‘We need to be ahead of it’: Activists counter right-wing rally

With polls showing increased sympathy for Jan. 6 insurrectionists, a planned right-wing rally at the Ohio Statehouse in support of those who took part in the attack has been met with local resistance.
A photo outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
A photo outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.By TapTheForwardAssist - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid=98668002

In late December, Jeremey Deeter, a Columbus-based Three Percenter who posts to social media under the alias “Jay Deets,” recorded a Facebook Live video in which he lamented the attention brought by local activists to a planned rally at the Ohio Statehouse set for Saturday, Jan. 6, that Deeter said was designed to “memorialize Ashli Babbitt … and simultaneously be able to bring much-needed attention to the J6 political prisoners,” his term for the individuals arrested and prosecuted for participating in the right-wing mob attack on the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021.

“We figured this wasn’t an event that would ruffle the feathers of any reasonable human being,” Deeter said.

Deeter’s attitude reflects a troubling shift in public perception related to the insurrection, during which supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol in an attempt to halt certification of the 2020 election, won by President Joe Biden, citing repeated false claims of voter fraud. Within 36 hours of the siege, five people had died, including Babbitt, an adherent of the QAnon conspiracy theory who was shot and killed by Capitol Police when she attempted to climb through a broken window to enter the Speaker’s Lobby on the day of the siege. Numerous others were also injured in the attack, including 174 police officers, and in the seven months that followed, four officers who responded died by suicide. Three years later, more than 1,200 participants have been charged with crimes related to the attack, at least 64 of whom are residents of Ohio.

Yet there is a growing divide in how these events have come to be viewed, particularly among Republican voters, who are increasingly sympathetic to those who stormed the Capitol, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll. In the survey, 18 percent of Republican respondents said that those who entered the Capitol were “mostly violent” – down from 26 percent in 2021. (In comparison, 77 percent of Democrats said the insurrectionists were “mostly violent.”) 

Republican respondents were also increasingly likely to embrace conspiracy theories related to the Jan. 6 attack, with 34 percent saying the FBI organized and encouraged the insurrection – this in spite of a full Congressional investigation and more than 700 completed federal prosecutions, none of which has yielded any evidence of FBI involvement.

Of those who responded, nearly 25 percent said the FBI played a role in instigating the attacks.

“That, to me, jumped out. If it was 5 percent, I’d be concerned but not disturbed. But 25 percent pushes me well into the disturbed range, where I don’t even know how to process that [information],” said Michael J. Hanmer, director of the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement at the University of Maryland, who attributed these poll numbers in part to the disinformation being parroted by some figures in the right-wing media, as well as Republican politicians such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, both of whom have promoted the false conspiracy theory that one of the rioters was an FBI agent in disguise. “It seems like more and more, if someone says something enough times and with enough conviction, they can sell it to a lot of people. … Lies and conspiracy theories aren’t new in politics, but there’s more ability now to get them out there [with social media].”

Michael Sozan, senior fellow at Center for American Progress, said it is incumbent on the media and political leaders on both sides of the aisle to counter these falsehoods with the truth. He also noted that there is a danger that comes with inaction, including allowing the planned right-wing rally at the Ohio Statehouse this weekend to stand unchallenged. 

“I think there is harm in failing to counter those mistruths, and I think the country has to be much more vigilant in allowing those claims to go unanswered,” Sozan said. “I think we have seen, sadly, that if you allow lies to go unanswered, and you allow people to escape accountability, it can quickly snowball into something that is more and more a danger to our democracy. … And we’ve seen how that can fuel extremism, and how that is fueling political violence. And that’s something that should be unacceptable in a strong democracy.”

Ramon Obey, a local activist and the founder of J.U.S.T. (Justice, Unity and Social Transformation), expressed similar sentiments as he relayed the motivations behind a planned counterprotest being coordinated by a wide coalition of local organizers in response to Saturday’s rally. “Allowing them to exist freely in a space such as the Ohio Statehouse – a place where all of our voices matter – we are risking the spread of a racist, sexist, homophobic ideology,” Obey said. “And if we allow one group to come down here at that level, and to demonstrate pure hate … we are risking something larger than this one moment. If we don’t use our voices and our bodies to counter these ideologies, we stand to lose it all.”

The rally was expected to draw members from a variety of right-wing and fascist groups, including the Proud Boys and Blood Tribe, a neo-Nazi collective that attracted local attention when its members attempted a show of force outside of a drag brunch at Land-Grant Brewing Company in April 2023. 

Deeter, who recorded the December video lamenting the presence of a counterprotest, is a member of the Three Percenters – a national organization named for the disputed notion that just 3 percent of American colonists rose up and took arms against British rule, and whose members have appeared at white nationalist events such as the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Deeter was also present when militants gathered at the Drury Inn and Suites in suburban Dublin in June 2020, according to BuzzFeed reporting, a meeting at which there was discussion of kidnapping Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan – an attempted plot that resulted in nine combined convictions and guilty pleas for those right-wing militants involved. (Deeter was never charged with any crimes.)

Obey first learned of the Statehouse rally planned for Ashli Babbitt via Facebook, saying that the event immediately sent his mind back to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, citing its potential to serve as a similar spark for fascist groups if they were allowed an uncontested platform.

“It was like, this has to be countered, because if not, during this election year especially, something is going to grow from it,” Obey said. “And we need to be ahead of it. And that’s the reason we’re doing this, to say this is not normal, to say this is not okay. Making space for fascists to exist is a dangerous game. And it’s a game we cannot play.”

Those interviewed expressed a shared belief that, at least in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, there existed a fleeting moment when it appeared as though the condemnation of the rioters, and by extension Donald Trump, might be universal. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky denounced Trump as “practically and morally responsible” for the insurrection, while then-House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy said Trump “bears responsibility” for the attacks. 

Gradually, though, Republican leadership retrenched behind Trump, which Sozan of Center for American Progress attributed in large part to political expediency. “I think for years to come we’ll be studying why they backed away, but I think that ultimately the conservative base and Trump’s followers are so fervent that it became clear there would be too big of a political price to pay for Republicans who abandoned Trump,” said Sozan, pointing to Republicans such as Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, who were driven from office for attempts to hold the former president to account.

At the same time, Sozan said he has seen some signs of hope, pointing to the 2022 midterm elections, in which candidates who campaigned as election deniers experienced widespread losses, in addition to more recent attempts to hold Trump accountable for his role in instigating the insurrection. In recent weeks, both Colorado and Maine have banned Trump from appearing on the primary ballot under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which prohibits those who “engaged in insurrection” from holding office. (Trump is appealing both bans.) 

“I think there’s been more focus on the fragile nature of our democracy and the deep threats to it,” Sozan said. “And if you had asked me that a few years ago, I would not have said that.”

Obey expressed a similar hope that Saturday’s counterprotest could deepen this awareness, awakening more people to the dangers inherent in allowing these false narratives and outright lies the space to flourish. 

“Calling it as plainly as I see it, blissful ignorance is blissful, and it’s easier to not know and to not understand the political ramifications that come with not participating,” Obey said. “But people need to understand that what they do can affect a larger political outcome. And it has true power in how Columbus votes and how Columbus moves, and how Ohio votes and how Ohio moves. … Whether you are voting for Trump or Biden or anyone in between, you better have a level of political consciousness and an understanding of what is affecting what, because this is your life, and you should know exactly what is pressing on you.”

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