Brandon Fellows, a supporter of US President Donald Trump, on Sunday, January 10 2021. Picture: BLOOMBERG/RYAN COLLERD
Brandon Fellows, a supporter of US President Donald Trump, on Sunday, January 10 2021. Picture: BLOOMBERG/RYAN COLLERD

New York — Brandon Fellows had never attended a Trump rally before last week. He said he was motivated to drive to Washington after seeing a tweet from the president. “Big protest in DC on January 6,” President Donald Trump wrote on December 19. “Be there, will be wild!”

Fellows didn’t know about a planned march that would eventually overtake the US Capitol. He said he had simply come to see Trump give a speech. But within hours of watching Trump’s speech, Fellows had his feet propped up on a table in the office of a US senator, smoking a joint. He roamed the halls of the Capitol, heckled police officers and posted videos along the way on Snapchat.

“I have no regrets,” said Fellows, a 26-year-old former grocery store worker from upstate New York, who now makes money cutting trees and repairing chimneys. “I didn’t hurt anyone, I didn’t break anything. I did trespass though, I guess.”

Indeed, in the days since the upheaval, Fellows said his profile on the dating app Bumble is “blowing up” after he posted pictures of himself at the Capitol.

Fellows was among hundreds of Trump supporters who broke into the Capitol on January 6, forcing vice-president Michael Pence, members of Congress and their staffs into hiding. Five people died in the melee, including a rioter who was shot by police and a Capitol police officer from unspecified injuries suffered during an altercation with the intruders.

Fellows’s story provides a detailed account of how one Trump supporter ended up participating in the Capitol riot, an event that has spawned mass condemnation and prompted House Democrats to pursue impeachment for a second time in less than two years.

His story also offers a real-world example of a Trump supporter who absorbed false information on social media and heeded the president’s call to take action. It’s an illustration of why so many technology companies have taken steps since the Capitol riot to crack down on conspiracies that have proliferated on its platforms, including Twitter’s ban on Trump’s account.

‘Super-poor’

Fellows, who lives in a converted school bus, said he stopped working last spring because of fears of Covid-19, but said he became disillusioned when New York state denied him unemployment benefits. “For a while, in early March and April, I was super-poor,” he said.

Fellows said he gets much of his news from conservative commentators on YouTube, including Ben Shapiro and Steven Crowder. He has also started watching Newsmax and One America News, which have both promoted false claims of a rigged election.

He said his political views have created friction with his family, so much so that on Christmas Day only his grandparents invited him to dinner. They asked him to eat on his bus because he didn’t take Covid-19 seriously enough, he said.

At the Capitol, he said, even though many of the rioters were people he wouldn’t normally get along with, it “felt like family”.

“We were there for one common cause, which is making a statement that the government is crushing down on us,” he said.

His stepfather of 14 years, Timothy Monroe, said he wasn’t surprised when he learnt that Fellows was inside the Capitol. “He knows what he believes,” Monroe said. “You can’t really change it with any kind of reality.”

Fellows said he went to DC in part because he believes the election was rigged, but his primary motivation was his anger at government measures to prevent Covid-19, such as lockdowns of restaurants and gyms.

On January 6, Fellows arrived outside the Ellipse, a park adjacent to the White House, just after 1am. He was one of the first people in line to get into Trump’s rally and sat just five rows away from where the president spoke, video shows. Fellows came prepared for the cold weather, wearing snow pants, a leather jacket with an American flag emblazoned on the back and a knit hat that resembles a knight’s helmet and beard.

“This is the last stand,” Fellows said, in an interview with a Bloomberg News reporter prior to Trump’s speech. “I feel like I’ve seen a lot of the election fraud evidence, and I don’t understand why nothing is being done.” Trump’s claims of election fraud in the November 3 election have been rejected by state and federal courts, as well as some members of his own party.

Following the conclusion of Trump’s speech, Fellows joined in the march on Pennsylvania Avenue, headed towards the Capitol. “I was like ‘Oh cool, there’s gonna be a march,’” he said. “I’ve never been in a march.”

By the time he arrived, the barriers protecting the perimeter had already been overrun. As he was scaling a wall to reach the Senate side of the Capitol, he said he was thinking, “I’m not missing this, this is history.” Footage shows Fellows helped others climb over the wall.

Fellows watched a fellow Trump supporter bashing in a door at the Capitol with a cane and eventually break through it. A crowd of rioters pushed through only to be pushed back outside by police officers. Once the building was overrun, he said he initially hesitated before going in but did so after hearing that people inside weren’t being arrested. He got in through a broken window.

In the 30 minutes or so he was in the Capitol, he filmed dozens of videos and posted them on Snapchat. In one of them, which was reviewed by Bloomberg News, he heckled Capitol police officers who weren’t wearing helmets.

“Where’s your helmet, bro?” Fellows asked an officer. “I wasn’t issued one, because they ran out,” the officer replied. “They don’t care about you? Are you guys rookies, is that why?” Fellows shot back. “I’ve been here eight years,” the officer said. “Pretty cool what happened here today,” Fellows replied.

‘Super-cool’ police officers

Another video shows his muddy boots propped on a table in senator Jeff Merkley’s office, where Fellows said he took two puffs from a joint someone handed to him. “This one is going to get me incriminated,” he said of the video in Merkley’s office.

In footage posted to Twitter, Merkley surveyed the damage in his office in which a door was smashed “off its hinges” and artwork was torn from the wall. “It was unlocked, they could have simply opened the door,” Merkley said. “So count this office trashed.”

After leaving Merkley’s office, Fellows wandered the Capitol and asked a police officer for directions to the National Statuary Hall. The police officer explained that the statues represent each state and provided directions on how to get there, according to his video of the encounter. “Dude, you’re super-cool,” Fellows said.

Fellows’s interactions with police officers inside the Capitol led him to believe there wouldn’t be consequences for going inside. “Did I think I was going to get in trouble? Uh, no.”

After leaving the Capitol, Fellows posed for pictures next to a line of police officers in riot gear and on an abandoned police motorcycle.

He said he is planning to return to Washington for more protests surrounding president-Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, and he predicted there would be more violence. The FBI has issued a warning that there are plans for armed protests in DC and at all 50 state capitals in the days leading up to the inauguration.

“Obviously Trump started a movement in a way, but I think we started something even bigger by doing this,” Fellows said. But now law enforcement is rounding up others who participated in the Capitol intrusion, he believes he too may be arrested.

“Do you think I’m going to go to federal prison?” Fellows said. “I was told federal prison is not fun.”

Bloomberg

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