Republicans and right-wing media outlets are comparing — even equating — last week’s largely peaceful climate protests in Washington, D.C. to the violent Jan. 6 riot in the U.S. Capitol, further advancing duel attempts to both soft-pedal the insurrection while painting environmental activists as extremists.
For five straight days last week, Native American and environmental justice advocates took to the streets of Washington to demand that the Biden administration act swiftly to curb planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions and block new fossil fuel projects, including the controversial Line 3 oil pipeline in Minnesota. The Indigenous-led protests were organized by a coalition of groups called Build Back Fossil Free, a nod to President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Plan.
The five-day protest did include clashes. More than 600 people were arrested, according to organizers, mostly on obstruction and crowding charges. At least three demonstrators were charged with assault against a police officer, The Washington Post reported, although details of those alleged assaults have not been released. And “multiple injuries were sustained by security personnel” when protesters staged a sit-in at the Interior Department’s headquarters on Oct. 14, agency spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said in a statement. One officer reportedly was transported to the hospital.
But to equate last week’s desperate calls for federal action to stave off potentially catastrophic planetary warming to the pro-Trump mob that descended on U.S. Capitol in an effort to thwart the 2020 presidential election and undermine American democracy is “a ridiculous and false comparison,” said Jean Su, energy justice director for environmental group Center for Biological Diversity.
“It was incredibly peaceful, per usual of climate protests,” Su said.
The Jan. 6 mob seized at least three officers and injured more than 100. Several officers still haven’t returned to work because of the injuries they suffered. Hundreds of former President Donald Trump supporters violently assaulted officers on Jan. 6, including Danny Rodriguez, a Trump fanatic in a MAGA hat who electroshocked Officer Mike Fanone when he was seized by the mob. Jan. 6 rioters tried to gouge out the eyes of police officers guarding the Capitol, and attacked them with every weapon at their disposal: fire extinguishers, mace, wasp spray, flag poles, fences, hockey sticks, metal poles, batons and an enormous “TRUMP” sign that the mob pushed into a police line.
The FBI has made around 650 arrests in connection with the Jan. 6 attack, but that’s just a fraction of the total criminal activity that day. The number of potential future defendants who committed conduct that prosecutors will charge if they’re identified is about 2,500. As of today, more than 250 people who assaulted police officers on Jan. 6 haven’t been arrested yet, and their photos are featured on the FBI website, along with roughly 100 others wanted for other serious crimes including assaulting media.
Su was present at last week’s climate demonstrations outside the White House, but was not at the Interior building. Organizers have challenged officials’ accounts of what occurred, alleging that “police acted aggressively with the water protectors and indigenous leaders, tasing at least two people and hitting others with batons.”
Ryan Zinke, the former Interior secretary under Trump, was among the first to condemn last week’s protest at Interior’s headquarters. In a statement posted to Twitter, he called the incident “shocking” and “frankly sickening,” and asserted that such “blatant lawlessness” would never have occurred on his watch.
“Where is the liberal outrage now against lawlessness and destruction of government property?” he asked. “Deafeningly silent of course.”
It was Zinke who remained silent about the Jan. 6 riot. The former Trump official and current candidate for Montana’s newly designated congressional district put out no public statements in the wake of the Capitol attack, according to HuffPost’s review of news articles and social media. And when NBC Montana asked him in April how he felt watching the attack, Zinke said that was an issue for a later date.
In July, the former Navy SEAL took to Twitter to tout his endorsement from Trump, the man most responsible for inciting the violent mob a few months earlier.
Other Republicans and right-wing media outlets have piled on. In comments to E&E News, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) denounced what he called a “mob of extremists” and claimed that “just a few hours after the violence and the break-in occurred, instead of condemning the radicals, the Biden administration praised them — praised them.”
As E&E reported, that isn’t what happened. McConnell misrepresented comments that White House press secretary Jen Psaki made during an exchange at an Oct. 14 press briefing. A reporter asked Psaki not about the protesters’ actions at Interior, but rather their demands throughout the week for more aggressive climate action.
“Of course we’re listening to advocates and people who have been elevating the issue of climate for decades,” Psaki said. “They have important voices, and they put climate on the front of the agenda when it wasn’t 10 years and 20 years ago.”
This narrative about some sort of “insurrection” taking place has only continued to grow.
“There Was An Insurrection Last Week And No One Noticed,” read a Tuesday headline on right-wing website PJ Media. (An editor’s note at the bottom of that article asks readers for help to “fight back against the lying liberal media who will do anything to preserve their leftist narrative.”)
In their own extensive coverage of the event, Fox News reporters and TV hosts labeled the protesters “zealots,” “insurrectionists,” a “climate militia” and “villain of the day,” according to clips compiled by media watchdog group Media Matters. One Fox News headline declared the scene outside the Interior Department as “reminiscent of Jan. 6,” using a partial quote from far-right media activist and troll Andy Ngo.
Rep. Gregory Steube (R-Fla.) spent his allotted time during a Thursday congressional hearing interrogating Attorney General Merrick Garland about the demonstration.
“Just last week, on Oct. 14, a group of extremist, environmental and ‘Indigenous’ protestors forced their way into the Department of Interior,” Steube said, using air quotes when he said the word Indigenous. “They fought with and injured security and police officers, sending some of those officers to the hospital. The extremists violently pushed their way into a restricted government building in an attempt to thwart the work of the Department of the Interior.”
Steube later held up two photographs — one from Jan. 6 and the other from the Oct. 14 protest at Interior — and asked Garland if he’d call both incidents domestic terrorism. Garland said it was the first he’d heard about the incident, but that the Justice Department “doesn’t care whether the violence comes from the left or from the right.”
“I’m not going to be able to resolve a legal determination based on one picture,” Garland added. “In the Jan. 6 case, we have terabytes of video which disclose exactly what happened.”
The Federal Protective Service, a division of the Department of Homeland Security that provides security at federal buildings, did not provide HuffPost with updated information about injuries to officers or the assault charges on Friday.
Steube later declared on Twitter that Garland’s response “demonstrates their clear politicization of the DOJ.”
The Florida congressman did condemn the Jan. 6 attack. But he was also among dozens of Republicans who promoted Trump’s “big lie” of a rigged presidential election that ultimately fueled the Capitol insurrection. And days after the riot, he joined 146 other Republicans in voting to overturn the 2020 election results.
Later, in June, he voted against honoring Capitol police who responded to the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Ryan Reilly contributed reporting.