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January 6 Was Only the Beginning

In the back of the crowd, protesters challenge patriots to define “Nazi.”

“We love America,” says one.

“If Ashli Babbitt were here,” continues Allman, “I guarantee you she’d be out there”—on the edge of the fighting—“talking to those people.”

“Scum!” a patriot screams at the protesters.

“Ashli Babbitt does not want you to be afraid,” Allman says, “ever again.” Present tense. Ashli Babbitt lives, in the hallucinatory. Allman says the patriots will return to Washington, to remember her. Ashli Babbitt dies, in perpetuity.

“I suffered,” says Riley. “But I didn’t pay the price Ashli did. I’m like the guy from 300. I lived to be able to tell her story.”

At the podium, Allman: “What her death does, when we compare it to Crispus Attucks, is—it calls for a revolution!”

“It calls.” The myth of history is calling the patriots. The “spirit of 1776” and 300, the 2006 CGI blood opera, 300 Spartan warriors’ battle against an overwhelming Persian horde until all but one Spartan falls. Attucks, the first man to die in one war, and the fictional Spartan warrior who was the only survivor of the latter, the source material of which is a comic book. Sacrifice stripped of history. “Trial by combat,” as Rudy Giuliani promised on January 6, hours before the mob made it real. “The first Patriot Martyr of the Second American Revolution,” an Oath Keeper posted before anyone knew who the martyr was, only that hers was the mythical victimhood of a white woman, killed by a Black man, they could now claim.

Now comes the mother: Michelle Witthoeft, who goes by Mikki, with an i, for independence, she says, which is why she named her firstborn Ashli with an i. Mikki and Ashli’s father, wordless beside her; the mother adrift in her oversized Ashli T-shirt, wrists ringed by red plastic Justice 4 Ashli bands, her white hair pulled back severely. A doleful woman, her proud, lupine face that of her daughter’s but whittled by grief. She hides behind sunglasses, giant black lenses, white-rimmed.

As Mikki begins, antifa’s chant of “BLACK LIVES MATTER” ricochets off the Capitol, at the entrance to which she has erected a banner: Ashli’s big grin on the left, Ashli flashing a shaka sign on the right.

“I miss her every day,” says the mother. “There are things I want to tell her.” Her voice wobbles. “Questions I want to ask.” She pauses, then lets it in: the fury. “My daughter was publicly executed!” She gathers herself. “Everybody knows Breonna Taylor,” she says. From the back: “BLACK LIVES MATTER!” “Everybody knows George Floyd,” Ashli’s mother says. The two women sitting next to me, Jorge Riley’s girlfriend, Kelli Morgan, in a sun hat with a leopard-print band, and a friend in cutoffs bedazzled in red, white, and blue across the back pockets—she says her name is Freedom—scream “Criminals!”

Princeton, Indiana.Photographs by Jeff Sharlet.

“Why don’t people know who Ashli Babbitt is?” asks Ashli’s mother.

“The criminal frickin’ media!” affirms Freedom.

“Exactly,” says the mother.

Antifa: “BLACK-LIVES MAT-TER!”

“Let your representatives know,” pleads the mother, voice wavering. “Over, and over, and over.”

Antifa: “NO MORE NAZ-EES!”

The mother stops. Pulls the microphone close: “ASH-LI BABB-ITT!” The same up-down cadence as “Black Lives Matter.” “ASH-LI BABB-ITT!” Four syllables like fingers folding into a fist.

“There’s no shame in what happened January sixth!” she cries.

“BLACK-LIVES MAT-TER!” antifa responds.

To which the patriots finally have a reply they think equal: “ASH-LI BABB-ITT!”

One white woman.

I ping-pong between the front of the rally and the back, the rhetoric and the action. Ashli’s mother tells the crowd to be proud Americans. “Be proud white Americans!” She goes on to list other races she feels should be proud Americans, too, but she’s hard to hear over Kelli and Freedom shrieking.

Toward the back, a livestreamer named Julius is providing commentary. “She’s right,” he tells his camera. “ ‘Slavery, slavery, slavery,’ ” he says, imitating his imagination of the nerdy voice of a leftist. “No one got time for all a that.” Julius is Black; he’s wearing a Saviors T-shirt, with bleached-white Lady Liberty.

Photographs by Jeff Sharlet.

Julius is not alone as a man of color in this crowd—there’s Jorge Riley, and a Black Second Amendment speaker. I meet nearly as many self-identified Latino people as white ones. Nearly all want it known that “patriots” are more diverse than liberals think. This is true. And yet the crowd cheers for “proud white Americans” not because they are blind but because they want to be—to believe in what historian Anthea Butler, author of White Evangelical Racism, calls the “promise of whiteness” offered to people of color willing to collaborate with white supremacy. This bait and switch—the mythical promise of whiteness is unfulfillable—may be the next American contribution to fascism. Purification projects have become impractical for a nation in which the rightist ascendency can contend for the loyalty of a third of Latinx voters. Now, white supremacy welcomes all. Or at least a sufficient veneer of “all” to reassure its more timid adherents that border walls and “kung flu” and “Black crime” and “replacement theory” somehow don’t add up to the R-word, which anyway these days, in the new authoritarian imagination, only happens in “reverse,” against white people. Such victims feel themselves drawn together not by whiteness but by that of which it is made: their belief in a strongman—Trump—and their desire for an iron-fisted God, and their love of the way guns make them feel inside, and their grief over COVID-19, and their denial of COVID-19, and their loathing of “systemic” as descriptive of that which they can’t see, can’t hold in their hands and weigh, and their certainty that children are being taken, stolen, if not in body then in spirit, “indoctrinated” to “hate themselves.” They are drawn together by their love of “fairness,” which is how it used to be, they’re certain they remember, or, if they’re too young, they’ve been told. And yet, “slavery, slavery, slavery,” murmurs the past. “It gets to be too much, sometimes,” Julius laments.

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