The clock had just struck 9pm when Jeff Sabol, a Colorado man accused of dragging a police officer down a flight of stairs at the US Capitol on January 6 and beating him, placed a call from inside Washington’s jail.
Dozens of yards and several layers of concrete and razor wire away, on E Street Southeast, Tommy Tatum, a hulking Mississippian who had been present at the Capitol on January 6 but not arrested, stood with a microphone in one hand and a cellphone in the other.
“Hey, are you guys out there? We’ve had some technical difficulties for a variety of reasons,” Sabol’s voice rang out from the phone and over a sound system, drawing cheers from a group of about 15 people who had gathered, carrying American flags and wearing shirts with slogans such as “Abolish the FBI”.
Sabol’s voice grew echoey, and the sounds of others filled the room behind him. “Thirty seconds!” he cried.
And then, the two groups, one confined behind the jail’s walls over charges they attacked the Capitol in a failed attempt to keep Donald Trump from losing power and the other made up of their friends and loved ones on the sidewalk outside, sang the American national anthem in unison: “O say can you see …”
Thus concluded the 303rd evening of the “Freedom Corner”, perhaps the only regular public protest by Trump supporters in America’s capital city, where the demand is accountability – not for the former president, but for the government they believe is persecuting them.
The target of their demonstration is Washington DC’s city jail, where an overwhelmingly Black inmate population has long endured terrible conditions. Over the past two years, the Freedom Corner protesters have been joined by some of the hundreds of people swept up in the sprawling federal investigation into the violence on January 6, prompting demonstrators to gather outside on a corner sandwiched between the building and the tilted headstones of the Congressional Cemetery to decry the injustice within.
“These are really good guys. They’re fathers, they’re uncles, they’re veterans. Most of them have served this country. They fought for us, they fought for our freedom,” said Helena Gibson, a regular attendee of the vigil who was present at the Capitol on January 6 but said she did not enter the building.
“Because these are really great amazing mentors, stand-up men, they don’t deserve what’s happening to them.”
The storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters immediately after a speech by the then president has been linked to nine deaths, and saw the halls of the 223-year-old building turned into a war zone. Rioters surrounded and beat overwhelmed police officers, sent lawmakers and the then vice-president, Mike Pence, fleeing and attacked with such violence his Secret Service detail asked others to say goodbye to their families for them.
But the Republican party’s right wing has invested in downplaying the incident, even though the mayhem played out on live television, was explored in detail by a bipartisan congressional committee who said Trump and his allies may have broken the law, and is the subject of an investigation by special counsel Jack Smith that could lead to charges against the former president.
On the same day last March when the Fox News host Tucker Carlson aired an episode of his now-cancelled show featuring footage he claimed proves the January 6 rioters were, in fact, “sightseers”, the Republican congressman Mike Collins tweeted: “I’ve seen enough. Release all J6 political prisoners now.”
In the unlikely event that happens, they would be met with open arms on Freedom Corner. Ringed in by orange traffic barriers and watched by several police cars, attendees set out snacks on a portable table, run the banners of Donald Trump and the United States up a flagpole and livestreamed the entire two-and-a-half-hour gathering on multiple cellphones.
“I definitely think people committed crimes that day. I mean, it’s never been our opinion, my opinion, that no one should be charged,” said Nicole Reffitt, a Texas woman whose husband, Guy Reffitt, was last year sentenced to seven and a quarter years in prison after a jury convicted him of obstructing Congress, interfering with police officers and threatening his own children – one of whom turned him in to the authorities.
“I believe my husband was overly charged. And, you know, and then he was persecuted for the events of that day, and not necessarily for what he really did.”
The vigils began last year on the day her husband was sentenced, said Reffitt, one of the first attendees at Freedom Corner, along with Micki Witthoeft, the mother of Ashli Babbitt, who was shot dead by police in the Capitol during the attack. Since then, they have attracted activists from across the country.
Carrying a pole with a US flag over her shoulder, as some of the rioters did during the attack, Jamie Crowe said she has traveled to Freedom Corner more than 30 times from Pennsylvania “to support the people that are patriots that marched to the Capitol peacefully”.
Though polls have found about a quarter of Republican voters approve of January 6, a majority of Americans do not share that view. Crowe said she was not in Washington when the attack happened, but watched coverage on television.
Asked how she could view the same images the rest of America did yet reach a different conclusion about the riot, Crowe said: “I love this country more than you can imagine.”
As she spoke, the vigil was holding its nightly roll call of those who died and had been arrested. “Hero,” the crowd intoned with the bang of a tambourine after each name.
“And we’ll do like we do every night. We’ll say her name,” Tamara Perryman announced after the names were read, then led the crowd in repeating, “Ashli Babbitt, Ashli Babbitt.”
“We just want justice, fair justice, like anybody would want,” said Perryman, whose husband, Brian Jackson, was arrested last year on charges related to lobbing a flagpole at officers defending the Capitol.
“If throwing that flag was truly assault, then give him his assault charge and let him go home. Because that is not a year in prison, nor is it eight to nine years in prison [the sentence he could face’],” Perryman said.
Last year, 34 January 6 defendants, including Reffitt’s husband, Guy, signed a document submitted in a federal court filing asking that they be moved to the US military prison in Guantánamo Bay if conditions in Washington’s jail do not improve.
“My husband’s never been in jail, so I had no idea how the system was,” Reffitt said, describing how her husband has endured inedible food and has slept without a pillow, because prisoners are not allowed to have them.
“These are humans in here, and this is not how you rehabilitate anybody,” Reffitt said.
Melissa Wasser, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia, sees plenty to protest at the city’s jail. Her group has sued over detention conditions, and documented everything from flooding in the facility’s showers to instances where staff has punished prisoners by withholding food and water.
“I’m glad that there there’s been more coverage of the jail in these conditions. Again, you know, it should not have taken the complaints of these white January 6 defendants and their families for people to act on this,” Wasser said. “Local residents, advocates, family members of the mostly Black residents have been raising these problems for years.” A spokesperson for the city’s department of corrections declined to comment.
Statistics released in January show 90% of those in the department’s custody are Black in a city where the group makes up about 45% of the population. In a database National Public Radio maintains of January 6 defendants, most appear to be white.
“These guys and their families were shocked beyond belief. They could not believe that an American citizen of any stripe, of any race, of any criminal background could be treated this way,” said Joe McBride, an attorney who has represented multiple January 6 defendants, three of whom ended up in the capital city’s lock-up.
“These guys were like, ‘I have rights, rights, I have rights.’ And I had to explain to them, at great pain, that their government doesn’t give a flying fuck about them.”
But McBride is no fan of detainees’ tendency to call up the Freedom Corner on prison phones to chat, nor of the developing community of counter-protesters.
“It was good for a time, but it appears to me that that event has reached its natural conclusion, and could potentially now be causing more harm than good,” he said.
In a solidly Democratic city where many residents feel put upon by repeated instances of pro-Trump demonstrators showing up from out of town during his presidency, Freedom Corner may be Washington’s most hated regular protest, and has attracted a dedicated group of opponents.
On Monday’s Memorial Day holiday, the Freedom Corner crew marched from the Capitol to their usual spot about two miles away, but were joined along their route by their chief nemesis: a livestreamer named Anarchy Princess.
“Terrorists coming, watch out, there’s terrorists behind me,” the counter-protester, wearing a baseball cap and aviator sunglasses, cried into a megaphone as the group walked. “The Nazis are behind me, Trump’s little cry baby losers, they insurrected the Capitol, are behind me. Fuck Ashli Babbitt!”
As the group neared their destination, where a large and noisy group of counter-protesters had also massed, video showed Witthoeft – Babbitt’s mother – pushing Anarchy Princess, and later grabbing a megaphone she was using to broadcast siren noises and smashing it on the ground. Police arrested Witthoeft the following day.
Witthoeft was released later on Tuesday evening, and told the Guardian she planned to keep the vigils up “until I feel like I’m done doing what I need to do, and I don’t feel that way yet”. Anarchy Princess could not be reached for comment.
After finishing their singing of the national anthem on Tuesday evening, the group on the corner trained their eyes on the prison’s windows, where January 6 detainees have, in the past, been able to make their lights flicker in a tribute to their streetside supporters. That wasn’t happening that night.
“They’ve moved them so we can no longer see them flashing the lights,” said a protester who went by the pseudonym Dude and sported a gray camouflage National Rifle Association hat.
Perryman wasn’t so sure. Earlier in the night, Sean McHugh, who was found guilty in April of charges related to attacking Capitol police officers with bear spray, had called Freedom Corner and said he had to move cells because of a mold outbreak.
“Some things truly are coincidence and just a matter of happenstance,” Perryman said. “But it is easy to get into that mindset where, ‘Oh gosh, are they really messing with me or am I just paranoid?’ You know what I mean?”
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