- A police officer denied punching or provoking an accused Capitol rioter claiming self-defense.
- Officer Noah Rathbun said he tries not to think about the "sad" and "tragic" January 6 attack.
- Prosecutors alleged that Thomas Webster tackled Rathbun to the ground outside the Capitol.
By January 6, 2021, Officer Noah Rathbun had spent more than five years with the local police force in Washington, DC, but still had never ventured to the Capitol.
His introduction to the seat of American democracy came with plumes of tear gas and a "sea of people," he said Wednesday, recalling the chaotic scene at the trial of a retired New York City police officer accused of swinging a flag pole at him and then tackling him to the ground on January 6.
"I think it's sad. This whole incident is tragic. I try not to think about it," Rathbun said of January 6. "I just think it's unfortunate to be in the nation's capital and be treated like that by another citizen."
The retired officer, Thomas Webster, has claimed self-defense, arguing that he only responded after being "hit like a freight train" outside the Capitol. But in his testimony Wednesday, Rathbun rejected the notion that he punched Webster or took any step to invite a physical confrontation.
With the help of video footage, Rathbun recounted his response to the Capitol, where he joined officers along metal bike racks to reinforce the police line holding back the hordes of Trump supporters. He recalled feeling "overwhelmed" and thinking how easily the mob could overcome the officers.
"It was just scary," Rathbun said.
"The temperature, the tension was quickly rising as we were standing there," he added. "I was pretty concerned."
Rathbun's portion of the line held until a man in a red, white, and black jacket rushed up to him, pointed at his chest, and hurled profanities at him, telling him to "take your shit off."
"That's what people say when they want to fight," Rathbun said of the "take your shit off" comment. "It's very common."
Webster's defense lawyer, James Monroe, seized on video footage that showed Webster pushing the metal bike rack into Rathbun before being hit in the face. But Rathbun said that he only made contact with Webster's face "incidentally" after trying to "wave him off" and create distance between him and the police line.
"That was the most I could do at the time to signal to him that I needed him to back up," Rathbun said.
Rathbun also emphasized that his left hand was open, not closed into a fist.
After that contact, Webster began swinging a metal flag pole — bearing the Marine Corps flag — down on the bike rack directly in front of Rathbun, video footage showed. Webster then pushed through the bike racks and tackled Rathbun to the ground, where he attempted to remove his helmet and face mask.
In an FBI interview, Webster described his handling of Rathbun's helmet as "a hockey type of move type thing where you don't want to fight somebody." But on the witness stand Wednesday, Rathbun recalled feeling choked by his helmet's chin strap while tear gas entered his gas mask.
On Tuesday, a police detective testified that Rathbun did not initially remember his encounter with Webster days after January 6. The detective, Jonathan Lauderdale, observed the encounter while reviewing body-worn camera footage after Rathbun reported an injury he suffered to his right index finger later on January 6 in the Capitol rotunda.
Rathbun said he suffered some bruising from his violent encounter with Webster but didn't report it because he didn't view it as "meaningful" on a day that resulted in deaths and more serious injuries to police officers.
During his cross-examination, Monroe suggested that Rathbun used a hand gesture to invite Webster to fight on January 6. But Rathbun said his hand gesture was a "motion to back up."
"That was not a motion to come forward," he said, adding later, "I didn't provoke this encounter."
When asked if his left hand made contact with Webster's face, Rathbun answered, "Unintentionally, yes."
Later, when Monroe said Rathbun had pushed Webster back with "as much force as you had," the police officer corrected him in front of the jurors.
"With a reasonable amount of force," he said.
Out of the nearly 800 alleged participants charged in connection with January 6, Webster is the fourth to face a jury trial. The three previous jury trials all ended in guilty verdicts.