Armed Flash Mobs: insurrectionist crowd dynamics, technology and guns in the storming of the US capitol on January 6, 2021

In understanding the storming of the capitol one year ago today I’d like to focus on the framework of the “armed flash mob,” a term used by scholar Darrell Miller that connects with concepts introduced to me by Bill Wasik, an article in Wired magazine 10 years ago. I’m also drawing on the 40 minute NY Times’ documentary Day of Rage: How Trump Supporters Took the U.S. Capitol (published June 30, 2021) that offers minute by minute analysis of January 6, 2021 drawn from thousands of primary sources including a lot of video from the rioters themselves.

I’ll look at each term in the phrase “armed flash mob” in detail in the context of that day.

Mob – Insurrectionist crowd dynamics

We’ll begin by understanding how the insurrectionists on January 6 functioned in ways familiar to scholars of mob behavior. One of the key moments in the storming of the capitol happened at 12:50 pm. “Day of Rage” covers this moment in detail starting at about 10:00 in the video. They emphasize the role of the Proud Boys leader Joe Biggs and his brief conversation with Ryan Samsel, a Trump supporter who was the first to approach the police and challenge them. While leaders like this played an important role, it is important to understand the broader context of the crowd dynamics (both in this moment and as things escalted) to violently attack police.

In order to understand those dynamics, we’ll turn to a framework from social psychologist Clifford Stott who studies mob behavior. In his “Elaborated Social Identity Model” (ESIM) model, he argues there are two factors that are critical:

  1. the extent to which the crowd views authority of government and law enforcement as legitimate and
  2. their view of their own power: “perception within a crowd that it has the ability to do what it wants, to take to the streets without fear of punishment.” In other words, the impunity of numbers.

I first encountered Stott’s work in #Riot, Self-Organized, Hyper-Networked Revolts–Coming to a City Near You (Wired Magazine, December 16, 2011).

Stott’s framework helps us understand two key convergent factors operating on January 6 2021: the first is the work that Trump and his allies had been doing to delegitimize all government authority not loyal to him personally. This is work that he had been doing in the weeks after the election and doubling down on on January 5th and 6. The first 10 minutes of “Day of Rage” focus on this.

But the second factor of the crowd’s sense of its own power is also an important key moment at 12:50 pm was when the crowd at the edge of the barricades realized they outnumbered the capitol police and were far more powerful than them. In the “Day of Rage” video you can hear a man saying sarcastically “I got a feeling they believe those five officers are going to stop some [expletive]” (10:16) This quote from a Trump supporter is also key in understanding it:”They’re not real police,” the man continued. “They’re security guards for Washington!” (source: Madness on Capitol Hill, The Atlantic, January 7, 2021)

Potentially compounding this sense of power is the impunity for white supremacist and right wing violence that dates back to at least the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 and likely to the Bundy standoff of 2014 that we will examine more later. Trump pulled together a critical mass of folks who were primed to see the authority of the people guarding the capitol building as illegitimate and convinced of their own power and legitimacy. Trump has been stoking this demographic on Twitter and beyond for more than five years. Furthermore he attempted to delegitimize anyone who disagreed with him. To him, democratically elected leaders become “tyrants.” (source: From Charlottesville to the Capitol: how rightwing impunity fueled the pro-Trump mob).

As the “Day of Rage” makes clear, the Proud Boys and other organized militia groups knew they couldn’t storm the capitol by themselves, but they understood they could be the catalyst for the massive flash mob that Trump had drawn together from all over the country. In other words, January 6 marks a further milestone in what the San Francisco Examiner called “The evolution of flash mobs from pranks to crime and revolution” in a 2011 editorial (quoted in the Wired article cited above).

Stott points out how both these variables can shift for crowds through the course of a riot as they see their power grow and see law enforcement as less legitimate as they attack members of the crowd. You can see both these dynamics playing out from the videos from Wednesday: the crowd has been primed to see the police as illegitimate by Trump and after 12:50 pm and the first breaching of the barricades and physically dominating the police, their sense of their own power grows dramatically.

The “Day of Rage” makes it clear how the Proud Boys and other groups made tactical decisions to target weak points and then were backed up by the mob with riotous energy as they broke through barriers and reached the edge of the building itself (around 18:00 in the documentary). In other words: small reasonably disciplined tactical units were able to operate within a wider decentralized flash mob that we can understand using Stott’s model.

Armed – guns and police restraint on January 6

The fact that the insurrectionists on January 6 were armed with a wide variety of weapons is crucial in understanding the events of that day. It also is important to look at the history of gun culture in the US.

In RadioLab’s audio investigation of the events of that day, one of the quotes that stuck out was from a police officer defending the building:

“My arms were pinned and I couldn’t really defend myself at that point. The guy in front of me took that opportunity to rip my mask off, rip my riot baton away from me and started beating me with it. I didn’t want to be the one to start shooting because I knew they had guns, we’d been seeing the guns all day and all yesterday and the only reason I could think of that they weren’t shooting us is that they were waiting for us to shoot first. And if it became a firefight between a couple hundred officers and a couple thousand insurrectionists then we would have lost.” (Source: Post Reports: Four Hours of Insurrection)

Along with white privilege and sympathies for Trump, fear of being outgunned is another reason police officers did not open fire on the crowds that day. Guns as tools of insurrection have deep roots in the history of the white supremacist gun culture in the US.

There may be a lot of lies that those insurrectionists believe, but there is one basic, brutal foundation that has underpinned right wing ideology for hundreds of years: if we have enough guns, then we can revolt against the state when we decide it’s time. They believe they can use terror to tame the state.

In that tactical moment on the afternoon of January 6, it didn’t matter that insurrectionists were far outgunned by the overall fire power of the US state because the guns sprinkled throughout the crowd of tens of thousands sent a clear, visceral message to many of the police officers defending the capitol grounds: if we start shooting, we risk dying.

In her book, “Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment” historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz makes the connection between today’s gun culture and the early frontier settler militias (often state sponsored) that killed tens of thousands of indigenous families and enforced the enslavement of Africans for generations. “Southern settlers had long relied on ‘self-help’ measures to enforce slavery leading up to the formalized slave patrols” she writes.

This understanding of guns as very practical tools of terror for controlling other bodies and destroying them was well understood by the insurrectionists who stormed the capitol, many of whom were current and former law enforcement military members. Source: How US police failed to stop the rise of the far right and the Capitol attack, The Guardian, January 17, 2021.

Flash – viral convergence by Bundy family and in Kenosha, Wisconsin

In understanding the use of online messaging to pull together tens of thousands of people with shared grievances on January 6, its worth looking at the rise of this tool among right wing organizers. This wasn’t the first time that right wing insurrectionists have used overwhelmed federal agents with superior firepower in a specific tactical moment.

On April 12, 2014, rancher Cliven Bundy’s standoff with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) drew armed protestors from around the country. “We’re about ready to take the country over with force!” Bundy said. And federal agents backed down and returned their cattle. This was a critical early discovery by right wing extremists that they could mobilize hundreds or thousands of people around flash points. Source: Wikipedia article on Bundy standoff.

In 2016, Cliven Bundy’s son Ammon used this growing understanding of the power to convene armed flash mobs of right wing sympathizers to organize the occupation of the Malheur wildlife refuge that lasted for over a month. The occupation was supposedly in support of two Harney County, Oregon, ranchers but the audience for Bundy was national. In the first day of the occupation, Ammon Bundy recorded a video he posted online with an explicit flash mob style invitation: “We’re planning on staying here for several years,” adding: “We are calling people to come out here and stand” and “we need you to bring your arms.” Source: Rebel cowboys: how the Bundy family sparked a new battle for the American west, The Guardian, August 29, 2016.

On October 27, 2016, Ammon Bundy and six other defendants were found not guilty of charges of “conspiracy to impede officers of the U.S. from discharging their official duties through the use of force, intimidation, or threats” Source: Wikipedia article on the Occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

In 2020, Ammon Bundy started a new group called “People’s Rights” that built on opposition to restrictions related to the pandemic but aimed to appeal to “militia-types, conspiracists, anti-vaxxers, preppers, Christian nationalists, and more.” The network uses an automated text messaging system that allows quick mobilization of thousands of people:

“All the members of a specific area can be contacted by a local area assistant, an entire state can be contacted by a state assistant, and the entire network can be sent text messages by Bundy and crew. Individuals can also join the network via text message. Such a system allows much of the network’s activity to occur away from prying eyes on social media.” (source: People’s Rights Report, Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights (IREHR)

The IREHR report goes on to say: “Bundy and his group frequently use force or threatening actions, to disrupt, postpone, or shut down public events.” and shares an example of them shutting down a local football game after being asked to where masks. While these incidents don’t make national news, they are significant because they represent local armed flash mobs flexing their muscle and experimenting.

The New Yorker and NY Times magazine in depth features on the August 2020 Kyle Rittenhouse shooting make it clear that these same armed flash mob dynamics were at play in Kenosha, Wisconsin when Rittenhouse killed two anti-racist protestors:

By the morning of Aug. 25, it was clear that the damage overnight was much worse than the first night. “Law enforcement is outnumbered and our Mayor has failed,” Mathewson wrote on the Kenosha Guard Facebook page. “Take up arms and lets defend our CITY! Meet at civic center park at 8pm.”
The post quickly piled up hundreds of R.S.V.P.s. In the comments, people openly fantasized about killing demonstrators: “Dispose of these criminal protesters,” one wrote. The post was flagged 455 times by Facebook users for violating the platform’s prohibition on militia activity — constituting 66 percent of all reports the company received about events that day, according to internal communications later obtained by BuzzFeed — but was cleared four times by the company’s moderators and allowed to stay up.
Source: NY Times magazine: Kyle Rittenhouse and the New Era of Political Violence

The New Yorker’s piece on Rittenhouse makes similar connections.

Conclusion

These stories are windows into the broader wave of right wing extremists who are learning how to pull together flash mobs of armed (mostly) men who are steeped in this settler and slaver gun culture and increasingly see federal agents as traitors. This is no longer haphazard, but well organized and increasingly systematized.

Viral digital messages (sent by text, email or social media) can bring together people who don’t know each other at a planned time and physical location primed with a shared set of values, goals and expectations. Scholar Darrell Miller makes the connection between these armed flash mobs, gun culture and the weakening of the second amendment:

“As a nation, we’ve blundered into an untenable situation where an armed flash mob can converge on an area, escalate tensions, even start shooting — and police can do little prevent it. It is unwise to allow private armed groups to become normalized in our political life — whether the groups are gathering to protest law enforcement or to aid them.” – Gun laws were meant to ban private militants. Now, our hands are tied, Washington Post, September 2, 2020

Unfortunately, January 6, 2021 was not the end of this movement, but simply a high point in a rising tide of hyper-networked and networked insurrectionist violence. I fear that far worse will come before this storm ends.

Photo is screenshot from NY Times, Day of Rage documentary at 31:45

Comments (5)

  1. Lucky Lynch

    I appreciate the threads that you cited, as they are all what we have been noticing for the past 20 years or so. The links are very helpful.

    Reply
  2. Weldon D. Nisly

    Great analysis Tim! Sadly still totally relevant. Thanks for sharing it again.

    Reply
  3. Tracy Hudak

    Thank you for the thoughtful piecing together of these elements- analysis, theory, history. I agree it’s important the look deeper at these related phenomenon and not brush the event with broad superficial assumptions that it was chaotic spontaneous occurrence. From what you’ve gathered, it is as if the people and their collective sense of grievance and power were the fuel and the tactics of various forms of leadership provided ignition.

    Reply
  4. Dave Jackson

    Excellent article, Tim, and so thoughtfully put together.

    Your review of “Armed Flash Mobs” reminds me of some other occasions in our country’s history where those dynamics seemed evident—interestingly for very different motives, and not exclusively the actions of right-wing extremists.

    The one I’m most personally familiar with was the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. I had significant personal connection, being involved in the anti-war movement and other radical causes/organizations. But I was also as a member of the Illinois National Guard and deployed on the streets during the major confrontations of those seven days. The two factors Stott identifies as characterizing such mobs were certainly evident in the crowd of over ten thousand that came to Chicago to stop or take over the Democratic convention: They definitely viewed the existing authority as illegitimate, and they were convinced that they could do what they wanted with impunity whether it was as innocuous as smoking dope and making love openly in the park or widespread civil disobedience that might have blocked all avenues of transportation, bringing the city to a standstill, or plans for outright guerrilla warfare designed to bring down the “establishment.”

    The details and months of in-depth planning is thoroughly documented in Rights in Conflict: Chicago’s 7 Brutal Days. Self-defense classes were held as was instruction in tactics to resist and overwhelm the Chicago Police. Seven “Field hospitals” were set up and medics were commissioned and needed by over 425 injured demonstrators, showing that the planners did expect violence.

    Earlier riots and strikes produced similar dynamics. One flash-mob-type event was the labor revolt of 1894. It is well documented in Jack Kelly’s book, The Edge of Anarchy, The railroad Barons, The Gilded Age, and The Greatest Labor Uprising in America. The strike was initially focused against George Pullman and his Pullman Palace Sleeping Car factory on Chicago’s far south side because of Pullman’s unfair practices that drove workers to the brink of starvation. Many other unions joined in and virtually brought the western railroad lines to a standstill. For a country that relied on rail transportation for its commerce, the railroad barons and industrialists couldn’t let that go on for long. So, the federal government mobilized the U.S. Army against the strikers, and in several confrontations, over thirty people died, and an enormous amount of railroad property was destroyed.

    Neither of these examples relied on social media or the internet to rally participants, but even in 1894 newspapers, telegraph, and the established brotherhood of the unions were enough to spread information and organize response.

    It strikes me that there may be an identifiable difference between organized flash-mobs and spontaneous riots that flair up after police killings in racially volatile communities. Even when such riots result in more property damage or death than, say the January 6 event, they are usually not organized around the destruction of the system.

    Perhaps there is hope that our country can recover from these latest events, but like the words of Jim Croegaert’s song, “Hiroshima,” “. . . I know we were close to the edge then / We’re walking mighty close to the edge now / And the chance to turn around might be a brief one / Let it begin / Let it begin.”

    Reply
    1. TimN (Post author)

      Thanks for sharing from some of your personal experiences. Yes, you are right, Stott’s framework can certainly be applied to mobs and crowds at events across the political spectrum. Both historical examples you lay out seem to fit with low view of authority and high view of their own power. I suspect we could go at least as far back as riots in the Roman empire and apply this framework.

      I think you’ve identified a key difference between spontaneous riots that arise after police killings and more organized flash mobs. What I think differentiates “flash mobs” from other mobs is the use of digital media to draw people together. But before there were text messages, newspapers could also gather critical masses of folks with shared grievances into the streets. But of course, riots can also start with older methods of communication such as folks hearing noise or talking to each other on the same city block.

      Reply

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