When Ashli Babbitt breached a final window in the Capitol building, it was the closest any of the rioters on Jan. 6 would come to reaching then-evacuating members of Congress.
Since that day, her death has become a cause célèbre on the far-right. Former president Trump tested the waters of grievance around her death in a speech on Saturday, getting an approving roar from the crowd after suggesting that the Capitol police officer who killed her should be “strung up and hung.”
But Trump’s comments mark a significant escalation for the attempt to cast Babbitt as a martyr and to find and punish the officer who killed her. Below are five points on how the far-right stoked an uproar over Babbitt’s death.
Trump suggested that the cop who shot Babbitt should be ‘hung.’
Trump rolled out Babbitt’s death as a theme in a speech he gave in Sarasota, Florida on July 3, part of a tour that marks his return to in-person events.
“Who shot Ashli Babbitt? We all saw the hand. We saw the gun,” Trump said. “You know, if that were on the other side, the person that did the shooting would be strung up and hung.”
It was a direct call to attack an official who helped defend Congress on Jan. 6, and one that uses language which could describe a lynching as much as anything else.
That segment of the speech got a roar from the crowd, and came after Trump issued a press release repeating what is fast becoming a mantra on the right: Who Killed Ashli Babbitt?
Babbitt’s already become a folk hero on the far-right.
Trump made the remarks after far-right figures have spent months trying to make Babbitt into a martyr.
Babbitt was shot and killed on Jan. 6 as she tried to climb through a broken window into the House Speaker’s Lobby, where members of Congress were evacuating.
In the days after her death, far-right Telegram channels lit up with attempts to build her into a folk hero.
“Her name was Ashli Babbitt,” read messages broadcast on both Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio’s account and on Western Chauvinist, a far-right Telegram channel.
That was accompanied by a meme which spread along the same networks, showing a flag with Babbitt’s face in front of a blood-red Capitol building. An Anti-Defamation League report described it as a “symbol of resistance.”
All this has spawned a witch hunt for the officer who shot Babbitt, with various far-right media personalities claiming to have identified the officer in question.
To Simon Purdue, a fellow at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right, the fact that Babbitt was a white woman helped fuel the outage on the far right.
He likened her to Vicki Weaver, a woman killed by an FBI sniper during the 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge.
“Like Babbitt, Weaver quickly became a martyr for both the anti-government and white supremacists,” Purdue wrote. “Her perceived status as an innocent, white, female victim of ‘state aggression’ instantly placed her on a pedestal, and was used to justify tax protests, demonstrations and even violent action by far-right groups in the years that followed.”
Conservative media jumped on the bandwagon.
It’s not just the fringes that have seized on Babbitt’s death.
Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, has focused on Babbitt and the circumstances of her death since April, when he devoted a monologue to the subject after the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division closed its investigation. Carlson also interviewed the family’s lawyer.
“We know that Ashli Babbitt was short. She was female and she was unarmed. There was no evidence the officer who killed her gave her any kind of verbal warning before he pulled the trigger. Is that now standard procedure?” Carlson said. “So when did these rules change? And once again, who exactly shot Ashli Babbitt?”
Part of this, for Carlson and others, is criticism that the mainstream press is supposedly ignoring the issue, failing to hold the government accountable for killing one of its own citizens.
This, like much of the Babbitt discourse, is run through with the idea that police officers who shoot African Americans are swiftly and publicly punished, while Babbitt’s killer has received special treatment.
“Eleven hundred miles from Washington, in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, a police officer accidentally reached for her gun instead of a Taser and killed a man called Daunte Wright. It was a tragedy. All shootings are tragedies,” Carlson said in April. “But we know that officer’s name because every news organization in the country printed it immediately. She has now resigned. She is now facing charges. Her mug shot is everywhere. It is all over the internet.”
The fringes are trying to make the movement mainstream.
Trump used Babbitt as a cudgel with which to beat Republican leadership, demanding that the GOP begin to stoke grievances about her death in a way that, so far, only a few members of Congress, Carlson, and the far-right have done.
Amy Kremer, an organizer of the Jan. 6 rally at the ellipse and founder of Women for America First, tweeted a video of Trump “go[ing] there.”
He goes there💥💥💥
President Trump asks who shot Ashli Babbitt and then asks why people are still sitting in jail from Jan 6th, but Antifa and BLM roam free after terrorizing and burning cities down.
Why isn’t McConnell or Republican leadership asking these questions? pic.twitter.com/oMIVTDKj6D
— Amy Kremer (@AmyKremer) July 4, 2021
Carlson has also sought to take the issue away from the fringes and move it closer to the center.
He had Babbitt’s husband on his show in June, continuing to cast it as part of a broader narrative of police brutality while using the supposed “mystery” of the shooter’s identity to heighten suspicion around her death.
“I think one of the reasons they are hiding his identity — they don’t have a good reason for this shooting,” Terrell N. Roberts III, the family’s lawyer, said on the show.
Some in Congress have adopted the cause. But most have been silent.
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), known in part for ties to the far-right, has taken the lead on all things Babbitt in Congress.
More than anyone else, Gosar has publicized the issue and demanded to know who killed Babbitt. He has used his perch on the House Oversight Committee to ask DOJ officials who “executed” her. On Tuesday, he released a statement applauding Trump’s decision to stoke rage around Babbitt’s death.
But apart from Gosar, the rest of the GOP has met the calls to unmask the officer in question not with opprobrium, but rather with silence. It’s in that vacuum that Trump demanded on Saturday that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) take up the cause.
“Why are Republican leaders like McConnell afraid to take up the subject and talk about it?” Trump asked, calling it a “disgrace to our country.”