“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

The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

1. Experts warn of pandemic-relatedeviction tsunami

Another round of stimulus payments or more creative solutions are essential to thwart a social crisis

With the first shipments of a second COVID-19 vaccine arriving as early as next week, many North Carolinians are feeling a new kind of hope as the pandemic stretches into 2021. But without swift government action at the state and federal levels, the new year could usher in an “eviction tsunami” and economic devastation, according to experts who gathered to discuss the problem Tuesday.

The virtual discussion, sponsored by the Duke Law Global Financial Markets Center and the North Carolina Leadership Forum, brought together subject matter experts from across the ideological spectrum to discuss the crisis of rent moratoriums and aid programs expiring in the new year.[Read more…]

2. DEQ’s Michael Regan is Biden’s nominee for EPA administrator

NC Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan is the President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for EPA administrator, according to multiple news sources.

Policy Watch reported yesterday that Regan was the leading contender for the job. A Goldsboro native, Regan has been DEQ secretary since 2017; he was appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper.

A DEQ spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

Regan worked at the EPA for nine years in the late ’90s and mid-’00s before joining the Environmental Defense Fund.

EDF issued this statement from Hawley Truax, Southeast Regional Director of Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Regan previous served as EDF’s Southeast regional director. [Read more…]

Bonus read: Supporters, detractors grade Regan’s performance as NC DEQ secretary

3. Treasurer’s office, state auditor eyeing 100-plus cities, counties, utilities on “Distressed Unit” list

In a budget crisis, these entities can lose control of their finances to the state 

Janet Gerald, mayor pro tem of Kingstown, knew high sewer costs were a financial strain for the town when she was took office three years ago. Still, the realization that the town needed to relinquish control of its spending hit her hard.

“I was a little disappointed,” she said. “I was sad. I was heartbroken. I was embarrassed. I was crushed.”

Like dozens of towns and a couple of counties in North Carolina, Kingstown landed in financial trouble over problems paying for sewer services. The town, whose 680 residents live in a two-square-mile rectangle in Cleveland County, owes the city of Shelby upward of $200,000 for sewer services, Gerald said.[Read more…]

4. Black Americans are reluctant to take a COVID-19 vaccine. Efforts to build trust are underway.

A history of unethical medical experimentation on Black people has raised vaccine concerns among communities of color.

Coronavirus vaccines were a topic of the day for volunteers at Global Scholars Academy in Durham last Saturday. The church across the street, Union Baptist just north of downtown, was hosting a coronavirus testing site on one side of the school, and volunteers were distributing meals and Christmas gifts on the other side.

The FDA had authorized the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use the night before. Public officials and some residents have turned their hopes to science to help lift the country out of the deadly and economically devastating COVID-19 pandemic.[Read more…]

5. COVID-19 vaccine could be less effective in people with high PFAS levels in blood

The COVID-19 vaccine could be less effective in people with high levels of perfluorinated compounds — PFAS — in their blood, several scientists announced today.

High levels of PFAS exposure is known to be linked to a “plethora of adverse health effects,” including immune system disorders, said Linda Birnbaum, a toxicologist and former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Science.

That means people with high levels of PFAS in their blood could have a weaker response to the COVID-19 vaccine, and build up fewer antibodies to the vaccine.

“It’s not that you won’t get any response, but that it could be decreased,” Birnbaum said.[Read more…]

6. Vaccine miracle offers model for tackling another giant crisis (commentary)

There are a lot of important lessons that Americans should glean from the mostly awful year that will soon and mercifully come to an end – some of them quite sobering.

We must recognize, for instance, that we still have many miles to travel in conquering the nation’s original sin of racism and that the ground on which our democracy rests is not as rock-solid as we long assumed.

And then there’s the painful reminder that mass willful self-deception — in which millions of humans are driven by fear and mistaken perceptions of self-interest to believe and repeat demonstrable lies —  must still be combated at every turn.

Happily, however, we’ve also received some more hopeful lessons, most notably about the power of truth and love and coming together as a community. [Read more…]

7. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos heads for the exits, leaving a legacy of turmoil

WASHINGTON— During her four years in office, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos failed to broaden her appeal beyond the moment she won a wild Senate confirmation fight by the closest of margins. She didn’t even try.

Instead, the billionaire Michigan native and Republican megadonor championed private and charter schools, often trying to funnel federal funding toward them. Her full-throated support outraged Democrats in Congress, riled the nation’s powerful teachers unions and never registered as a major priority for the Trump administration.

In higher education, she resuscitated for-profit colleges and wrote sweeping regulations on campus sexual assault to give more weight to the accused, generating an onslaught of criticism.[Read more…]

8. Mark Johnson’s rocky tenure comes to a close in familiar fashion

State Superintendent Mark Johnson will end his tenure this month the same way he started it four years ago – at odds with the State Board of Education.

The state board’s decision to require high school students and some middle school students to take End-of-Course exams in person during the pandemic is the most recent point of contention between the controversial superintendent and the board.

Johnson believes the tests should be waived, along with the rule that makes the exams 20% of a student’s grade.

“[SBE] Chairman Eric Davis and the next State Superintendent, Catherine Truitt, disagree with my position and have declared that the State Board’s EOC rule is in effect regardless,” Johnson wrote in an email he shared this week. “This has put your local superintendents, school boards, and principals in difficult situations without consistent guidance on how to proceed.” [Read more…]

9. Gov. Cooper’s pardons correct wrongful convictions of five innocent men

Gov. Roy Cooper issued pardons of innocence to five men, Ronnie Long, Teddy Isbell Sr., Kenneth Kagonyera, Damian Mills and Larry Williams Jr., according to a release from his office yesterday. It marks the first time he has used his constitutional power to pardon during his governorship.

Long, whose case has received the most public attention, spent the longest time — 44 years — incarcerated among the five clemency recipients. He was originally convicted of rape and burglary by Cabarrus County Superior Court in 1976 has already been released from custody but expected the pardon of innocence. The pardon clears his name and makes him eligible to seek compensation under state law. [Read more…]

10. Contamination prompts Colonial Pipeline to buy three homes near Huntersville gasoline spill

11. Weekly radio interviews and commentaries:

Click here for the latest newsmaker podcasts and commentaries from Rob Schofield

12. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

Court dismisses appeal over Winston-Salem Confederate monument’s removal

The Court of Appeals of North Carolina dismissed an appeal Tuesday by the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s North Carolina Division and its James B. Gordon Chapter Tuesday in a suit over the removal of a Confederate monument from downtown Winston-Salem.

The Confederate monument, as it once stood in downtown Winston-Salem.

As Policy Watch reported last year, the statue stood on private property – an apartment building that was once the county courthouse. Since it wasn’t on city or state owned land, it wasn’t covered by a 2015 state law that was used to prevented the removal of such monuments in downtown Raleigh and at UNC-Chapel Hill. Those statues were themselves brought down by protesters and their remnants removed for public safety reasons.

Both the city and the owner of the apartment building wanted the statue removed. Mayor Allen Joines proposed moving the statue to nearby Salem Cemetery, which is home to 36 Confederate graves. The United Daughters of the Confederacy sued to prevent the removal, but failed in court. The statue was removed in March of last year.

Last May a Forsyth County Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice, meaning it could not be brought back to that court. The United Daughters of the Confederacy appealed that decision.

On Tuesday, the Court of Appeals upheld the earlier ruling, saying that the group had failed to demonstrate any real ownership over the statue.

From the opinion:

“Plaintiff’s complaint, on its face, established no basis for ownership or any other interest in a statue which plaintiff did not claim to own, and which was located on privately-owned property. To establish standing, a plaintiff must demonstrate three things: injury in fact, a concrete and actual invasion of a legally protected interest; the traceability of the injury to a defendant’s actions; and the probability that the injury can be redressed by a favorable decision.

Thus, to pursue a declaratory judgment as to its rights in the statue, plaintiff had to show, at the very least, that it possessed some rights in the statue—a legally protected interest invaded by defendants’ conduct.”

While the group couldn’t establish its ownership rights to the monument, the court found, its own argument about property rights seemed to bolster the case of the property owner who wanted it removed.

“Further, aside from acknowledging their role in funding the erection of the statue over a century ago, plaintiffs alleged no ownership rights to the statue. Every case and statute cited by plaintiffs stands for the principle that, when a city or county acts in the manner described in plaintiff’s complaint, the owner of affected property has rights that are implicated. Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate or allege any legal interest in the statue.”

As Policy Watch reported last year, the Confederate Soldiers Monument, erected in 1905, had become one of a series of flash points in the ongoing cultural conflict over history, memory and North Carolina’s identity.

Standing 30 feet tall, the statue of a single armed soldier looked down from its pedestal on the streets of Winston-Salem. It proclaimed its view of the Confederacy in the verse etched on its base:


But many of the city’s residents said that story – of a “glorious” Confederacy and the brave boys who gave their lives to preserve it – is a harmful and false narrative. It ignores the racism and defense of slavery at the heart of the Confederacy, they said, acting as a reminder to Black citizens of the Jim Crow era in which it was erected.

“It was erected to terrorize Blacks, our mothers, and I refuse for the statue to remain, to be etched in the memory of our daughters in future generations,” said city resident Crystal Rook during a meeting of the Winston-Salem City Council before the statue’s removal.

“Why would the city of Winston-Salem keep this statue, a symbol of hate, systemic racism and a reason to terrorize the Black community anywhere?” Rook asked. “Especially in a district that prides itself on innovation?”

Policy Watch has reported extensively on Confederate monuments, their historical context and the movement to remove them from public spaces across the state.

For more on the United Daughters of the Confederacy and its role in erecting the monuments, see Policy Watch’s interview with Dr. Karen Cox, author of the book“Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture,

UNC-Wilmington faculty vote to censure chancellor

UNCW Chancellor Jose Sarterelli

The UNC-Wilmington Faculty Senate took the rare step Tuesday of voting to censure Chancellor Jose Sartarelli.

The censure, approved by the faculty governing body  in a 51-20 vote, charges that Sartarelli has “egregiously failed” in his obligation to support the school’s values of diversity, community engagement and integrity, and has “violated the trust of the UNCW faculty, lessened their esteem for the Office of the Chancellor, and dishonored the UNCW community.”

The conflict between faculty and administration stems from a series of on-campus tensions over racial issues, including the school taking down Black Lives Matter banners hung by faculty after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd and the mass demand for reform that followed. In September the school implemented a new, more restrictive sign policy that required pre-approval for any signs or banners, even if they are hung by faculty.

Sarterelli also stirred controversy earlier in the summer when asked by students to make a public statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“It’s going to be hard for me to do that,” Sarterelli replied. “Because I believe all lives matter.”

But tension over racial issues have been building at the UNCW campus for years.

In July the school paid Mike Adams, a professor with a long history of well publicized racially offensive behavior, $500,000 to retire early. The move came after decades of controversies and legal battles between Adams and the school. After years of inaction on Adams insulting students, fellow faculty members and the administration, many in the community  — including at least one trustee — called for Adams to be fired. Instead, the university made and the UNC Board of Governors approved a large settlement with the professor. Shortly thereafter, Adams shot and killed himself in his home.

The censure passed by the senate Tuesday specifically cited the Black Lives Matter controversy and the chancellor’s “lack of leadership on the matter of Diversity and Inclusion prior to student and public demands to do so during the Summer of 2020.”

Sarterelli responded to criticisms late last month in a public statement on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts at the school. As Policy Watch has reported, race and diversity issues have been a continuing problem across the UNC System.

After Tuesday’s censure, Sartarelli released another public statement:

“As Chancellor of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, my focus is centered on our students and advancing our mission, vision and values in partnership with all faculty and staff. Establishing a campus commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is a continual process. How we learn from and live with our history matters. I understand the urgency required and hope all of us (Chancellor, administration, faculty, staff, students, alumni and the community) can build a better Seahawk future together. At their previous meeting, the Faculty Senate requested a Chancellor’s report in March 2021 about the university’s efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion. I am proud of the progress we have been making over the past five years, especially since June, and shared an advanced copy of such a report the first week of December. I look forward to leading UNCW as we continue to pursue this important work in the new year.

The UNCW faculty censure carries no concrete consequence for Sartarelli. The UNC Board of Governors holds the power to hire, fire and formally discipline chancellors. So far, the board has not publicly addressed faculty or students concerns over Sartarelli. But the censure could lead to discussion of the issues at a higher level.

In August the Appalachian State University Faculty Senate passed a “no confidence” resolution on the leadership of Chancellor Sheri Everts. UNC System administration has defended Everts’ decision to no longer meet with faculty leaders or attend meetings of the faculty’s governing body.

Task force recommends new environmental justice positions at four key state agencies

The task force was named after celebrated North Carolina civil rights activist Andrea Harris, who died in May at age 72. (Photo: task force report)

One of the most striking disconnects between state agencies occurred last year when the Department of Commerce announced at a legislative committee that it supported the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Meanwhile, the NC Department of Environmental Quality, although it ultimately approved the permits, was concerned about potential damage to the environment and the communities that lay in in the pipeline’s path.

Duke Energy and Dominion eventually killed the project; DEQ has since rejected permit applications for an unrelated Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate proposal. But there has been a consistent lack of continuity among agencies in considering environmental and social justice implications of their projects.

In a report issued this week, a task force told the governor that permanent environmental justice and inclusion positions should be created at the departments of Commerce, Transportation, Natural and Cultural Resources, and the Office of Emergency Management.

The Department of Environmental Quality already has such a position.

If the four agencies create new positions, that would require funding, likely through the legislative budget process. Or an existing position could be converted or expanded to address environmental issues.

The group, officially named the Andrea Harris Social, Economic, Environmental and Health Equity Task Force, was created earlier this year by Gov. Roy Cooper to study how the COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately harming communities of color. The task force spent the fall pinpointing how the state needed to advocate for and assist these North Carolinians. Among them were expanding rural broadband, job creation, health care and environmental justice.

Polluting industries commonly locate in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. And this pollution, particularly in the air, can cause or worsen respiratory illnesses. A Harvard study showed that exposure to fine particulate matter known as PM 2.5 increases the severity of COVID-19 symptoms and risk of death from the disease.

At dozens of public meetings about various environmental projects, community members have clamored for clean jobs rather than those created by polluting industries. The task force posed a similar question: Could we improve the economic development and health outcomes of a Tier 1 county without causing additional environmental burdens?

The four agencies that would create an EJ position routinely make decisions that can further burden these communities with pollution — or in some cases alleviate it.

For example, the Department of Transportation’s new toll road extension, I-540, routes through a low-income mobile home park.
Active Energy, a wood pellet plant in Robeson County, received a $500,000 building reuse grant from the Department of Commerce.

The Office of Emergency Management is key to helping these communities after a hurricane or flood; many of these neighborhoods are located in areas vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The Department of Natural and Cultural Resources is consulted when major projects route through Native American land; that agency is also over state parks and the Division of Land and Water Stewardship.

A second recommendation is for state officials to conduct an inventory of aging buildings — schools, senior centers and hospitals — that have radon, asbestos, mildew and mold contamination. Cleanup of those buildings could create jobs, the task force wrote.

Schools in Robeson and Edgecombe counties have been selected to test the proposal.

The “sick building” problem caused by legacy pollutants is due to delayed maintenance. “Nowhere is this problem more apparently than in NC’s public schools, especially those in hyper-segregated, concentrated poverty communities,” the presort reads. “Due to aging and poorly functioning HVAC systems, young people attending these schools are exposed to a host of chemical and biological contaminants that adversely affect their health and overall well-bing and their ability to learn.

“Reopening these schools amid the pandemic is likely to exacerbate the problem,” the report continues, “as buildings with poor ventilation, already a crucible for building-related diseases, can potentially become hotbeds for the spread of the coronavirus.”

The task force also recommended what is bound to be a heavy lift: that the legislature change statutes and rules to incorporate environmental justice into regulations. Since conservatives gained control of the General Assembly in 2011, environmental justice has been eroded, not strengthen, particularly in the annual Farm Acts.

“Legislation will be paramount to ensure our environmental justice ideals come to fruition,” the report reads.

The legislature convenes Jan. 13.