Issue Brief: Understanding Emerging Trends in January 6 “Political Prisoners” Demonstrations, January 2021 - January 2022

As the first anniversary of the January 6 attacks approaches, national attention has turned to conflicting commemorations of the day itself. A brief period of bipartisan calls for accountability in 2021 ultimately gave way to revisionism, and in some cases outright conspiracy theories, including from some Republican lawmakers looking to maintain favor with former President Trump.

One of the most concerning narratives includes framing arrested rioters as “political prisoners” by either denying documented actions or claiming cases are politically motivated. Few if any uses of the “political prisoner” narrative have been linked to wider calls to improve treatment for all prisoners or other criminal justice reform, suggesting attention on prison conditions is being used primarily to amplify divisive narratives and fear — rather than as an opening to engage on a topic with potential to promote bipartisan cooperation. Though currently limited in total number, the migration of these narratives from online discussion to offline demonstrations and activity merit specific attention.

Most immediately, Look Ahead America has organized at least 21 “Justice for J6” anniversary vigils in 9 states plus DC on January 6. Past trends and behavior suggest these events will be relatively sparsely attended and designed to draw attention to false narratives around the anniversary. Instead, continued presence of elected leaders or party officials at these events on the anniversary of the attack itself could signal a concerning trend in overall willingness to affiliate with more extreme views, potentially indicating risk around greater offline activity in the months to come and further normalizing a dangerous narrative.

Key Findings:

● Documented offline activity seeking to frame January 6 rioters as “political prisoners” have been relatively few, only 45 of at least 12,800 documented demonstration events in the past year.

● Despite relatively few offline events, a disturbingly large number of elected officials and party leaders have used claims of “political prisoners” to advance revisionist narratives about the January 6 attack and stoke fears of future political persecution. .

● Beyond elected and party officials, offline events have involved a relatively narrow group of organizations, including some overlap with groups with an explicit past history of violence. 

For the full Issue Brief, download the PDF here