The trial was over and the verdict was in, but Brian Mock, 44, kept going back through the evidence, trying to make his case to the one person whose opinion he valued most. He sat at his kitchen table in rural Wisconsin next to his son, 21-year-old A.J. Mock, and opened a video on his laptop. He leaned into the screen and traced his finger over the image of the U.S. Capitol building, looked through clouds of tear gas and smoke and then pointed toward the center of a riotous crowd.
“There. That’s me,” he said, pausing the video, zooming in on a man wearing a black jacket and a camouflaged hood who was shouting at a row of police officers. He pressed play and turned up the volume until the sound of chants and explosions filled the kitchen. “They stole it!” someone else yelled in the video. “We want our country back. Let’s take it. Come on!”
A.J. shifted in his chair and looked down at his phone. He smoked from his vape and fiddled with a rainbow strap on his keychain that read “Love is love.”
“Can I get your undivided attention for a few minutes?” Brian asked. “I want you to know what really happened. It’s important to me.”
“Sorry. It’s just that you showed me this one already,” A.J. said. “I’m tired.”
They’d spent almost three years relitigating the events of Jan. 6, 2021, trying to make sense of what that day meant for their relationship, for the country and for the future of American democracy. Now another divisive presidential election involving Donald Trump was less than a year away, and they were still staring at the same screen and interpreting different realities, each of them coming away with more questions than answers. A.J. searched the video for clues as to how the single father who’d been an advocate for the homeless and supported A.J. when he came out as gay had become the man pressed against police barricades alongside Proud Boys and neo-Nazis. Brian studied his son’s reactions and tried to understand how the one person he trusted most — who he had put in charge of his home and his finances when he left that day for Washington — was also the person who’d turned him in to the F.B.I.
In July, a federal judge found Brian guilty of 11 charges related to the riot, including four counts of assault against law enforcement officers, stealing riot shields and obstructing an official government proceeding. Lawyers told him to prepare for the possibility of several years in prison, but first he’d been sent home to await a sentencing hearing in January. He had at least a few more months to try to put his life in order and make amends with the people he loved.
He took out a blank piece of paper and drew a diagram of the National Mall, the Peace Circle, the Capitol building and the food truck where he stopped that day for lunch.
“Because of course you needed tacos to storm the Capitol,” A.J. said.
“What, you expect me to overthrow the government on an empty stomach?” Brian joked.
A.J. rolled his eyes as Brian started another video on his laptop. This was the father A.J. remembered from before Trump’s presidency: witty, self-effacing, less interested in politics than a punchline. In the last two decades, Brian had voted Republican, voted for Barack Obama and occasionally voted for himself by writing his own name on the ballot to poke fun at the system. “It’s just politics,” he’d sometimes told his son, but now the country’s divisions had become personal and the stakes had turned deadly as they watched a riot play out on the screen.
“There were throngs of people, like a river,” Brian said as they watched the masses move toward the Capitol. “You’re in the current. You’re getting pushed.”
“I had a concussion grenade go off and explode right on me,” he said a few minutes later, as a burst of fire lit up the screen. “Can you see how that would provoke a crowd?”
He looked at his son for affirmation, but A.J. was staring back down at his phone, disengaged, not giving anything away.
“Earth to A.J.,” Brian said. “I’m not some lunatic frothing at the mouth. I got in a bad situation for about five minutes. Do you see where I’m coming from?”
“I’m trying,” A.J. said.
A.J. and Brian in Brian’s kitchen.
A.J. had been making the trip between his father’s house in rural Wisconsin and his own apartment in downtown Minneapolis every few weeks, and the 40-mile drive felt like a journey between worlds. Now he drove out of his father’s neighborhood, where 73 percent of voters chose Trump in 2020, and continued past the dairy farms and horse pastures of St. Croix County, Wis., where the local Republican Party posted a letter to members shortly after Trump’s defeat: “If you want peace, prepare for war.”
A.J. crossed the St. Croix River into Minnesota, turned toward the city and called his boyfriend. “Headed back to civilization,” he said.
He put on classical music and thought about Brian, sifting back through memories, searching again for clues as to how they’d ended up in such different places when they’d often moved in lock step. A.J. had lived with Brian for much of his childhood while his mother worked the night shift at Kohls, and together they cared for Brian’s three younger children and drove to Brian’s landscaping jobs. A.J. rode up front while Brian taught him jokes and introduced him to music. A.J. remembered his father tearing up with pride while A.J. played the tuba in his high school band. He remembered summoning the courage to send Brian a text message with a link to a cheesy YouTube song announcing that he was gay, and he remembered Brian’s response moments later: “I love you. I’m proud of you. But I’ll never forgive you for getting this dumb song stuck in my head.”
After A.J. graduated from high school, he stayed with Brian for a while in North Minneapolis, and they continued to needle each other as their views drifted apart. A.J. thought much of Trump’s presidency was an embarrassment to America; Brian agreed that Trump was “a straight-up jerk,” but he also appreciated cheap gas prices, a thriving economy that raised his landscaping earnings to record highs and Trump’s effort to finally end the wars in the Middle East. A.J. thought many of Trump’s ideas were racist; Brian said he was tired of what he viewed as the media’s dismissal of millions of people as “bigoted white supremacists just because they won’t say Trump is the devil.”
Their biggest arguments came in 2020, when U.S. politics were not just theoretical but a disruptive force in Minneapolis. A.J. supported early Covid-related lockdowns and posted on Facebook about the importance of masking; Brian was incensed that Minnesota Democrats were hurting his business by forcing his landscapers to stay at home, even though they “social distanced for a living,” he said.
A.J. posted on Facebook in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protesters who marched into downtown after George Floyd’s murder. Brian told A.J. that the protests were being portrayed as peaceful only by the “liberal media,” and that in fact those same protesters had burned down a gas station near his house and shot a bullet through the back window of his truck when it was parked in his driveway. “You are smart enough to think through some bs propaganda,” Brian wrote to A.J. on Facebook. “I know I raised you better than that.”
A.J. must cross the St. Croix River to get from his home to his father’s. The 40-mile drive feels like a journey between worlds.
When A.J. decided to vote for Joe Biden because he considered the Republican Party’s platform to be anti-gay, he posted his decision on Facebook: “I’m never one to bring up politics because, honestly, it’s just an uncomfortable thing for me, but this pisses me off as a gay man,” he wrote. “If you support Trump, you don’t support me. That’s all I have to say about it.”
But Brian had a lot to say, especially after Election Day, when he fell asleep in front of the television after midnight with Trump in the lead and awoke hours later to the likelihood of a new president-elect. He watched simultaneous news coverage on four different networks, but if he’d come to distrust their stories about the coronavirus and the protests in Minneapolis, why would he believe their reports on the election? He went online to piece together a counternarrative and found a universe of conspiratorial ideas that existed not just on the dark corners of the internet but also in America’s eminent places of power. Mo Brooks, a Republican congressman from Alabama at the time, gave a succession of speeches on the House floor sharing false theories about election fraud and told Republicans to “fight to the last breath.” Trump wrote on Twitter that “this Fake Election can no longer stand.”
A.J. had seen his father become obsessive before — about hunting for agate rocks or buying antique furniture — but now he was studying voter turnout data and the intricacies of the 12th Amendment. Every conversation was “like a broken record,” A.J. later said. When Brian exhausted his son’s patience, he began posting a series of comments on conservative Facebook pages in the days leading up to Biden’s inauguration.
“There aren’t enough men who will actually stand up and do what needs to be done,” he wrote on Dec. 16, 2020.
On Dec. 24: “We need real Patriots to actually fight back.”
On Dec. 29: “Wake up! Look around! Think!”
On Jan. 3, 2021: “Please, call me mad. Make fun of me. I believe it is madness to look around at all that is happening and sit idly by while our country, our lives, future and the future of our children is ripped out from under us … Fight back, support those who do, get the hell out of the way or prepare to defend yourself. There has been a storm brewing and it will sweep through this country very soon.”
The next day, Brian pulled A.J. aside during a family game of Monopoly and said that he was going to drive with his friend Connor to a rally at the U.S. Capitol. He told A.J. to watch over the house and the dogs, and then he mentioned that there was a chance he might not be coming back. A.J. was too shocked to respond, and he’d been living with that same sense of bewilderment ever since.
Now he looked out the front windshield on his drive home and saw the high-rises of downtown Minneapolis rising in the distance. He turned off the highway and parked in a neighborhood of apartment buildings where 82 percent of voters had picked Biden in 2020 and a small billboard showed an image of Trump in a jail cell. A.J. walked toward his apartment and called Brian.
“Back home safe,” he said.
A.J. in Minneapolis, where he lives.
Brian was at home cooking dinner alongside his fiancée, Laura, singing Ed Sheeran songs and trying to coax her to dance. A sign on their wall read, “Start each day with a positive thought.” A note on the fridge showed a long list of Brian’s upcoming landscaping jobs. He had expected Biden’s inauguration to be the “downfall of America,” but in some ways the last year had been among the best of his life.
He’d met Laura by chance while watching hockey at a bar, and he tucked his ankle monitor under his jeans when he noticed her sitting nearby. (Laura asked to be identified by only her first name to protect her privacy.) He asked if she could possibly be single; she said she was, because it seemed like every man in Wisconsin had a dead animal on his wall and a Trump sticker on his truck. Brian kept quiet for a few dates before he got up the nerve to confess about his role on Jan. 6. He expected Laura to shout or cry or storm off, but a few months later they were moving in together. She despised Trump more than any politician in her lifetime. He was “crass, sexist, awful, violent and mean,” she said, but the man she’d fallen in love with seemed to her like none of those things. He befriended her mother and read 10 books a month on topics like philosophy and medieval art. “I can almost pretend things are perfect,” she said, except the realities of Jan. 6 kept intruding.
“Did you hear anything more about your sentencing?” she asked him.
“Not yet,” he said. “Sorry you attached yourself to such a sinking ship.”
“I wonder sometimes what would have been different if I was around,” she said. And then, before she knew it, Brian was going back over the same explanations she’d heard hundreds of times: How he believed something nefarious happened in the election. How he felt it was his responsibility as an American to engage. How he never planned on violence. How he wasn’t a white supremacist, or an anti-vaxxer, or a conspiracy theorist, or a Proud Boy or even a die-hard Trump supporter but a father trying to create the best future for his children, which is why he’d texted A.J. to check in during Trump’s speech.
Brian and A.J. have spent almost three years trying to make sense of what Jan. 6, 2021, means for their relationship.
“Hope everything is going well?” Brian wrote.
“I’m fine,” A.J. wrote back. “What about you? Are you dead?”
“Yes, this is how I’m haunting you,” Brian said.
A.J. watched on TV with his co-workers at a music store as Trump told the crowd: “We will never concede. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved.” He added: “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” He watched as thousands of people marched toward the Capitol, and then he caught a glimpse of his father among the crowd. He tried calling Brian’s cellphone, but by then Brian was at the forefront of the mayhem, breathing in tear gas and pressuring law enforcement to flee. “Get out! Go!” he screamed at them. He lobbed a broken flagpole in the direction of a police officer, attempted to kick another and shoved a third in the chest. He never entered the Capitol building and went back to his hotel before the city’s emergency curfew.
“News is saying the riot is over,” A.J. texted him late that afternoon. “Are you OK?”
“It was a hell of a fight,” Brian responded. “We got gassed bad. Me and Connor got clubbed. I got mine.”
“You got what?”
“I did some damage.”
“What you guys did today was treason and a homeland security threat,” A.J. wrote. “In all reality, everyone there should be locked up for the rest of their lives. Including you.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. We showed up and it was peaceful and then they gassed and attacked people.”
“You STORMED THE [EXPLETIVE] CAPITOL!”
“They started the violence, and now they understand the measure of our resolve.”
“You have 4 kids at home. What the hell made you think this was a good idea? If that was a BLM protest, everyone would have been killed with no questions asked.”
But what Brian felt as he started the drive back home was mostly a growing sense of righteousness. He wrote his own father a note on Facebook justifying his actions. “I will boldly speak the truth as I see it,” he wrote. “My kids will be able to say a lot of things about me, but they will never be able to say that I lived my life in fear, grasping for comfort in the face of tyranny.”
Before he crossed into Wisconsin, Brian called A.J. from the car and pretended that he was in jail. He said that he needed A.J. to bail him out and find him a lawyer. A.J. was quiet for a moment, and then he remembered hearing laughter on the other line. “I’m joking,” Brian told him.
Brian and Laura with Laura’s horse. “I wonder sometimes what would have been different if I was around,” Laura said about Brian and the day that changed his life.
His sarcasm, his baiting, his sanctimony, his continued insistence on Facebook and elsewhere that the rioters were in fact “Patriots” and that everyone else was “sheep,” “soft,” “ignorant,” “delusional” — all of it only made A.J. more upset. At least a few people had died as a result of the riot. More than 100 police officers were injured. A.J. confronted his father when he got home and demanded an apology, but Brian said he had no reason to apologize. A.J. began extending his hours at the music store, burying himself in work until one day that spring when a news story popped up on his work computer.
“Hold traitors accountable,” the headline read, and the story linked to hundreds of pictures of people at the Capitol on Jan. 6. A.J. scanned the images until he reached No. 298 and saw a face that looked much like his own, with the same broad jawline and dark eyes.
“Do you know this person?” the caption read. “Please contact the F.B.I.”
A.J. emailed himself a link to the picture, left work and went back to his father’s house. He waited until he was alone and pulled up the picture again, staring at it for several minutes as he weighed his responsibilities to the government and to his family. He knew that turning his father over to the F.B.I. could lead to an arrest, which might ruin Brian’s business and separate him from his children. He loved his father and had never known him to be violent in any way. But it was also his father who’d taught him to stand up for his beliefs and his morals, even when that proved hard. A.J. opened a new email to the F.B.I.
“He went to DC specifically for this,” A.J. wrote. “He’s home bragging about beating up cops and destroying property at the capital. His name is Brian Christopher Mock.”
An F.B.I. agent followed up by phone, and A.J. sent screenshots of Brian’s text messages on Jan. 6. Nothing happened for a few months, and then one afternoon A.J. went to his father’s house after work and found the living room ransacked, the dogs barking in the yard and the F.B.I.’s 16-page charging document on the table. It was the fullest accounting yet of what Brian was accused of doing, and as A.J. flipped through the pages, he saw photos of his father lifting his fist in defiance and pulling away a police officer’s riot shield.
A.J. found a bottle of coconut rum and sat alone in the house, wondering if he’d done the right thing. Then his phone rang. It was Brian, making his one call from jail. He said he was scared. He said he needed A.J.’s help taking care of his house and finances, and then he asked A.J. to act as his power of attorney to help mount his criminal defense.
Brian asked A.J. to act as his power of attorney to help mount his criminal defense.
They spoke by phone every day for Brian’s allotted 15 minutes as he was transferred from Minnesota to a jail in Washington, D.C., along with dozens of other inmates charged in the Capitol attacks. A.J. helped track down documents and case files for Brian and sent them to his lawyer; Brian reviewed the evidence and soon guessed that A.J. was the person who had tipped off the F.B.I.
“I’m not mad so much as disappointed,” Brian remembered saying. But he kept calling each day, because A.J. was one of the few people answering his calls. Brian asked about the dogs, the house, gas prices and A.J.’s new boyfriend.
Their conversations were amicable unless one of them mentioned Jan. 6, because the gap in their perceptions had only grown. A.J. saw snippets of congressional hearings and heard Trump’s top aides testify that they’d told Trump many times before Jan. 6 that he’d legitimately lost the election, but still Trump fueled conspiracy theories and went on Twitter to draw a crowd to the Capitol, writing: “Be there. Will be wild!” A.J. heard police officers testify about their “persistent nightmares” after being overrun by a crowd that included people with nooses, Confederate flags, body armor, bear spray, spears, knives and at least a handful of guns — “a dangerous and traitorous mob,” one police officer said.
Meanwhile Brian’s primary view of the country came through his daily mail, a deluge of so many supportive notes from strangers that the jail was forced to hire more staff specifically to handle letters to Jan. 6 prisoners.
Brian looking through letters of support that he received in jail, as well as his own writing from that time.
“Our forefathers are hailing your bravery,” wrote the members of a breakfast club in Williamsburg, Va.
“You are the martyr and hero of our troubled times,” wrote a couple in Girard, Kan.
“Praying for you and your family. Stay strong Patriot!” wrote a grandmother from North Texas.
The mail reaffirmed what Brian believed: His cause was righteous. His government had turned against him. Instead of taking his lawyer’s advice by pleading guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence, Brian decided to take his case to trial and act as his own lawyer. He called A.J. as a character witnesses, and A.J. traveled to Washington with a peace offering for his father in their language of jokes. It was a coffee mug with a fake quotation from Trump: “You are a really, really great dad. The best. Just fantastic. Other dads? Losers. Total disasters. Everyone agrees.”
A.J. brought a peace offering to his father before his trial: a humorous mug bearing a fake Donald Trump quotation.
“Good morning,” Brian said once A.J. had taken the stand during the federal trial in July.
“Hi, Dad,” A.J. said.
For the next 45 minutes, A.J. testified about how he had contacted the F.B.I. and told law enforcement that his father had entered the Capitol building, which turned out not to be true. He described Brian as a good father who was politically moderate — “to the right but not like far-extreme-conspiracy-nut right” — and he said his father’s persona online was to exaggerate and instigate, which wasn’t how he behaved in real life.
“What do you think about our relationship might be complicated?” Brian asked.
“We don’t always see eye to eye on things,” A.J. said. “We’re both quite stubborn.”
“Chip off the old block,” Brian said. “Would you stand up here and lie to keep me out of jail?”
“No. I’m not going to put myself at risk of perjury. All I have ever wanted is for this to be over. For whatever the truth is, whether it puts you in jail or whether it keeps you out of jail — I just want the truth to be heard and discovered.”
Brian nodded and cleared his throat. “You know I’m proud of you, right?” he said.
“And I love you, and there’s nothing you can do to ever change that, right?”
“Yes,” A.J. said as his voice started to break.
The judge called for a 10-minute recess after his testimony, and A.J. and Brian went out to the hallway to recover. A.J. asked a court marshal for permission to approach the defendant. Then he gave his father a hug, walked back into the courtroom and sat in the gallery.
The rest of the trial unfolded in a pattern, with the prosecution showing dozens of Facebook posts, photos and videos of Brian’s actions at the Capitol and Brian’s attempts to rationalize each one. He said he didn’t come to Washington to stop the democratic electoral process, but instead to show his support for the legal process of reviewing the results. He wasn’t there to riot but to protest. The police weren’t just defending themselves from a mob; they were provoking a mostly peaceful crowd. Brian wasn’t kicking a police officer as one photo seemed to indicate; he was backing away and lifting his leg. He wasn’t stealing a riot shield; he was pulling it out of the way so no one else would weaponize it. He wasn’t malevolent or spiteful but just the victim of “some crap luck that day,” he said.
“A bunch of our people screwed up,” he told the judge. “But a bunch of those police officers did, too. And the truth, like everything, is usually somewhere in the middle, but nobody wants to talk about that middle.”
But even before the judge announced the guilty verdicts, A.J. was looking back over the evidence and thinking about the one photograph that Brian couldn’t seem to explain — an image so upsetting and incongruous with what he knew about his father that A.J. kept tripping over it months later.
“How can that be you?” he asked him.
Among the evidence in Brian’s trial was a photograph of Brian pushing an officer.Credit…via Department of Justice
The image was a still frame taken from a police-worn body camera at 2:34 p.m., just as rioters began to overwhelm the last remaining police officers guarding the lower west side of the Capitol. Brian was positioned at the front of the crowd, standing face-to-face with a Capitol Police officer named Stevin Karlsen, who wore a helmet and a gas mask while trying to protect himself with a four-foot-tall riot shield. In the picture, Brian is stepping forward with his right foot, using his body weight, extending his arms and pushing both hands against the shield. Karlsen is reeling backward and falling toward a marble step behind him.
The picture didn’t capture an act of protest. It wasn’t peaceful or nonviolent. “The best way I can describe what I was feeling was just panic at that point,” Karlsen testified, trying to explain the vulnerability he felt as he fell to the ground amid the mob.
“That push is the thing that sticks out,” A.J. told Brian, back at the kitchen table in Wisconsin.
“Can I explain, though?” Brian asked, and soon he was playing more videos of Jan. 6 on his computer, trying one more time to put his actions in context so A.J. could understand. He showed a video of police officers shooting munitions into the surging crowd. He showed a video of an older woman in an American flag sweatshirt repeatedly walking up the stairs toward the police barricade at 2:27 p.m. and then getting pepper-sprayed and pushed back down the stairs by an officer. “Everybody’s pissed off at this point,” Brian said. “It’s a melee from here on.”
He started playing another video, from 2:34 p.m., which showed Brian in the seconds before he pushed Karlsen’s riot shield. During the trial, Karlsen testified that he was in the process of retreating from the crowd, and he was backing up toward a stairway with debris underfoot. He glanced down for a split second to check his balance, and that’s when Brian took advantage and pushed him. But now Brian told A.J. an altogether different story: that he heard Karlsen threaten to shoot him, and that when Karlsen turned his head Brian believed he was looking for his gun. The push was a spontaneous act of self-defense, Brian said.
“It’s going to be high-pitched, but listen for him saying, ‘Or I’ll shoot,’” Brian said.
He played the video and looked over at A.J., but A.J. shook his head. All he could hear was a muffled echo over the roar of the crowd. “Try again,” A.J. said. He wanted to hear it. He wanted to square his version of reality with his father’s. He leaned toward the laptop as Brian played the video for a second time, then a third.
“Or I’ll shoot?” Brian asked, looking at his son, hoping for absolution. “Can you hear any of that in there?”
“No. Not really,” A.J. said.
“But do you believe what I’m telling you? Do you understand?”
A.J. studied his father from across the table, searching for some kind of bridge. He believed his father was sincere. He believed Brian loved his country and his children and wanted the best for both. But A.J. also believed that some events couldn’t be rationalized — they were either real or imagined, either right or wrong — and any meaningful reconciliation needed to start from a place of accountability and truth.
“I understand why you were found guilty of the push,” he said.
“Yeah, I pushed the shield,” Brian said, nodding. They sat together for a moment in agreement, but then Brian reached back for his computer.
Audio produced by Adrienne Hurst.