‘Playing politics’: Partisan divide evident in Polk as Jan. 6 inquiry starts – The Ledger


‘Playing politics’: Partisan divide evident in Polk as Jan. 6 inquiry starts

Published July 31, 2021

Prominent Republicans downplay riot, question equal justice

Gary White 

The Ledger
As the U.S. House investigates the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, local opinions on what happened that day and how it is being investigated diverge dramatically along party lines.  While many Americans regard the insurrection, which disrupted the counting of votes in the 2020 presidential election, as one of the nation’s worst days, prominent local Republicans don’t see it that way.
 “I’d call it a protest with a little bit of riot in there because people damaged stuff,” said J.C. Martin, chairman of the Polk County Republican Party. “People who damage stuff should be prosecuted. But it’s certainly not an insurrection because insurrections don’t happen if nobody’s armed. It’s been so politicized by the Washington Democrats, as far as they’re trying to make this like it’s some overthrow of the government kind of thing. If people wanted to overthrow the government, I think they would probably have weapons.”
Merriam-Webster defines an insurrection as “an act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government.”
Royal Brown III, a Republican and Trump supporter from Winter Haven, called the Jan. 6 assembly a peaceful demonstration by citizens petitioning the government over what he insisted was “a stolen election.”
Catherine Price, chairwoman of the Polk County Democratic Party, described the riot as “an armed insurrection.”  “These people were there because of disinformation propagated by the president of the United States,” Price said in reference to former President Donald Trump. “And did some people get hurt? Yes. Were some people being very violent? Yes, they were. And do the Republicans want this to go away? Yes, they do. It’s a pretty hard thing to disavow.”
There have been no reports of guns found among those who breached the Capitol. Rioters did seize shields and batons from police and use them as weapons, according to court records, some used flagpoles to break windows and others carried chemical irritants and zip ties.   At least 535 people have been arrested in connection with the Capitol riot, and five Polk County residents have been indicted so far. At least three face charges of assaulting police officers.
Martin, a Winter Haven resident, accuses Democrats of exaggerating the seriousness of the Capitol breach for political gain. He repeatedly mentioned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, in criticizing investigations of the Capitol attack. He accused the Department of Justice, which is overseeing the criminal cases, of being swayed by political concerns.  “Pelosi is playing politics with the Capitol Police and the (Joe) Biden Department of Justice,” Martin said. “They’re just trying to make this a political event, and that’s all they’re trying to do. I’m just disgusted by how they’ve handled the whole thing.”
A House select committee investigating the Capitol attack held its first hearing Tuesday. The committee is dominated by Democrats after earlier negotiations to create a bipartisan panel collapsed when Senate Republicans blocked passage.

Comparisons to 2020 riots

For three months after the 2020 election, Trump repeatedly insisted, without credible evidence, that he had actually won and that fraud had changed the outcome. Courts rejected nearly all of legal team’s challenges to results in several states.  
Members of Congress met on Jan. 6 to certify the Electoral College results from each state. For weeks in advance, Trump cited the gathering as the final chance to block Biden’s election, and during a rally that day he warned that Biden would be “an illegitimate president” and told supporters, “We can’t let that happen.”
Trump supporters fought with police officers, pushed down barricades and smashed glass to enter the Capitol. The chaos forced members of Congress to halt proceedings and flee their chambers. They returned hours later to resume discussions and soon ratified Biden’s election.
The U.S. Capitol Police’s union reported that more than 140 officers were injured. One, Brian Sicknick, died the next day as a result of strokes, according to a medical examiner’s report that ruled it a natural death. Two Capitol Police officers committed suicide within days of the attack.
One of the rioters, Ashli Babbitt, died after being shot by a police officer as she tried to enter a corridor just outside the House chamber.
In discussing Jan. 6 and its aftermath, Martin repeatedly invoked the violence that erupted in some cities last year following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.  “As far as I’m concerned, it’s (Jan. 6) a protest that’s in the past, just like all these city protests where all the cities got burned, except that because there were Republicans that were protesting, they’re actually getting tried in courts,” he said, “where in Democrat cities, they’re just letting all these people that burned down all these minority businesses to the ground, they’re just letting them walk.”
Prosecutors in Portland indeed have declined to prosecute most of those arrests during demonstrations last summer and offered deferred prosecution agreements to some accused of assaulting police officers.
Brown said those in attendance on Jan. 6, including his wife, Glynnda White, demanded that Congress “do the right thing” and not certify Electoral College votes from Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, states that Biden won.
Brown, president of the Winter Haven 9-12 Project, said that no looting occurred at the Capitol, though government officials say the rioting caused more than $2 million in damage. Brown’s emailed responses to questions included many references to Black Lives Matter and Antifa, a loose affiliation of far-left groups.

This image taken on Jan. 6 shows Jonathan Pollock of Lakeland holding a riot shield taken from an officer as he approaches the U.S. Capitol, according to an arrest affidavit.

“Nothing was looted or burned down as in multiple incidents by BLM/ANTIFA over the year 2020, no one was shot and murdered in broad daylight as done by BLM/ANTIFA activists in 2020, no cops beaten or killed as in multiple incidents by BLM/ANTIFA over 2020,” Brown wrote.
Price, of Lake Wales, said those who committed crimes during rioting that swirled out of social-justice protests last summer should be prosecuted, just as she wants to see Capitol rioters held accountable.  “The position I would always take is in a peaceful society there’s never a justification for people becoming violent in these kind of situations,” Price said. “So I would never justify that under any circumstances, and I would expect the law to deal with people fairly in either situation.”

‘Murder’ of Babbitt

The fatal shooting of Babbitt has become a point of partisan contention. Video shows that she was among a group of rioters outside the Speaker’s Lobby, a corridor that borders the House chamber. As others kicked at doors and smashed windows, Babbitt tried to climb over a door and an officer shot her through the glass.
The Department of Justice investigated and cleared the officer, who has not been publicly named. Trump has claimed that the officer was head of security for a “high-ranking” Democrat in Congress, though the law enforcement sources have refuted that, according to NBC News.
Martin said the officer should be identified.  “How is that transparent democracy, when the guy kills a protester and Nancy Pelosi tells the Capitol Police to keep it secret?” Martin said. “That’s just ridiculous.”
Brown called Babbitt’s fatal shooting a murder and said it had not been investigated.
Though Martin and other Republicans describe Pelosi as controlling the Capitol Police, the reality is more complicated. Congress has oversight of the agency through committees in both houses, consisting of Democrats and Republicans. The Capitol Police Board, which directs security at the Capitol, includes members who must be confirmed by Congress.
Price dismissed Republican efforts to portray Babbitt as a martyr and said law-enforcement officers displayed “a great deal of restraint” during the riot.  “What were these police officers supposed to do when this woman started coming through the window in the House chamber?” Price said. “They don’t know what these people are armed with. These people have breached the perimeters around the Capitol. They don’t know if they’ve got weapons.”
Kat Gates-Skipper of Lake Wales, president of the Veterans Republican Club of Polk County, said she has many friends who traveled to Washington for Trump’s rally on Jan. 6. She said none of them entered the Capitol.  “The main purpose of that day was to do a peaceful protest — sorry, a peaceful gathering,” she said. “I do not use the word ‘protest.’ It was a peaceful gathering of supporters, and they were there as Americans to show support but not to have any, no protest, no breaking laws, no nothing.”  Gates-Skipper said that a few “renegades” broke off and engaged in violence.  “And some of those could have been, I don’t know, could have been Trump supporters,” she said. “But you and I weren’t there. We don’t know how they reacted, so we can’t specifically say.”

Capitol police officers in riot gear push back demonstrators who try to break a door of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.

Claims of agitators

Many who fought with police or entered the Capitol wore clothing bearing Trump’s name, and some made statements on social media indicating their loyalty to him. All of the local suspects have been identified as Trump supporters.
But Gates-Skipper said she thinks the mob included Democrats and members of Black Lives Matter who intended to cause trouble. Asked how she knows that, she said friends who were at the Capitol overheard conversations and shot video to support the claim.  “They witnessed a lot of things, and they want to remain anonymous and I trust these people that have given me this information,” she said. “So it was witnessed, it was documented.”
Martin declined to acknowledge that the Capitol attack was carried out by Trump supporters.  “People have different motivations,” he said. “I don’t know. I wasn’t there, so I couldn’t tell you whether somebody that’s dragging a Trump flag has been identified as a Trump supporter or whether it was somebody that was actually a Trump supporter.”
Brown described the Jan. 6 riot as a Capitol Police “setup” and claimed that many who took part represented Black Lives Matter or Antifa. He cited videos that he said showed officers allowing demonstrators to enter the building.  “The only ‘destruction’ that occurred was a BLM/ANTIFA person trying to break a window,” Brown wrote. “Trump supporters are on video pulling this person repeatedly off this window.”
Brown claimed that “agitators” from BLM and Antifa positioned themselves on light poles and statues with megaphones and urged others to storm the Capitol. He said Trump supporters ignored those pleas.
Brown cited as an example of an agitator “the idiot and obvious non-Trump supporter with no shirt and wearing horns.” That description fits Jake Angeli, also known as Jacob Chansley, who has been widely identified as a Trump loyalist and a proponent of QAnon, a far-right conspiracy theory claiming that Trump aimed to unearth a cabal of Satanic child traffickers led by Democrats and Hollywood celebrities.

This photo, included in the FBI affidavit that led to Corinne Montoni's arrest, shows the Lakeland woman inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, an FBI agent reported.

Asked for evidence of a Capitol Police “setup,” Brown cited video showing Capitol Police opened doors and invited demonstrators into the building. The lapses in security on Jan. 6 are one subject the House committee plans to investigate, but the first hearing included testimony from officers who fought against rioters.  Brown alleged that Pelosi refused requests to add security before the expected demonstration. That echoes a claim by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, that Pelosi vetoed requests for a National Guard presence, though in fact the president has sole authority to activate the Guard.  The House Sergeant at Arms, who later resigned, resisted requests from the Capitol Police to bring in Guard troops for support, according to Politifact. The Sergeant at Arms reports to Pelosi.
Martin called for authorities to release all video shot at the Capitol on Jan. 6. The FBI has relied on videos from officers’ body cameras for many arrest warrants, including those of some local suspects, and has released still images. But the video, part of the evidence in those cases, has not been made public.  Altogether, investigators are examining more than 16,000 hours of video, NPR reported.
Martin blasted the Capitol Police for announcing that it will open a field office in Tampa (along with one in San Francisco), in part to investigate threats made against members of Congress. A spokesman said the majority of threats come from Florida or California.
Florida has had more residents arrested on Jan. 6 charges than any other state.  “And the fact that they want to make this more of a thing by opening up a U.S. Capitol Police office in Tampa now?” Martin said. “Just to try to expand on this whole issue for political gain is just ridiculous.”

‘Prosecuted by media’

Brown questioned whether those accused in the Jan. 6 attack are receiving due process. He claimed that some are being held “under deplorable conditions” and being denied their constitutional rights to a speedy trial and defense counsel.  “Are they not entitled to be assumed innocent until proven guilty?” Brown wrote. “It doesn’t appear so — in fact it appears they are being prosecuted by the media in the court of public opinion by leftists. If they are charged under the unconstitutional Patriot Act and held indefinitely without charges this is wrong.”  Most of the Jan. 6 suspects have been released as they await trial, but some have been held in solitary confinement before trial. Even some Democrats, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, have criticized that practice, while the D.C. Department of Corrections said it is intended for the safety of the defendants and jail guards.
Gates-Skipper said anyone proven to have committed crimes at the Capitol should face justice. But she said she understood why many questioned the FBI’s evidence against Jonathan Pollock, a North Lakeland resident who is accused of assaulting three officers, in reaction to a recent Facebook post from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office seeking assistance in finding him.  “The American people have lost faith in our justice,” she said. “That’s why you get those comments, because they have lost faith in what’s right and what’s wrong, how things have been (taken) out of context.”
Price and Gates-Skipper did find concurrence on one matter: They want to see the nation’s leaders address serious issues rather than get bogged down in squabbles over the Jan. 6 investigation. But they offered clashing descriptions of the import of the Capitol breach.
Gates-Skipper said the media was “making a mountain out of a molehill” in coverage of Jan. 6 and its aftermath.  “I’ll be glad when this whole thing is over, to be honest with you,” she said. “I’m sick and tired of hearing about this thing of Jan. 6. We’ve got other things to worry about.”
Price said the criminal investigations are proceeding as they should, but she worries that congressional disputes over the House’s Jan. 6 probe are diverting attention from such matters as the COVID-19 pandemic, health care and the environment.
“We’ve got serious problems in this country and in the world, and what’s happening is people are arguing over these kinds of ridiculous things,” Price said. “We as a community need to come together, and we need to start dealing with the real issues that are going on instead of this kind of tit-for-tat business.”
Gary White can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.