The FBI used my journalism to charge a January 6 insurrectionist. I have complicated feelings about that

  • An Insider contributor’s reporting led to federal charges for one of the men who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6
  • Journalist Abigail Higgins explains why she declined to submit to an FBI interview about the case. 
  • She also reflects on her own ambivalence, knowing her reporting could help send a source to prison.
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When I got out of the shower one morning at the end of March, I had a voicemail from the FBI. They wanted to talk.

I assumed it was a scam. Then, I panic-shuffled through a mental rolodex of things I might have done to tick off the feds.

I had almost completely forgotten that I had reported on Jan. 6— the day, just a few months ago, when hundreds of Donald Trump supporters stormed police barricades and took over the U.S. Capitol building a few miles from my Washington D.C. apartment, interrupting the imminent certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s win.

As the siege escalated, I got a call from my editor at Insider asking if I could safely get down to the Capitol building to see if I could interview anyone who had been inside. 

It wasn’t the first attempted coup I had covered and it was far from my first terrorist attack. But the heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping breaking news coverage of either phenomenon was something I had planned to leave behind when I moved away from East Africa a couple years ago. But journalistic instincts die hard: it’s tough to miss history in the making.

When I got downtown, the streets were flooded with people adorned in Trump paraphernalia. At that point, the Capitol hadn’t yet been secured and public information was still limited. I flagged down 39-year old Thomas Adams because I only had about 45 minutes until Mayor Muriel Bowser’s 6 p.m. curfew and the Trump flag fastened around his neck like a cape suggested he might be up for talking. I was right—Adams enthusiastically agreed to tell me about his exploits.

Adams had filmed everything with his phone: the front steps being overtaken, riotous crowds hollering “Stop the steal!” People snapping selfies in the senate hallways, drawers torn open and reams of documents strewn across the senate floor. The man with fur and buffalo horns, later identified as Jake Angeli, or the ‘Q Shaman,’ at the Senate podium. 

“It was a really fun time,” Adams told me, describing the scene as “hilarious.”

This week, a Twitter notification alerted me that Federal authorities were charging Adams with a host of crimes: knowingly entering a restricted building without lawful authority to do so, obstructing official proceedings, disturbing the orderly conduct of Congress. 

Pro-Trump protesters clash with D.C. police officer Michael Fanone on Jan. 6, 2021.Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

I had declined to meet with the FBI agent— besides feeling queasy about cooperating with an institution with a history of spying on journalists and targeting Black activists, I believe the press should do whatever we can to protect our sources, whoever they are.

But what I didn’t know at the time, was that they had already been building a case for months against Thomas Adams. Like hundreds of people that day, he had stormed the Capitol. Unlike many others, he happened to pass a journalist on the way to his car and agree to an on-the-record interview.

Evidently, after reading my article on January 7, the FBI ran his name through their database and found his home address. Later that same day, an FBI agent was driving by his residence and noting his 2013 Volkswagen Passat. By February, Adams had been as forthcoming with his incriminating photos and videos with the feds as he had been with me.

Insider, The Chicago Tribune, the Springfield State Journal-Register, and other local news stations all reported on the charges, each one citing my name and my reporting as the FBI’s initial source of information. When I read the court records, my name was there too.

I felt ill.

I wondered: was a bumbling Trump fanatic who made the mistake of giddily documenting his crimes and then showing them to a journalist, really the person to hold responsible for what happened on January 6? After all, he was egged on by the President of the United States, who instructed the crowd earlier that day to march to the capitol and “fight like hell.” Adams told me himself that the police he passed on his way inside “weren’t really doing much.”

I also struggled with what consequences mean in this country— and who ends up facing them. In our prisons, we lock people in cages, use solitary confinement as punishment, and turn a blind eye to widespread rape and assault. Research in New York state found that every year spent behind bars takes two years off someone’s life expectancy. Unemployment for formerly incarcerated people is five times higher than the general American population. It’s not where I believe any human being belongs, no matter their crime. 

I’m not sympathetic to Adams’ cause, or inclined to paint him as a hapless teenager who fell victim to peer pressure. Five people died during the riot and two police officers who were on duty have since died by suicide. The crowd that Adams was a part of included people waving Confederate flags, a man who wore a sweatshirt that said “Camp Auschwitz.” A noose was constructed on the capitol lawn. Police seized pipe bombs. In an emotional testimony the following month, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described hiding behind a bathroom door thinking she was going to die.

Pro-Trump protesters scale a wall as they storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

I myself remember biking back from my interview with Adams— my legs pumping as fast as possible to make it out of downtown unscathed. I remember texting my fiance to see if our car had a full tank of gas, just in case we needed to flee the city.

The dichotomy made it tough to write about. Journalist Katie McDonough put the dilemma aptly in The New Republic when she said that the riot at the capitol “was extremely goofy and deadly serious.”

The atmosphere that night reminded me of a crowd exiting a concert at the end of the night, high on a collective euphoria. I remember being struck by an old man, walking with a cane, who calmly updated his wife over the phone that he had just come from inside the Capitol and was now trying to find a place to get dinner. 

Adams did strike me as a reveler who got caught up in the moment, but I am also not naive to the atrocities that are carried out by those caught up in a crowd.

I feel complicated about something else too: the Federal Bureau of Investigations—an agency that requested over $9 billion to operate in 2019— seems to be relying on the research of a freelance journalist who used a bicycle to get the Capitol building and only recently got decent health insurance to do their job. 

Despite ample evidence that January 6 was planned far in advance and despite the fact that at over $118 billion, the U.S. police budget is higher than that of any military in the world besides the U.S. and China, authorities also only seem to be doing their job after the fact.

In the past year, I’ve reported on mass hysterectomies at an ICE detention center, the ways that Trump’s Muslim ban might have increased premature births, and on corporate landlords responsible for thousands of evictions during the pandemic. I’m not sure Adams cracks the top ten of people I’d hope to see face consequences as a result of my work.

But I’d bet anything he’s one of the few people who will.

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