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Children shop parents to FBI after riots in Capitol

Pushed to the limit by Trump and the storming of the Capitol, dismayed Americans have had enough

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PRESIDENT’S MOB: Members of US Capitol Police try to fend off Trump supporters as one tries to use a flag as a spear during the January 6 riots. Photo: Leah Millis/Reuters

PRESIDENT’S MOB: Members of US Capitol Police try to fend off Trump supporters as one tries to use a flag as a spear during the January 6 riots. Photo: Leah Millis/Reuters

PRESIDENT’S MOB: Members of US Capitol Police try to fend off Trump supporters as one tries to use a flag as a spear during the January 6 riots. Photo: Leah Millis/Reuters

When the mob stormed the US Capitol building on January 6, Leslie hoped that this would be her Trump-supporting parents' wake-up call. She hoped they were watching, and maybe feeling ashamed.

Then, a friend called. "Do you know already?" the friend said, and Leslie wondered briefly if someone had died.

The politically liberal 35-year-old then looked at her mother's Facebook page, and cried when she saw the posts defending the pro-Trump crowds and the pictures suggesting that Leslie's mother made it at least to the Capitol's steps. Then she emailed the FBI and reported her mother - because "actions should have consequences".

"I think before I realised she was this far gone... there was a sense that perhaps there was some way to reconcile," said Leslie. "It felt like a death, honestly."

In relationships already strained or severed, the violent spectacle of democracy under siege has pushed some people to take a drastic new step: warning law enforcement. Anguished Americans are turning in friends and family for their alleged involvement in the Capitol riots, contributing more than 100,000 tips to the FBI and playing a role in at least one high-profile arrest.

For months - sometimes years - the informants say they have watched helplessly as loved ones embraced far-right ideology and latched on to conspiracy theories, from QAnon to viral-video claims of a coronavirus "Plandemic". Extremism has thrived in the Trump era and under pandemic lockdowns, experts say, with more people isolated at home and misinformation rampant online.

"Far-right extremism is not a small-fringe worldview, it's not an insular cult that only reaches a few dozen or a few hundred people - it's a wide-ranging worldview embedded in society," said Peter Simi, an associate professor of sociology who has studied far-right extremist groups and violence for more than 20 years.

Increasingly estranged friends and relatives say they were driven to law enforcement by their own politics, a sense of moral obligation and a fear of what their loved ones could do next.

"They left me no choice because they are on such a destructive path and I do worry about other people's safety as well as theirs," said a Texas woman who recounted learning through social media that family members were on the Capitol lawn, apparently beyond the barriers that rioters toppled. Her husband said he can corroborate that she informed the FBI.

Authorities say they have just started making arrests in the wake of the four hours of chaos at the Capitol, which sent lawmakers into hiding, halted certification of the US presidential vote and left five people dead, including a police officer. Hundreds could eventually face charges, and people around the country are volunteering information.

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Online forums urge users to turn in even those closest to them - and comfort those who say they did. Some of these online spaces have become safe havens where people share their struggles with the radicalisation of a loved one.

"Maybe being held accountable will do them some good," one Reddit user writes in a thread about reporting Capitol rioters, making sure to include the FBI's Web form for tips. Elsewhere, it is noted that Ted Kaczynski, the terrorist known as the "Unabomber", was turned in by his brother.

The FBI did not respond to questions about the sources of its Capitol riot tips. But one of their agents described a witness in the case of Larry Rendell Brock, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, who called in identifying herself as Brock's ex-wife. According to the FBI, Brock was photographed last week in the well of the Senate chamber with zip-tie handcuffs - and a military patch recognised by the FBI's tipster, who explained that she was married to Brock for 18 years.

Some family members have stuck by those arrested, defending them to the media. And for others, contacting the FBI feels drastic. Waking up from a nap to see the Capitol riots on TV, Robyn Sweet said, she had a feeling that her father, Douglas Sweet, was there. She knew he went to the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, she said, and she has listened to him spout QAnon conspiracy theories, speaking of paedophile rings and a chemical compound supposedly extracted from young captives' blood.

By the time family located him, Robyn said, her father had already been arrested. She says she would not have contacted law enforcement anyway, since she does not believe her father harmed anyone. But she says she has heard from a large community of people who are also mourning their own relatives' descent into conspiracy - and who say that if they were in her shoes, they would report.

"I have had a lot of people around the world reaching out to me and saying they feel like they've lost their parents to this radical Trumpism," she said. "They feel like they don't have a family any more."

Posting on Facebook after his arrest, Douglas Sweet dismissed his unlawful-entry charge as the equivalent of a "ticket".

Professor Simi argued that right-wing extremism has been building - and ignored - for decades but it has gained greater force during the Trump administration, fomented not only by the US president but other federal officials.

This has brought political extremism in America to unprecedented levels, Simi said, adding, "We really are in uncharted territory."

The coronavirus pandemic has proved a "terrible recipe for extremism", Simi said. Then came the Capitol riots: "What we saw was the culmination of something that has been burning and building for quite some time, and in that sense, what happened was quite predictable," he said.

The Texas woman who says two of her relatives were on the Capitol lawn also described radicalisation long in the making.

"They have closed themselves off from the rest of society, everybody else is the enemy," she said of her relatives. One family member has argued for a "white ethnic state" and the separation of races, she said.

"It's almost like a cult," she said. "They all sit around and share conspiracy theories, that the media is lying to them, they don't want to believe any kind of fact outside of their circle."

Stunned after learning her relatives were at the Capitol last week, she slept on the issue and then tried to discuss it with other family members. The woman says they brushed her off, echoing claims of widespread voting fraud.

"They said I was being ridiculous and overreacting," she said. That response helped push her to call the FBI. "I felt I had to do something because it seemed like no one else in their immediate circle was going to talk to them."

Another woman said she informed the FBI about a former friend - estranged because of her increasingly radical politics - who appears in video close to the overrun Capitol, shouting towards police: "Traitor! Traitor! Traitor!"

The ex-friend, a California attorney named Leigh Dundas, also posted video of herself telling a crowd the day before the Capitol chaos that "we would be well within our rights" to take traitorous Americans "out back and shoot 'em or hang 'em."

The ex-friend shared screenshots of a group chat where she said she reported Dundas to the FBI, and her daughter also corroborated that her mother notified law enforcement.

On Facebook last week Dundas wrote that "the police were the aggressors" and blamed "Antifa thugs" for the destruction inside the building. The FBI has said it does not believe Antifa was responsible for the day's violence.

Dundas's former friend said she initially felt some hesitation about contacting the FBI. But Dundas's words erased "all of the great things we did together and the wonderful things she did for me" she said.

"What she said about killing people... she was talking about killing me."

©Washington Post


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