“Hippies for Trump”: Asheville man among nine North Carolinians arrested for right-wing insurrection at U.S. Capitol

On Monday, as thousands of supporters of President Donald Trump prepared to travel to Washington, D.C., to protest the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s election, 46-year-old Thomas Gronek of Asheville was ready.

A friend of Gronek posted photos and a video to Facebook showing off Gronek’s ride — an old school bus spray-painted with a psychedelic color scheme, Grateful Dead iconography, pro-Trump graffiti and “Stop The Steal” messages.

Image: Facebook

The next day. the bus was stopped by the D.C. Metropolitan police in the 700 block of Constitution Avenue, minutes from the United States Capitol. Police said they found fireworks, a pistol, a rifle, a large-capacity ammunition feeding device and more than 300 rounds of ammunition aboard. Gronek was arrested on weapons charges. The driver of the bus,  34-year-old Timothy Keller, 34, of Asheville, was charged with “no permit” for the bus, according to police reports.

Fox46 of Charlotte reported the identities of other North Carolinians arrested at or near the Capitol yesterday, bringing the total to nine:

  • Jere Brower, 45, for curfew violation and unlawful entry.
  • Earl Glosser, 40, for curfew violation and unlawful entry.
  • Lance Grames, 42 for curfew violation and unlawful entry.
  • Tim Scarboro, 33, for curfew violation.
  • James Smawley, 27, for curfew violation.
  • Jay Thaxton, 46, curfew violation.
  • Michael Jones, 23, for curfew violation.

The arrest of the two Asheville men was one of many obvious red flags before an armed mob violently stormed the Capitol Wednesday, clashing with police and forcing their way onto the House and Senate floors, as lawmakers were evacuated or had to shelter in place until order was restored. One woman, who was trying to break down a door inside the Capitol, was shot by law enforcement, and three other people died in medical emergencies. More than a dozen police officers were injured; the FBI found and disarmed two improvised explosive devices. The National Guard had to be called in to help remove rioters from the Capitol and restore order as a city-wide curfew went into place at 6 p.m.

Thomas Gronek, from a video posted to Facebook shortly before his arrest on weapons charges in Washington D.C.

Though lawmakers and law enforcement have denounced the violent riot as unimaginable, right-wing groups and individuals had been laying out just this sort of scenario for months in increasingly erratic and violent social media posts.

On Oct. 30, as Trump was already suggesting his loss would be defacto proof of election fraud and a conspiracy to end his presidency, Gronek himself took to Facebook to post a long screed praising the president and denouncing his opponents and “the evil govt.” In the post Gronek warned of a “mass takeover of the country” in which he feared the constitution would be changed and suggested people opposing Trump and brainwashing the American public may actually be aliens.

“They think we aren’t smart enough to see the reality of this tarded ass mass takeover of our country,” Gronek wrote. ” ENOUGH IS EHOUGH![sic]”

“I will not stand and watch these people or aliens or what ever they are manipulate and screw with your minds into believing that you need them back in power,” Gronek wrote.

By the time he boarded his bus for D.C. this week, Gronek’s confusing but confrontational sentiments had not softened.

In the video in which he showed off his bus, Gronek smiles and lifts a fist on which he appears to be wearing a gauntlet covered in sharp spikes.

“I’ve got this for antifa,” he said, bragging about other weapons he had and ranting against “Asheville antifa.”

“I like my guns,” Gronek said in the video as he pointed out a skull emblem affixed to the front of the bus framed by two pistols, not far from the message “love is the answer.”

Right-wing insurrectionists enter the U.S. Capitol Building On Jan. 6. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Parler, a social media site embraced by conservatives as an alternative to Twitter and its policies against posts encouraging violence or spreading information, saw a wave of similar rhetoric in the run-up to the siege of the capitol.

A week ago a Parler user with the handle “QanonLV” posted “To all the Patriots descending on Washington DC on #jan6….come armed….”

The post has so far been up-voted by other users 870 times and “echoed” (Parler’s version of a re-tweet) by 251 people.

On Thursday, in the wake of the insurrection, the same user was one of many falsely claiming that left-wing activists posing as pro-Trump had actually instigated the violence.

“They set us up,” the user posted.

With Republican lawmakers and media personalities themselves divided on how to best react to the violence and who to blame, right-wing social media also seems to have splintered into factions.

A large number of Parler posts Wednesday and Thursday immediately began blaming left-wing protesters, “antifa” and even the D.C. Metro police for the violence. A number of these centered on internet memes that claim to identify specific rioters photographed at the Capitol as left-wing activists. Those memes misidentify a number of those in the photographs, as has been widely reported.

Even prominent right-wing personalities like Gavin McInnes, founder of the Proud Boys, took to Parler to discredit those posts. McInnes pointed out that some of the most prominent rioters identifiable by photographs, such as a bare-chested man in faux-Norseman costume people have called “Horns,” are Trump supporters and Q-Anon conspiracy theorists well known on the internet. Read more

How can our state improve racial equity in the criminal justice system? North Carolinians have no shortage of ideas.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated below to reflect the Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice (TREC) consists of 24 members from diverse backgrounds.

In June, Governor Roy Cooper appointed North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls and  Attorney General Josh Stein to lead a new task force aimed at developing solutions to ensure racial equity in North Carolina’s criminal justice system. On Tuesday, the task force invited the public to offer their ideas for improving a system that disproportionately affects communities of color.

Michael Banner

Michael Banner, a self-described three-time felon from Winston-Salem, urged the panel to take some of the money earmarked for police and allocate it to help families.

“Right now, the whole emphasis on locking someone up has really fractured our families.”

Policy advocate and civil rights attorney Jennifer Marsh stressed the need for bail and pre-trial release reforms.

Attorney Miesha Evans of Disability Rights NC said to truly address racial equity in the criminal justice system, the state must first address racial equity in our schools.

“Programs to address specific learning disabilities would benefit all students with disabilities, but it would particularly benefit students of color,” explained Evans.

Miesha Evans, Disability Rights NC

“In North Carolina in 2016-17, Black students compromised 25% of the student population, and 31% of the students with IEPs, yet 44% of the students who had emotional disabilities and 44% of the students who had intellectual disabilities.

Identification under intellectual and emotional disability can lead to lower expectations, stigma, more restrictive classroom placements , and resentment for acting out, particularly  for students who have been miscategorized.”

Tabitha Curry- Bey, whose husband has served 19 years of a 45-year sentence, asked the task force to take a hard look at excessive sentences.

“The mandatory minimum, is that designed to rehabilitate someone or humiliate people? I don’t understand it,” said Curry-Bey.  “Forty-five years seems excessive to me.”

Elizabeth Crudup zoomed into the online meeting from outside of the Lumberton Correctional Center,  and pleaded for the release of more inmates during the pandemic.

Elizabeth Crudup

“People are getting sicker. They are living like animals out here…and all you can talk about is future policies. We need to act immediately. This should be your number one priority.”

Stereotypes perpetuated by the media must also be part of the conversation, according to Dr. W. Russell Robinson, a professor of mass-communication at NC Central University.

“How they present the first 10 minutes of their newscast, stories of Black crime, whether it be Black victimization or Black criminality.”

Dr. Robinson also pressed for law enforcement to actually live in the neighborhoods they police.

“I think it’s important, if police officers are entrusted with looking and serving and protecting over people, they have the gravitas of the people they protect as well.”

David Crispell, the executive director of Jubilee Home in Durham, pushed for greater  support of transitional housing for young people following an incarceration.

“We need a list of who is coming back into a community. Right now, service providers like us rely on a word-of-mouth, which means people show up on our porch out of homelessness,” explained Crispell.

Crispell said with “a smoothing of information pathways” the counties could do a better job in providing services to the newly released.

Activist and former Raleigh mayoral candidate Zainab Baloch asked the panel  to consider its own make-up when discussing racial equity.

Thomas Maher, Center for Science and Justice at Duke University.

“Racial equity transcends just white and Black people. This task force does not include anyone from the indigenous community, the Latinx community, and Asian and Muslim community members.”

[Editor’s note: The Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice does have a diverse make up, with members who are Latinx, Asian Muslim and Lumbee. You can find a complete list of the task force members here.]

One of the final speakers in the session was Thomas Maher, the Executive Director of the Center for Science and Justice at Duke University.

As the former head of North Carolina’s Indigent Defense Services, Maher stressed the need for those who are accused of a crime to have adequate representation.

“For years and years, North Carolina’s public defense system has been underfunded. The public defenders workload study shows they are understaffed, carrying more cases than they should. Obviously in the time of our current economic crisis that become more of a problem.

Much of what you are working on will only work if there’s a strong defense function, and that means providing resources and public defense.”

Justice  Earls  said the two-hour hearing left the governor’s working group with “a lot to think about” over the coming weeks.

Thus far, the task force has adopted three recommendations: The duty to intervene and report for law enforcement officers, a prohibition of neck holds by law enforcement officers, and a North Carolina Supreme Court requirement of an assessment of one’s ability to pay before levying fines and fees.

A final report on legislative and municipal recommendations is due on or before December 1st.

Experts: “There has to be a shift in how society functions” in wake of pandemic recovery, racial justice movements

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the U.S. economy — shuttering businesses, eliminating jobs and disrupting everything from education to the nation’s food supply chain. But it has been most devastating to Black Americans, who already face a host of historical economic and social disparities that have been highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement even as the country continues to struggle with the worsening pandemic.

On Tuesday a panel of experts gathered by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, its Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise and the Institute of African American Research held a virtual discussion of the problems disproportionately facing Black people in the current environment — and possible solutions.

“Talk about us living in a very, very unique time,” said Majestic Lane, deputy chief of staff and chief equity officer for the city of Pittsburgh. “We’re living in essentially 1928, 1918 and 1968 all in the same year, which has never quite happened. How we respond to it is really important. For us, in looking at what’s happening in our community, what’s happened in terms of social unrest as a result of state sanctioned violence and what’s happening as a result of COVID and the impacts of the pandemic really are two sides of the same coin.”

Majestic Lane

The American system disrupted by both the pandemic and mass protests over police violence against Black people was designed to work exactly the way it was working, Lane said. In charting a ‘new normal’ the goal should not be to reconstruct that system, he said, but to address long-standing problems in a system that chose winners and losers based on a legacy of racist ideas and practices.

“There has to be a shift in how society functions,” Lane said.

In Pittsburgh, that’s meant examining very basic assumptions about policing, Lane said. The idea that not every 911 call means police should be sent to the scene may be new to some people, he said. But for those who understand how racist policies in everything from education and banking to health care can see how bringing police into over-policed communities every time there is something like a family argument will likely make situations more dangerous.

In the 2021 budget in Pittsburgh, the city is creating an office of Community Health and Safety. Working with non-profits, the community will work to minimize the presence of police in situations where trained social workers, psychologists or addiction specialists might be a better fit. People in the community who are already trusted and invested will also be utilized in getting to the roots of violent incidents, Lane said.

But there are broader structural challenges as well, Lane said — and they’ve been made even more apparent by the pandemic.

Black people in America have been systemically shut out of the building and maintaining of wealth since before the beginnings of the Republic, said Nikitra Bailey, executive vice president with the Center for Responsible Lending. The current health and financial crises are making that more apparent, she said — and call for a response that takes that into account.

Nikitra Bailey

“Our nation is facing a reckoning over structural racism,” Bailey said. “The inequality it has produced is being exacerbated by the coronavirus. The COVID-19 pandemic is both a profound public health crisis and an equally profound economic crisis. The virus has devastated families across the nation and has fallen disproportionately on Black families.”

“Systemic discrimination in the housing sector left Black families more vulnerable going into the 2008 housing crisis,” Bailey said. “And that crisis and the response to it left them worse off. This crisis has likewise hit Black families hardest again. And the response so far is not equitable nor is it sufficient.”

The COVID-19 crisis threatens to become a foreclosure crisis in which the Black community has not had the same opportunity to build up home ownership and home equity, Bailey said. They didn’t have the same economic cushion many white families did at the beginning of the pandemic.  That’s due to historical inequities, like Black families being shut out of New Deal programs that gave access to federally supported credit. Those programs led to an explosion of white homeownership, a swelling middle class and generational wealth for white families. Only about 2 percent of the loans available in that period benefitted Black families, she said.

Black families were making ground after the historic homeownership lows of the Great Recession, Bailey said — with Black homeownership reaching 44 percent. But the current COVID-related economic crisis means a tightening in the mortgage market that is requiring much higher down payments and higher credit scores for families to qualify for loans. That threatens to erase the gains of Black homeowners in the country, Bailey said.

Because of the historic and current-day process of racial redlining, most Black communities don’t have as much home equity, Bailey said — something many white homeowners can use to withstand tough economic periods.

For Black homeowners and Black renters (a disproportionately large population), the pandemic is leading to greater dangers.

“There are reports that one in five renters are saying they missed or deferred a rental payment in June, “We know 31 percent of Black renters are reporting this as well, which is twice the rate of white renters. And 13 percent of homeowners overall are saying they’ve needed to defer a mortgage payment and again 23 percent said they missed or deferred their payment, which is twice the rate of white homeowners.”

Congress needs to react accordingly, Bailey said. The CARES act had a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, she said, but that expired last week. With around 23 million families likely to fall behind on their rent, Black families will be hardest hit.

Housing is an important pillar of the overall economy, Bailey said — critical not just to those who are most impacted, but to the entire nation.

“We need the House’s bill, the HEROES act, to be passed in the Senate and we need the President to sign it immediately,” Bailey said. “There is $100 billion of rental assistance in the HEROES act. If that legislation moves, we know that this crisis can be averted. We also need the HEROES provisions around homeownership protection. There’s $75 billion in homeownership protections. We also need those protections to be enacted.”

But beyond those immediate treatments for immediate ills, Bailey said, there needs to be movement on longstanding inequities and systemic racism.

“What we need is a federally guaranteed restorative justice program,” Bailey said, whereby Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac take proactive action to increase Black homeownership and we enforce fair housing and fair lending laws already on the books.

“We have really effective tools in place,” Bailey said. “If we use them we can root out that discrimination that is dragging down the economy overall.”

In Graham, hundreds of protesters demand removal of Confederate statue, sheriff’s resignation

Photo: Anton L. Delgado

Approximately 700 demonstrators wearing masks, waving flags and carrying signs returned to the Confederate monument in Alamance County during a “March for Justice & Community” on Saturday.

This was the first demonstration at the statue since a controversial protest ban — issued by the Graham City Council and enforced with the help of the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office — was lifted by a federal judge.

Black Lives Matter demonstrators marched down a 1.5-mile route that took them from Burlington to Graham, where they were met by counter-protesters.

Protesters called for removal of the Confederate statue, as well as the resignation of Sheriff Terry Johnson and the end to police brutality.

Justice 4 the Next Generation, Alamance Alliance for Justice and Alamance Agents for Change co-hosted the march, which featured a keynote address from the Rev. Greg Drumwright, a Burlington native and social justice activist.

“Everywhere Black people go, we are guilty,” Drumwright said. “It is time for this Confederate statue and all Confederate statues to come down, so we no longer feel guilty in our own homes.”

A series of speakers took to a stage temporarily set up in front of the Alamance County Historic Courthouse, to address a range of issues including the importance of voting, the symbolism of the statue, systemic racism in the education system and the continued struggle against police brutality.

The speakers competed with chants from a group of about 25 counter-protesters waving Confederate memorabilia and Trump 2020 flags.

Police formed a barrier between protesters, who were part of social justice groups, and counterprotesters, some of whom belonged to Neo-Confederate groups. (Photo: Anton L. Delgado)

Members of Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, a neo-Confederate group, could be heard shouting “all lives matter,” “get out of our city” and “the statue’s never coming down.”

Law enforcement officers from several departments, including Burlington, Graham, Mebane, Gibsonville, Elon University, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, State Highway Patrol and the Sheriff’s Office, were at the protest.

Officers blocked adjacent streets, safeguarded public property — including the statue — and acted as a barrier between the two groups.

Johnson’s arrival at the protest was greeted with chants of “hey hey, ho ho, Sheriff Johnson’s got to go” by protesters and “one more term” by counter-protesters.

Wearing a bulletproof vest, Johnson spoke with both sides and encouraged members of the two groups to disperse after the end of the march’s official programming — roughly three hours after the protest began at noon.

The sheriff declined to comment on the calls for his resignation.

There was no violence during the protest, but at least one male Black Lives Matter activist was taken away in handcuffs by officers from the Gibsonville Police Department.

While this was the first protest in front of the Confederate statue since the lifting of the protest ban, it wasn’t the first protest of the week.

Protesters called for the resignation of Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson (center) because of his racist actions and statements. In 2012, the US Department of Justice found that the sheriff’s department, under Johnson’s command, engaged in racial profiling of Latinx people. (Photo: Anton L. Delgado)

On Thursday, Kennedy Boston, a sophomore at Elon University who was at Saturday’s march, co-organized a sit-in by the Sheriff’s Office — a five-minute walk from the statue.

On Friday, Graham Mayor Jerry Peterman declared an indefinite state of emergency for the city’s downtown area, which is where the Confederate monument is located. During the march, protesters were still able to walk just short of the statue, which was protected by a police blockade.

“With two protests in one week, I hope something changes,” Boston said. “I know Terry Johnson isn’t probably going to retire anytime soon and he’s not going to change his viewpoint in one week, but I hope seeing the movement will at least affect Graham in some way and maybe lead to the Confederate statue coming down.”

The NC News Intern Corps is a program of the NC Local News Workshop, funded by the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund and housed at Elon University’s School of Communications.

Cooper: NC National Guard to address unrest, focus on de-escalation, listening

After a night of violent protests, Governor Roy Cooper said as many as 450 guardsmen would be available to North Carolina cities with the focus on protecting public structures.

In a rare Sunday press conference, the governor said he had spoken directly with the mayors of Raleigh, Greensboro, Charlotte and Fayetteville and granted their request for state support. He also urged the mayors to work with their local police departments to prioritize de-escalating tensions.

“We cannot focus so much on the property damage that we forget why people are in the streets in the first place,” said Cooper.

Governor Cooper says leaders must create an open dialogue with protesters outraged by the death of George Floyd in Minnesota.

“Racism, excessive use of force, health disparities, poverty, white supremacy. These are wrong. They are ugly. But they are present.”

The governor also revealed that he had spoken with Bridgett Floyd, George Floyd’s sister, who lives in Hoke County.

“While I cannot bring her brother back, I can work for justice in his name.”

The governor said while this is a painful moment for North Carolina and the nation, we must constructively channel our anger to force accountability, fight racism and create thriving communities for everyone.