insurrection day

The Making of a MAGA Martyr

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Twitter, Matt McClain/Getty Images, Jim Urquhart/Reuters

Days after the storming of the Capitol on January 6, an image began spreading widely across the encrypted chat app Telegram and other bastions of right-wing digital conversation. It was a “battle flag” depicting Ashli Babbitt, a 35-year-old woman who was shot by a Capitol Police officer as she attempted to enter the building, as a spooky-looking white-on-black idealized feminine figure, not unlike a more martial version of the Starbucks logo. On the flag, a drop of blood dangles from Babbitt’s neck against a crimson Capitol dome. Variations on this flag include the Capitol stamped with a Star of David, the word vengeance written below it in a gothic font. The Babbitt flag was used to advertise an abortive “Million Martyr March” scheduled for Inauguration Day. Ever since, white-supremacist groups like Revolt Through Tradition and the National Partisan Movement have used the same image of Babbitt in their recruitment propaganda, posting flyers on light poles and hanging banners that read “Her Name Was Ashley Babbitt” from Boston to Orlando. She’s also been the muse for several rap songs, including one with nearly 50,000 YouTube views by the conservative white rapper Forgiato Blow, whose other tracks include “White History Month” and “Martial Law.” “Patriots we fed up / We know that we got set up,” he raps over a canned trap beat. “Ashli Babbitt, you know we hold you in prayer / Ashli Babbitt, we know that your soul’s in the air.”

Every revolution runs on myths, its own heroes and martyrs filling the hearts of adherents with grievance and a wish for revenge. For the attempted revolution of January 6, Babbitt is the most visible of these figures. One popular T-shirt, available from Kmart as well as other vendors since January 8, has an American flag rendered in black and white with the text “ASHLI BABBITT AMERICAN PATRIOT.” “ASHLI BABBITT, A FOUR TOUR AIR FORCE HERO WAS KILLED DEFENDING LIBERTY. HONOR HER TODAY,” the item description reads, in all caps.

Rioters who lived are also cultivating an air of righteous persecution — and the cash grab to go with it. Fund-raisers on the Christian far-right-sympathetic fundraising site GiveSendGo provide a snapshot of the stories arrestees tell about themselves. Mark Sahady and Sue Ianni, both founding members of the homophobic hate group Super Happy Fun America and organizers of the Boston “Straight Pride Parade” (motto: “It’s great to be straight”) have raised more than $9,000 on the site to contest federal charges of disorderly conduct and trespassing for their role in the riot. The pair arranged for 11 buses to transport fellow far-righters to D.C. “Mark Sahady and Sue Ianni are patriotic Americans who are facing a legal battle due to peacefully attending the rally in Washington, DC on January 6th,” the pair wrote on GiveSendGo. “Due to their history of conservative activism they have been defamed by the media and harassed by local far-left agitators. As a result of what appears to be a political prosecution they are now burdened with large legal expenses.” Along with their donation, a user calling themselves “Rightful Freedom” wrote: “Thank you for fighting for our rights and freedom.” Last month, “Nancy D” went further, offering $100 and the message: “God bless you! You are an inspiration to all of us of true patriotism.”

Another defendant, Sean Watson, called on his experience in the U.S. Army to drum up patriotic sentiment and donations: “On December 19th our President called on his supporters to rally in Washington D.C. on January 06, 2021 to protest the stolen election. Being an Army veteran I took this as a direct order from the President,” he wrote on his GiveSendGo fundraising page. “As a fellow Patriot and Veteran I am asking God and my fellow Patriots to help me with my defense.”

One larger-scale project seeks to offer legal aid to “patriots” ensnared in the Justice Department probe. An organization called the National Constitutional Law Union, or NCLU (an unmistakable imitation of the ACLU’s acronym), was founded in June 2021 by John Pierce, who has represented Rudy Giuliani and George Papadopoulos. The fledgling organization solicits donations on conservative fundraising platform WinRed. The NCLU’s home page celebrates its representation of “several defendants in connection with the January 6, 2021 events at the United States Capitol.” A timeline of American history on the organization’s home page begins with “Foundations of Liberty 1773-1785” (“Americans fight and win the Revolutionary War against an oppressive English monarchy and establish a beacon of freedom for the entire world”) and concludes, in 2021, with “Enough is Enough”; American history culminates, apparently, in the formation of the NCLU, “to fight for the liberties of the common citizen.” For Pierce, taking on the cause of January 6 defendants is an integral part of that fight: “Federal authorities [are] rounding up American citizens with respect to January 6th,” he told Gateway Pundit. “The NCLU is honored to be stepping in to provide support for these defendants and their lawyers.”

For $100, Richard “Bigo” Barnett of Gravette, Arkansas, is selling photographs of himself with his feet up on Pelosi’s desk. (“If you object to the November election results or stand against the Biden Administration in any way, not only will you be cancelled, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will put you on a Gestapo-like list, your employer will terminate your job, your freedom will be taken, and then you will be thrown into a gulag for an undetermined amount of time without ever having had a criminal trial,” he wrote on his site. “Richard Barnett’s picture at Speaker Pelosi’s desk has become the face of the new anti-federalist movement.  We will not go gently into that good night.”)

There are no signs of such an exit; the conviction that the 2020 election was stolen has hardened into a majority opinion within the Republican Party. The language of persecution used by the rioters typifies the 2021 conservative mind-set. And, of course, it’s a narrative drenched not only in self-delusion but replete with carefully cultivated blind spots.

It’s telling that, amid the commemorations of Ashli Babbitt’s life and death, and the bluster of January 6 defendants, there is one name that is hardly ever mentioned, if at all. The other woman who died that day was a Kennesaw, Georgia, resident named Rosanne Boyland — like Babbitt, in her mid-30s, white, a fervent believer in QAnon — but she has not become a similar rallying point for either recruitment or revenge. This, presumably, is owed to her manner of death: She was trampled by the crowd surging at the Capitol and seeking to overwhelm police lines, crushed by the bodies of her fellow patriots. The January 6 riot was sparked by a man who wanted to retain presidential power at any cost. And in the story of a woman whose blind belief in conspiracy led her to a lonely death in the middle of a mob is the tragedy at its heart: Boyland died in the service of a movement that never cared for her, or others like her. They were just foot soldiers, pawns in the service of seeking power at any price.

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The Making of a MAGA Martyr