One of the images that lingers with me from the January 6 demonstration at the Capitol is how casually so many people strolled through the building, as though they were just tourists. They walk in, heads turning left and right and up. They’re trying to take it all in.
It always amazes me to see these people. They weren’t Proud Boys or some other vigilantes. They were just Trump supporters who believed, oddly, that the electoral process was failing and who chose to come to Washington to participate in the demonstration. They followed the crowd down Pennsylvania Avenue, climbed the stairs, and walked into the Capitol.
I‘m not defending those people. They were engaged in criminal activity.
It’s their demeanor that is surprising. They didn’t think of themselves as militia; in fact as they stroll around and take pictures, it’s difficult to think of them even as demonstrators. They showed no purpose in being there; they didn’t come in the door and immediately proceed to some destination. They were much more like awestruck tourists, almost like people who had made the wrong turn in the bowels of the stadium and found themselves backstage with the Rolling Stones.
You can see many of these people in the videos that flood the internet. Most of the videos capture the violence, but some just show people walking around, thinking about how cool it was to be in the Capitol. So cool, in fact, that they were sending videos of the event to their friends. Here’s a link to a tweet where you can see how casual people were about breaking into a secure federal facility.
I would guess that if on January 3rd you’d asked those people whether they intended to overrun security and enter the Capitol, they would have said, “Of course not! I’m just going to march in the demonstration.” When the time came, however, the mob mentality took over, and they followed the crowd (behind people who fully intended to storm the Capitol).
I find it hard to condemn those people for anything other than being stupid, principally because I can understand how it happened. I lived in Washington, D.C. during the late 60s and early 70s and although I wasn’t a regular, I participated in my share of demonstrations. I went to add my body to the mass of people gathering to express our opposition to the war in Viet Nam. Other than violating perhaps a few traffic laws or a parade permit requirement, I didn’t intend to commit any crimes. There were, no doubt, a few people there who came prepared to be involved in more significant criminal activity, but that wasn’t me.
However, if I had found myself walking in a large crowd of people up the steps of the Capitol and came to an open door, with no meaningful security telling me to turn back, I probably would have walked in. Everyone else was doing it, there was a general party atmosphere, and I really was upset about the war, so why not? If you had asked me three days before the event whether I would walk into the Capitol illegally, I would have said, “Of course not. I’m not stupid. I’m just going to march in the demonstration.”
“So, what?” you might ask and to be honest, I don’t know what it means that a lot of the people who invaded the Capitol were doing something that in a more rational moment they would recognize as foolish.
I’ve been reminded about this by a new advertisement that Verizon has been running on television. It shows four people, a family, I guess, talking about what a great deal you can get from Verizon, when suddenly another person pushes two big doors apart and asks whether it’s true. When he hears it is, the doors open farther and hundreds of people begin streaming into what I gather is supposed to be a Verizon store, looking for all the world like the January 6 crowd. The only difference is that there’s no violence. Take a look:
What’s Verizon telling us? Hey, we’re just ordinary Americans, and there’s no difference between going to the Verizon store and storming the Capitol? Come on in and pick up a new phone, so you can post on Instagram from the White House?
Did Verizon intentionally borrow the mood of the January 6 demonstrators looking to enjoy a backstage visit with the Speaker of the House? Is there a subliminal message here? Is Verizon quietly encouraging all of us to change our focus from politics back to what we all have in common – raw consumerism?
All I know is January 6 was a bad day, and Verizon would do well not to remind me of it, even in its most innocent moments.