In federal court, Mark Sahady and Suzanne Ianni are facing charges of illegal entry and disorderly conduct for their alleged involvement in the 6 January riot at the US Capitol. But at a rally against coronavirus restrictions held last month in a field outside Boston, the pair were hailed as “patriots”.
“Yeah, we are definitely not terrorists,” Mr Sahady, 46, told the crowd. “Make no mistake about it: This is a political prosecution.”
In the weeks since the Capitol riot, many participants have tearfully apologised for their actions, often after paying a price legally, socially or professionally. But for some, 6 January has emerged as a source of pride and inspiration – a reflection of how robustly many in the Republican Party have embraced former President Donald Trump’s false claims that he lost the White House because of fraud.
A Monmouth University poll last month found that 65 per cent of Republicans believed President Joe Biden’s victory was due to election fraud and 40 per cent believed the anger displayed on 6 January was either fully or partially justified. The narrative touted by many in the party of what happened that day – like so much else in polarised America – exists in a parallel universe, incompatible with the scenes captured on cameras and unearthed by investigators.
Mr Sahady and Ms Ianni are members of a right-wing, Massachusetts-based group called Super Happy Fun America, which first drew national attention for organising a 2019 Straight Pride Parade in Boston. At the rally last month, group president John Hugo praised the two as “freedom fighters” for the roles they allegedly played on 6 January.
The group’s leaders say they chartered six buses to ferry Trump supporters to Washington DC to protest the outcome of the 2020 race. Many are now coping with the consequences of their actions.
Mr Sahady said he lost his job amid the public backlash, and more than 1,700 people signed a petition asking that Ms Ianni be thrown off the local governing board of her town. Another member of the group said her real estate company received emails from the public, demanding her firing. Still, another said, activists were trying to get him expelled from law school.
But the attention has only fuelled interest in their organisation, according to the group’s leaders. Super Happy Fun America now boasts about 400 “card-carrying” members, more than a third of whom joined in the past couple of months, Mr Hugo said. He declined to share evidence of that membership but said frustration over the election outcome and other more recent events have been the primary motivators.
“We’ve seen an uptick in censorship, wholesale suspension of conservatives from social media,” said Mr Hugo, who said he did not go to Washington on 6 January because of a knee injury. “It’s like a snake, a boa constrictor, slowly squeezing us, squeezing us, squeezing us. There’s nothing left. We’ve been kicked out of the virtual public square.”
That sentiment was on display during the recent rally in Bridgewater, a suburb about 30 miles south of Boston. Mr Hugo said it was just one of a series of events they planned to participate in or lead in the months ahead.
“We’re drawing a line in the sand; we’re pushing back,” Mr Hugo told the crowd, speaking from a hilltop gazebo. He called on supporters to donate to Ms Ianni and Mr Sahady’s legal defence fund.
That determination has unsettled the group’s critics.
The riot at the Capitol was “like a dry run”, said Scott Gilbert, an activist with the New England chapter of a group called Refuse Fascism, who was one of a few dozen counter-protesters who came to Bridgewater that day. Mr Trump might be out of office, he said, but “that whole movement isn’t just disappearing”.
Prosecutors have so far charged more than 350 people with taking part in the siege of the Capitol. The most serious charges have been reserved for people accused of assaulting law enforcement, or for members of three militia organisations who prosecutors say engaged in a conspiracy to use violence that day.
Super Happy Fun America has at times allied with one of those groups, the Proud Boys, whose members have attended some of their events, Mr Hugo said. But he said that unlike the Proud Boys, “we’re not trying to start fights”.
Mr Hugo, a Republican activist who has run unsuccessfully for various political offices over the years, founded the group in 2019 with Mr Sahady, an Army veteran. They incorporated it as a Massachusetts nonprofit, telling the secretary of state’s office that it would “advocate on behalf of the heterosexual community”. Their first event was the Straight Pride Parade in Boston.
The name Super Happy Fun America, Mr Hugo said, was a way to jab at the media in its inevitable coverage of the parade, forcing outlets to repeat the ridiculous title over and over in news stories.
The group adopted a similarly provocative motto, “It’s great to be straight,” which Mr Hugo said draws from its belief that heterosexuals and “the nuclear family” are under threat in America.
The parade drew several hundred marchers, even more counter-protesters, and was marred by violent scuffles between the two sides. Super Happy Fun America was condemned by local leaders, criticised on ABC’s “The View” and ridiculed by comedian Stephen Colbert.
Beyond the claims of heterosexual victimhood, Super Happy Fun America’s members embrace a broad set of right-wing values, bolstered heavily by baseless claims propagated by Mr Trump and far-right websites.
They say they don’t want women to be able to obtain abortions. And they don’t want schools to teach children about racism because, Mr Hugo said, racism is no longer a problem in America.
“This is not 1950. I’d say about 95, 96 per cent of people are not the least bit racist,” he said. His group, he noted, includes a handful of black members.
Group members also subscribe to a far-right belief that Democrats and leftists are conspiring to take over America, implement a communist system and oppress conservatives.
“The American Democrats – they are the communists! They are the enemy of Americans, and all [the] human race,” Bao Chau Kelley, the group’s outreach coordinator, proclaimed from the stage in Bridgewater.
Mr Sahady’s now-removed Twitter profile, an image of which is captured in court documents, includes the hashtag: #WWG1WGA, which stands for the QAnon slogan, “Where we go one, we go all.”
Mr Sahady said in a text message that he is not a follower of the QAnon extremist ideology, which posits that Mr Trump is a messianic character battling Satan-worshiping liberals and child-traffickers operating within a government “deep state”.
“Just think the phrase is catchy and reminds me of the military,” he wrote.
Based in Lexington, where the first shot was fired in the Revolutionary War, the group likes “to consider ourselves the re-founding fathers,” said Mr Hugo, who often wears a tricorn hat, a style popular during the American Revolution.
But the town is also a bastion of the liberal ideals the group sees as threatening society. On one end of the town green, the First Parish in Lexington, established in 1682, is now a Unitarian church. A Black Lives Matter flag flutters beneath its tall, narrow spire alongside a rainbow flag for LGBT+ rights.
Allegiance to Mr Trump also binds the group. After Mr Biden won the election in November, Super Happy Fun America swung into action.
“It is time for patriots to rise up and take back their country,” the group’s Twitter account announced on 8 December.
Convinced that the election had been stolen, members made two trips to protest in Washington late last year.
Ms Ianni and Mr Sahady attended both times and then again on 6 January, when Ms Ianni acted as lead coordinator of the buses, Mr Hugo and Mr Sahady said.
“SHFA will be in DC once again on January 6th to get wild,” the group tweeted 29 December.
“January 6 – Washington DC – It begins,” Mr Sahady tweeted two days before the Capitol siege, according to court documents.
In a text message, Ms Ianni said the group sent six buses carrying about 300 people to Washington for Trump’s rally that day, and coordinated with other conservative groups to help fill another five buses from New England.
She declined to be interviewed, as did Mr Sahady, who cited their ongoing court case.
Group members said that they did not go to Washington with specific plans to march on the Capitol but that it was clear upon arrival that some form of Capitol protest would occur.
“Everybody knew that they [lawmakers] were meeting in the Capitol building. So I think that there was an understanding after Trump got done speaking, there would be a protest at the Capitol building,” said Samson Racioppi, one of the group’s leaders at the time.
In court documents, authorities cited a photograph of Mr Sahady and Ms Ianni standing together inside the Capitol building, Ms Ianni’s fist held high.
Ms Ianni later told the MetroWest Daily News that her experience at the Capitol was “very moving, very inspiring”, and she claimed that protesters had been “waved in by Capitol Police”.
Ms Kelley, another group leader who said she had been with Ms Ianni earlier in the day, said that when she arrived at the Capitol, she could see a group of people trying to pry a door open, with police officers standing nearby.
“You know, I’m a law-abiding citizen, like most, if not all of those people there,” she said, adding that she never entered the building. “You know, that door is not wide open, like inviting people. So if somebody pries the door open, I don’t want to get in because it’s not opened properly.”
Mr Racioppi, who said he also stayed outside the Capitol, videotaped police using pepper spray against the crowd. He then saw some people preparing to use what appeared to be a ratchet strap, a tool typically used for securing heavy loads to the back of a truck, to pull down a barricade.
“I wanted nothing to do with that. And so I ended up leaving,” he said.
By the time the group returned to its buses early that evening, they were emotional over the day’s activities, said Mr Racioppi, who had taken his own car to Washington but went to see them off.
“Everybody was extremely excited because of the experience that they had gone through,” he said. They all seemed to recognise “the gravity” of the situation.
The buses’ departure was delayed, however, in part because one of the passengers was missing. It turned out that the passenger, who was from New Hampshire, had been arrested, Mr Racioppi said. “He wasn’t known to us. He was just somebody who ended up buying a ticket and riding on the bus,” he said.
Thomas Gallagher, 61, of Bridgewater, New Hampshire, was the only New Hampshire resident to be arrested that day. According to the criminal complaint, Mr Gallagher was arrested inside the Capitol, one of six people at the front of a crowd that was “making loud noises, and kicking chairs, throwing an unknown liquid substance at [police] officers, and spraying an unknown substance.” He and the others “wilfully refused the order to leave,” the complaint states.
Mr Gallagher has pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Sebastian M. Norton, said his client had taken a bus down to Washington from Massachusetts, but he was unsure which group had organised the bus. Mr Norton said Mr Gallagher told him that he had never heard of Super Happy Fun America.
Mr Hugo said he did not know whether any of the eight other New Englanders arrested in connection with 6 January had been passengers on the group’s chartered buses. Ms Ianni, the lead organiser, said none were members of Super Happy Fun America, but declined to rule out the possibility that other arrestees had ridden on the group’s buses.
“Even if I knew for sure, I’d protect their privacy,” she wrote in a text message.
About a week after the riot, Mr Sahady was fired from his job as a software engineer – without explanation, he said. He declined to share the name of the company.
He was arrested on 19 January, court documents show, and has pleaded not guilty.
In his hometown of Malden, posters have cropped up, depicting his face beneath the words “WANTED RIOTER” and urging anyone who sees him to “call the FBI tip line”.
Ms Ianni was also arrested on 19 January. Her attorney said she plans to plead not guilty.
In her town of Natick, where she serves as an elected member of the Natick Town Meeting, more than 1,700 people signed a petition calling for her removal. The officials said they had no grounds to do so, local news media reported.
Though they have not been charged in connection with 6 January, two other members of the group say they have also faced repercussions. Ms Kelley, a New Hampshire real estate agent, said her company office received emails demanding that she be fired for having traveled to Washington.
Mr Racioppi, a law student, said the New England Law school in Boston hired an outside firm to investigate him after local activists sought his expulsion. A spokeswoman for the school did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite the backlash, Mr Hugo said the group’s membership has been rising and more public actions are planned in coming months.
The night before the Bridgewater rally, the group held a two-hour “leadership meeting” at a supporter’s home in Lexington to plan its next move. Mr Hugo said afterward that next they planned to target the mainstream media, whom they accuse of being a mouthpiece for the Democratic Party, but he declined to say how.
In Bridgewater the next day, Mr Sahady, Ms Ianni, Mr Hugo, Mr Racioppi, Ms Kelley and several other high-profile members of the group gathered for their first public display of activism since 6 January. A handful of supporters greeted Mr Sahady and Ms Ianni with handshakes.
As they walked to the parking lot afterward, a familiar confrontation erupted between the group and its opponents.
“Your a** got arrested by the FBI!” a young counter-protester shouted at Ms Ianni.
“Little snowflake!” she shouted back.
The Washington Post