A jail in Washington has become the latest focal point of the US culture wars after a congressional delegation led by the Republican extremist Marjorie Taylor Greene visited defendants charged in 2021’s deadly January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol and championed them as “political prisoners”.
Greene high-fived the detainees and shook their hands, according to the Associated Press. As the tour group was leaving, the defendants chanted “Let’s go Brandon!”, an offensive phrase denigrating Democratic president Joe Biden.
Greene was joined by fellow far-right Republican members of the House oversight committee during a two-hour tour of the DC jail on Friday. The group included extremist Colorado congresswoman Lauren Boebert, who embraced Micki Witthoeft, the mother of Ashli Babbitt, the woman shot dead by police as she participated in the Capitol riot, NBC News reported.
This is at least the second visit that Greene has made in a campaign to reframe the incarcerated January 6 rioters from alleged violent insurrectionists into martyrs of the far-right cause. This time, however, her stunt was joined by Democratic members of the oversight committee who attended the tour so that they could hold their Republican peers to account, they said.
“We won’t let Marjorie Taylor Greene and these … extremists tell lies about the insurrectionists and their attack on our democracy,” one of the Democratic visitors, Robert Garcia of California, said before the tour began.
In a later interview with MSNBC, Garcia said he had seen Greene and Boebert and other Republican delegates treat the January 6 defendants “like celebrities, they were interacting with them, they were patting them on the back. It was completely shameful to see – these were people who tried to overthrow our government and they were being treated like rock stars and heroes.”
A second Democratic representative, Jasmine Crockett of Texas, drew on her previous experience as a public defender to assess the relative merits of the conditions in which the prisoners were being held. She said that what she saw was far preferable to routine conditions in state lockups in Texas or Arkansas.
“Listen, this is so much different and so much better. I don’t think the January 6ers would want to go the other way,” she was reported to say by the New York Times.
The idea that the January 6 defendants being held in DC are patriotic political prisoners appears to have first emerged as a marketing message to raise money for the inmates’ legal fees. Within weeks of their detention, online crowdfunding sites had been set up for the prisoners and their families.
One of the sites, American Gulag, was created by the founder of the conspiracy theory outlet Gateway Pundit, Jim Hoft. It describes the rioters as “good Americans whose only crime was being invited into a political building”. It has so far raised almost $180,000.
The celebration of the rioters as political prisoners then appears to have moved into the Republican mainstream. Donald Trump has called the prosecution of those who participated in the insurrection – which was inspired by his own lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him – “persecution of political prisoners”.
At the first official rally of his 2024 White House campaign, the former president played a recording of the Star-Spangled Banner sung by the so-called J6 Prison Choir, which consists of men convicted for their participation in the Capitol attack. It reached the top of the iTunes chart.
An investigation by Just Security has found that there are 20 Capitol attack inmates still being held in the DC jail, out of a total of about 1,000 who have been arrested over the insurrection. Of those, 17 have been charged with assaulting law enforcement officers during the attack.
Of the remaining three, two are members of the extremist militias the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, and one has already been convicted.
The 20 who have been lionized by Greene as political prisoners include Thomas Ballard, who has been charged with assaulting law enforcement officers with a baton, and Christopher Quaglin, a member of the Proud Boys who is accused of pepper-spraying officers.
Garcia, speaking for the Democratic members of the jail delegation, observed that the prisoners were being housed in a newer part of the institution where conditions were among the best in an institution whose standards have drawn criticism. “They were outside, they each had tablets where they can communicate, watch movies, text their families, talk to their attorneys,” he said.
Greene has rebutted the description, claiming that the inmates had been made to clean and repaint the prison before the congressional visit to make it look good. She ridiculed the Democrats, saying: “Either they like jails … or are easily fooled by fresh paint.”