“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.