Zip Ties and the Capitol Riots

On January 8 2021, “zip ties” became a topic of discourse around the January 6 2021 Capitol riots as the public began to unpack and come to terms with the events of that chaotic day:

Although the image of a man holding zip ties was not new on January 8 2021, interest in the presence of “flexicuffs” in the breached House Chamber spiked in the days after the riots as the photograph made the online rounds.

Readers universally agreed that protesters bringing zip ties or flexicuffs into the Capitol showed an intent to take hostages — presumably legislators, aides, and journalists:

In addition to zip ties, protesters built a gallows outside the Capitol, sparking discussions which often referenced the white supremacist fanfiction novel The Turner Diaries and its adherents:

In a thread 12 tweets long on January 7 2021, Kathleen Belew — an expert on white supremacist movements — drew direct parallels to The Turner Diaries:

Several of the methods used in the book appeared in yesterday’s insurrection. One is the “Day of the Rope,” in which “traitors” (including members of Congress, people in interracial relationships, journalists, etc) are publicly hanged. Yesterday the mob erected a gallows (2) …Yesterday the mob erected a gallows and people took selfies in front of it. (3)

Turner Diaries also prominently features an attack on the U.S. Capitol, though somewhat different than what we saw. In the book it’s a mortar attack. But significantly, the point of the attack is NOT mass casualty, but showing people that even the Capitol can be attacked (4)

Belew expounded upon the parallels, adding that anyone wishing to study the similarities not purchase a copy:

If you would like to learn more, please don’t purchase The Turner Diaries as money sometimes still flows back to white power groups from those purchases. Get a pirated copy. Or read summaries. (11)

Other readers agreed with the analysis:

Former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci shared a version of the “zip ties” image on January 7 2021, tweeting:

Trump’s terrorists rolled into Capitol w/ guns, mace & zip-tie handcuffs. They planned to take hostages & likely perform executions, ala the Michigan statehouse plot. President Trump incited & cheered the insurrection. He should be immediately removed from office & prosecuted.

A January 7 2021 Newsweek article reported that while “at least one of the rioters was pictured carrying zip ties, there is currently no evidence that the protesters intended to take hostages or otherwise harm anyone,” but a BuzzFeed collection of images published on the same date showed that still other insurrectionists also brandished zip ties amid the chaos.

BuzzFeed’s reporting relied heavily on images, providing a more comprehensive accounting of the context of the insurrectionists’ arsenal, going on to depict the zip ties or flexicuffs and gallows:

1. These domestic terrorists had sledgehammers[.]
2. They had ladders[.]
3. They had canisters of chemical irritants[.]
4. One of the rioters was spewing tear gas all over the place[.]
5. Tear gas!

A January 8 2021 tweet from healthcare analyst Charles Gaba mentioned the zip ties, improvised explosives, pipe bombs, and gallows, and added that the insurrectionists had clearly planned for far more violence than they managed to accomplish:

Between this, Trump swapping out military personnel who then refused to send in support, the refusal by the Capitol police to accept offers of help, the guys clearly carrying around zip ties, the bombs and molotov cocktails, I’m saying it: #GOPerationRedWedding was the goal.

Gaba shared a tweet by journalist Carl Quintanilla transcribing House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn’s unsettling account of the riot from a radio show on January 8 2021.

Clyburn was quoted as saying that “something else … untoward” occurred, noting that insurrectionists sought him out in a place that somebody unfamiliar with the building would not have been able to find on their own. Clyburn added that the rioters didn’t go to the office with his name displayed on the door, instead seeking out “that other place” where he typically worked, implying that those breaching the building were possibly supplied inside information about where to find key figures.

Zip ties, the gallows, improvised explosives, and other weapons rated frequent mentions in reporting after the siege concluded, often alongside journalists’ observations that the images were difficult to process or forget:

In a January 8 2021 piece for Slate (“They Were Out for Blood”), Dan Kois began:

I can’t stop thinking about the zip-tie guys.

Amid the photos that flooded social media during Wednesday [January 6 2021]’s riot at the Capitol—shirtless jokers in horned helmets, dudes pointing at their nuts, dumbasses carrying away souvenirs—the images of the zip-tie guys were quieter, less exuberant, more chilling. And we’d better not forget what they almost managed to do.

Kois didn’t treat the imagery with the same plausible deniability Newsweek had:

But there were other rioters inside the Capitol, if you look at the images. And once you see them, it’s impossible to look away. The zip-tie guys.

Call the zip ties by their correct name: The guys were carrying flex cuffs, the plastic double restraints often used by police in mass arrest situations. They walked through the Senate chamber with a sense of purpose. They were not dressed in silly costumes but kitted out in full paramilitary regalia: helmets, armor, camo, holsters with sidearms. At least one had a semi-automatic rifle and 11 Molotov cocktails. At least one, unlike nearly every other right-wing rioter photographed that day, wore a mask that obscured his face.

These are the same guys who, when the windows of the Capitol were broken and entry secured, went in first with what I’d call military-ish precision. They moved with purpose, to the offices of major figures like Nancy Pelosi and then to the Senate floor. What was that purpose? It wasn’t to pose for photos. It was to use those flex cuffs on someone.

In October [2020], the FBI and state authorities charged 13 men with plotting to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor of Michigan. Members of that plot attended protests at the Michigan Capitol in April, real planners of violence mixing easily with those for whom guns are fun protest props. The plotters discussed a summary execution—“knock on the door,” one wrote in the group chat, “and when she answers it just cap her”—but settled on a kidnapping, pulled off while police were distracted by a nearby explosion. Think of that plot, as these men surely did, as a dress rehearsal for what the zip-tie guys wanted to accomplish at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday [January 6 2021].

In the excerpt above, Kois observed that the Capitol breach was not the first attempt to capture and harm or execute lawmakers during the Trump administration. In October 2020, thirteen suspects were arrested by the FBI after plotting to abduct (and initially to murder) Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer — in what Kois called “a dress rehearsal.”

In intercepted communications from August 2020, one of the suspects was quoted as writing in a group chat:

“Have one person go to her house. Knock on the door and when she answers it just cap her … at this point. Fuck it. … I mean … fuck, catch her walking into the building and act like a passers-by and fixing [sic] dome her then yourself.”

Kois concluded with an observation that things could have been far worse:

If the rioters had been a little quicker through the doors; if senators and representatives hadn’t just moved from their joint session into separate chambers to debate the Arizona challenge and had instead still been packed into one harder-to-evacuate room; if any number of things had happened differently, the three people next in the line of succession for the presidency might have been face to face with those zip-tie guys. And then: Who knows.

TMZ picked up the story up on January 8 2021, drawing the same conclusion:

At least 2 different men were seen holding the zip ties — commonly used as disposable handcuffs — inside the U.S. Senate Chamber after members of Congress were forced to flee due to the security breach.

On top of this … we already know many members of the mob that invaded the Capitol were armed, willing to bust into offices and take whatever they wanted, and someone even left behind the threat, “Murder the media,” by scratching it on a door.

And, don’t forget — D.C. cops also found explosives near the building that were safely detonated.

It’s all potentially crucial evidence, as it could show President Trump wasn’t spontaneously urging his amped-up followers to “show strength” and simply march to the Capitol — it could show the attack was all a premeditated plan.

Intelligence and insurgency pundit Malcolm Nance characterized the zip ties and series of events as having a specific purpose

“My greatest fear is that they use this mass of people to push through to breach the building — then what we call a Capture and Kill team,” Nance said.

As the executive director of the Terror Asymmetrics Project, a small think tank studying the strategies and tactics of radical ideologies, Nance said he watched the mob escalate in real-time as his team tracked four different live streams from separate sides of the Capitol Wednesday.

“Someone hung a noose out on the Mall. What makes you think they wouldn’t have tried this,” he said of the possibility of taking hostages. Nance said his team also observed the use of flag poles and baseball bats as weapons Wednesday. “These guys came for action, to do damage,” he said.


[Nance] doesn’t think [the tactical protester with zip ties] acted alone. The size of the restraints; the man’s lack of a backpack; and the unlikelihood he was walking around with them in the open prior to Nance means, “They came from someone else.. someone else is there cooperating.”

Although images of Capitol insurrectionists with zip ties appeared on January 6 2021, shock and a deluge of information about the breach was such that their implications were not fully absorbed until a day or two afterward. Reporting occasionally included language like, “there is currently no evidence that the protesters intended to take hostages or otherwise harm anyone.” Taken in sum — the zip ties or flex cuffs, the gallows, the planted explosives, the seeking out of lawmakers by the angry mob of insurrectionists, and the foiled plot to kidnap Whitmer — it is increasingly difficult to imagine a different reason that at least two men might bring restraints into a breached Capitol building during a violent riot. The images were real and widely shared, and while intent was difficult to fact-check, well-reported aspects of the insurrectionists’ gear strongly indicated that, if possible, they planned to employ flex cuffs to restrain people at the Capitol.

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