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Friday marks two years since a deadly riot engulfed the U.S. Capitol

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Today marks two years since a deadly riot engulfed the Capitol. The January 6 House Select Committee spent 18 months looking at the events and actors that helped fuel the violence that day, and that includes a number of extremist groups. NPR national security correspondent Sergio Olmos has been poring over the committee's report. Sergio, the January 6 report focuses on the efforts of former President Trump to overturn the 2020 election. Ultimately, that led to the insurrection at the Capitol. Can you remind us what role extremists played in that?

SERGIO OLMOS, BYLINE: They were the tip of the spear. The report acknowledges that many of the people who entered the Capitol that day didn't plan to do so, but it also makes clear that extremist groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers led the mob. They were an enzyme taking what could have been perhaps an unorganized riot or a political scandal behind closed doors and turning it into a violent attempt to overturn democracy. The report says, quote, "but it is also true that extremists, conspiracy theorists and others were prepared to fight. That is an insurrection." As the report notes, Trump tried to bend institutions to his will for weeks since election night - the Department of Justice, state election officials - all of whom told him no. The institutions of the republic didn't bend to his will, and so Trump went outside of them, calling on people outside the government who would carry out his will.

At the hearing, lawmakers played a montage of clips of far-right media figures like Alex Jones, Matt Bracken and Tim Pool echoing Trump's call to come to D.C. on January 6.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

ALEX JONES: President Trump, in the early morning hours today, tweeted that he wants the American people to march on Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021.

MATT BRACKEN: If necessary, storming right into the Capitol. We know the rules of engagement. If you have enough people, you can push down any kind of a fence or a wall.

TIM POOL: This could be Trump's last stand. And it's a time when he has specifically called on his supporters to arrive in D.C.

OLMOS: The report states that, in the days leading up to January 6, numerous aides tried to get Trump to call off the rally, afraid of the kinds of people that were planning on showing up. On the day, Hope Hicks, a former White House adviser, sent a text saying, quote, "we look like domestic extremists." And that is exactly the kind of people who played a key role in January 6.

MARTÍNEZ: And how did that work exactly?

OLMOS: By January 6, leaders of the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Stop the Steal founder Ali Alexander were all communicating in an encrypted Signal chat run by Roger Stone, a Trump associate. Each group had different plans for how they would lay siege to the Capitol. The Oath Keepers, for example, had a cache of weapons in hotel rooms in Virginia, with men waiting by the radio to act as a quick reaction force. They would bring guns in once the Capitol had been taken. And on that day, the Oath Keepers moved on the Capitol steps in stack formations like trained soldiers. But it's important to understand that they didn't just appear on January 6, these far-right groups. They have been building for years by the point of January 6. Groups like the Proud Boys had been getting to street fights in cities like Portland, Ore., something I witnessed firsthand. And I want to tell you the story of what happened there to understand the forces at play.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

OLMOS: In 2020, protests for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd's murder spread across the country. As the January 6 report lays out, quote, "the Proud Boys deputized themselves as agents of law and order, and "they played the role of instigators." In this video recorded back in August 2020, a Proud Boy leads a crowd of hundreds into a street brawl against racial justice demonstrators in full view of the police on the steps of the justice center in downtown Portland, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Expletive).

OLMOS: The January 6 report describes how the Oath Keepers, a far-right group that moved in that stack formation on the Capitol steps, used the racial justice protests in the summer of 2020 as a means to organize. They were self-appointed security at counterrallies, building muscle memory by coordinating these events and using them to recruit new members. The report says that in the year leading up to January 6, there were at least nine protests in which far-right actors entered state capitols. On December 21, a couple of weeks before January 6, I was there when far-right extremists broke into the Oregon State Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We are nonviolent.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yeah, we are.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Stop this.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We are nonviolent.

OLMOS: By New Year's Day of 2021, multiple state capitols had been stormed, and far-right groups weren't just attacking racial justice protesters but taking on law enforcement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: No more [expletive] the blue.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: ...Impact munitions. We're going to tear gas.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: No more backing the blue.

OLMOS: The week before January 6, I remember being at the Oregon State Capitol watching a crowd of Proud Boys and others turn against the police. There was one man wearing a don't-tread-on-me flag as a cape. He was chanting on a bullhorn, no more backing the blue. As the January 6 report makes clear, the insurrection at the Capitol didn't come out of nowhere. In the Trump era, extremist groups went unchecked, getting more violent at protests. This went on for years. And when, finally, the president summoned them to Washington on January 6, they came.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Sergio Olmos, back with us. All right. Two years later, to the day, where are these extremist groups now?

OLMOS: So centrally organized far-right groups like the Oath Keepers have been mostly dismantled. They're basically gone. Their leadership has been convicted of seditious conspiracy charges, like Stewart Rhodes. Decentralized groups like the Proud Boys and scores of others that are less well-known are a day-to-day reality, even as Proud Boy leaders like Enrique Tarrio are on trial for seditious conspiracy. Tarrio and his lieutenants have pled not guilty. Nearly a thousand people have been charged in the wake of January 6. Extremist groups use violent force to determine political decisions. On the biggest stage in the world, that failed on January 6. But on smaller, more local stages, that's not necessarily the case.

MARTÍNEZ: So at the end of the day, what do we take away from this?

OLMOS: I do feel like there's a clear line between the bloody scenes I saw on the streets for years with far-right extremist groups and what we saw on January 6. But today, far-right extremist groups aren't seeing a bipartisan crackdown. Instead, they're seeing their ideas gaining greater acceptance on the mainstream right.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR national security correspondent Sergio Olmos. Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Sergio Olmos