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 traced his finger over the image of the U.S. Capitol, 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.
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 was also the person who’d turned him in to the FBI.
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 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.
This was the father A.J. remembered from before Trump’s presidency: witty, self-effacing, less interested in politics than in 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. 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.
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. 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.
Their biggest arguments came in 2020, when U.S. politics were not just theoretical but a disruptive force in Minneapolis. 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. the protests were being portrayed as peaceful only by the “liberal media.”
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.”
But Brian had a lot to say, especially after Election Day. 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.”
On Jan. 4, 2021, Brian told A.J. he was going to drive with his friend Connor to a rally at the U.S. Capitol, and that there was a chance he might not be coming back. A.J. was too shocked to respond.
A.J. watched on TV as Trump told the Jan. 6 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.
“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.”
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 burying himself in work until one day that spring when a news story popped up on his 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.
“Do you know this person?” the caption read. “Please contact the FBI.”
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 turning his father over to the FBI 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 FBI.
“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 FBI 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 FBI’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.
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.
They spoke by phone every day for Brian’s allotted 15 minutes as he was transferred to a jail in Washington, 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 soon guessed A.J. was the person who had tipped off the FBI.
“I’m not mad so much as disappointed,” Brian remembered saying. Their conversations were amicable unless one of them mentioned Jan. 6.
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 witness.
“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. 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.
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.
“A bunch of our people screwed up,” he told the judge. “But a bunch of those police officers did, too.”
But even before the judge announced the guilty verdicts, A.J. was looking back over the evidence and thinking about one photograph Brian couldn’t seem to explain — an image so upsetting and incongruous with what A.J. knew about his father that A.J. kept tripping over it months later.
The image was a still frame taken from a police-worn body camera. 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 4-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.
“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 started playing a video that showed Brian in the seconds before he pushed Karlsen’s riot shield. During the trial, Karlsen testified he was in the process of retreating from the crowd, and he was backing up toward a stairway. He glanced down 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.
“But do you believe what I’m telling you? Do you understand?” Brian asked.
A.J. 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 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.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.