Many U.S. Capitol insurrectionists had a military background. Some Black veterans aren’t surprised.

Members of the National Guard prepare to distribute weapons outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 14, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Security has been increased throughout Washington following the breach of the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday, and leading up to the Presidential Inauguration. | Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

As a young U.S. Air Force cadet during the late 1980s, Simone Lightfoot experienced bigotry and bias in the ranks.

The barely 5-foot tall, thin as a rail and self-described “loud-mouthed” African-American woman from Detroit had a semester of college under her belt. As a result, she was granted a higher rank than others in her Dover, Del., unit. That meant that she ordered around men — many of whom were white. It was something that several servicemen didn’t take kindly to.

Simone Lightfoot

“That was hard for big boys out of Mississippi and Georgia. I was like Maxine Waters for them,” chuckled Lightfoot, referring to the outspoken liberal U.S. House Democrat from California who is a frequent target of right-wing politicians and commentators.

Lightfoot recalled that many of them were uncomfortable with her race, her gender and her status. So Lightfoot was disappointed but not surprised to learn that nearly 20% of those charged with crimes during the Jan. 6 insurrection in the U.S. Capitol were people with military background, per a recent National Public Radio (NPR) analysis. It found that of the more than 140 people charged in the attack at that point, at least 27 had served or are currently serving in the U.S. military.

The former Ann Arbor school board trustee and Michigan House and Senate staffer said that some whites tend to believe that the government has left them behind. They feel, Lightfoot contends, that Democrats only support Blacks, Browns and other people of color.

“A lot of guys who go [into the military] don’t have access to education and training at home,” said Lightfoot. “So, socio-economically, they tend to come from struggling places.” 

Now-President Joe Biden defeated incumbent then-President Donald Trump in the November election. As stated in the U.S. Constitution, Congress officially certifies the Electoral College results. That process was taking place on Jan. 6 when violent pro-Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol and threatened to kill House and Senate members. 

The election was certified several hours later after the Capitol was secured over the objection of more than 100 Republican members of Congress.  

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Only 7% of American adults are military veterans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Among the Capitol Hill rioters was Larry Rendall Brock Jr., an Air Force veteran who was photographed in a military-style helmet and tactical vest carrying flex cuffs inside the Capitol. Brock posted on Facebook that he was preparing for a “Second Civil War,” according to documents filed in federal court. 

Several Confederate flags were captured by camera and video recorders during the incident that resulted in five deaths, including Brian Sicknick, a 42-year-old Capitol police officer and Ashli Babbitt, a 35-year-old, 14-year U.S. Air Force veteran from San Diego. 

Babbitt had previously shared on social media Trump and QAnon conspiracy theories, according to New York Times reporting. She was fatally shot by a Capitol Police officer as she approached a broken window leading to the speaker’s lobby inside the Capitol. 

A second police officer, Jeffrey Smith, a 12-year-veteran of the D.C. Metro Police Department, who defended the U.S. Capitol during the mob attack died by suicide three days later. 

Will Fischer, senior adviser to VoteVets, a Portland, Ore.-based organization backed by 600,000 veterans, military family members, was not surprised by NPR’s findings. 

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“Sadly, those who served in the military, and are currently serving, aren’t immune to disinformation campaigns,” said Fischer, an Iraqi War veteran. “In fact, because veterans and service members are held in such high regard, those who lead disinformation efforts rely on that credibility. It’s a real issue that must be combatted, and VoteVets is already working on plans to do just that.”

But Greg Bowens, a Grosse Pointe Park resident, Democratic Party activist and U.S. Navy veteran, said he was surprised by the statistics. 

“As veterans, we were sworn to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, both foreign and domestic, and that does not mean trying to stop a branch of government from certifying the vote and installing a new president,” said Bowens, who is Black and founded the Grosse Pointes-Harper Woods NAACP Branch.  

Monique Baker McCormick, a Detroit resident, Wayne County commissioner and U.S. Army veteran, said that more racial sensitivity and gender equality training is needed in the U.S armed services. 

“Not only did you have to fight the racist folks you had the males vs. female issues,” said McCormick, an African-American woman, about her service that began during the 1980s. “They wanted to put females in their place. Whether it is the military or civilian [setting,] it is important for all of us, Black and white, to know that it really starts at the top. If the leadership is racist, it’s going to trickle down.” 

Gen. Lloyd Austin, Biden’s defense secretary, told Congress last month that he would work to deter extremism in the military and “to rid our ranks of racists.”

Austin is the first African American to serve in the post. 

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.