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Insurrection? Sedition? Incitement? A Legal Guide to the Capitol Riot

Donald Trump speaks during a "Save America Rally" near the White House in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6.

Donald Trump speaks during a "Save America Rally" near the White House in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6.

Photographer: Eric Lee/Bloomberg
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More than 850 people have been criminally charged in connection with the riot at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 by a mob of then-President Donald Trump’s supporters. Most are accused of conventional offenses such as trespassing and assault, while 16 members of two right-wing groups are facing a more exotic charge: seditious conspiracy. Just before he left office, Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives for incitement of insurrection but was acquitted of the charge by the Senate. The legal terminology around the unprecedented events that shocked Americans and the rest of the world requires some unpacking.

The term broadly means a revolt against an established government, usually employing violence. However, the federal statute against it -- which is rooted in the American Civil War of the 1860s and provides up to 10 years’ imprisonment for inciting, assisting or engaging in insurrection -- doesn’t define the term, so the parameters of the law are unclear. It’s been prosecuted rarely.