Up and down the western United States, protests have devolved into violent clashes replete with thrown rocks, exploding fireworks and streams of chemical irritants.
But the nation’s capital — with its strict gun laws and history of orderly, peaceful protest — has largely avoided these violent conflicts.
Extremism experts who study the far-right warn that D.C. is on a path to become the next battleground in increasingly violent confrontations with left-leaning counterdemonstrators.
In the weeks since the 2020 presidential election, a coalition of loyalists of President Trump, conspiracy theory adherents, white nationalists, self-proclaimed militia members and other fringe figures have flocked to the nation’s capital to support the president’s baseless claims of election fraud. As Trump’s hopes of reversing the election results have faltered, those who falsely believe the election was stolen or fraudulent have grown increasingly angry and desperate.
Extremist groups intent on sowing chaos and division have capitalized on these feelings to recruit members and spread disinformation, experts say. In online chat groups and forums, political rage and disbelief metastasizes into calls for violence.
“They feel Trump won the election and that the country is being stolen from them, so this is their last chance to save America,” said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism and the former director of intelligence at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “They’re a lot angrier now, and that worries me. It worries me that now they’re deciding if they’re going to bring guns to the street fight.”
During two weekends of pro-Trump demonstrations in November and December, violent melees spilled into the streets of downtown Washington.
Longtime D.C. protesters, many of whom have been demonstrating since the May police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, have called for D.C. residents and supporters to join them to stand against groups they see as an existential threat. Both times, they have been outnumbered.
“D.C. is not exactly a Proud Boy-friendly city,” said Eric Feinberg, who monitors online activity from extremist groups as vice president of content moderation at Coalition for a Safer Web. “Activists are in a more defensive position here. They see it as protecting their turf. But what happens is then you get these other groups like the Proud Boys that want to cause violence, and they know that if they come to D.C. they’ll be confronted by these left-wing activists — that’s where it gets dangerous.”
On Wednesday, Trump’s supporters and a litany of far-right groups who believe the president’s baseless claims of voter fraud will again converge in D.C. to demand that Congress overturn the results of the election. That same day, Congress is set to convene to certify electoral college votes, declaring President-elect Joe Biden the winner.
Trump continued on Friday to publicize the right-wing demonstrations on Twitter. “The BIG Protest Rally in Washington, D.C., will take place at 11.00 A.M. on January 6th,” Trump tweeted, although none of the organizers requesting permits gave that start time. “Locational details to follow. StopTheSteal!”
D.C. is no stranger to protests. The city has averaged more than 800 permitted demonstrations annually in recent years and many more that gather without permits. While arrests have increased as protesters have sought to use civil disobedience to make a point, the arrests often are planned and choreographed.
But security experts who study extremist movements and terrorism threats say street brawls are part of the ethos of far-right agitators. Experts said these groups will continue to return to Washington well after Biden is sworn into office.
Trump’s far-right supporters have announced plans to return to D.C. on Jan. 17 and in the days around Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration, during which some militants are touting a “Million Militia March.”
“This is where people come to march. Historically, this is where hate groups have come to march, as well,” Beirich said. “Washington is a far better target for them than [the West Coast]. You get better press coverage, there’s a lively anti-fascist movement in D.C. so you’re almost guaranteeing you’ll get some clashes in the streets. That’s what they thrive on.”
Permit applications estimate thousands of attendees will spread throughout various sites downtown, chanting and waving flags. But in encrypted chat apps and online message boards, a different kind of day appears to be taking shape.
For weeks, anonymous users have posted tips and strategies for smuggling firearms into D.C., where carrying without a permit is prohibited and guns are banned at protests. Organizers on the left and right have warned their followers to prepare for violence.
Neo-Nazis took to Telegram, an encrypted chat app that allows users to broadcast to a channel of subscribers, to encourage followers to attend, saying they need “boots on the ground” to intimidate lawmakers and push for a nationalist agenda.
Comments on a YouTube video announcing the Hotel Harrington’s decision to close during the days leading up to Wednesday’s protest — after a Washington Post report on how D.C.’s oldest continuously running hotel became a Proud Boys rallying spot — devolved into calls for violence and an armed takeover along the Mall.
“At what point do armed Americans seize DC and start hanging politicians? It’s an honest question that is not without merit or precedence,” wrote a user in a post that was up-voted by other contributors more than 1,100 times.
A number of commenters indicated they believed — or hoped — a civil war may soon begin against a perceived band of enemies that includes communists, socialists and anyone deemed a member of “antifa.”
Enrique Tarrio, the leader of the Proud Boys, who did not respond to a request for comment for this article, wrote in a post that was widely shared on Parler and Telegram that the group will turn out “in record numbers on Jan. 6,” promising “1,000 boots on the ground.”
Tarrio and other Proud Boys leaders also told followers to ditch their signature black and gold dress in favor of all-black clothing — an apparent attempt to make far-right agitators harder to pick out in a crowd of black-clad anti-fascist and anti-Trump demonstrators.
“We will be incognito and we will spread across downtown D.C. in smaller teams,” Tarrio posted on Parler.
Other likely attendees include members of various armed groups, such as anti-government groups like the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers. Members of the youth-led Groypers, a white-supremacist group, are also likely to return. On Dec. 12, they cheered as bands of Proud Boys carried a Black Lives Matter sign torn from outside a historically Black church, then set it on fire.
Experts say far-right groups have used Telegram channels and other social media to exchange taunts and threats with left-leaning activist organizations. Supporters of the Proud Boys gleefully reposted and highlighted videos in recent days of black-clad demonstrators being punched and pushed to the ground at previous rallies.
“They’re putting this stuff online to taunt each other, to try and get the other side riled up,” Feinberg said. “It’s memetic warfare.”
Online fundraisers have cropped up to solicit donations for travel, communications equipment — such as earpieces, microphones and radios — and help covering the medical bills of Proud Boys who were hospitalized after Dec. 12 stabbings in a chaotic altercation across from Harry’s Bar, the in-house pub at the Hotel Harrington.
Street medics, who volunteer to treat those wounded at protests, and members of left-leaning groups have launched similar fundraising campaigns. Some money goes to purchase radios to track real-time movements of the opposition and to send warnings, or marching orders, to their allies.
During the Dec. 12 rally, men dressed in Proud Boys colors pressed radio receivers into their ears as they awaited instructions.
“They found antifa — we have to get to E Street,” a man said to a small crowd gathered around him.
These small, roving gangs often did not unearth antifa — a loose collective of activists who identify as anti-fascist — but instead were involved in violent attacks on passersby.
One man caught in the fray was 25-year-old Christopher Langley, a U.S. Army specialist who said he had stopped in D.C. for sushi after spending the warm December day at Six Flags America with his siblings and a friend.
As he walked through crowds downtown, Langley said, he was attacked by men wearing vests marked with the yellow letters “PB.” He was punched in the head, knocked to the ground and surrounded by at least four Proud Boys, he said.
Langley said he received four stitches at George Washington University Hospital to close a cut on his lip.
“It was surprising in that I didn’t do anything to provoke them,” he said. “I wasn’t wearing anything they disagreed with.”
Experts say this escalation — marking anyone who is not with them as the enemy — indicates that far-right groups are growing more volatile and less concerned about appealing to mainstream Americans.
Rita Katz, executive director of SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremism and terrorism threats, said the posture of many far-right groups changed after Trump’s election loss.
“Before that, they were trying to create an image that they were the victims, that antifa was attacking them, that antifa was the real threat,” Katz said. “They still hold this victim mentality, but their message has evolved to suggest that it’s now their turn — if not their ‘duty’ — to spark confrontation. Essentially, ‘this is it; be prepared and bring whatever you need to fight.’ ”
Incoming D.C. police chief Robert J. Contee III, who will oversee the police response on Wednesday, said “violence will not be tolerated” at protests. He said he was “on the ground” during the last visit from the Proud Boys and saw the kind of violence that night wrought.
He said violent protests “are not an anomaly” in D.C. and compared the last two far-right demonstrations to racial justice protests in late May after George Floyd’s death. At that time, swells of angry and grieving demonstrators converged downtown for weeks. At times, confrontations with police escalated as protesters threw rocks and water bottles or shot fireworks at the police line. Federal police officers fired tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds of protesters.
On Dec. 12, tight lines of D.C. police officers denied roaming clusters of Proud Boys — some wearing helmets and body armor, or carrying clubs and shields — entry to Black Lives Matter Plaza for much of the night as clashes exploded nearby. Frustrated, members of the group yelled at officers, telling them to “do your job.”
In online discussion groups this week, posts from far-right demonstrators showed a growing disillusionment with police officers. Some called for police to stand back, while others called for violence to be exacted against “corrupt” police.
“The optics aren’t pretty any time you have 200 to 300 people brawling in the street and you’re trying to arrest those involved in violent behavior,” Contee said. “It’s totally unacceptable. When we see and we are safely able to take people into custody, we will do so.”
Emily Davies and Peter Hermann contributed to this report.