As the Jan. 6 Capitol incursion cases work their way through the criminal justice system, there’s been no shortage of puzzlement and outrage from some quarters over why some of the defendants have pleaded guilty and received no more than a slap on the wrist.
Eric Torrens is one of these individuals. According to BuzzFeed News, he took a deal on Aug. 19 that saw him plead guilty to a single count of illegally parading, demonstrating, or picketing inside the Capitol.
“He admitted entering the building through a broken door and walking around. The government noted in court papers that Capitol surveillance cameras recorded his entry into the building as well as his movements inside,” BuzzFeed’s Zoe Tillman reported on Tuesday.
“Prosecutors cited four other videos they obtained related to Torrens, including one that showed him exclaiming, ‘We goin’ in!’”
You can say this doesn’t necessarily represent charming behavior on the part of Torrens, but this certainly doesn’t rise to the level of being an “insurrectionist.” And, while there were violent rioters in the crowd on Jan. 6, there were also plenty of people who treated it as an ill-advised opportunity for tourism.
As if to drive the point home, the judge in Torrens’ case ordered the video showing him inside the Capitol to be released.
It’s decidedly underwhelming.
U.S. District Chief Judge Beryl Howell ordered the release after media organizations — including BuzzFeed — requested the videos that prosecutors in cases like Torrens’ are using to determine the defendants’ culpability.
“Before Torrens’ plea hearing, Howell asked to see videos that the government relied on in describing Torrens’ conduct. She also asked the parties to weigh in on whether those videos should be released to the public,” BuzzFeed News reported.
Was Jan. 6 an ‘insurrection’?
“At the plea hearing, Howell noted that there was a presumption in favor of access to judicial proceedings and that the public had an interest in materials that were submitted in court, that judges relied on in making decisions, and that shed light on how prosecutors exercised discretion in criminal cases.”
The prosecution said the videos showed entrances and exits to the Capitol that weren’t known to the general public and that their release would “compromise the security of the United States Capitol and those who work there.”
“This footage, when combined with other footage from nearby cameras, could be used to track individual rioters moving through the building thereby creating a visual pathway which other bad actors could use in planning their breach point and pathway for future attacks,” prosecutors argued.
Last Wednesday, Howell sided with media organizations, ruling the videos didn’t show “sensitive” parts of the Capitol and could be seen on a public tour.
“Hundreds of cases have arisen from the events of January 6, with new cases being brought and pending cases being resolved by plea agreement every week,” the judge wrote.
“The public has an interest in understanding the conduct underlying the charges in these cases, as well as the government’s prosecutorial decision-making both in bringing criminal charges and resolving these charges by entering into plea agreements with defendants,” she said.
BuzzFeed’s Tillman uploaded a one-minute clip of the videos released Tuesday to her Twitter account.
The footage, pretty emblematic of the whole, doesn’t exactly look like violent treason in action:
— Zoe Tillman (@ZoeTillman) September 22, 2021
The videos, which feature a whole lot of people calmly walking about the halls of Capitol Hill, quickly brought forth reactions like these:
Definitely looks worse than 9/11 https://t.co/Rwqnz2joMD
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) September 23, 2021
And thus did Tillman spend the rest of the day reminding us that Jan. 6 had been Very Bad and the Capitol riot was the handiwork of Extremely Dangerous and Violent Insurrectionists:
WARNING: The following videos and tweets contain graphic language that some viewers will find offensive.
— Zoe Tillman (@ZoeTillman) September 23, 2021
— Zoe Tillman (@ZoeTillman) September 23, 2021
Yes, we know. There’s been no shortage of these videos and they’ve received no shortage of airtime. You don’t break into the Capitol during the certification of the Electoral College without some violence being involved.
However, of the 650 people who have been charged for entering the Capitol on Jan. 6 and those who have evaded detection or capture, how many of them were rampaging, violent beasts in body paint and how many of them were people who made the poor life choice of using the opportunity to stroll around?
The fact that government officials wanted these videos suppressed because they represented some kind of “security” threat — when they clearly didn’t — indicates how desperate they are to curate the narrative that there were far more of the former when what we see instead is a lot of the latter.
With reporters like Zoe Tillman, they needn’t worry. If and when videos like these are released, they’ll simply tell us the only videos that matter are a handful of those that show Jan. 6 at its most brutal.
The insurrection narrative mustn’t die, even if there was never any threat to our democracy.