Now, thanks to ProPublica, with the witting help of internet sleuths and unwitting help from the riot’s perpetrators, we have the digital version of that artifact.
On Jan. 18, the investigative journalism non-profit published “What Parler Saw During the Attack on the Capitol,” a trove of hundreds of videos originally uploaded from the day of mayhem to Parler, a social media site popular with supporters of former President Trump. Those videos were downloaded by a programmer before the site was pulled offline by its host, Amazon Web Services, for allowing comments calling for violence in the wake of Trump’s defeat. The videos were filtered and organized by ProPublica’s staff and reuploaded to a database of clips that, according to ProPublica’s editors, “provide rich new detail to our understanding of this infamous moment in American history.”
And as the U.S. Senate begins a second impeachment trial against Trump, who is accused of violating his oath by inciting the Capitol insurrection, the collection of overlapping videos takes on an added importance, forming a connective tissue from the words of the then-president to the eventual actions of his followers. The videos are laid out chronologically and geographically, allowing users to easily jump through a montage of the day: “Stop the Steal” advocates cheer outside the White House as Trump vows to “never concede;” Trump supporters hang from scaffolding on the Capitol, urging the crowd to “move forward;” rioters force their way inside the Capitol, where they move from door-to-door hunting for lawmakers with threats of harm; angry rioters squaring off against police, insisting: “We were invited by the president of the United States!” All with a few clicks and scrolls.
In some ways, the database can be viewed as the first half of a major story. ProPublica laid the groundwork so that video journalists, producers, documentary makers in the near and distant future can fructify the latter half, in the myriad forms it may take.
The videos are easily downloadable. One can envision deep retrospectives offering reminders in a political ecology prone to forgetting, or lighter digital supercuts rounding up instances of, say, the multitude of times the crowd derides the Black Lives Matter movement while co-opting its slogans (“Hands up. Don’t shoot!”).
There are, of course, risks in platforming Parler’s since-banned social posts. Plenty of them includes vehement echoes of the misinformation largely believed to have driven the riot. And while these videos can work journalistic wonders in the right hands, there’s a strong possibility they’ll end up in the wrong ones as well. It’s not hard to imagine this work of public service enabling those who lionize that day’s lawlessness to isolate the needles of moderately artistic shots from the abundant haystack of chaos, set them to a soundtrack and generate dangerous pieces of propaganda.
The video collection as raw material — a story on its own
Derivatives aside, there is plenty of value in treating this as a document to be consumed as is and as a whole.
In a world in which large swaths of the public distrust the mainstream media — and, for them, seeing isn’t always believing — these point-of-view-style videos transport us to the scene of the crimes and provide something extra. Watching them all together is an immersive, and understandably exhausting, experience that brings one closer to the feeling of actually being there. We can feel the weight of the crowd. We can understand the difficulty of dispersing a mob that likens pepper spray to “snorting wasabi.” Sound on, enveloped by the cacophony, we understand why some lawmakers feared for their lives and now seek serious justice.
These videos also find a special relevance when one considers the people who created them. The originals weren’t the work of the mainstream media, but of the rioters themselves; that gives them added credibility when they serve as their own rebuttals. We don’t need to turn on the TV for analysis from the pundits. Example: A video shows a rioter inside the Capitol Rotunda who lets police officers pass by without assault, then comments: “Let’s see how CNN writes this later on. Violent mob, right?” We get a counterargument from the same video moments later when the same voice begins to threaten another police officer, whom he accuses of having an “attitude problem.” We don’t need CNN to point out the hypocrisies of the crowd when the image of a single cell phone video captures a waving a “thin blue line flag,” popular among those purporting to support police, while audio from the video captures a threatening voice: “You’re running out of pepper spray, officers.”
Some of the clips are shaky, shot at odd angles or largely blocked by fingers. Yet they remind us of the wealth of information even poorly captured footage can provide. They reiterate the point that Brendan Smialowski, the photographer behind the “Bernie Mittens” meme, made in an interview with Rolling Stone, highlighted in Storyboard post last week: “Composition comes second to content.”
There is real value in this relatively unfiltered stream of media captured by people who don’t care about composition. Stripped of all attempts to focus the eye for an aesthetic, these videos provide a panorama of details one might not get from professionals. Some clips require multiple viewings because there are multiple points of interest happening simultaneously, a “Where’s Waldo” of violence that would likely be buffered if sanitized by professional production. For example, one video, from a Parler user approaching the rear of the Capitol, doesn’t seem particularly gripping; yet it captures narration that, for prosecutors of the former president, may amount to a smoking gun: “They’re ready to kill,” we hear a voice casually say. “Hey, Trump asked for wild. He got it.”
At the same time, much of the Parler video work is strikingly professional. And while many commentators were quick to fixate on the paramilitary gear spotted among the insurrectionists on that day, a video producer sifting through ProPublica’s database can’t help but notice the prevalence in the crowd of multimedia tools popular with content creators, such as the DJI OM4, a top-of-the-line camera stabilizer made for smartphones that cost about $150. It’s weird to think about rioters seeking the smoothest possible footage of their own attack on democracy. But it suggests a pride in their work and offers us a glimpse into the demands of the rightwing influencer ecosystem.
That sense of performance is evident throughout these videos. Every other demonstrator seems to be mugging for the camera, plugging their politics along with their Parler handles. We see one man thanking “all of you who donated to get me here.” Another turns his booty — a piece of police equipment —into a comedy routine: “Make sure if you ever take over the Capitol or any other big place, make sure you bring a shield,” he says, pausing for effect. “You can’t get this anywhere except for… the cops’ hands.”
Viewers who come to these videos via ProPublica’s compendium should be cognizant of what they’re not seeing. ProPublica editors filtered the Parler videos, removing those that, in their judgment, “were irrelevant, that showed graphic violence or that didn’t contribute to our readers’ understanding of the event.” it’s also important to note that we are not seeing these videos on their original platform. We are thus missing the engagement — the “likes” or comments — that the original Parler users were receiving in the moment. We don’t get to see the digital feedback loop that urged these rioters onward.
When the movie version of the 2021 U.S. Capitol assault is made, whether documentary or drama, one imagines it will be replete with all the production tricks filmmakers use to comfort as they convey, culminating in an epilogue with text on screen. Over a light music bed, it will tell of the eventual certification of the electoral votes later that night and the Inauguration later that month. It will tell of the arrests and eventual outcome of the impeachment proceedings. One can picture the fade to black and sense of finality.
What’s especially powerful about ProPublica’s act of deep storytelling is that it does no such thing. There is no music montage. No sense of finality. No comfort. As we scroll through the last of the clips, we see only the approach of the night, the streetlights turn on, the police push forward and the protestors retreat into the dark, promising future unrest in a story that is anything but over.
Alexander Trowbridge is a multimedia journalist and producer. Most recently a fellow with the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, he previously worked at The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, Bloomberg Politics, CBS News and Politico.