In this daily series, Newsweek explores the steps that led to the January 6 Capitol Riot.
On December 23, pro-Trump organizer Cindy Chafian sent a follow-up email about the planned January 6 event, saying that 15,000 participants were expected.
« All available evidence, » the U.S. Park Police wrote in an internal report the same day, « indicates that we should expect an event similar to those that occurred on 14 November 2020 and 12 December 2020. » The Park Police highlighted that « opposition groups … plan[ed] to counter-protest … as they have in the past. »
« A higher number that expected people [sic] have already made concerted plans to travel to the District of Columbia for the event, » the Park Police said.
« The protests/rallies [are] expected to be similar to the previous Million MAGA March rallies in November and December 2020, » the U.S. Capitol Police agreed in their December 23 « Special Assessment » (21-A-0468 V.2).
The Secret Service added: « There are approximately fifty nine (59) groups identified as potentially participating in First Amendment activities on January 6, 2021 at or around the White House Complex (WHC) … Expected attendance is around 20,000 participants. »
Six times as many protestors—as many as 120,000—would show up on the Mall on January 6, according to classified numbers still not released by the Secret Service and the FBI but seen by Newsweek. But there is still not an official estimate, nor have any of the Congressional committees or task forces offered a number. Nor is there a clear number of how many people actually entered the Capitol, or tried to get in.
These numbers, and a specific number who climbed Capitol Hill, or assaulted the building, how many forced there way in, and how many merely walked in, is all the more important in assessing the percentage of those who were violent, how many were associated with extremist groups, and indeed how many were there: that is, was it just a routine event dominated by insurrectionists, or was it a grass roots movement?
A deeper evaluation can be made based upon the arrests that have already been made. Federal prosecutors have charged more than 700 people with participating in the protests at the U.S. Capitol, and new indictments and arrests are still continuing almost daily. Early in the arrests (when the number was closer to 400), most news media outlets said some 800 people entered the Capitol, but now the number—circulating in classified assessments made by the Secret Service and the FBI, and obtained exclusively by Newsweek—is 1,200.
Of these arrests, is it estimated, based on indictments, documents, and statements, that fewer than 15 percent were affiliated with any organized group. In other words, of the 700-plus so far arrested, over 600 were unaffiliated protestors. Were those who committed violence and entered the Capitol part of a « pre-planned » attack, involving « participants from a number of states who came well equipped, coordinated, and prepared to carry out a violent insurrection at the United States Capitol, » as former U.S. Capitol Police chief Steven Sund claimed, or was it a spontaneous event?
Getting the numbers right is essential. Did the assumption that there would be some 20,000 protestors in the District of Columbia that day stand in the way of competent contingency planning?
Were the protests dominated by the military, as some suggest? An estimated 10 percent of protestors were affiliated with the military or law enforcement, the vast majority of them veterans. About seven percent of the overall adult population in the United States is made up of veterans, meaning that the number at the Capitol on January 6 is only slightly greater than the population at large. Did federal law enforcers have sympathy for the protestors and hold back on security? Whether the Capitol Police and District’s Metropolitan Police Department were strategic in their approach is a different question if there were 120,000 protestors versus 20,000. It’s likely they were simply overwhelmed by superior numbers.
By the time January 6 arrived, after another amendment had been submitted by the Ellipse organizers, the permit was issued for an estimated 30,000 participants. Approximately 25,000 participants were screened by Secret Service Uniformed Division officers to get into the restricted area where Donald Trump was speaking on January 6. An additional 15,000 positioned themselves between the Ellipse and the Washington Monument, outside the restricted area, according to still-classified Secret Service data.
The Federal Protective Service made its own internal estimates, pointing out that there were actually three major rallies with permits for January 6. The first was the Ellipse, permitted for 30,000 but swamped by « much more, » according to FPS documents released under the Freedom of Information Act. The two other protests were at Freedom Plaza, originally permitted for 5,000 but raised to 30,000; and the Sylvan theater south of the Washington Monument, permitted for 15,000 more. That’s a total of 75,000, just for permitted events.
None of this is to say that the federal authorities ever correctly predicted the magnitude of those attending. Former Acting Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen told Congress, « I received reports that MPD and others estimated that between 10,000 and 30,000 people would be coming for the rallies or protests on January 6—a sizable, but not unprecedented number. »
Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller told the Congress that some 8,000 « local and Federal law enforcement officers were on duty in the District of Columbia » on January 6. « I was told during planning sessions leading up to January 6 that such a force routinely manages demonstrations well north of 100,000 demonstrators. »
Rosen testified that on January 6, he spoke to acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Michael Sherwin, who was present on the Ellipse, « to inquire if the crowd size there was consistent with or larger than the forecasts. » Sherwin told him that « the size of the crowd was on the lower side of the forecast and conceivably might have been below the lower end of the range. »
There are many reasons that crowd sizes get inflated or deflated. Large size is a symbol of popularity, especially in the Trump era, and estimates of how many people congregate is often overstated. It seems, though, that many people—those blaming it all on Donald Trump, those defending their being overwhelmed, those claiming a well-planned attack, those blaming the Trump Pentagon for not taking swifter action—has an interest in being content with a low estimate, in not admitting that that 120,000 people were there to show solidarity with the president, believing that the election was indeed stolen.
The low number also makes the proportion of those who entered the Capitol seem larger (about one percent), as it does make the number of law enforcement, military and veterans seem disproportionate (in reality, a percentage no greater than the percentage in society overall). In other words, the total number is crucial to understanding what happened on January 6.
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