WASHINGTON — Ben Philips drove to Washington in a white van Wednesday, smiling over the steering wheel as he explained the significance of the day.
“It seems like the first day of the rest of our lives, to be honest,” he said, eager to protest what he believed was a stolen election with throngs of other Trump supporters, including a group from Pennsylvania he brought to Washington. “They should name this year Zero because something will happen.”
Philips, 50, of Bloomsburg, died that day after suffering what fellow protesters said was a stroke in the nation’s capital. Washington police confirmed his death.
The group of Pennsylvanians he organized returned without him on a quiet, somber ride home, following a violent day when insurrectionists incited by President Donald Trump’s false claims of election rigging attacked the Capitol building. Philips was one of four people who died amid the chaos. There’s no indication Philips himself participated in the raid on the Capitol.
Philips, a computer programmer who founded a social media website for Trump supporters and coordinated transportation for several dozen people, arrived in Washington with the group around 10:30 a.m.
He wasn’t there when the group gathered to return around 6 p.m.
Gordy Smith, a member of the group from Honesdale, said he and others had been calling Philips when it was time to leave and he hadn’t arrived. Washington police returned one of those calls and told them Philips suffered a stroke and died at George Washington University Hospital.
“Everyone was shocked,” Smith said. “It was a very somber drive home.”
The group left for Washington before dawn Wednesday, sleepy but cheery, from the Bass Pro Shop in Harrisburg and picked up additional passengers in York. Philips drove a separate van, trailing behind the bus. Once everyone arrived in Washington, he broke off to find a place to park and the group headed to hear Trump speak near the Washington Monument.
“That was the last we saw him,” Smith said.
No one from the Pennsylvania group was with him during the day, Smith said. Washington police did not immediately return requests for more information on Philips’ death. The department said that in addition to one woman shot by police inside the Capitol, three more people died outside of medical emergencies, including Philips.
For the Pennsylvania group, most of whom had met Philips that day, it was a shocking end to a day that started out peaceful but turned into an insurrection at the Capitol, with some of them fleeing the area once things turned violent.
“It seemed like the event was getting out an important message up until the ignorance started,” said David Stauffer, a member of the group from York. “As far as I observed, those people that broke in didn’t fit the pattern of the protesters of the day.”
Stauffer accompanied some in the group who were fearful of staying in the crowd back to the meeting area to wait for the bus.
“There wasn’t much talking at all coming back,” Stauffer said. “For the most part people were on their phones or staring out the window like I was.”
Smith, who wasn’t far from the melee at the steps, described the day as intense, unique, and sad — the extent to which came fully into focus only once he saw the news of the Capitol breach.
“We knew less about what was going on than people sitting at home in front of their TVs,” Smith said. “You’re on the ground and all you see is thousands of people, but the thing that seemed odd about the situation was why was there not more security than there was? … You knew that any group of people can turn into a mob at the drop of a hat. All it takes is one person to incite the riot.”
Philips had spent 25 years in Philadelphia before recently moving to Bloomsburg to help care for his mother, who has Alzheimer’s, he said in an interview this week. He received a degree in computer science from Temple University, according to a LinkedIn page. Philips was a fervent Trump supporter who used his programming background to create several websites, including “The Scummy Democrats” and “Trumparoo,” a social network named after a stuffed kangaroo he’d created with a tuft of orange hair and red, white, and blue boxing gloves meant to resemble the president.
Philips wanted to start a political action committee to oppose Democrats and more moderate Republicans, and he envisioned setting up a network of conservative sites. “There needs to be more uncensored spaces,” he said Wednesday on the way to Washington. “I envision a whole network of niche social networks based on interests. You don’t need Twitter and Facebook, they hate us. They don’t need us there.”
He, along with many on the bus, deeply mistrusted the media but welcomed a reporter aboard to chronicle their journey.
Some Trump backers who had come from out of state stayed at Philips’ apartment ahead of the trip and had commented Wednesday on his kindness and openness to relative strangers. Philips himself said he was taken by the familial feel of the caravan.
“Everybody’s so nice, it’s the coolest thing that you can just put a bunch of Trump supporters in a tiny apartment and just let them have at it and they’ll get along great,” he said as he drove the van bound for Washington. “They feel like part of your family for some reason.”
On Thursday, some of the people who rode with Philips in the van were trying to figure out how to retrieve their possessions. Still covering the floor of the locked van were bags of the stuffed Trumparoos, souvenirs Philips meant for those who made the journey with him.