When the Capitol Riot Came Home

A small New Hampshire town has been upended since January 6.

The police station in Troy, NH. Photo: Shawn McCreesh
The police station in Troy, NH. Photo: Shawn McCreesh

The trouble in Troy started hundreds of miles away that day, when David Ellis talked to a reporter.

Ellis, age 60, began the day of January 6 in the southwestern New Hampshire town of Troy, where he is chief of police. He drove nearly two hours from there to the Boston suburb of Newton, Massachusetts, where he boarded one of several buses for Washington, D.C. Upon arriving, he listened to his president speak; he strolled down Pennsylvania Avenue, admiring all the marble, then approached that grandest monument of all. And paused. That’s when I crossed paths with him, standing on a street corner in front of the Capitol, sounding nervous. 

A short man with a jovial affect, Ellis found himself at a crossroads. Moments before, Ashli Babbitt had been shot.  A block from where we stood, Visigoths were still scaling the walls. Three Oath Keeper goons decked out in tactical gear stood beneath a tree, smoking cigarettes and drinking in the scene with delight. Black Chevy Suburbans with alarms blaring zipped through a red light, nearly flattening a gaggle of Trumpists fleeing for their Greyhound buses. Though the mob was still ratcheting up, the manic energy seemed not to draw Ellis in but to repulse him. He was not wearing a Kevlar vest. He was not dressed like a bovine creature, and from what I can tell, he was not carrying a pipe bomb.

I quoted him in a short article published by this magazine on January 6 saying that the break-in “was not going to solve a thing, and then to see the police get treated the way they were treated, it’s ridiculous.” Standing nearby, listening in on our little interview, was a woman in a Carhartt jacket whose voice made her sound like a human ashtray. She croaked that she did enjoy watching the break-in, to which Ellis cracked: “That’s because you’re from Massachusetts!”  I asked Ellis if he regretted his decision to come to D.C. that day, pointing out that what was happening in the background was surely an act of domestic terrorism. He said he didn’t have any regrets, because “there’s a lot of Trump supporters that are awesome people, like me.” He wasn’t trying to be cute — it was clear that he wanted to stick up for Trump supporters writ large without being tarred as a rioter.

His few words to me would soon upend the little town that he has looked after for three decades, snowball into the statehouse, and roil New Hampshire politics. A clash over one unexpected question — what to do about the lawman who was closer than he should have been to an insurrection? — raised others about the viciousness of our politics and how much the Trump years have warped us.

Complaints and threats flooded Troy’s Town Hall. Photo: Shawn McCreesh

Troy and its some 2,100 townspeople sit in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. Roads with hairpin bends and no winter maintenance extend out from the town square. Snowmobiles stand on front lawns and icicles hang from a narrow bridge over a mountain brook. On a hillside overlooking the town, a single set of footsteps meanders among the tops of gravestones that poke out from beneath a blanket of snow. It’s the sort of place that made Ethan Frome reach for a sled.

“It’s a poor town,” said Warren Davis, 74, who lives on the square, which is really more of an ellipse and is called “the Common” by locals. “It went for Trump,” he added. “This isn’t liberal territory.” (Actually, Trump won the district by just 74 votes, nabbing 583 votes to Joe Biden’s 509.)

A shabby but charming old town hall has anchored the top of the Common since 1815. In the days after the Capitol riot, it became the center of a political furor as calls about Ellis poured in from across the state and country. Soon came death threats. The town hall’s employees were sent home, and the building was placed on lockdown for days. State troopers were called in to review the threats and patrol the town.

“There was a lot of nasty stuff,” said Dick Thackston, chairman of Troy’s board of selectmen, which manages the town’s affairs and budgets. “Our office is very small, it’s got two full-time and two part-time ladies that work in it, and it was scary for them.”

Local media descended. The New Hampshire State Democratic Party chairman Ray Buckley called for Ellis to resign. “For a police chief to attend a rally that led to such destruction and violence and express no regret is simply unimaginable,” Buckley said in a statement. Democratic state representative Rosemarie Rung posted on Twitter that “All NH police need to denounce Ellis and call on his resignation. He was there to violate the US Constitution. He did not step in to stop the attack as an off-duty officer. He is a stain on each and every NH police officer who does not come out against him.”

Meantime, Ellis was lying low, at home on quarantine orders after his trip to Washington, and Troy was spooked. “You didn’t know if these people were just running off at the mouth or if somebody was actually going to come here,” recalled Tammy Nagle, 59, whose porch faces the town hall across the Common. She was sitting out there on President’s Day weekend, sucking down a Marlboro Black menthol, while I plodded around town. “When we come out here to smoke, I would look around more than I did before to see if somebody strange was walking around who I didn’t know,” she said. “It made me feel …” She paused to consider the right word, deciding on: “Eerie.”

Ellis had played right into one of the most outrageous revelations about January 6 — the presence of law enforcement among the insurrectionists. At least 30 officers converged on the capital; they hailed from Seattle to Houston to Pennsylvania. They were free to protest, exercising their constitutional right, but all those badges mixing with bigots and anti-Semites brought to mind for many the old Zack de la Rocha saw: “Some of those that work forces / Are the same that burn crosses.”

“This is hard because when something like this happens, there’s a tendency to look at it after it happens and say, ‘How could he be a part of this?’” said Chuck Wexler, a former top cop in Boston who is the executive director of the Police Executive Research forum, a Washington-based nonprofit for best practices for policing. “You have to separate this into two distinct parts. The first part being a very fundamental right in this country, expressing First Amendment rights — that’s what we’ve fought for, that’s what makes America unique. If he’s not wearing a police uniform, he’s just expressing his rights, then he marches down Pennsylvania Avenue and then the crowd, who he thought might have been peaceful, turns.”

Wexler continued, “At that moment, he has a decision to make. Is he part of that group, that group that injured and murdered police officers, or is he not? If he walks away, that’s significant. But if he follows people who push over police officers, he’s making a decision that should cost him so much.”

“Maybe it wasn’t the smartest decision to go down there,” said Davis in Troy, “but I know he really supports Trump.”

Anyone you ask in Troy knows why their police chief loves Donald Trump. A few years ago, Ellis’s stepdaughter passed away, a victim of the opioid crisis that’s decimated so many towns like this one. In 2016, the Trump campaign invited Ellis to a rally on the other side of the state, in Laconia. Ellis and his wife met Trump backstage, showed him a picture of their daughter, and told the candidate her story. Trump is said to have placed his hands on their shoulders and told them they were heard, showing a genuine compassion that so many believe him incapable of possessing. Ellis told friends in town that he went to Washington last month simply because he knew it would be the final Trump rally and he wanted to be there for the end, just as he was there in the beginning. He wanted to witness history. (And boy, did he ever.)

The people of Troy love Ellis. He’s the one who puts up the Christmas tree in the Common each year. He drives the elderly to their doctor’s appointments in his police cruiser. When he suffered a heart attack while training for ice-water rescue missions — he’s also a volunteer firefighter — the townsfolk looked after him. “I don’t know him wicked good,” said a woman named Bobbie, 50, who was working the counter at the Troy Pizza Barn, “but he does a lot for this town.”

So when the outside world came after Ellis, Troy had his back. “My son is actually a Capitol police officer, so this hits close to home,” said Brandy Wolski, 46, the owner of the Cozy Cottage, a home-goods store on the Common that sells candles and saucy tchotchkes for the wine-mom demo. Still, she said, “Dave was going there to support something he believed in, and my son was there doing his job, and had it been a different circumstance and Dave went into the building, where he didn’t belong, then I’d feel differently.

“He has the right to do what he wants to do on his personal time,” she said. “He’s so sweet, he helps everybody out.”

Twenty miles up the road, in another town, I was pulled over for doing 40 in a 25. I handed over my license and asked the cop if he’d heard about the embattled chief in Troy. “Dave Ellis?” asked the officer. “Everybody says he’s the nicest guy in the world.”

There wasn’t one person I spoke to who wasn’t thoroughly horrified by Trump’s tacky insurrection. The march itself “shouldn’t have happened in the first place,” said Hannah, 27, also of the Pizza Barn. What rankles her more are the attacks on a good man by those who don’t know him. “I get very furious watching what people make him out to be,” she said. Representative Rung’s social-media posts about Ellis were particularly grating to her.

“Does she know him personally? Because if she knew him personally, she wouldn’t have said any of the things that she said about him.”

Photo: Shawn McCreesh

“I don’t know the man. I’ve never met the man,” said Rung when I dropped in on her at home in Merrimack, a middle-class suburb of Nashua, 50 miles east of Troy. “My tweet was just based on your story,” she said. She also retweeted footage of the rioters and wrote, “Wow. These terrorists need to be locked up. I want to know who is from NH besides the police chief from Troy, NH. #nhpolitics.”

“It just made me very angry,” she told me. “When you think of police, they take an oath to uphold the law, and here he’s gone to a protest that was held to overturn the law, overturn legal elections, interfere with Congress’s constitutional duty to count the electoral votes, so I was upset and I tweeted.” She compared his being there to a pediatrician attending an anti-vaxxer rally.

I told her what I learned of Ellis, why he was there that day, and about his reputation around town. “Oh,” she said, faltering for just a split second. “Maybe if I knew him or he was a friend or something like that, I wouldn’t have been as harsh.”

Rung is just the sort of person you’d want to represent you in local government. A mother of three who was an active school-board member, she became inspired to run for office in 2018 as a Democrat in a red area because the town’s groundwater was polluted by a nearby industrial company and it seemed like no one was doing anything about it, she said. Rung got appointed to the Resources, Recreation and Development Committee, hearing bills about water quality, lakes, and sea coasts and began plugging away. Then two things happened on January 6.

While the mob was forming in D.C., a Republican named Sherman Packard was elected as New Hampshire’s newest Speaker of the house. (The previous one died of COVID-19 after a week on the job.) One of Packard’s first moves as Speaker was to strip Rung of her beloved committee seat, as retribution for throttling chief Ellis on Twitter. “Rep. Rung’s actions may have contributed to the town offices in Troy shutting down,” Packard wrote in a letter.

Merrimack’s own Erin Brockovich could no longer champion the water-quality bills she cares so deeply about. “This just isn’t right,” she said, sitting in her neat living room, a tidy stack of books including Barack Obama’s newest memoir and a collection of Pulitzer-winning photos on a coffee table in front of her. “The Speaker has said that he would consider reinstating me if I apologize for the ‘tone and content’” — here, she uses air quotes and throws her hands into the air — “of my tweet. It’s so misogynist, I have never heard of a man having to apologize for his tone. A lot of people were in an uproar about me being removed; he’s gotten a lot of calls. Now, he also wants me to apologize for the uproar this has caused his office. So I’m pretty, pretty sure that I’m not going to get reinstated,” she said with a sigh. (Packard did not return requests for comment).

Thackston, the chairman of Troy’s board of selectmen, described the calls and posts from Rung and other “keyboard cowboys” as “cancel culture gone wild.” I asked Rung if she saw any irony in being removed from her post after calling for Ellis’s head.

“What makes it different for me is I was elected by thousands of people to represent them, and now they’ve lost that representation in committee, which is a very important part of the legislative process,” she said. Still, she doesn’t regret her tweets. “To me, it wasn’t offensive. We have to hold our police to a higher standard.”

She added, “Not only did he have the poor judgment to go to a rally like that, but then to talk to a reporter about it?”

The central question of the Trump years has been one of coexistence. When “the nicest guy in the world” can get swept in a political fervor, to pull back only when it becomes a bona fide mob, is it any wonder Americans eye their neighbors suspiciously? It turns out that not every individual adds up to a seamless package for us to approve of or reject. If we’re to live peacefully alongside each other again, we’ll need to rediscover that a person’s politics may not be the single most revealing thing about him or the deepest expression of his soul. Nor should it be.

But all this “Kumbaya” probably sounds a little rich coming from a hack like me. “If it weren’t for you, 27,000 people would have a representative on that committee,” said Rung, only half-joking. (I found her remark only half-funny.) In Troy, Davis said about Ellis, “Something I’ve certainly heard from people is, ‘What is he, fuckin’ nuts, talking to a reporter?’” At the Pizza Barn, Bobbie told me there were rumors going around about that pesky Washington reporter. One was that I somehow knew Ellis from before and sought him out that day. (Nope.) When I explained to someone else that I was the reporter, he laughed and said about the chief: “He must want to kill you.”

Ellis managed to evade my entreaties for days. Each time I stopped by the station, he was off-duty or out responding to a call. I started to contemplate which felony I might commit in the Common to get his attention, but eventually I split. A few days later, someone operating a switchboard connected me, at last, to the man I’d spoken to at the Capitol on January 6. But he’d learned his lesson about talking to a reporter. He said he couldn’t speak to me.

He was, as everybody said he would be, really nice about it.

When the Capitol Riot Came Home