Article of the Day: 2/10/21 understanding the people of 1/6

A majority of the people arrested for Capitol riot had a history of financial trouble

Trail of bankruptcies, tax problems and bad debts raises questions for researchers trying to understand motivations for attack

Todd Frankel

Image without a caption
(Illustration by Dave Murray for The Washington Post)

Jenna Ryan seemed like an unlikely participant in the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. She was a real estate agent from Texas. She flew into Washington on a private jet. And she was dressed that day in clothes better suited for a winter tailgate than a war.

Yet Ryan, 50, is accused of rushing into the Capitol past broken glass and blaring security alarms and, according to federal prosecutors, shouting: “Fight for freedom! Fight for freedom!”

But in a different way, she fit right in.

Despite her outward signs of success, Ryan had struggled financially for years. She was still paying off a $37,000 lien for unpaid federal taxes when she was arrested. She’d nearly lost her home to foreclosure before that. She filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and faced another IRS tax lien in 2010.

Nearly 60 percent of the people facing charges related to the Capitol riot showed signs of prior money troubles, including bankruptcies, notices of eviction or foreclosure, bad debts, or unpaid taxes over the past two decades, according to a Washington Post analysis of public records for 125 defendants with sufficient information to detail their financial histories.

The group’s bankruptcy rate — 18 percent — was nearly twice as high as that of the American public, The Post found. A quarter of them had been sued for money owed to a creditor. And 1 in 5 of them faced losing their home at one point, according to court filings.

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The financial problems are revealing because they offer potential clues for understanding why so many Trump supporters — many with professional careers and few with violent criminal histories — were willing to participate in an attack egged on by the president’s rhetoric painting him and his supporters as undeserving victims.

While no single factor explains why someone decided to join in, experts say, Donald Trump and his brand of grievance politics tapped into something that resonated with the hundreds of people who descended on the Capitol in a historic burst of violence.

“I think what you’re finding is more than just economic insecurity but a deep-seated feeling of precarity about their personal situation,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a political science professor who helps run the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab at American University, reacting to The Post’s findings. “And that precarity — combined with a sense of betrayal or anger that someone is taking something away — mobilized a lot of people that day.”

U.S. Capitol Police officers confront supporters of President Donald Trump outside the Senate Chamber at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
U.S. Capitol Police officers confront supporters of President Donald Trump outside the Senate Chamber at the Capitol on Jan. 6. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

The financial missteps by defendants in the attempted insurrection ranged from small debts of a few thousand dollars more than a decade ago to unpaid tax bills of $400,000 and homes facing foreclosure in recent years. Some of these people seemed to have regained their financial footing. But many of them once stood close to the edge.

Ryan had nearly lost everything. And the stakes seemed similarly high to her when she came to Washington in early January. She fully believed Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen and that he was going to save the country, she said in an interview with The Post.

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But now — facing federal charges and abandoned by people she considered “fellow patriots” — she said she feels betrayed.

“I bought into a lie, and the lie is the lie, and it’s embarrassing,” she said. “I regret everything.”

The FBI has said it found evidence of organized plots by extremist groups. But many of the people who came to the Capitol on Jan. 6 — including Ryan — appeared to have adopted their radical outlooks more informally, consuming conspiracy theories about the election on television, social media and right-wing websites.

The poor and uneducated are not more likely to join extremist movements, according to experts. Two professors a couple of years ago found the opposite in one example: an unexpectedly high number of engineers who became Islamist radicals.

In the Capitol attack, business owners and white-collar workers made up 40 percent of the people accused of taking part, according to a study by the Chicago Project on Security and Threats at the University of Chicago. Only 9 percent appeared to be unemployed.The Post obtained hours of video footage, some exclusively, and placed it within a digital 3-D model of the building. (TWP)

The participation of people with middle- and upper-middle-class positions fits with research suggesting that the rise of right-wing extremist groups in the 1950s was fueled by people in the middle of society who felt they were losing status and power, said Pippa Norris, a political science professor at Harvard University who has studied radical political movements.

Miller-Idriss said she was struck by a 2011 study that found household income was not a factor in whether a young person supported the extreme far right in Germany. But a highly significant predictor was whether they had lived through a parent’s unemployment.

“These are people who feel like they’ve lost something,” Miller-Idriss said.

Going through a bankruptcy or falling behind on taxes, even years earlier, could provoke a similar response.

“They know it can be lost. They have that history — and then someone comes along and tells you this election has been stolen,” Miller-Idriss said. “It taps into the same thing.”

Playing on personal pain

Trump’s false claims about election fraud — refuted by elections officials and rejected by judges — seemed tailored to exploit feelings about this precarious status, said Don Haider-Markel, a political science professor at the University of Kansas who studies political extremism.

“It’s hard to ignore with a Trump presidency that message that ‘the America you knew and loved is going away, and I’m going to protect it,’” Haider-Markel said. “They feel, at a minimum, that they’re under threat.”

While some of the financial problems were old, the pandemic’s economic toll appeared to inflict fresh pain for some of the people accused of participating in the attempted insurrection.

A California man filed for bankruptcy one week before allegedly joining the attack, according to public records. A Texas man was charged with entering the Capitol one month after his company was slapped with a nearly $2,000 state tax lien.

Several young people charged in the attack came from families with histories of financial duress.

Riley June Williams walks with her attorney, Bryan McQuillan, after being released from Dauphin County Prison in Harrisburg, Pa., on Jan. 21.
Riley June Williams walks with her attorney, Bryan McQuillan, after being released from Dauphin County Prison in Harrisburg, Pa., on Jan. 21. (Dan Gleiter/Patriot-News/AP)

The parents of Riley June Williams — a 22-year-old who allegedly helped to steal a laptop from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Capitol office — filed for bankruptcy when she was a child, according to public records. A house owned by her mother faced foreclosure when she was a teenager, records show. Recently, a federal judge placed Williams on home confinement with her mother in Harrisburg, Pa. Her federal public defender did not respond to a request for comment.

People with professional careers such as respiratory therapist, nurse and lawyer were also accused of joining in.

One of them was William McCall Calhoun, 57, a well-known lawyer in Americus, Ga., 130 miles south of Atlanta, who was hit with a $26,000 federal tax lien in 2019, according to public records. A woman who knows Calhoun, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly, said he started to show strong support for Trump only in the past year. An attorney for Calhoun declined to comment.

Ashli Babbitt, who was shot and killed by police when she tried to leap through a door’s broken window inside the Capitol, had struggled to run a pool-service company outside San Diego and was saddled with a $23,000 judgment from a lender in 2017, according to court records.

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Financial problems were also apparent among people federal authorities said were connected to far-right nationalist groups, such as the Proud Boys.

Dominic Pezzola of Rochester, N.Y., is accused of helping lead the charge into the Capitol on Jan. 6. Over the past five years, he has had a history of state tax warrants totaling more than $40,000.
Dominic Pezzola of Rochester, N.Y., is accused of helping lead the charge into the Capitol on Jan. 6. Over the past five years, he has had a history of state tax warrants totaling more than $40,000. (AP)

Dominic Pezzola, who federal authorities said is a member of the Proud Boys, is accused of being among the first to lead the surge inside the Capitol and helping to overwhelm police. Up to 140 officers were injured in the storming of the Capitol and one officer, Brian Sicknick, was killed. 

Pezzola, of Rochester, N.Y., also has been named in state tax warrants totaling more than $40,000 over the past five years, according to public records. His attorney declined to comment.

The roots of extremism are complex, said Haider-Markel.

“Somehow they’ve been wronged, they’ve developed a grievance, and they tend to connect that to some broader ideology,” he said.

The price of insurrection

Ryan, who lives in Frisco, Texas, a Dallas suburb, said she was slow to become a big Trump supporter.

She’s been described as a conservative radio talk show host. But she wasn’t a budding Rush Limbaugh. Her AM radio show each Sunday focused on real estate, and she paid for the airtime. She stopped doing the show in March, when the pandemic hit.

But she continued to run a service that offers advice for people struggling with childhood trauma and bad relationships. Ryan said the work was based on the steps she took to overcome her own rough upbringing.

Twice divorced and struggling with financial problems, Ryan developed an outlook that she described as politically conservative, leaning toward libertarian.

But politics was not her focal point until recently. She recalled being upset when President Barack Obama won reelection in 2012. And she preferred Trump over Hillary Clinton four years later. But she said she wasn’t strident in her support for Trump.

That changed as the 2020 election approached.

She said she started reading far-right websites such as Epoch Times and Gateway Pundit. She began streaming shows such as Alex Jones’s “Infowars” and former Trump campaign manager Stephen K. Bannon’s “War Room: Pandemic.” She began following conspiracy theories related to QAnon, a sprawling set of false claims that have coalesced into an extremist ideology. She said she didn’t know if the posts were true, but she was enthralled.

“It was all like a football game. I was sucked into it. Consumed by it,” Ryan said.

She attended the first protest in her life in April, going to Austin to vent about the state’s pandemic lockdown orders. That was followed by a rally for Shelley Luther, who gained national attention for reopening her beauty salon in Dallas in defiance of the lockdown.

Ryan said she traveled to Trump’s “Save America” rally on a whim. A Facebook friend offered to fly her and three others on a private plane.

They arrived in Washington a day early and got rooms at a Westin hotel downtown, Ryan said.

It was her first trip to the nation’s capital.

The next morning, Jan. 6, the group of friends left the hotel at 6 a.m., Ryan said. She was cold, so she bought a $35 knit snow hat with a “45” emblem from a souvenir shop. They then followed the crowd streaming toward the National Mall.

“My main concern was there were no bathrooms. I kept asking, ‘Where are the bathrooms?’” she said. “I was just having fun.”

They listened to some of the speakers. But mostly they walked around and took photos. She felt like a tourist. They grabbed sandwiches at a Wawa convenience store for lunch. They hired a pedicab to take them back to the hotel.

She drank white wine while the group watched on television as Congress prepared to certify the electoral college votes. They listened to clips of Trump telling rallygoers to walk to the Capitol and saying, “We fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

They decided to leave the hotel and go to the Capitol.

Ryan said she was reluctant.

But she also posted a video to her Facebook account that showed her looking into a bathroom mirror and saying, according to an FBI account of her charges: “We’re gonna go down and storm the capitol. They’re down there right now and that’s why we came and so that’s what we are going to do. So wish me luck.”

Trump supporters at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Trump supporters at the Capitol on Jan. 6. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

She live-streamed on Facebook. She posted photos to Twitter. She got closer to the Capitol with each post. She stood on the Capitol’s steps. She flashed a peace symbol next to a smashed Capitol window. The FBI also found video of her walking through doors on the west side of the Capitol in the middle of a packed crowd, where she said into a camera, according to the bureau: “Y’all know who to hire for your realtor. Jenna Ryan for your realtor.”

The FBI document does not state how long Ryan spent inside the building. She said it was just a few minutes. She and her new friends eventually walked back to the hotel, she said.

“We just stormed the Capital,” Ryan tweeted that afternoon. “It was one of the best days of my life.”

She said she realized she was in trouble only after returning to Texas. Her phone was blowing up with messages. Her social media posts briefly made her the infamous face of the riots: the smiling real estate agent who flew in a private jet to an insurrection.

Nine days later, she turned herself in to the FBI. She was charged with two federal misdemeanors related to entering the Capitol building and disorderly conduct. Last week, federal authorities filed similar charges against two others on her flight: Jason L. Hyland, 37, of Frisco, who federal authorities said organized the trip, and Katherine S. Schwab, 32, of Colleyville, Texas.

Ryan remained defiant at first. She clashed with people who criticized her online. She told a Dallas TV station she deserved a presidential pardon.

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Then Trump left for Florida. President Biden took office. And Ryan, at home in Texas, was left to wonder what to do with her two mini-goldendoodle dogs if she goes to prison.

“Not one patriot is standing up for me,” Ryan said recently. “I’m a complete villain. I was down there based on what my president said. ‘Stop the steal.’ Now I see that it was all over nothing. He was just having us down there for an ego boost. I was there for him.” A

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