her out and then another guy fell on top of her, and another guy was just walking [on top of her],” Winchell said. “There were people stacked 2-3 deep…people just crushed.”


“That’s where people were trying to enter the door on the side of the Capitol,” he said. “There were a couple of agitators there pushing on the cops, going back and forth. That’s about the time somebody handed me a piece of a flagpole topper, which is a ball. That’s when I threw that half at the closed door.”

This reminds me of an anecdote I have heard about black bloc: When a crowd faces the cops, the black bloc gets behind the crowd and throws objects over it at the police, who then charge the crowd, creating mayhem. Entertaining, but not exactly Republic-toppling.

More on tactics and logistics. I’ll look at transport via bus, weaponry, walkie-talkies, and marching in formation. (These are the buckets that everything I could find fell into; readers again can use the address above to send in more.)

Tranport via bus. Three anecdotes; these are interesting because somebody who can organize and fund a bus trip to Washington, DC has organizational capacity by definition. First, Peter Harding:

Two busloads of people from the Buffalo area traveled to Washington, D.C., to support Trump and protest against Congressional leaders as they gathered Wednesday to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s election. Harding said he was not among them and traveled alone by car.

I’m not sure why a bus needs a chase car (unless whoever’s in the car is carrying or holding). Second, Joe Mullins:

Numerous Floridians headed to the so-called “Save America March,” including a group sponsored by Flagler County Commissioner Joe Mullins, who said in a mostly-plagiarized letter he signed and posted on his Facebook page–the letter was addressed to the Florida congressional delegation–that it included 160 “of my neighbors who want to show their support for this action.”

Flagler is one of the few electeds, if my initial sample is representative. Finally, Ben Philips:

The group left for Washington before dawn Wednesday, sleepy but cheery, from the Bass Pro Shop in Harrisburg and picked up additional passengers in York. Philips drove a separate van, trailing behind the bus. Once everyone arrived in Washington, he broke off to find a place to park and the group headed to hear Trump speak near the Washington Monument.

Philips also had a side business selling Trumparoo dolls; he died of a stroke at the Seizure.

Weaponry. From NBC:

[T]he authorities still turned up a wide array of weapons among the tiny slice of protesters who were arrested before and after the Capitol invasion.

The haul included an assault rifle, a crossbow and 11 Molotov cocktails — all found in the car of an Alabama man.

A crossbow was among the weapons found in Lonnie Coffman’s truck.U.S. Capitol Police

Others had brass knuckles and pocket knives, stun guns and “stinger whips.”

In all, police recovered a dozen guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition from seven people who were arrested before and after the Capitol riot, according to a review of court documents. One man, Lonnie Coffman of Alabama, was found with a massive arsenal that included five guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, federal prosecutors say.

Readers know my views on gun fetishism; but it’s worth noting that of the arrests for weaponry that were made, none were actually in the Capitol, very much unlike the 1954 shootings in the House by Puerto Rican nationalists. So in terms of what the rioters actually did, not so much. (Perhaps, by the standards of a truly committed open carry enthusiast, they were incredibly polite.)

Walkie-talkies. Interestingly:

Donalyn Atkinson and her brother, of Warren, took photos of people headed to the Capitol.

“I actually saw the two guys who breached the Capitol. They were right in front of me. He had on a fur vest with horns, no shirt. It was 40 degrees,” Atkinson said. “These guys had walkie-talkies. I heard them communicate. How did they know they needed walkie-talkies?”

These could possibly have been Proud Boys:

Nevertheless, whatever they were communicating, it was not, at least according to a rioter, “a plan.”

Marching in formation. From the Associated Press:

As President Donald Trump’s supporters massed outside the Capitol last week and sang the national anthem, a line of men wearing olive-drab helmets and body armor trudged purposefully up the marble stairs in a single-file line, each man holding the jacket collar of the one ahead.

The formation, known as “Ranger File,” is standard operating procedure for a combat team that is “stacking up” to breach a building — instantly recognizable to any U.S. soldier or Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a chilling sign that many at the vanguard of the mob that stormed the seat of American democracy either had military training or were trained by those who did.

Which sounds menacing, but what did they do when got to the top of the steps? Break ranks and start taking selfies?

In terms of organizational capacity, the Capitol Seizure rioters showed strong logistical capabilties in getting “the troops” to the field, but after that… Weapons, walkie-talkies, and marching do not a “party of committed nationalist militants” make. I would be the last to deny that movements can display adaptability, but this post is about what the rioters did, and not what they might do. Now let’s turn to the behavior of the rioters themselves.

Behavioral Characteristics

What stuns me is that the Capitol Seizure rioters all made themselves identifiable and discoverable. Not only did they not wear masks, they took selfies and videos of themselves and put them on Facebook! The Associated Press:

The Associated Press reviewed social media posts, voter registrations, court files and other public records for more than 120 people either facing criminal charges related to the Jan. 6 unrest or who, going maskless amid the pandemic, were later identified through photographs and videos taken during the melee.

Lots and lots of photographs:

More than 140,000 pieces of digital media have been obtained by the FBI. “And we are scouring every one for investigative and intelligence leads,” Steven D’Antuono, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, told reporters. “We continue to ask for more.”

Lots and lots of streaming:

One reason would be entrepreneurial (remember that the top occupation among the rioters was “owner,” as shown in Table 4 of the first-post). Hence, self-promotion:

She climbed the steps of the Capitol, then promoted her real estate business to camera: “Y’all know who to hire for your realtor. Jenna Ryan for your realtor.”

A second reason would be dates:

Indeed, in the days since the upheaval, Fellows said his profile on the dating app Bumble is “blowing up” after he posted pictures of himself at the Capitol.

Those are the only two people I can find who proffered non-political motivations. But what kind of sense does it make to break into a building, film yourself, and then post it on Facebook? I suppose, in a way, such openness is laudable and preferable to anonymous, black-masked anarchists, but I don’t get the motivation. Is it a strange new form of civil disobedience? Is it just what one does? Like posting selfies from the high school football game? Is it the quest for five minutes of fame? Is it telling the cops “come and get us”? (This last is not supported by quotes from those arrested; generally they’re not happy about it.


So, now that we’ve looked at the organizational capacity of the rioters (poor) and behavioral characteristics (inexplicable to me, which doesn’t mean inexplicable), what again was the Capitol Seizure? Given that the question-and-answer “What’s the plan? I have no idea” seems accurate, “riot” seems far more appropriate than “insurrection,” let along “coup.” I’ll conclude with another anecdote, “Ocean Beach woman shot and killed during storming of U.S. Capitol was an Iraq War veteran“:

Journalist Will Carless, who covers extremism and emerging issues for USA Today, sent a series of tweets Jan. 6 noting that he happened to have sat next to Babbitt on the flight from San Diego to Baltimore. He tweeted that she was kind enough to help as he tried to make room for his items and take his middle seat.

“It’s a little sappy, but situations like this should remind us that there is more beyond politics,” Carless tweeted in a thread. “The person sitting next to you on a flight, even if they’re wearing a mask you disagree with, is still a person.”

Generally, I’m vehemently opposed to “sappy.” But it seems better than many alternatives I can imagine.

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