What the arrests of Beverly Hills residents say about the US Capitol attack

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Lois Beckett in Los Angeles
·7 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
<span>Photograph: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

Beverly Hills has seen more residents arrested for participating in the US Capitol insurrection than any other city in California.

Three of the 14 California residents charged in connection with the pro-Trump riot in Washington on 6 January so far are from the wealthy Los Angeles county enclave: Gina Bisignano, a salon owner, and Simone Gold and John Strand, two rightwing activists who have spread coronavirus misinformation through their roles in America’s Frontline Doctors, an organization that Gold, an emergency room physician, founded.

The 11 other Californians who have been charged in the riot are scattered across the state, from San Diego to San Francisco, with three clustered in towns around Sacramento, the state capital, and two from towns in the notoriously conservative Orange county, south of Los Angeles.

The prominence of Beverly Hills and the profile of the three residents who have been charged reflects what experts say are broader trends in the backgrounds of the more than 250 people charged so far in connection with the Capitol riot.

Protesters at a pro-Trump rally in Beverly Hills. Three of the 14 California residents charged in connection with the US Capitol attack are from the wealthy Los Angeles county enclave.
Protesters at a pro-Trump rally in Beverly Hills. Three of the 14 California residents charged in connection with the US Capitol attack are from the wealthy Los Angeles county enclave. Photograph: Keith Birmingham/AP

More than 90% of the people charged in the riots so far are white, researchers at the Chicago Project on Security and Threats found. About 40% are business owners or have white-collar jobs, the researchers found, and compared with previous rightwing extremists, relatively few of them were unemployed.

“There’s been this assumption that the most reactionary folks on the frontlines would be what’s often referred to as white working-class, but that’s of course not what we saw,” said Vanessa Wills, a political philosopher who studies the intersections of race and class. “The people who showed up are disproportionately small business owners.”

Related: 'The past is so present': how white mobs once killed American democracy

The people charged in the attack so far also did not come exclusively from Republican states or conservative enclaves. In fact, a majority lived in counties that Biden won, like Beverly Hills, nestled next to Hollywood in liberal Los Angeles county.

Only 10% of the people charged so far had identifiable ties to rightwing militias or other organized violent groups, the Chicago researchers found. Many more were people who had identified as mainstream Trump supporters.

From lockdown protests to the US Capitol

Salon owner Bisignano was indicted on seven counts, including destruction of government property and civil disorder.

Gold and Strand, the rightwing activists, were indicted on five counts, including disorderly conduct in a capitol building. Gold’s lawyer declined to comment on the charges against her, and Strand and Bisignano’s lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.

All three Beverly Hills defendants were already prominent rightwing protest figures before the events at the Capitol.

Bisignano had gone viral in December for shouting homophobic slurs at an anti-lockdown protest outside the home of Los Angeles’ public health director, according to TMZ, which called her “coronavirus lockdown Karen”.

“You’re a new world order satanist,” Bisignano told a person filming her at the protest, according to the TMZ video. “You’re a Nazi and you’re brainwashed.”

“Is there something wrong with not wanting a lockdown?” she asked. “Is there something wrong with wanting freedom?”

Trump supporters rally after Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election, in Beverly Hills, California, on 7 November 2020.
Trump supporters rally after Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election, in Beverly Hills, California, on 7 November 2020. Photograph: David McNew/AFP/Getty Images

Gold, who has been labeled a “toxic purveyor of misinformation” for her public stances questioning the safety of the coronavirus vaccine and touting hydroxychloroquine as a cure for the virus, was part of an anti-lockdown demonstration with other doctors on the steps of the supreme court in July. Video of the doctors spreading misinformation about Covid-19 was repeatedly shared by Trump and by Donald Trump Jr, and ultimately viewed more than 14m times, despite takedowns by multiple social media platforms, the Washington Post reported.

Strand, the communications director for America’s Frontline doctors, was also one of the main organizers of the frequent pro-Trump rallies in Beverly Hills before and after the election, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“The election is not over,” Strand said at a protest in mid-November after Trump had lost the election, according to footage posted on YouTube. “Yes, we have a chance to win the election.”

All three Beverly Hills defendants had spoken out publicly about their participation in the Capitol riot before they were arrested, including in newspapers interviews and on social media.

“I’m like, I didn’t know we were storming the Capitol. I should have dressed different,” Bisignano told the Beverly Hills Courier before her arrest, noting that she had worn Chanel boots as well as a Louis Vuitton sweater to the riot.

•••

It is not clear how wealthy or financially stable Bisignano or the other Beverly Hills defendants are. While many of the Americans charged in the Capitol riots were educated, employed and financially stable enough to afford a trip across the country to attend a pro-Trump protest, a Washington Post analysis also found that many people charged in the attack had some history of financial troubles, and that, as a group, they were twice as likely as Americans overall to have a history of bankruptcy.

Understanding the background and social status of alleged domestic terrorists is important to understanding what can be done to counter this kind of radicalization and prevent future attacks. The profiles of the Capitol rioters already present a challenge for these kinds of efforts, researchers say.

“What we are dealing with here is not merely a mix of rightwing organizations, but a broader mass movement with violence at its core,” the Chicago Project on Security and Threats researchers wrote in a public presentation on their initial findings. Normal strategies for countering violent extremism, like social programs for the poor, or arrests targeting organized extremists groups, would not work, the researchers concluded: what was needed was “de-escalation approaches for anger among large swaths of mainstream society”.

Many Americans had reason to be angry at the failures of politicians and the federal government during the pandemic, which has led to widespread unemployment, disproportionate burdens on people of color, and half a million people dead, but the Capitol attackers were not broadly representative of the US population.

Trump supporters during a rally in Beverly Hills, California, 10 October 2020.
Trump supporters during a rally in Beverly Hills, California, 10 October 2020. Photograph: Kyle Grillot/AFP/Getty Images

Experts have emphasized the importance of recognizing the coded attacks on the legitimacy of Black voters’ ballots within Trump’s rhetoric about “election fraud”, and the value of understanding the Capitol insurrection as an act of racial violence motivated by white supremacist ideas.

But the economic and class backgrounds of the alleged Capitol rioters may also be revealing, particularly as many Americans struggle to understand why so many of their fellow citizens were vulnerable to Trump’s lies about election fraud and lurid conspiracy theories like QAnon.

The white Americans who showed up at the Capitol did not appear to represent big business or the country’s financial elite, Wills, the political philosopher, said. Instead, they appeared to largely represent people who felt squeezed by bigger companies, resentful towards the government, which had provided a small business pandemic relief program that failed to help many small businesses, and also resentful towards “working-class demands that they see as hostile to their interests as small business owners”.

It was no accident that chaotic anti-lockdown protests at state capitols during the early months of the pandemic were a precursor to the attack on the Capitol in Washington, Wills argued: the public health lockdown measures were specifically threatening to small businesses, and their ability to ensure that their employees would return to work.

While susceptibility to conspiracy theories involves many factors, she argued, people would likely be more open to embrace wild theories if the theories justified them acting on what was already in their economic interest.

“Most people would find it hard to think well of themselves if they confronted the fact that they woke up that morning and decided they are going to frustrate society’s attempts to contain a pandemic for their own private financial benefit,” Wills said.