COLUMN

US ambassador Chung: If Capitol Hill rioters are to face sedition charges – what about July9 in Sri Lanka?

Summary

11 member far-right militia group “Oath Keepers” are charged with seditious conspiracy for January 2021 while another group was also charged in January 2022 attacks on the US Capitol. More than 725 Trump supporters were arrested for their role in opposing transfer of presidential powers. Sedition is the “attempt to overthrow, put down or destroy by force the government of the United States”. The Oath Keepers claim that the US Government has been corrupted by elites. The group is accused of using encrypted communications to plan the attack on Congress by creating several “quick reaction force” teams to stop transfer of presidential power. If Capitol Hill riot was defined a ‘brutal riot’ by both President Biden & VP Kamala Harris, what makes Aragala riot any different?

Shenali D Waduge

An 11 member far-right militia group “Oath Keepers” are charged with seditious conspiracy for January 2021 while another group was also charged in January 2022 attacks on the US Capitol. More than 725 Trump supporters were arrested for their role in opposing transfer of presidential powers. Sedition is the “attempt to overthrow, put down or destroy by force the government of the United States”. The Oath Keepers claim that the US Government has been corrupted by elites. The group is accused of using encrypted communications to plan the attack on Congress by creating several “quick reaction force” teams to stop transfer of presidential power. If Capitol Hill riot was defined a ‘brutal riot’ by both President Biden & VP Kamala Harris, what makes Aragala riot any different?

The first group entered the building & proceeded to the House & Senate Chambers.

The next group confronted the security personnel.

As per testimony of the Oath Keepers leader, some of the groups had “gone off mission”.

The lawyers for the groups defended their actions. They are also charged with resorting to violence to ensure their ‘preferred election outcome’.

The allegations also include instructions to prepare for a full battle on the streets.

Timeline of riot in the US Capitol

  • 6 Jan 2021 – Congress to certify Joe Biden’s win.
  • 6 Jan – 12p.m. – President Trump addresses supporters & calls on VP Pence to reject Bidens win. Thousands of Trump supporters gathered near the White House
  • m. – protestors storm outer police barrier around Capitol shouting “USA, USA, USA”
  • 1:30p.m. – protestors overcome the police. Police run into the building. Protestors breaks through police barricades.
  • m. – Protestors break windows and climb into the Capitol building.
  • 2:20p.m. – building goes into lockdown. Evacuations begin of Top senators
  • 2:38p.m. – Trump tweets calling support of Capitol Police & law enforcement. Tear gas is used and gas masks are sent for the Senators.
  • m. – Rioters break into Senate Chamber – they jump from balcony, they take photos & selfies, they rifle through papers, march through halls of Capitol, bang on doors, destroy property & break into lawmakers offices. A group of rioters chant “break it down, break it down” overwhelming Capitol Police officers guarding Speakers lobby where lawmakers are sheltered. One of the rioters is shot & dies.
  • 3:36p.m. White House Press Secretary tweets that Trump has ordered National Guards to arrive. More Trump supporters gather in Sacramento, California, Austin, Texas, Denver & Minneapolis.
  • m. Biden addresses nation. Biden calls protest an ‘insurrection’
  • m. protestors pound on State capitol doors & breaks windows. Demonstrations turn violent.
  • National Guards arrive & clear Capitol
  • m. Mayor of Washington places city on 12hour curfew
  • m. Twitter removes Trumps tweets and shuts down his account.
  • 9:53p.m. Trumps loyalists begin to desert him.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXR_bqyAy4E Rioters

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVw6iE27yuU  Rioters enter building

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gKIoypQPiwo – Rioters breaking into building

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4A9qtnGAo8 – Damage caused by the rioters

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXAv2cDkWAA – Timeline of the riots

https://www.npr.org/2022/01/05/1069977469/a-timeline-of-how-the-jan-6-attack-unfolded-including-who-said-what-and-when

Capitol Hill “autonomous zone” (CHAZ) vs Aragala “Gotagama”

Protestors in US took over a six-block area near the police department in Seattle, a large city in Washington DC.

Protestors in Sri Lanka took over several areas in the heart of Colombo.

The Seattle “autonomous zone” was created as part of police brutality against African Americans. The zone had free food, a co-op station, volunteer medics, music 24×7, art & drama, it became a place for people to just hang out, people began camping overnight, tents were put up, water and soap were provided, so were toilets, those living in apartments became regular visitors, there was a large kitchen, a large screen playing movies.

Like in Gotagama, the autonomous zone in Capitol Hill were struggling to name their “leader” as too many were making claims.

On 7 June 2021 a man drove his car into the Capitol Hill autonomous zone, days later 2 men were shot, one died, several more shootings took place.

Sri Lanka saw no deaths or mass shootings.

While President Trump ordered to take back the city, Sri Lanka’s President allowed the gotagama to continue.

Some Seattle residents are suing the City on account of the autonomous zone being a public place & illegally trespassed on. A likely scenario in Sri Lanka too.

Reporters were not allowed into the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (Fox News)

Majority of media channels were very much involved in GotaGama.

On 22 June 2021 the City of Seattle requested the people inside Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone to leave as they had set up a Postal service inside the zone. In Sri Lanka ironically GotaGama put up a grama sevaka and a postal address too.

The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone declared independence – luckily even after 90 days of illegal occupation, GotaGama has not done same.

Role of Social Media in riots in Capitol Hill & Sri Lanka

Misinformation, foreign interference & hate speech were key features that increased both riots. Online mayhem has been identified as hitting 40,000 “false news” an hour. Facebooks role in the event was disclosed by whistleblower Frances Haugen.

#STOPTHESTEAL in US was no different to the #GiveBackOurMoney.

Capitol Hill rioters like Aragala were recording their “arson” and relaying across social media platforms while supporters celebrating online.

It took a year for US lawmakers, researchers & journalists to examine the role of social media in US but it should not take so much time in Sri Lanka. Congress has even criticized companies for their role in the riot – many companies in Sri Lanka shoulder blame too.

Washington Post among others investigated & found evidence that Facebook played a ‘critical role in spreading lies that fermented the violence on 6 Jan” – at least 650,000 posts across FB groups attacked Biden’s Presidential victory with many calling for political violence.

According to UK journalism professor Al Cross – Disinformation is worse than misinformation as disinformation is purposeful and intentional.

Ironically, how can factcheckers themselves be trusted if they also are paid to claim their version as ‘fact’.

The ‘megaphone’ lay in the hands of the Capitol Hill rioters on 6 Jan & in the hands of the Aragala bandwagon of supporters on 9Jul. They wrote the narrative and they decided what was right.

The calls to overwhelm barricades & cops were identical in both US & Sri Lanka riots.

Social media was used extensively by both rioters.

“Corrupt politicians need to hang for their treason” was a call from US and not Sri Lanka but obviously echoed similar lines.

Another noteworthy feature was how supporters of the riots in both US & Sri Lanka bragged about the chaos they had helped create & were proudly sharing minute-to-minute developments across social media platforms.

If US analysts now blame fake news & spreading misinformation & disinformation to make the riot worse – would it be any different in Sri Lanka?

If some rioters were part of anti-fascist movements in US – was the situation any different in Sri Lanka?

However a noteworthy difference was how the US was quick to accuse Russia of interfering into its internal affairs, the US envoy to Sri Lanka visited or invited virtually all of the key players involved in Sri Lanka’s riot. The general calls were to allow “peaceful protestors” to protest and a subtle message not to take any action against them. Inspite of breaking barricades, scaling walls, illegally trespassing and breaking iron gates as well as breaking state property, damaging them and even stealing them and illegally occupying 6 state venues – the diplomatic community that referred to these protestors as “peaceful” have not uttered a word on the damage done. Their silence may have to be broken when more images or the scale of the damage is released.

The riots and the scale of the riots in US came nowhere near the damage done by the rioters in Sri Lanka, yet US appointed a House Select Committee to Investigate the January 2021 attack on the US capitol.

By May 2022 the Committee had interviewed over 1000 people. In July the interim report was released.

The US Justice Dept too commenced investigations to prosecute the rioters.

In January 2022 the Oath Keepers were indicted on sedition charges. In June the Proud Boys group has been also charged with sedition. 860 people across 48 states have been charged with crimes connected to the riot.

5 have been charged with ‘oppose by force the authority of the government’. The lawyers claim the defendants had no plan to storm the congressional building – obviously the same argument will be used by lawyers who will represent the aragala rioters.

The flip side of the participants of the riots in US and probably for rioters in Sri Lanka is that their selfies and self-publicity across social media platforms have provided the evidence needed for authorities to charge them. The US have compiled people who have spewed hateful rhetoric, spread disinformation, spurred rioters on. Prosecutors have also tabulated those trying to destroy their social media post evidence. Deleting these has proven far worse than keeping them. Even the Justice Department looked at the manner violence and property damage was encouraged and what was destroyed, where they went inside the buildings and whether they have shown sincere remorse.

These are all factors for the investigations into the riots in Sri Lanka on 9 July 2022 too.

Those who claim to uphold rule of law & democracy must not simply mouth it but act it – as per modern format of representative governance, people are elected by an election or rejected by an election not be gathering into groups to chase away a legitimately elected leader. It is setting an ugly precedent which may swell into corporates as well and should not be encouraged. Creating a problem is easy – solving it is virtually impossible.

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