Brandon Straka, a 45-year-old former hairstylist who morphed into a pro-Trump social media influencer and encouraged rioters to steal an officer’s shield and storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, was sentenced to probation and home detention on Monday.
Judge Dabney L. Friedrich sentenced Straka to three years of probation, three months of which would be served on home detention. She also imposed a $5,000 fine.
Friedrich said Straka’s actions on Jan. 6 served to undermine democracy and the rule of law. Friedrich said Straka was not being sentenced for his First Amendment protected speech, but rather for his conduct. Straka not only participated in Jan. 6 but “celebrated” it in a way, Friedrich said.
Straka, who later described Jan. 6 as “one of the stupidest and tragic decisions of his life,” had struggled to find a footing in the entertainment industry in New York City before he filmed a 2018 YouTube video explaining why he was no longer a Democrat. “I’m a GAY REPUBLICAN,” he tweeted in 2018. “I NEED FOLLOWERS!!! SHOW ME SOME LOVE, PLEASE!!!” Straka’s political conversion began, he claimed, when he was accosted by a homeless person in New York in 2016.
His “Walk Away” campaign, which encouraged people to leave the Democratic Party like he was, describes itself as a “true grassroots movement of American patriots, founded by former liberal, Brandon Straka in 2018.” Its Facebook page was removed after the Capitol riot.
At sentencing, Straka told the judge he was “deeply sorry and ashamed” and that his followers wouldn’t tolerate him advocating violence against the police. But in his admitted statement of offense, Straka admitted he “observed others yelling to take a U.S. Capitol Police Officer’s shield” and “chimed in with the crowd, saying ‘take it, take it.’”
The government sought four months of home detention, writing in a sentencing memo that it was “important to convey to future potential rioters — especially those who intend to improperly influence the democratic process — that their actions will have consequences,” but that they had “given considerable weight to Straka’s early willingness to agree to be interviewed by law enforcement and acknowledge his wrongdoing.”
“Straka’s primary occupation is as an influencer. Having embraced that vocation, he must be cognizant of his power to influence others,” they wrote. “Undoubtedly, Straka’s hundreds of thousands of social media followers were tuned into his presence at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 and saw him encouraging them to join in and continue the unrest. Straka did nothing to display to these followers that his conduct was shameful. He even boasted about his conduct by posting about the riot the following day.”
“As a public figure who continues to have a large social media following, Straka has a responsibility to ensure that his rhetorical flourishes do not endanger others,” federal prosecutors wrote. “Straka cheered the crowd that breached the U.S Capitol; he celebrated the breach by posting video to Twitter; he encouraged rioters to take a police officer’s shield by chanting ‘Take the shield’ and ‘USA’ after the shield was taken.”
Straka’s lawyer, Bilal Essayli, wrote in a memo that it was “socially difficult” for Straka “to be gay in his small farming community” and that Straka had “remained sober for nearly seven years after facing difficulties with alcohol and cocaine throughout his twenties and early thirties.” He included a number of letters of support from conservatives who have never met Straka but wrote that they were inspired by his social media posts. In another court filing, Straka’s lawyer claimed the government was fixated on the defendant’s social media presence and wrote that they were “apparently attempting to make a public example of a prominent Trump-supporting influencer.”
Straka’s lawyer also wrote that the Justice Department was “focused on establishing an organized conspiracy between defendant, President Donald J. Trump, and allies of the former president, to disrupt the Joint Session of Congress on January 6” but that Straka had “denied the existence of any such plot.”