Collecting In the Wake of January 6

On January 7, Smithsonian curator Frank Blazich spent hours surveying the National Mall collecting abandoned objects. But that was only the first part of the story.

Stop the Steal sign.jpg
Like many around the world, I spent the afternoon of January 6, 2021, watching the news and absorbing the chaotic events unfolding at the U.S. Capitol. On January 7, I spent several hours surveying the National Mall, collecting abandoned objects that I hoped would one day offer some insight into the political turmoil that had shaken the nation’s capital. Though important, the array of material that I collected from the National Mall reflected, at best, only one part of a larger story. (Notably, the artifacts acquired on January 7 were discarded by their users and we do not presently know who created or used the items.) Thankfully, in the months that followed, our museum was presented with opportunities to collect items that document what happened after January 6. First, they have a connection to specific individuals who chose to act for the betterment of their community and country. Secondly, they offer a reminder that even in darkness there remains optimism and kindness.
A road sign reading "Off with their heads | Stop the steal"
One of the early large acquisitions was this repurposed road sign. (2021.0003.02) NMAH
Frustratingly, my collecting on January 7 confined itself to the grounds of the National Mall. Due to limited time, I was unable to make my way to the Ellipse and Pennsylvania Avenue. Several days after the main event, the window for collecting from the scene appeared to be closing. But as luck would have it, The Washington Post published an article about a group of veterans of the War on Terrorism who rallied together to clean up trash left on January 6. Volunteers, organized by the veterans’ organization Continue to Serve, conducted “Operation Clean Sweep” on January 10, intent on removing bags of trash filled with flags, graffiti, and stickers plastered on signs left behind by fascist, white nationalist, and alt-right groups. Suffice to say the effort lived up to the operation’s name; little trace of the hatred of January 6 remained to be seen thereafter.
A person wearing a camouflage backpack leans against a street-pole, using a wedged tool to remove stickers from a "No Parking" sign.
Volunteers with Continue to Serve removing fascist, white nationalist, and alt-right stickers and graffiti along the National Mall. Courtesy of Continue to Serve

Jennifer Nikodem, a former U.S. Navy petty officer and Continue to Serve’s Director of Operations, shared that members saved notable stickers and a flag from the cleanup effort. Nikodem and Hans “Tex” Palmer, a Marine veteran from Operation Iraqi Freedom, donated two abandoned 2020 Trump campaign flags and numerous vinyl stickers peeled from street signs. These bore the names or insignia of the Three Percenters and numerous Proud Boy factions, with language and symbology targeting the decentralized anti-fascist, anti-racist movement termed “ANTIFA.” Although physically small compared to the signage collected on January 7, the new material culture definitively linked certain actors to the previously “nameless” items which only represented political feelings and sentiment.

The museum has also been fortunate enough to collect materials that speak to how the events of January 6 transformed life in Washington, D.C. In the wake of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, an expanded security perimeter and seven-foot-high fence surrounded the Capitol Building, with checkpoints for the screening of personnel and visitors. Thousands of military and law enforcement officials—including some 9,500 members of the National Guard—were deployed to secure the nation's capital. As residents of Capitol Hill, Peter and Kassie Savoy and their two-year-old son, Noah, experienced this deployment firsthand. Wishing to extend warm hospitality to all the new guests, Noah loaded up a neighbor’s wagon with the help of his parents to hand out snacks and sodas to the soldiers and law enforcement. Assisted by several neighbors, he and his parents ventured out for almost every night over the course of three months to the security perimeter, donating over 2,500 snack bags to the Capitol defenders as small tokens of appreciation and gratitude. Between greetings and conversations about home and in return for his kindness, the soldiers gifted Noah and other local children assorted insignia from their uniforms.

A small child wearing a red coat decorated with insignia hands a bag of snacks to a group of uniformed members of the National Guard. The U.S. Capitol is visible in the background.
Noah Savoy meeting members of the National Guard protecting the Capitol. Courtesy of the Savoy family
The insignia, which the family donated on Noah’s behalf, offer a fascinating snapshot of some of the National Guard and law enforcement presence at the Capitol. The United States Secret Service, New York Police Department, and Capitol Police are represented by lapel pins and shoulder patches. The insignia for the Army National Guard include units from Texas, Vermont, Illinois, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Utah. Also among the donated insignia are patches for United States Forces–Afghanistan and for Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve commands.
Eight insignia patches decorated with symbols, including elk, moons, swords, and stars.
Some of the insignia given to Noah Savoy. Left to Right, top to bottom: 71st Battlefield Surveillance Brigade (TX); 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (VT); 108th Sustainment Brigade (IL); 149th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade (KY); 218th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade (SC); 300th Military Intelligence Brigade (UT); United States Forces – Afghanistan; and Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (2021.0151.09-28) NMAH

The insignia are a reminder that the same people who for the past 20 years have been on the front lines of the War on Terrorism abroad, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, or Syria, found themselves in early 2021 having to clean up or defend the nation’s capital from the actions of fellow compatriots. This reality is sobering, that after two decades of investing blood and treasure in response to an attack by non-state actors of Al-Qaeda on the nation, some Americans who previously supported the War on Terrorism—or fought in it—now find themselves directing their anger and rage against the seat of their national government.  

And while some veterans and active military personnel participated in the events of January 6, far more of the nation’s veterans continue to honor their oath to the Constitution and service to the state. Veterans, such as the members of Continue to Serve and those who protected the Capitol Building through May 2021, provide a reminder that selfless service for the betterment of neighbors and fellow humans will triumph over selfish and destructive behavior. Through their kindness to young Noah Savoy, these service members have demonstrated to our youngest generation the positive virtues in public service. As Patrick Savoy noted in a message to me,

“[t]hrough it all we were particularly struck by the professionalism and kindness of National Guards and U.S. Capitol Police. They shared greetings, stories of their little ones back home, and lots of fist bumps to our little man. All while steadfastly fulfilling their role and never once complaining, no matter the hour or the elements. Getting a front row seat to the commitment, kindness, and patriotism of those Service Members is something that will stay with our family for years to come.”  

Even after passage of a year, the events of January 6, 2021, are still developing and coming into focus. The emotions from that day are still raw, and the facts of the day continue to come to light. The interpretation of artifacts from January 6 will remain a matter of time and analysis. But the objects collected post-January 6 offer a stark contrast: that neighborly kindness and public service provide a path to healthy democracy.

This post was originally published on the National Museum of American History's blog on January 6, 2022. Read the original version here.