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41 Months of Jail for the Qanon Shaman Isn’t Justice

Jacob Chansley deserved to go to prison. But he didn't deserve a harsher sentence because TV made him famous.
November 18, 2021
41 Months of Jail for the Qanon Shaman Isn’t Justice
(Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages)

Three assertions:

(1) Our justice system shouldn’t be handing down especially harsh penalties to people because they are wearing ridiculous costumes.

(2) The prison-industrial complex is a menace, conditions in our penitentiaries are horrific, and sentencing guidelines that require minimum stays for nonviolent criminals are both imprudent and inhumane.

(3) A man who attends a Donald Trump speech on the Mall wearing facepaint, horns, and a ushanka made from wolf’s fur is not an enemy of democracy. He’s a mentally unstable pawn who is being manipulated by evil and power hungry men.

If we set aside everything we knew about the events of January 6, I have to imagine the vast majority of those in the broad small-l liberal(tarian) middle would generally agree with these three statements.

And yet when I combined them together to suggest that a 41 month sentence for the Qanon Shaman, Jacob Chansley, was unnecessarily harsh, I was met with jeers. Mostly from people who are (rightly) upset at those who participated in the Capitol siege.

I understand that sentiment.

What happened that day was unconscionable. People need to learn that they can’t live out their violent right-wing internet cosplay in the real world and get away with it.

Attempting to overthrow democracy should be met with severe punishments.

But as one of my reply guys aptly wrote, this is a case where

The people responsible for what happened on January 6 are Donald Trump, and Ali “Akbar” Alexander, and Mo Brooks, and Josh Hawley, and the Proud Boys and other militiamen who organized an attempt on the Capitol on behalf of the man who told them to “stand back and stand by.”

In a just world, all of them would be facing the force of the law.

So should those who brutally attacked the police. This MMA fighter who tried his skills on a cop, for example, should enjoy his time behind bars.

But we ought to be able to make distinctions between people like that and people who were not violent and were, in many ways, victims of the lies and deception.

Here’s what the shaman’s lawyer, Albert Watkins, had to say:

An insurrectionist? Look up the word. Are you going to follow the guy who’s naked, tattooed nipples, January, DC, hours outside with horns, face paint and a fur and say, yeah, that’s the guy I want, I’m following him? Unless you’re smoking crack.

Not a bad point by Albert!

Here’s the reasoning offered by the U.S. attorney who was prosecuting the Shaman, as reported by the Huffington Post:

[Prosecutors] asked the court to send a message to the “flag-bearer” of Jan. 6 and any other people, regardless of their political beliefs, that there are consequences for trying to obstruct American democracy. . . . [They] asked for a sentence of 51 months in federal prison, saying his criminal acts had “made him the public face of the Capitol riot.”

No. No. No. No. No.

This argument is illiberal madness. The justice system is supposed to be blind, not drop the hammer on the guy whose outfit got the most TV coverage. According to this logic, if Chansley had just worn a camo jacket and a MAGA hat like all the other idiots, the prosecutors would have sought a lesser sentence. You’re supposed to be sentenced according to your crimes, not your wardrobe.

The prosecutors also argue Chansley was violent based on the fact that others around him were violent and that he wrote a mean, threatening note to the vice president. Is this really a standard of justice we want meted out across the board?

Look, I don’t find the shaman to be a particularly sympathetic figure. He stormed the Capitol and there should be punishment for folks who did that. But the idea that he deserved to be locked away in solitary confinement for months and then dumped in prison next to rapists and murderers for more than three years is beyond the pale.

Here is a thing people should understand: It is often the case that the justice system imposes unduly harsh penalties on black and brown people. That is very real, very true thing. But the proper response is to change this unwise and unfair system—not expand it. It’s still true that two wrongs don’t make a right.

The American prison system is not befitting of a prosperous and free country.

Our criminal justice system is overly harsh and the penalties for nonviolent offenders aren’t helping anyone.

None of this stops being true when the guilty party is of the other political tribe and it feels good to see them locked up. If we want real justice for January 6, the government should be cutting the Shaman a little slack and turning its energies to those who were orchestrating the overthrow of our democracy.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.