‘This is in our backyard’: A look at the WNY involvement in Jan. 6, one year later
One year ago today, Jul Thompson organized two buses full of Western New Yorkers down to Washington, D.C. to protest Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump.
Later that night, following the attack on the U.S. Capitol building, she told WBFO via telephone she was “kinda happy” with how the day played out. To her, Trump supporters had made their point about alleged voter fraud in the 2020 election.
“What violence are you referring to?” she said when asked about the violence that had occurred earlier that day, including the assault of Capitol Police officers. “I was under the impression that we broke down the barricades. To me, that’s not violence. That's just a little property damage to get in there and make the point that we want to be heard, because we're being ignored.”
Thompson, a well-known right-wing activist from Grand Island, was later questioned at her home by the FBI, but not charged. She said none of her 110 bus passengers were charged either.
One year later, Thompson said “nothing’s changed” about her views on the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. She acknowledged the violence, but claimed it was staged, that Trump supporters were instigated by members of left-leaning groups like Antifa and Black Lives Matter; there is no evidence of that.
She said, if anything, the events of the previous 12 months under the Biden Administration, like COVID-19 vaccine mandates and supply chain issues, have only validated what happened at the Capitol building.
“It absolutely validates what we did on Jan. 6,” she said.
Aside from Thompson’s buses, Western New York had a somewhat significant amount of involvement in the events of Jan. 6.
Of the more than 725 people charged by the U.S. Department of Justice for storming the Capitol, labeled by federal authorities as an act of domestic terrorism, six are from Erie County. That’s tied for fourth-most of any county in the nation, according to a George Washington University Program on Extremism database. However, Erie County ranks more toward the middle of all counties when factoring in population, with an arrest rate of 0.65 per 100,000 people.
“This is in our backyard,” said Jacob Neiheisel, a political science professor at the University at Buffalo.
He points to research out of the University of Chicago, which shows many Jan. 6 defendants are from places like Erie County: urban and suburban areas controlled by Democrats. The research found counties with a declining number of non-Hispanic whites, like Erie County, were five times more likely to have a Capitol storming participant.
“I think there is a broader popular perception that the people involved in Jan. 6 are from these deep red enclaves in the deep south or other places that Trump won handily,” Neiheisel said. “And I think that the evidence suggests that there are folks who, of course, are on the political right, but they're coming from places that are different politically than our common view is.”
This could just be because more people live in urban, Democrat-controlled areas, but Neihesiel acknowledged it might also be because conservatives living in more liberal areas feel isolated.
“And those folks who are socially more isolated are more likely than to take to the internet to find people like them. And if you take to the internet and look for other voices like you, you're going to find them and you're going to find perhaps the most extreme examples of people like you out there, which could have a mobilizing influence into something like this,” Neiheisel said.
One of the Erie County residents charged was Pete Harding, a 48-year-old Cheektowaga man active on social media with right-wing rhetoric and at anti-COVD lockdown protests. Harding documented his walk up to the Capitol on Facebook Live, and filmed again once back home a day later.
“If we can take the Capitol building, there is nothing we can’t accomplish.” he said during an hour-long Facebook live video on Jan. 7.
Those videos, as well as videos from others showing Harding inside the Capitol building and attempting to light media equipment on fire outside the building, were then used by the FBI in its statement of facts against him. He is charged with knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority, and violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds.
Harding’s Buffalo attorney, Jason Dipasquale, declined to comment, noting Harding’s case is ongoing. His next court appearance is set for Feb. 8.
Other Western New York defendants, including Thomas Sibnick of Buffalo, Michael Sywak of Hamburg, William Sywak of Arcade, and Daniel Warmus of Alden, also have ongoing cases. Meanwhile, Traci Sunstrum of Amherst and John Juran of Strykersville, have pleaded guilty and are to be sentenced next month.
Asked for reaction to the number of Jan. 6 defendants from Western New York, Congressman Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, said “there's extremism all over the country, including in Western New York.”
“We know that, and this is no surprise,” he said. “People have been charged and will continue to be charged, and that is what our system of justice is all about. So my hope is that it continues in a fair way, an honest way, and a transparent way to get this event behind us to the full extent that we can.”
Congressman Tom Reed, a Corning Republican representing Western New York’s more conservative Southern Tier, said what Capital rioters did was “criminal, and they need to be fully held accountable.” Unlike some of his fellow Republicans, Reed voted to certify Biden’s victory, citing a lack of evidence of voter fraud.
Extremism, Reed said, isn’t limited to county lines.
“The problem is deeper than just where you live. The problem is more fundamental in regards to people believing that extremism is the way that we should be operating in America,” Reed said. “And I just reject that. I think that is dangerous. And I think you will have an outcome that will potentially jeopardize all of our interests long term.”
And extremism isn’t limited to the Republican Party either, Reed added. He reported receiving death threats last year after being criticized by fellow Republicans for voting for the bipartisan infrastructure bill, but also noted an "ultra extreme liberal" left a dead rat and threatening message at his home in 2020. The man was later charged.
“Right now we are so divided as a nation, that I'm very concerned about the future,” he said. “This is not a Republican problem. It's not a Democratic problem. It's a Republican and a Democratic problem. We're both being motivated by the extremes, and that it's got to come to an end.”
Western New York, although not necessarily unique in regards to its Jan. 6 defendants, may be “uniquely situated” to combat extremism and try some de-escalation tactics, given its large political apparatus, Neiheisel said.
“I think civic organizations have to think about something along the lines of not just mobilizing people for civic participation, but also perhaps just being in communication with those who feel resentment feel like they're left out of the process,” he said.
For Thompson, she maintains her views on the Capitol storming. She said the 2024 presidential election will be for naught if alleged voting irregularities aren’t fixed; the Department of Homeland Security under the Trump Administration called the 2020 election the “most secure in American history.”
“That's why we were there on Jan. 6 last year, because we thought that this was the end of our democracy,” Thompson said. “If we don't stand up for free and fair elections, then we're done.”