As photo and video of Wednesday’s rioting at the U.S. Capitol spread across social media, Tennesseeans began recognizing friends and neighbors, with prominent elected officials and local leaders among the mob who entered the federal building and temporarily halted certification of President-Elect Joe Biden’s win.
NashvilleResist, a popular political Twitter account, reported that at least five groups or caravans from Nashville attended Trump’s rally and subsequent storming of the Capitol. While it’s unclear how many individuals were in those groups, at least some of them were Proud Boys, the neo-fascist and far right “Western chauvinist” organization. Nashville native Matthew Walter, leader of the Middle Tennessee Proud Boys, attended alongside Alex Jones. Jones is the infamous Infowars host who sells “super male vitality” and weight loss supplements, and has been banned from several social media platforms for hate speech and inciting violence. Walter said he attended with Jones at the request of President Trump himself.
“My goals today were to show unity to the President of the United States,” Walter said in a direct message statement to the Lookout. “Donald J. Trump asked me to attend so I obliged.”
Walter says he walked to the Capitol with Jones with a message of peace and unity, and maintains both he and the podcast host attempted to help stop violence from breaking out, asking Capitol police how they could help and encouraging people to leave down the stairs. He also says in his statement he did not enter the building, and that it was not his intent for anyone to steal, occupy or destroy government property and believes anyone who broke the law should be prosecuted.
My goals today were to show unity to the President of the United States. Donald J. Trump asked me to attend so I obliged. – Matthew Walter, Tennessee Proud Boy
However, his public Twitter posts about the riot state that he “sat inside the people’s building today” and praised the “occupation” of government buildings. On Parler, the “free speech network” often home to far-right terrorist organizers, Walter posted a photo of himself and Jones at the Capitol captioned, “The People’s building was taken by the People’s chairman,” a reference to his nickname and prominence with Tennessee’s Proud Boys. Walter is also connected with Jeremy Bertino, fellow Proud Boy, on Parler, who uses the name “The Noble Beard.”
Eight days ago, Bertino posted on Parler that “[Six] men and weapons…is all it takes to turn a battle,” which was followed by comments from other Parler users encouraging the use of zip ties to take hostages. Bertino’s phrasing was also a play on “6MWE,” a neo-Nazi phrase that stands for “six million wasn’t enough,” in regards to the Holocaust and references the desire to kill Jewish people. It is worth noting that photographs circulated online of an unidentified armed man wearing tactical gear emblazoned with a Tennessee-shaped patch while carrying large, thick zip ties onto the Senate floor after it was evacuated. Experts say there is no doubt some members, whether Proud Boys or not, were searching for lawmakers to take hostage.
Other Tennesseeans, including elected officials, played a role seditious event as well. Representative Terri Weaver of House District 40 posted public photos on her personal Facebook page showing her just outside the Capitol among the crowd waving Trump flags. Weaver described the attendees as “3.2M PEACEFUL patriots” despite 4 people dying while storming the Capitol and the crowd size being closer to 30,000 Weaver described the breach as “epic and historic,” and accused leftist protestors, who were not present at the event, of breaking and entering into the Capitol despite dozens of photos and videos of identified Nazis and other right-wing organizers inside the federal building. Weaver, who did not respond to requests for comment, previously posted her support of Senator Marsha Blackburn’s efforts to overturn November election results, stating “God has a plan.” On Twitter she recently used the hashtag #BacktheBlue despite being part of a group that overran Capitol police, although it’s unclear whether or not she actually entered the building.
Since Weaver’s post, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has called for the resignation of all lawmakers involved in the failed coup. The press release urging their recall stated that Senator Amanda Chase (VA), Delegate Derrick Evans (WV) and Representative Justin Hill (MO) were present along with Weaver.
“Any Republican legislator who took part in yesterday’s insurrection should resign immediately,” DLCC president Jessica Post said in the statement.
The Tennessean published an opinion editorial with similar takeaways headlined, “Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty are complicit in the insurrection.” Writer David Plazas said both lawmakers should be held accountable for their support of Senator Ted Cruz’s efforts to overturn the election and for their refusal to certify President-Elect Biden’s victory. Earlier Wednesday, Hagerty tweeted a welcome message to Tennesseeans in the D.C. mob. Later that evening both senators voted to certify the election and withdrew their oppositions following the lockdown and evacuation of federal buildings.
Other Tennessee leaders involved Wednesday included Pastor Steve Berger, senior pastor at Grace Chapel in Franklin, which both Governor Bill Lee and Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson attend. Berger posted a lengthy live video Tuesday evening describing his experience in D.C. and used scripture to tell his followers that Republicans and conservative voters will soon experience “trials and tribulations” for their support of Trump and in retaliation for their beliefs, despite few arrests at the Capitol and a seeming lack of repercussion for those involved.
“Evil men and imposters are going to grow worse,” Berger cautioned viewers, after blaming non-existent antifa for breaking windows and entering the Capitol.
Berger’s video also included several inaccuracies. He referred to Ashli Babbit, the 35-year old rioter and military veteran who was killed in the Capitol as “the precious 16-year-old girl who was killed today,” and repeated the lie that Antifa was responsible for the mob scene.
Berger said he was trying to pivot away from politics in his talks, although at the end of his video he told viewers he was looking forward to driving home and sharing more about meetings he had attended and “some of the things brewing.”
As for what may be brewing with other Tennesseeans who attended the D.C. riot, Walter says he apologizes to Tennesseeans scared by the violence they witnessed and says the Proud Boys have no current plans to demonstrate further once returned home. However, Nashville native and writer Tim Wise, who researches extremism, says that’s hard to believe. Wise says it’s almost certain people from every state in the country attended Tuesday’s rally and subsequent riot, and that it can spell trouble for citizens who live near those who’ve demonstrated violence and the desire to undo democracy.
“We should be worried,” Wise says. “They’ve proven themselves to be dangerous. They’ve engaged in violence over and over in state after state.”
Wise cautioned that more trouble may be on the horizon as Proud Boys and other right-wing operatives have stated on public social media accounts they’ll be returning to D.C. with weapons. He says some people on Parler have claimed to be planning suicide bombings and are ready and willing to kill or injure lawmakers. This echoes plans posted on social media for days, and even weeks, prior to Tuesday’s rally, with plans for the event spreading and receiving media coverage long before it happened. Still, Wise acknowledged he was somewhat surprised by a lack of Proud Boy logos, merch or otherwise identifying memorabilia visible in photographs from in the Capitol, although that doesn’t mean none of them made it inside. He also says he has no doubt that some who entered the Capitol wanted to take hostages.
Wise says to prevent further violence and more deaths, threats and rhetoric must be taken seriously. He hopes anyone involved in Tuesday’s riot is prosecuted to the fullest extent and says freezing bank accounts, seizing property and shuttering social accounts is required to put down insurrectionists for good.
“That’s what we would do to any other terrorist,” Wise says.
It’s not clear if or how many Tennesseeans took part in the violence, breaking and entering the Capitol and stealing or destroying federal property. Video does show Tennessee residents, like one woman who said she was maced, admitting they broke the law in the name of “revolution.” Whether they will bring the violent, democracy-destroying revolution home with them is a gamble we all take by not following Wise’s advice.