D.C. riots prompt local and federal investigations
The entire movement is based on the belief of the storm, the apocalypse, in which ‘elites’ and ‘leftists’ will be rounded up, charged with treason and killed. This is the culmination of their beliefs.
— Alex Newhouse, Middlebury Institute of International Studies
MIDDLEBURY — As darkness fell on the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday, Jan. 6, and a hastily imposed curfew went into effect across Washington, D.C., Middlebury resident David Laferriere-Hall posted a message to one of his Facebook accounts: “Hey everyone, I’m safe.”
The former chef-owner of Coriander in Middlebury had spent part of that afternoon standing on the steps of the Capitol, wearing the insignia of a far-right militia group, while a violent mob of Trump supporters who falsely believe the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” stormed the building in an effort to prevent Congress from counting Electoral Votes and certifying the election of Joe Biden.
There is no evidence that Laferriere-Hall participated in the mob, entered the Capitol building or broke any law. But he did have some opinions about what had happened that day.
His next Facebook post was a video of himself walking through the D.C. streets, defending the rioters with false statements.
“Obviously you saw all the hoopla that the media decided to put out there and try to make it seem like this was a real aggressive protest, and that wasn’t the case,” Laferriere-Hall said. “Even the patriots that made it inside of the Capitol or made it inside Nancy Pelosi’s office were lawful.”
This was not true. Pro-Trump rioters had by that time already been filmed grappling with law enforcement, breaking windows, and vandalizing equipment related to Biden’s upcoming inauguration ceremony. One Trump supporter trying to climb through a broken window into the Speaker’s Lobby had been shot and killed by law enforcement, after she ignored repeated warnings to stay back.
Also by that time, however, a number of groundless conspiracies had begun to emerge from extremist communities whose existence would not be possible without a complete rejection of the mainstream media.
“Love you guys,” Laferriere-Hall said at the end of the video. “Where we go one, we go all.”
That last phrase, often abbreviated as WWG1WGA, is a rallying cry for supporters of QAnon, a thoroughly debunked far-right conspiracy theory hatched in 2017 that insists, without any evidence, that the world is run by a secret cabal of pedophiles who worship Satan and are plotting against President Trump. Followers believe this fictional plot is slowly being exposed online, through cryptic clues, by an anonymous leader named “Q.” Conspiracists believe that someday soon, when “The Storm” comes, all these plotters will be exterminated.
“The group harnesses paranoia to fervent hope and a deep sense of belonging,” wrote Adrienne LaFrance in the Atlantic last June, after spending nearly a year studying the movement. “To look at QAnon is to see not just a conspiracy theory but the birth of a new religion.”
Part of QAnon’s appeal, LaFrance explained, is a promise of “foreknowledge” and “the feeling of being part of a secret community, which is reinforced through the use of acronyms and ritual phrases such as ‘Nothing can stop what is coming’ and ‘Trust the plan.’ One phrase that serves as a special touchstone among QAnon adherents is ‘the calm before the storm.’”
One of the most important things to understand about QAnon is that it’s an inherently violent movement, says Alex Newhouse, research lead for the Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism (CTEC) at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
“The entire movement is based on the belief of the storm — the apocalypse — in which ‘elites’ and ‘leftists’ will be rounded up, charged with treason and killed,” Newhouse told the Independent Monday morning. “This is the culmination of their beliefs.”
QAnon supporters often traffic in violent messages or images, such as the meme Laferriere-Hall posted to one of his Facebook accounts this past weekend: an image of rifle cartridges with the message: “We have unfortunately reached the point … to where these are the only votes that will make any real difference.” Or the photo he posted on Jan. 7 of a noose, with the U.S. Capitol in the background, and the caption “Choose wisely … this might wind up the scene next time we all are in DC.”
When QAnon and other far-right extremists find that their social media accounts have been suspended, they switch to alternate or backup accounts.
Laferriere-Hall has recently operated at least three Facebook accounts, all of them under aliases. Several of the posts on these accounts have been flagged by Facebook as misinformation. Laferriere-Hall’s account on the Parler social media platform makes reference to a fourth Facebook account, which appears to have been suspended.
Because QAnon appeals to the socially alienated, it has exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic, Newhouse explained. And it has expanded the boundaries of the communities who are typically vulnerable to its messaging. While most far-right extremists target young people, QAnon has appealed to a lot of older people, especially Baby Boomers, who in isolation are now spending a lot of time online.
Newhouse’s primary focus at CTEC is on data collection and analysis, with an eye toward policy recommendations, he said. He spends a lot of time on social media, watching far-right extremists and looking for patterns.
“QAnon has become a big part of what I do,” he said. “It’s the zenith of all that online extremism has been building to.”
In a Jan. 8 article on theconversation.com, Newhouse shared some thoughts and concerns related to his research.
“The attack on the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6 was shocking, but no one following right-wing activity on social media should have been surprised,” he wrote. “The attempt by President Donald Trump’s far-right supporters to violently stop Congress from certifying the Electoral College vote and formalizing Joe Biden’s election victory was consistent with their openly expressed hopes and plans.”
Some QAnon adherents posited that Jan. 6 would be the first in a series of events leading to the “The Storm,” he wrote.
“Some even believed that The Storm would arrive during the demonstration itself, and that Trump would, far beyond any reasonable expectation, arrest members of the Democratic and global elite for treason while also winning the election.”
It’s important to note that none of the public posts on David Laferriere-Hall’s various social media accounts suggest he was considering or involved in planning any kind of violence or criminal activity on Jan. 6.
In photos he posted of himself at the Capitol, he looks relaxed and happy, like a fan at an outdoor concert or sporting event.
Laferriere-Hall declined to be interviewed by the Independent for this story, but he did give an interview to fellow QAnon supporter Andre Popa on Nov. 2, one day before the presidential election.
Popa is an entrepreneurial life coach in California who hosts an online radio show called “Who’s a Badass?” He had a brush with fame in August when he was thrown off an airplane flight for refusing to wear a mask, an incident that went viral on the Instagram account @passengershaming.
Laferriere-Hall, who served in the U.S. Marines from 1999 to 2003, didn’t begin following QAnon until the pandemic, he told Popa in the interview, which was posted online on Nov. 4. Before that Laferriere’s loyalties lay with far-right extremist groups like the Boogaloo Boys, the Proud Boys and the Three Percenters, he said.
The loosely organized “boogaloo” movement has been described as a militia whose adherents are preparing for, or hope to start, a second American Civil War. The Proud Boys is a neo-fascist men-only organization that advocates and participates in violence. The Three Percenters is an anti-government group focused on protecting the Second Amendment from perceived threats.
Laferriere-Hall questioned a lot of Trump’s agenda before COVID, he told Popa, but then he discovered QAnon and it “clarified a lot of things” for him.
And he had plenty of free time to do “research.”
Coriander closed in January 2020 because the Washington Street building was sold. Laferriere got a job at a Burlington restaurant, he said, but then the pandemic hit.
“So, I’m still currently on unemployment,” he told Popa in November. “That gave me the opportunity to be able to pull off … being a digital soldier full-time.”
In QAnon parlance, “digital soldiers” are waging information warfare in service of the political and social apocalypse they believe is coming.
“(Being unemployed) allowed me the opportunity to be able to travel and do some of these events and put my focus on the social media aspect,” he continued. “You know, because a lot of people, if you’re working 40 hours a week, it’s difficult to be able to keep up and do what we do.”
In his interview with Popa, Laferriere-Hall described his methods to recruit new QAnon adherents.
“I’ve had successes because I feel like I actually connect with people,” he said. “If you see my feeds, or my threads, rather, I’m very active. Comedy’s a huge role because it connects with people…. I think that gets more people involved in wanting to follow, and then they will learn (about QAnon) over time after following you. But if you don’t have time to connect with them, for even five minutes, then what’s going to continue to keep them to follow? You know, the red pill will be swallowed over time if you can just get them to listen and show them that they’re real.”
In the 1999 film “The Matrix,” the character Neo is asked to choose between a red pill, which would wake him up to the “real world,” and a blue pill, which would allow him to remain in blissful ignorance. The narrative is similar in QAnon, where potential adherents are encouraged to “swallow the red pill.”
Before last fall’s election, QAnon was often dismissed as a “fringe” movement, but that began to change in November, when believers, who saturate far-right online communities with their messages, helped fuel the “Stop the Steal” movement, which is based on the false premise that Biden “stole” the 2020 presidential election.
Now, after the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, people are starting to take QAnon much more seriously, Newhouse said. (See our story on criminal charges related to QAnon.)
It’s impossible to determine the current number of QAnon adherents, Newhouse said. He estimated U.S. believers to be in the “low millions.” But the number of people who believe in the existence of the pedophile ring is much higher, he added. About 40% of Republicans are thought to believe in it.
“Satanism and human trafficking are incredibly potent ideas,” Newhouse said.
In an attempt to stop the spread of QAnon misinformation and the potential violence it may encourage, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have begun cracking down, banning accounts and blocking links to prevent them from being shared, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Twitter has removed 70,000 QAnon accounts since the Jan. 6 riot, and it permanently suspended President Trump’s personal account for inciting violence.
When chatter on the far-right social media platform Parler began to suggest further plans for violence in the coming days, Google and Apple removed the app from their online stores, and Amazon.com removed Parler from its cloud hosting service. Finding itself without a home, Parler went offline on Monday.
But it might be too late, Newhouse told the Independent. Pandora’s box may already have been opened.
“Since the attack, I’ve observed users on Parler, Facebook and Twitter simultaneously celebrating the occupiers and spreading unfounded, dangerous conspiracy theories that the instigators of the violence were actually antifascists and leftists,” he wrote in his Jan. 8 article. “On Parler, many users have turned on (Vice President Mike) Pence, and calls for the execution of politicians have increased.”
The same communities that caused and organized openly for the events of Jan. 6, Newhouse concluded in his article, “show every intention of acting again.” (See story “QAnon: How should we respond?”)
According to U.S. Capitol Police, one insurrectionist plot has emerged in which pro-Trump insurrectionists would form a “perimeter” around the Capitol and murder any Democrats who try to breach it.
On Monday, the FBI sent a memo to law enforcement agencies all over the country warning about the potential for armed protests in the capitols of all 50 states. The memo was based on threat information the FBI has received since the Capitol riots on Jan. 6.
Both federal and state law enforcement officials have emphasized that the intelligence environment is rapidly evolving and that these threats are possible, but not necessarily imminent. (See our story about local and state law enforcement efforts.)
Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley mentioned the intelligence in his daily emergency management bulletin on Monday.
“There is currently heightened concern over the upcoming inauguration and other events that may be targeted for disruption,” he wrote. “This affects everyone.” Anyone with information about violent activities is encouraged to contact the Vermont Department of Public Safety at vtips.us, 1-844-848-8477 or text keyword VTIPS to 274637 (CRIMES).
Hanley is aware of Laferriere-Hall, he told the Independent, and knows that he attended the Jan. 6 Trump rally because Laferriere-Hall spoke to a New York Times Reporter while he was at the Capitol.
“He gave his name to a national reporter and he said what he believes in,” Hanley said. “Our assessment is that there is no evidence that he’s done anything that rises to the level of an offense.”
Otherwise, Hanley said, “(All of Vermont law enforcement) are patched in to the same network,” and the MPD is keeping its eyes open and staying alert to everything.
On Saturday, Laferriere-Hall seemed impatient on social media.
“Forget Parler,” he wrote on one of his Facebook accounts. “Let’s just set a meeting point and get this started already.”
A few minutes later a fellow Vermont QAnon adherent wrote, “The purging is happening.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected]
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