In a raw and emotional testimony on Wednesday, Jessica Watkins, a member of the Oath Keepers on trial for seditious conspiracy, recounted being dragged into the conspiratorial underbelly of the internet and how she believed she was acting like an American patriot on January 6, 2021.
Watkins made a surprise appearance on the stand to testify in her own defense and impress upon the jury that she was unaware of any plan to storm the US Capitol that day.
“It’s the question I’ve been asking myself ever since,” Watkins said of why she went into the Capitol that afternoon. “It was really stupid, I just got swept up there.”
“We were mad,” she added. “We wanted them to hear us.”
Watkins has pleaded not guilty to several charges stemming from the attack at the Capitol, including seditious conspiracy. Her four co-defendants have also pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors alleged that Watkins was part of the so-called “stack” formation that entered the Capitol, and that she was part of a crowd that pushed against a police line outside the Senate chamber.
The militia leader testified that she never wanted to stop the congressional certification of the 2020 election on January 6 and never intended to stop the transfer of power from then-President Donald Trump to President-elect Joe Biden.
Struggling to belong
Watkins introduced herself to the jury by describing a painful upbringing. Watkins, who is transgender, said she knew she identified as female from a young age but struggled with how, or if, she could express her identity publicly.
“My mom was pregnant with my sister when I was four and I remember wanting” to be a woman, Watkins testified. Watkins said she had a “strict Christian upbringing” and believed that her “parents never ever would have accepted me.”
“I tried very much to bury it,” Watkins said.
Watkins testified she joined the US Army while the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was still in effect and hid the fact that she was transgender. Watkins had been looking online for support groups to talk about what she was going through when another soldier borrowed her computer, saw her search history and confronted her, she told the jury.
“He came into my room and slammed the door and put my laptop in front of me and screamed ‘I know what you are, fa***t,’” Watkins recounted on the stand. “I panicked and went AWOL. I ran.”
After hiding out for two months in Alaska, Watkins, who had served in Afghanistan, said she turned herself in. She left the Army with an other-than-honorable discharge. Watkins also came out to her parents, she said, and was “asked never to come home again.”
Though her family did eventually become accepting of her, she said, Watkins told the jury that she still struggles with her identity. She doesn’t feel as though she “belonged” in the trans community, and sometimes found herself using “disgusting” homophobic slurs as a way of “lashing out at others like I’ve been lashed out (at).”
“For me it’s not a flag you need to wave, ‘look how cool it is,’” Watkins testified. “To me it’s painful.”
Militias and internet conspiracy theories
Watkins testified that she founded the Ohio State Regular Militia in early 2020 to protect businesses as the election season got underway. At its peak, the militia had six members, Watkins said, including herself.
As the year progressed and Covid-19 restrictions began hurting the bar she and her fiancé owned, Watkins testified she became sucked into online conspiracies and grew increasingly concerned that the United Nations could invade the US and force vaccination or that China could start bombing Army bases in the US.
“I put two and two together and thought that the United Nations is going to come in and go door to door,” Watkins said.
Watkins testified that her fears were driven in part by what she called a “steady diet” of watching conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ show “Infowars.” “I probably watched five or six hours every day,” she said.
It was through Jones’ show that Watkins said she found out about the Oath Keepers. The far-right extremist group’s leader, Stewart Rhodes, had made several appearances. Rhodes is also on trial for seditious conspiracy.
“In hindsight, I feel like I was gullible,” she told the jury.
Watkins testified that she began attending rallies and protests with the Oath Keepers in 2020 with the mission of protecting businesses and became enthralled.
“It kind of got in my blood… so I don’t know, I just couldn’t help myself,” Watkins testified. She began attending political rallies as a medic, hoping to help people who were injured, or as a volunteer firefighter, Watkins testified.
“If I’m going to die for something, it probably should matter,” she said.
Watkins testified she had decided in late December to attend the January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally and was thrilled about the prospect of providing security for right-wing figure Roger Stone.
“I was stoked. It’s Roger Stone. It’s Trump’s inner circle. I just thought it was exciting,” Watkins testified, though she later learned that a different group of Oath Keepers from Alabama would be taking over the Stone security detail.
Watkins said she helped escort the mother of a “Stop the Steal” rally speaker from the Ellipse to the Capitol on January 6, and that she and other Oath Keepers made their way to the front of the Capitol. The crowd parted down the middle and cheered for the Oath Keepers, Watkins testified.
“It just felt really cool,” Watkins testified, “We got up to the top of the stairs and then we turned around, we were singing the national anthem. … Everybody is just cheering. … I just felt really American.”
On the stand, Watkins admitted to going inside the Capitol and impeding officers.
“In my mind I thought it was this heroic American moment where I thought people were going into our house, we were going to be heard,” Watkins said. “It was this moment where I lost all basic objectivity. I wasn’t doing security anymore, I wasn’t medic Jess anymore. I was just another idiot.”
Watkins testified that rioters and police started pushing and she “kind of went off” in that moment.
“I want to say I’m sorry to you,” she told the jury, “but I’d rather say I’m sorry to Christopher Owens, the (Metropolitan Police Department) officer who was here. He was the one on the other side of it, protecting the Capitol from my dumb a**.”