Capitol Hill Rioters: Under Investigation, or Not?

On Jan. 6, 2021, a day to make history, while lawmakers inside the United States Capitol were certifying the election victory of then President-elect Joe Biden, President Trump was holding a briefing in the National Mall just a couple blocks away earlier that day. Arguably incited by former President Trump, who encouraged “the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country” to thousands, crowds of rioters marched down Pennsylvania Avenue before invading the Capitol. 

The mob quickly outnumbered the few police officers stationed in front of the Capitol and hundreds soon overtook the building, defying orders and illegally ransacking the building. Among the mob were off-duty police officers, members of far-right groups, elected officials, and others in public sector jobs. In many videos and photos, Confederate flags as well as Make America Great Again propaganda were displayed everywhere. Just two days after the insurrection, about 300 suspects were under investigation. 

A nationwide FBI investigation commenced in order to identify and find the suspects. This proved to be complicated due to the fact that most of the perpetrators walked away from the Capitol on the day of the attack. The few dozen who were arrested only received misdemeanor charges. Fortunately, many participants willingly posed for pictures and posted videos or live streams on social media. As a result, the FBI is relying on tips as well as images and videos of the riot sent by the public to identify suspects. 

As of January 18, two Virginia police officers were arrested by the FBI and charged in federal court. A photo of the officers posing in the Capitol was found and used to identify them. Peter Stager, an Arkansas man who was filmed beating a police officer with a flagpole was given one count of obstructing, impeding, and interfering with a police officer during a civil disorder. A retired Pennsylvania firefighter was captured on video throwing a fire extinguisher at three police officers. He was arrested on multiple federal charges, of those including assaulting a law enforcement officer. Most notably, the pickup truck parked a few blocks away from the Capitol that contained guns and homemade bombs belonged to Lonnie Coffman, an Army Veteran from Alabama. A grand jury indicted him on January 11 for a federal charge of unlawful possession of a destructive device. In a viral photo, a man can be seen in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office sitting at her desk. He was identified as Richard Barnett from Arizona. As of January 15, he is in FBI custody and charged for knowingly entering and remaining in a restricted building, violent entry, disorderly conduct, and theft of public property.

Five people died from the riot, including four rioters and one Capitol Police Officer. One rioter was killed by law enforcement while the other three died of medical issues. The police officer was pronounced dead the day after the riots due to injuries sustained in the attacks. Investigations have found that more than a dozen far-right groups had a presence in the riots.

While over 100 people have been arrested and charged, federal officials are still considering whether it would be feasible to charge all rioters, particularly whether insurrection charges may even be levied against those that solely walked around the Capitol building and left without damaging property or harming other people. Critics of this shift, such New York criminal defense attorney Rebecca Kavanaugh said that they have “never heard similar concerns expressed when charging Black and Brown people with low level offenses,” or citing overly aggressive law enforcement against Black Lives Matter protestors earlier in the year. While investigations and charges are still being made, there is more to watch for as justice continues to pan out.

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