The scene has the feel of a hippie peace rally. Yet the participants are hardcore Trump supporters, gathering nightly to support those jailed for their parts in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. Sometimes, former president Donald Trump himself calls them.
The group — in focusing on its brethren — is asking for the same human dignity that advocates for the incarcerated have been demanding for decades, cloaking itself in patriotism for resisting oppression only now that it feels it has landed on its doorstep. Put another way, the political spectrum may not be a line, but rather a circle. Go far right enough, you’re left.
Every night, the inmates call in to talk to those at the vigil.
“Here’s my guy, he’s on!” said Nicole Reffitt, as she hit the speaker button on her phone and broadcast the voice of her incarcerated husband over a loudspeaker and across the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Residents five blocks away say they can hear it every night.
Nicole Reffitt: “How’s prison?”
Guy Reffitt: “It’s definitely interesting … Not fun.”
The crowd: “We love you, patriot!”
Then it’s time for the inmate with a DJ Wolfman Jack voice. “Hello from the D.C., Guuuuuulaaaag!” he growls, then reports on the food they had that day, the upcoming trials of Oath Keepers, Proud Boys and other inmates.
Sometimes they have guest callers. Like Trump.
“It’s a terrible thing that has happened to a lot of people that are being treated very, very unfairly,” he told the inmates and the crowd as his familiar voice once again filled a part of Capitol Hill.
Trump is talking about the Jan. 6 detainees, of course. His motorcade never stopped at the D.C. jail to offer support to the inmates before the insurrection. Now, the D.C. inmates who heeded his call to come for a “wild” time on Jan. 6 have become a small industry, spinning off blogs and live streams, fundraisers that have generated more than a million dollars.
Trump phoned the group’s matriarch, Micki Witthoeft, last Tuesday. She’s the mother of Ashli Babbitt, the 35-year-old Trump supporter who was shot by a police officer as she was trying to get into the U.S. Capitol and later died in hospital.
“He calls me,” Witthoeft told me, petting her 19-year-old big-eyed, tiny dog named Fuggles, “every so often.”
After the calls, the announcements and songs, the group closes out at 9 p.m. with a singing of the national anthem and a solemn reading of the inmates’ names and their days behind bars, punctuated by the tink of a tambourine beat:
“Shane Jenkins, 558 days.” Tink.
“Darryl Johnson, 460 days.” Tink.
“Cody Mattis, 342 days.” Tink.
The detainees respond by flicking their unit’s lights on and off in a dark-light-dark version of applause.
This vigil-protest, right-wing variety show has been happening every night since the beginning of August in this corner of Capitol Hill, where D.C.’s long-troubled jail, historic Congressional Cemetery and renovated townhouses selling for north of $1 million form a triangle of clashing worlds.
They have no permit, but D.C. police keep a heavy presence there every night, “monitoring and assessing the activities and planning accordingly with our federal and local law enforcement partners,” said public information officer Sean Hickman.
The protesters say they’re not looking to cause trouble. They’re just asking for basic, human rights for people, no matter their criminal charges.
“I always thought the system worked,” said Birk, who drove across the country from Mt. Shasta, Calif., and is camping around the D.C. region so she can come to the nightly protests. “But it’s not working here.”
Some of the inmates — like many across the nation whose trials have been delayed by a covid backlog — haven’t had a trial. Some have been convicted and are awaiting appeal.
Reffitt, with her helmet of Texas blonde hair, Colgate smile and pastel cardigan, left her life in a Dallas suburb so she could be in this tiny pocket of Capitol Hill at 7 p.m., on the dot.
“It’s really hard being this close to him,” Reffitt said. “I’m hoping he gets a glimpse of me. The best I get is a flickering light.
“It’s really awful in there,” she said.
She’s an unlikely voice for change in a detention facility that is 93 percent Black and poor, according to the D.C. Department of Corrections.
“The J6 people are predominantly White and middle class. This is very different from the way they’re used to being treated,” said Tammy Seltzer, who has been fighting for better treatment of inmates with mental health issues in D.C. jail for more than a decade as the director of the DC Jail and Prison Advocacy Project at University Legal Services.
“Very sadly, people of color, poor people are used to being mistreated,” she said. “If the conditions are a shock to the J6 detainees it’s because they haven’t been paying attention.”
While some advocates for prison reform are quietly pretty stoked about all this, it’s probably not easy supporting folks like the Reffitts.
Reffitt was convicted by a D.C. jury in March of five felonies, including transporting and carrying a firearm on Capitol grounds, interfering with U.S. Capitol Police and obstructing an official proceeding.
Three Capitol Police officers testified that they failed to stop Reffitt from entering the building with rubber bullets and chemical spray. He was carrying an AR-15 and plastic flex-cuffs. He was wearing body armor and a motorcycle helmet mounted with a camera.
While the demonstrators on Capitol Hill tell him “We love you, patriot!” a Capitol Police officer who faced off with the armed Reffitt on Jan. 6 had something else to say.
“His actions weren’t the actions of a patriot,” said Officer Shauni Kerkhof, when she testified at his trial. “They were actions of a domestic terrorist.”
When he returned home from Washington after Jan. 6, Reffitt told his kids not to turn him in. “Traitors get shot,” he said.
They also get locked up.
Inside, the Trump supporters are beginning to find solidarity with others behind bars.
Jonathan Mellis is still awaiting trial after police body-camera footage captured him thrusting a big stick at officers on Jan. 6, aiming for the place on their necks between their helmets and body armor.
He started a Christmas fundraiser for the children of inmates outside the jail’s “Patriot Pod” because “we know how horrible the conditions are here,” he wrote in a letter. “So we have quite the soft spot for our brothers in general population. These inhumane conditions are only one aspect to the nightmare this city puts our brothers through. They grew up in DC, went to school here, got their first job here, and have children here. The opportunities and safety this city offered them are slim to none. Now as a result of that they are in this disgusting and inhumane DC jail with us. Who is supposed to supply a joyful Holiday season to their children if they are trapped in here because of a system that doesn’t care?”
It’s strange for human rights advocates to hear their causes championed by such unlikely allies, as that political circle meets at common goals.
“We and other activists, family members, people formerly incarcerated have been complaining and beseeching the D.C. government, whether it’s the Council or the Department of Corrections to fix these problems,” Seltzer said. “Now we have the January 6 people complaining about the same things.”
We talked on the phone, but I imagine that Seltzer shrugged at that point.
“Wrong messenger,” she said. “But right message.”