Jim Saunders of the Election Integrity Project leads a pro-Trump rally at the Colorado Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
As the first reports of Wednesday’s shocking, unprecedented takeover of parts of the U.S. Capitol by right-wing protesters reached attendees at a satellite event on the steps of the Colorado Capitol in Denver, reactions were mixed.
Many in the crowd of several hundred supporters of President Donald Trump cheered the news when it was first relayed by a speaker at the rally. Jim Saunders, the event’s emcee and a member of the conservative Election Integrity Project, had a more muted reaction, gently calling on his fellow conservatives to maintain “order.”
“We don’t want to be lawless,” Saunders said as rally-goers fell silent. “But we do want to redress our grievances.”
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The rally on the grounds of the state Capitol was one of dozens held by pro-Trump demonstrators across the country on Wednesday as both chambers of Congress convened in Washington to formally certify President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral-vote victory in the 2020 election.
In the weeks since Biden’s win, Trump and many of his supporters — including freshman Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert — have spread false claims and elaborate conspiracy theories in an attempt to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election, and launched dozens of unsuccessful lawsuits aimed at overturning the result.
Before noon on Wednesday, attendees of the Denver rally listened on loudspeakers to a broadcast of proceedings in Congress, as Boebert and a large faction of congressional Republicans moved to object to the certification of results — a ploy that was widely viewed as lacking both legal basis and the votes to succeed.
Shortly after speakers began addressing the crowd in Denver, a chaotic scene unfolded in Washington as protesters at a nearby rally on the National Mall began to storm the Capitol building, forcing evacuations and a halt to the vote-certification proceedings.
During the rally in Denver, which was organized in part by controversial Colorado conservative figure Joe Oltmann and his FEC United group, speakers offered a grab-bag of wild, intermingling conspiracy theories involving the election, the COVID-19 pandemic, Biden, the Chinese Communist Party, Gov. Jared Polis’ public-health orders and more. Members of the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, and the United American Defense Force, a group associated with FEC United and led by Trump campaign Colorado surrogate John Tiegen, patrolled the outskirts of the rally on the Capitol grounds.
Several speakers with ties to the Colorado Republican Party, including former congressional candidate Casper Stockham and 2022 gubernatorial candidate Greg Lopez, addressed the crowd. Both voiced opposition to the actions of pro-Trump protesters at the U.S. Capitol, but frequently received pushback from attendees.
“Storming the Capitol is foolish,” Stockham said. “I’m telling you, storming the Capitol is foolish.”
“We’re fed up!” a woman in the crowd shouted.
“I get it — I’m fed up,” Stockham replied. “I am fed up. But how I’m fighting back is pushing back against tyrannical government by saying, ‘No more. I’m not listening to you anymore.’”
Several signs at the rally displayed slogans associated with the QAnon movement, a convoluted conspiracy theory involving a global pedophile ring, which has been linked to numerous violent incidents. An unidentified speaker denounced “the global cabal” and suggested that if neither the military nor the Supreme Court is willing to prevent Biden from taking office, “that leaves us.”
“If it is forced to come to us, we will preserve the republic,” the man said.
Many speakers at the rally did not identify themselves, and after mentioning the name of one early speaker, Saunders was audibly warned not to introduce them by name.
Marla Frederick, a Trump supporter who traveled from Colorado Springs to attend the rally, said that she believed that support for the president was too widespread for him to have lost the election legitimately. She blamed Biden’s victory on Denver-based Dominion Voting Systems, the subject of a debunked conspiracy theory involving false claims of fraud.
“You read, you do your research, you don’t depend on other people’s opinions, and you’ll figure things out for yourself,” Frederick said. “A lot of people are almost in a zombie stance, like a daze.”
As news of the day’s events in Washington spread through the crowd, the mood at the Denver rally became celebratory, with remarks from various speakers interspersed with prayers and sing-along musical interludes. Some attendees expressed their approval, while others quickly began to speculate baselessly about the true identity of the protesters, hundreds of whom stormed the U.S. Capitol building bearing pro-Trump flags and banners.
“They were mentioning it, that (it was) a bunch of us, I guess — but I also wonder, because I know that antifa was going to dress up like us, on purpose,” said Frederick. “So, you know, I get people are mad — but they’re not burning or looting. They’re making a statement. (But) I don’t agree with doing any of that.”
Another rally-goer refused to give his name, or to be interviewed unless a reporter removed a face mask, “to prove you’re not a coward.” He called the scene at the U.S. Capitol “inevitable,” and paused when he was informed of reports that a bloodied woman was seen being removed from the building on a stretcher.
“Was it Nancy Pelosi?” a nearby woman asked.
The man smiled and said, “Yeah, that’d be helpful.”
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