DENBIGH, N.D. — Shawn Kramer trekked to a Washington, D.C., rally on Jan. 6 to voice his opposition to the presidential election results, but the violence and destruction on that day in the U.S. Capitol was as much of a shock to him as anyone.
Kramer sees what he attended as a peaceful protest that was a “separate thing,” from the violent, destructive breach of the Capitol. A week later, he said he doesn’t know enough about who did it. He thinks the rioters were either a fringe element, and possibly included people from “the left.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “I went to a speech. I listened to our president. I walked from the Washington Monument to the Capitol building. I stood there for about 20 minutes. And then I went home. I did not wreck anything, I didn’t beat anybody up. I didn’t break anything. I didn’t break any windows.”
“Of course, there have been moments that I’m going to have a black Suburban in my front yard and I’m going to be hauled in and interrogated because I’m an ‘insurrectionist.’ But I'm not an insurrectionist. I’m a peaceful protestor who thought what happened in our election was wrong and that someone should investigate it.”
Despite evidence of a fair election, many supporters of President Donald Trump have challenged the validity of President-elect Joe Biden's election. Kramer was one of dozens of North Dakotans that made the trip — by planes, bus and van.
Paul and Donna Henderson of Calvin, N.D., who lives on a farmstead about 60 miles north of Devils Lake, N.D., went to Washington, D.C., but declined to be interviewed. Paul, who is chairman of the District 10 Republican Party, declined to say how close he went to the Capitol, or whether he went inside.
Michael Coachman, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate, said he helped organize a busload of about 40 North Dakotans who traveled to Washington for Trump's rally. Coachman of Larimore, N.D., said he ended up not going on the trip.
The group went to support Trump, Coachman said, and as far as he knows, no North Dakotans were involved in the violence at the Capitol and all returned safely.
Coachman said he's opposed to the violence but insists that Trump did not incite it.
“As far as an insurrection, I’m not going to call it that. It was just a bunch of people doing stupid things," Coachman said. "If it was vandalism, then they need to be charged with vandalism. If there were any law enforcement people who supported them, then they need to explain their actions."
Kramer was leery about media interviews, but emphasized “I didn’t do anything wrong.” He owns and operates Sandhill Saddlery near the village of Denbigh just off Highway 2, about 11 miles west of Towner, N.D.
Kramer, his two sons, a nephew and seven others in the Minot area rented a 12-passenger van from Bismarck, N.D., and drove 24 hours straight through. There were three farmers, an electrician, a carpenter, a saddle-maker, heating and air conditioning guy, an oil rig worker and a welder.
Kramer heard about the event on social media — just Facebook. “My oldest son, actually, said, ‘We need to go and represent.’ It was a week before, probably, and he said, ‘We’re going. Are you coming with?’ Yup.”
He acknowledged he doesn’t know who actually put out the call to come to the event. “Perhaps the president, maybe, asked us to show up on the 6th,” he said.
“If I thought we’d been summoned for some kind of violent interaction, I never would have went,” he said. “If I’d have known people would have broken into the (Capitol) and that people would have been killed, I probably wouldn’t have gone. Loss of life is horrible.”
Showing up for Trump
The Kramer group left Monday, Jan. 4, at noon from Bismarck, N.D.
“To be honest, we had no plan,” he said. “We were just going to Washington to show our support for President Trump, to show our disagreement with how the election turned out, and that we thought it was a fraudulent election.”
There was “no sense of trying to stop the process at all,” Kramer said.
“It really wasn’t about counting the Electoral (College) votes,” he said. “There was no one that I talked to or no one in our group that said, ‘Oh, we’re going to stop what’s happening.’ That was a peaceful protest, that ‘We don’t think what’s going on here is right. We have no ability to stop it, but if we can stand here and say to our representatives, we don’t think this is right.'"
”It was not sedition. That feeling was not there at all. It was more of a party atmosphere, to be honest.”
Others from North Dakota went on a tour bus. Some — including former North Dakota State Sen. Tom Campbell, R-Grafton — flew to Washington.
Kramer’s small group connected with the, separate, larger bus group from Bismarck. The North Dakotans had extra rooms at a hotel in Chantilly, Va., about a half-hour west of Washington, D.C..
On Jan. 5, some of the group went into Washington. There were speakers, but the turnout was “pathetic.”
“But when we went over the next morning, it was glorious,” Kramer said, laughing. Kramer and his group assembled with the others.
After the speeches
“We’re still listening to Trump, and all of this stuff is going on,” Kramer said. After the speeches near the Washington Monument, Kramer and his group started walking toward the Capitol — a distance of nearly a mile.
As they were walking, Kramer noticed his cell phone wasn’t working. Others did too. Someone nearby still had service and reported a “breach,” but he couldn’t see anything.
“No one had firearms,” he said. “I heard on FOX News that we had ‘pitchforks.’ No one had pitchforks.”
Yes, he saw the scaffold with a hangman’s noose, but said, “If you’ve got a million people, together, you’re going to get some of that. That’s 1% of our group.”
Once near the Capitol, Kramer said he didn’t get close to the steps because there were too many people. Kramer said he’s angry that the violence has sullied the good intentions of he and other peaceful protesters. He’s railed against Antifa and Black Lives Matter riots that “took over cities for months.”
He said he was never physically near anyone doing violence. He said he wasn’t even aware of the level of violence in the Capitol while at the event.
“When all the violence was taking place inside the building, we were still at the speeches,” he said. “They’ve figured out the timeline. We’re a mile away from the Capitol building. We’re still listening to Trump. We didn’t even know about it.”
He said he really didn’t know the level of mayhem until that night, or when he heard news broadcasts the next day.
While he is suspicious the worst actors were "agents of the left, to make us look bad," the arrest records made public so far have not borne that out.
"All I know is we were there to peacefully protest, and support Donald Trump and peacefully protest what had happened in the election. It was never our intention to break into the Capitol building or take over anything,” he said.
Prominent farmer Tom Campbell, 61, of Grafton, N.D., went on a whim. He is part of Campbell Farms at Grafton, and Big Lake, Minn., raising potatoes. He is on the board of Choice Financial bank, a prominent agricultural lender, and has real estate interests in the Red River Valley. A former Republican state senator, Campbell also has run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. He hasn’t closed the door for future runs, saying he loves helping the people.
Campbell is a friend of Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and Scott Hennen, a Fargo-based broadcaster who is one of the region’s conservative commentators.
Late on Sunday, Jan. 3, Hennen phoned Campbell and urged him to go to Washington. He’d read about a potential rally in Washington and seen it on social media.
“I figured, sure why not,” Campbell said. “I haven’t always been not so much a Trump supporter, but I’ve liked some of the things he has done. The way he addresses it, and delivers it, his ego and stuff, I think he could have cleaned up his act.”
On Monday morning, Jan. 4, Campbell was on a flight out of Fargo. In the early afternoon of Jan. 5, Cramer spoke to about 75 North Dakotans.
At the Jan. 6 rally, he didn’t have tickets to the VIP section, so he just roamed around, he said. Most in the crowd were age 45 to 65, he figured. He stood far enough away that he could hardly hear the speakers. He left at 12:30 p.m., walking past the Capitol to catch an Uber driver. He didn’t see anything violent.
“I left before Trump started speaking because I had to catch a 2:30 (p.m.) flight,” Campbell said. He heard the speech through his phone, “the same speech we’ve heard, dozens and dozens of times.”
Campbell said his impression was that of a peaceful rally, where people were showing up “just to make sure it was fair.” He said it was like any other rally. He didn’t take Trump’s words as “stir a riot, go storm the Capitol.”
Campbell landed in Chicago at about 5:30 p.m., and his phone lit up with news about the event.
“I was the last one to know, and the closest one there,” Campbell said.
Ironically, Campbell isn’t enthusiastic about Trump’s impact on the business of farming.
He said Trump’s policies that disrupted trade with China and the European Union “in essence kind of hurt farmers” while subsidies “to offset that” were financially somewhat neutral.
Campbell worries the future with the Biden administration means increased regulations and less government safety net support.
“He’s not pro-business as much as Trump was, or some of the other presidents,” Campbell said.
Campbell went to the rally even though he’s seen “no proof” of a significantly flawed election. He said Trump “should have conceded.”
Campbell went even though he said the “true side of a leader should bring people together,” and that Trump did “everything in his power to split them apart.” He describes Trump as “very abrasive,” “unpresidential, and is a kind of bully at heart.”
And yet, he got on a plane to go to the rally.
“It was a whim,” he explained. “And I love Washington, D.C."
Campbell doesn’t think the violent people were the same as those at the rally. “No, they were violent people and broke laws. The group I was with were as peaceful as could be.
“The violent people that broke in should be prosecuted to the maximum,” he said.
Lost in the ‘middle’
Kramer, 56, is the owner-operator of Sandhills Saddlery, south of Denbigh, a business he started 27 years ago. The shop is in an old church building on a 5-acre parcel on the ranch he grew up. Two of his younger brothers still ranch there.
Once a professional bareback bronc rodeo rider, Kramer took up the craft during his “down time” while an injured knee was healing. “I would say we’re known for building saddles for working cowboys,” Kramer said.
He said he went because he was just kind of "fed up” after four years or more of “being marginalized by the left,” being called a “bitter clinger, who is clinging to my guns, my Bible and whatever.”
"I’m definitely on the side that the election was stolen, that it was fraudulent, that there was voter fraud, that the candidate that they put up was not capable of accumulating the votes he did,” Kramer said. He doesn’t think any of the "real evidence” ever reached the courts.
“I’ve always been a conservative,” he said. “Like, the less government the better. Just let me do my job, leave me alone.” Kramer said he doesn’t think he’s a Republican anymore.
“I don’t think I have any backing from the Republican Party,” he said. ‘That’s one of the main reasons we were in Washington, because we felt that we did not have any support from the people in Washington. We have no confidence in them.”
Kramer said he’d never been to Washington, D.C., before.
“I would like to go back and see the Smithsonian Institution, museums or other attractions."
Reporter C.S. Hagen contributed to this report.