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.
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.
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.”
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.
McInnes suggested, without evidence, a small portion of the crowd may have been left-wing activists and may even have started the riot, but said the rest gladly joined in.
Other Parler users, such as prominent right-wing attorney Lin Wood, suggested the entire riot was part of an organized coup of which Vice President Mike Pence was a ringleader.
Wood, who has been suspended from Twitter, then suggested the vice president be put to death by firing squad.
The sentiment was not an uncommon one on Parler, where a user using #NorthCarolina expressed his anger not at the rioters but at Republicans he thinks have been insufficiently loyal to Trump and his unsupported election fraud theories in the aftermath of the violent siege.
As various conspiracy theories took root Thursday, prominent Democrats and Republicans suggested the mob violence — and how it was allowed to overwhelm police and drive lawmakers from the floor — needs to be thoroughly investigated
Bob Orr, a prominent Republican who served as a justice on the N.C. Supreme Court and as a candidate for governor, told Policy Watch that’s the first step. The next, he said, is swift prosecution.
“I think there needs to be a bipartisan independent criminal investigation of what happened, how it happened, and who was behind it happening.,” Orr said. “And in then trust the U.S. Attorneys and prosecutorial forces in this country that where they find violations of the law – whether it’s a Sedition Act or, or, or whatever, you know, carrying weapons without permit, having other types of dangerous instruments that are unauthorized that these individuals will be prosecuted to the full extent of law and the people that that were the instigators.”
“I think there were certainly more than just the people that went into the Capitol,” Orr said. “You know there were people behind this and, the country needs to find out, you know, who was behind this.”
NC Policy Watch Courts & Law reporter Yanqi Xu contributed to this story.