An “Area Closed” sign blocks the stairway to the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center on September 13, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
For months, the approximately 40 accused Capitol rioters who are detained in jail pending the outcome of their cases have been on the receiving end of a letter-writing campaign called the “Patriot Mail Project.”
MAGA types around the country have been sending greeting cards, often featuring watercolor landscapes and Bible verses, as part of a sprawling public support network that’s coalesced around the Jan. 6 detainees, recently rebranded as “political prisoners” by allies of former President Donald Trump.
It’s one element of the ongoing effort to whitewash the events of Jan. 6 and position the accused rioters—facing charges ranging from trespassing to bringing Molotov cocktails to the Capitol—as patriotic dissidents who are being unfairly persecuted by the Biden “regime.”
Though the narrative started on the fringes, it’s taken hold in the mainstream in recent months. A recent survey by Rasmussen Reports found that 49% of “likely U.S. voters” agreed with the idea that Jan. 6 defendants were “political prisoners,” with 30% saying they “strongly agreed” with that characterization. The narrative gained legitimacy through lawmakers like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz. On Thursday, Trump put out a statement saying that “our hearts and minds are with the people being persecuted so unfairly relating to the January 6th protest concerning the Rigged Presidential Election.” Trump’s statement comes as Washington, D.C. is bracing for possible violence around a planned “Justice for J6’s Political Prisoners” rally this weekend. Fearing a repeat of the events on Jan. 6, authorities have reinstalled the fence surrounding the Capitol and requested the National Guard to be on standby, should they need extra help.
It’s not clear if the mainstreaming of support for the Jan. 6 detainees will translate into boots on the ground in D.C. Groups like the Proud Boys and influential figures in the QAnon world have repeatedly urged their followers to steer clear of D.C., calling it a “false flag.” Even Trump weighed in during an interview with The Federalist, describing the planned rally in D.C. as a “set-up.”
But whether crowds materialize in the nation’s capital, the online community that’s been created around the defendants doesn’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon.
In addition to letter writing, there’s also the Telegram channel “The Prisoner’s Record,” which shares recordings of conversations with family members of detainees and their lawyers, as well as prayers from supporters, and routinely urges their nearly 15,000 subscribers to donate to any of the online fundraisers (which have raked in a over a million dollars in total, with more than $1,000 coming in just in the last few days, according to a VICE News analysis).
One Jan 6. defendant not currently in jail has been organizing renditions of the national anthem at 9 p.m. in solidarity with the detainees, who reportedly sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” every night at that time.
The Prisoners Record and Patriot Mail Project circulated a response they apparently received from one detainee (who was photographed wearing his butcher’s whites, and covered in blood on Jan. 6; he’s accused of assaulting a Capitol Police officer).
“I have been receiving mail from the patriot mail project,” he wrote, according to a letter uploaded online. “It is nice to hear from strangers. We sing the anthem every night and we love our country. I just saw a news article where people were starting to call us heroes. I cannot believe the support America is showing.”
There’s also the “People’s January 6th Commission,” which has the goal of drawing its own conclusions about what transpired at the Capitol (as opposed to the House-led Jan. 6 Select Committee). It’s not immediately clear who spearheaded the “People’s” commission, but its website features a document containing handwritten signatures and names, including Randy Ireland, a Proud Boy from New York, who has vowed to attend the rally in D.C. on Sept 18. The “commission” asserts that the U.S. government and the mainstream media colluded to orchestrate the Capitol riot, with the ultimate goal of prosecuting “those who threaten their lust and greed for power.”
Some people who have promoted this weekend’s event, which is organized by former Trump campaign staffer Matt Braynard under the banner of “Look Ahead America,” have claimed there are “hundreds” of accused Capitol defendants biding their time in D.C. jail. In reality, it’s only about 40 of the 646 people charged in connection with the riot, and about 35 of the 40 detainees are being held in the D.C. Central Detention Facility.
The courts ordered them detained due to the severe nature of the allegations they’re facing, like violent acts or conspiracy at the Capitol, or because the court deemed they pose a threat to their community.
“The individuals who are currently in pretrial detention are alleged to have been especially violent at the Capitol,” said Jonathan Lewis, a research fellow with George Washington University’s Program on Extremism who has been tracking the Capitol riot cases closely. “The mix of the prosecution, and the increased public support, is likely to further galvanize those views.”
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