U.S. Capitol Police Officer Shae Cooney told jurors this week at the Proud Boys seditious conspiracy trial, she was certain it was one of the defendants who called her a “pig” on Jan. 6, 2021, because he was looking right at her when he said it.
“It was one of the first words said to me that day,” Cooney, now a six-year veteran of the force, testified.
Another she heard was “traitor.”
Those first words of Cooney's day were allegedly delivered by defendant Ethan Nordean, just one of five Proud Boys who prosecutors say conspired to forcibly stop the transfer of power and obstruct Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 election.
Cooney didn’t refer to Nordean by name, but when his defense attorney Nick Smith pressed her, the former Chili’s-waitress-turned-M4-rifle-toting-officer was certain: It was his client who screamed epithets at her and other officers before he and fellow Proud Boys and rioters were whipped into a frenzy, storming over splintered barriers that were ripped up from the concrete.
Cooney was among some of the first officers to respond to breaches at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
When she first laid eyes on the huge crowd gathering at the lower west terrace, she felt a moment of paralyzing panic. Then she went to work and stayed there after weathering plumes of chemical spray and dodging projectiles like flagpoles and frozen water bottles lobbed at her and other officers’ heads for hours.
Cooney also took pieces of metal fencing to the head.
“Anything they had brought with them, they were throwing at us,” she testified. “We were hit with thin blue line flags and American flags.”
After the insurrection was quelled and the Capitol building had been cleared, Cooney told jurors she took up one of her regular posts atop the uppermost landing of the House of Representatives. She patrolled with her M4 rifle until 4:30 AM. Then she went home, took a shower, got two hours of sleep, and came back to the Capitol. Her superior officer told her to take an eight-hour break. She took five instead, she told prosecutor Conor Mulroe, because she wanted to get back as soon possible to relieve other exhausted officers.
The frantic nature of the day—now two years ago—has left some of Cooney’s memories less clear. She was unsure of the precise moment things had spun totally out of control.
People were screaming and chanting and throwing items at officers like flag poles and baseball bats. But she testified it wasn’t Nordean who threw fencing at her, though she said she had witnessed him and his co-defendant Joe Biggs pick up pieces of it nonetheless.
She couldn’t recall hearing Nordean encourage others in the crowd to strike her specifically.
And where she estimated personally seeing over 50 people that day carrying bats, she testified, whether any of them were Proud Boys ultimately she couldn’t be sure now.
During cross-examination, attorneys for defendants Biggs and Dominic Pezzola pressed Cooney about the consistency of her statements around the attack.
Daniel Hull, for Biggs, asked her what she thought made the crowd “explode.”
“In front of me, or in general?” she asked.
“Just what you saw,” Hull said.
“Me, personally, when someone hit an officer. And we protected that officer with less than lethal force,” Cooney said.
Less than lethal force is the use of repellents like pepper balls, chemical spray, or rubber bullets.
Those measures had never been deployed on Capitol grounds before Jan. 6, U.S. Capitol Police Inspector Thomas Loyd told the jury last month. Things had never been that dire.
People were in a rage. And in video footage played at the trial, exhibits show how tensions escalated in moments between police and the crowd.
Cooney didn’t use chemical spray on the mob on Jan. 6 and she’s never shot pepper balls. She’s not trained for it, she testified.
She told Hull “no” when asked if U.S. Capitol Police leadership was prepared for Jan. 6. But when things shifted from bad to worse, on redirect by prosecutor Mulroe, she agreed it wasn’t police using less than lethal force to subdue the crowd that triggered the so-called “explosion.”
The crowd was intimidating, but it was also relatively manageable in the throngs further back from the front of the mob, where people pressed themselves flush against the metal fence barriers that were screwed into the concrete terrace beneath their feet.
“It takes a great amount of force to get that detached,” she testified, agreeing with Mulroe that it would certainly take more than one person to try to remove it.
It was “possible” it wasn’t Nordean, or “the man in the black baseball cap,” who may have been responsible for starting the rocking back of forth of the metal barriers that separated a main entry point to the Capitol and the mob.
Mulroe asked Cooney: “Did you see the man in the black cap being taken for a ride on that fence?”
“No,” she testified.
He was among those, with Biggs, helping to pull the fence out of the concrete, she said.
Nordean and others did not lay fencing on the ground either, despite the suggestion by his attorney.
The Proud Boys seditious conspiracy trial has stretched for 14 days in earnest. Cooney’s testimony was among some of the most rapid to unfold in the case thus far. Only faster than she were two FBI Special Agents who testified about the search of defendant Zachary Rehl and Biggs’ homes.
The trial has been hemmed up almost daily by a heavy flow of objections from the defense and ensuing debates over the admissibility of evidence.
Even U.S. District Judge Tim Kelly, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, remarked Thursday that issues over evidence now eating into next week’s schedule should have been resolved in “October” during the pretrial motion period.
Jurors did not sit on Friday, a tradition in this case so far and not uncommon. It was the same in the seditious conspiracy trial of Oath Keepers Elmer Stewart Rhodes, Kelly Meggs, and others.
Next week, jurors will not return until Tuesday morning at 9 AM.
The jury is being held back so prosecutors and defense attorneys can hash out lingering issues around roughly 200 exhibits. The exhibits are a series of Telegram posts leading up to and on Jan. 6 by the Proud Boy defendants and include communications from many other members of the so-called “western chauvinist” group.
Federal prosecutors have said that most of the messages aren’t in dispute and they have parsed out most of what they could anticipate would be objectionable, like potential statements from people who are not alleged co-conspirators in the case. The defense has balked over the volume of evidence as well as access for the defendants. Nordean’s counsel told Kelly he has requested that the defendants are allowed to prepare for trial together while in detention. Marshalls have denied that request.
The Telegram exhibits may finally give jurors a chance to see the Proud Boys “Ministry of Self-Defense” communications laid out in greater detail. Enrique Tarrio insists the “ministry,” or the subdivision of Proud Boys who communicated in encrypted chats about Jan. 6, was established in response to the rising threat of “antifa” and the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. Prosecutors say the “ministry” is more like a hub of members, led by Tarrio, who communicated and coordinated recruits for the Proud Boys and promoted their extremist agenda.
Tarrio, who often appears in court wearing glasses and neatly tailored suits, is represented by attorneys Sabino Jauregui and Nayib Hassan.
For the moment, attention has been less overtly centered on Tarrio by prosecutors, and Jauregui and Hassan have focused their attention when cross-examining witnesses for the government on the function the Proud Boys served in 2020 against their perceived opponents: “antifa” or “BLM.”
Jurors saw video footage of Tarrio on Alex Jones’ InfoWars in December 2020 after the Million MAGA March in Washington, D.C., supporting the “Stop the Steal” movement had occurred earlier that month.
At night, street violence erupted among Proud Boys and counterprotesters. One of the Proud Boys stabbed by a counterprotester was Jeremy Bertino. He has already pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy.
In the interview, Tarrio described how Proud Boys decided to take matters into their own hands after being long fed up with leftists and/or members of antifa who “assault women and children.”
“Thanks to Joe Biden, a lot more people know who we are. We had so much support out there,” Tarrio said. “Here I am ... getting the guys pumped up.”
He added: “We cleaned the streets of D.C.” and told Jones that Proud Boys “owned the streets of D.C.” before they finally decided to “[hand] back the keys to [D.C. Mayor Muriel] Bower because we owned that city that night.”
Whether Tarrio will testify on his own behalf is unclear. But it will be left to the Justice Department to push back against the narrative the defense is crafting through its cross-examination so far.
Other defendants have received a greater spotlight in recent trial days. Jurors have seen footage of Nordean on a podcast where he discussed not wanting to use force against the government in late December 2020, but simultaneously said that the government and law enforcement could be “replaced.”
“Here’s the thing. We’ll replace you. We care about law and order that much. We will assemble an army that will replace you, like that,” Nordean said. “We’ll just be like, ‘Here I’ll take your badge. It's mine now. You're no longer sitting in office … this guy we just voted in right now is. Goodbye,’ and it’ll literally be like that.”
Nordean said “total anarchy” wasn’t the goal but the COVID-19 lockdowns and “militant left” had made “discourse” impossible.
In another podcast appearance on Dec. 31, 2020, Nordean lamented:
When police officers go after criminals, they use force which is also known as violence. So when police officers or government officials are breaking the law, what we supposed to do as the people? Discourse? What? Are we supposed to debate? No, you have to use force. This is the organized militia part of our freaking, uh, Constitution here. This is something we need to get back ingrained in our heads and desensitize ourselves from this stuff that we’ve been taught, “never use violence.” Well, I'm sorry. That's literally the foundation of every prominent country: force.
Prosecutors say that this evidence goes toward the defendants’ state of mind walking into Jan. 6 and other evidence, including these now hotly debated Telegram exhibits, show their intent was also a byproduct of weeks of simmering sympathetic outrage for former President Donald Trump’s claims of a so-called “stolen” election. This, the prosecution argues, was coupled with the group’s lingering frustrations with law enforcement after a contentious summer of protest and rioting in response to the death of George Floyd and shutdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Next week’s truncated trial schedule is expected to feature more witness testimony on behalf of the government, including an FBI special agent with expertise on the Proud Boys’ communications.
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