Florida emerges as a cradle of the insurrection as Jan. 6 Capitol riot arrests keep piling up

By Zac Anderson and Dinah Voyles Pulver, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, June 17, 2021

Florida is emerging as a cradle of the insurrection as the fallout from the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol building paints a clearer picture of those involved.

Florida is tied with Texas for the most individuals facing charges stemming from Jan. 6, with 47 arrests in each state out of the 484 total nationwide, according to a database maintained by USA Today.

And Florida leads all states in arrests of individuals associated with two far right groups – the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys – that were active in breaching the Capitol.

More than 40% of the Oath Keepers arrested on charges stemming from Jan. 6 are from Florida, and about a quarter of the Proud Boys. Floridians arrested include leaders from both groups who are accused of helping to plan the insurrection, which attempted to overturn the 2020 election results that delivered the presidency to Joe Biden over Donald Trump.

Florida’s large number of arrests related to Jan. 6 raises concerns about the prevalence of extremist groups and views in the state.

Floridians are accused of numerous acts of violence at the Capitol, with at least nine facing charges that include assaulting a police officer.

The most recent Florida arrest is a vocal coach from Spring Hill, Audrey Southard-Rumsey. Federal authorities say she allegedly jammed a flag pole against a police sergeant’s chest, forcing him backwards until he fell into a statue and struck his head on the base.

Florida’s other contributions to the insurrection include: a self-professed Proud Boy national leader from Volusia County; a Proud Boy from Largo who admitted to using cocaine and had seven guns taken from his home; a Proud Boy from East Naples accused of pepper spraying a line of Capitol police officers; and an Oath Keeper from Titusville who authorities believe stashed weapons near the Capitol to provide armed aid as part of a “quick reaction force.” He admitted to shooting his neighbor’s dog years ago.

Florida is the third most populous state in the nation, so it’s not surprising that many of those facing charges stemming from Jan. 6 would reside here.

But with 9.7% of those arrested, Florida’s involvement in the insurrection is disproportionate to the state’s 6.6% share of the U.S. population. Florida has 18 more people arrested than California, which has 17 million more residents, and 12 more arrests than New York, similar in population and much closer to the Capitol.

Florida’s share of Proud Boys and Oath Keepers arrested on Jan. 6 charges is even more out of proportion to its population.

Experts see a variety of reasons why Florida has more than its share of insurrectionists. Among the possible explanations: closer proximity to Washington, D.C. than states such as California, more active chapters of some extremist groups and a more aggressively pro-Trump demographic than some large states. That demographic may be more likely to produce individuals who aren’t part of extremist groups but willing to go to extremes in response to Trump’s unfounded claims of a stolen election.

Florida’s top political leaders also did little to tamp down the rhetoric leading up to Jan. 6, standing behind Trump as he encouraged his supporters to “stop the steal.”

Yet while Florida sent a significant number of rioters to the Capitol, they mirrored the larger group that showed up that day, indicating the state’s extremism problem tracks with a broader trend.

“We see a little bit in Florida of everything we saw at the Capitol itself,” said Andrew Mines, a research fellow with George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “You see local chapters of those groups, of the Proud Boys, of the Oath Keepers. You see rallies put on by QAnons. You see other, less organized, less networked, activity that’s difficult to put a finger on. It’s really fractured.”

The Florida insurrectionists come from many different walks of life and parts of the state.

Among their occupations: Firefighter, messianic rabbi, car dealership manager, ride-share driver, nurse’s assistant, small business owner, bail bondsman, corrections officer, child day care owner, chiropractor and Circle K convenience store worker.

At least five served in the military, including multiple Proud Boys and Oath Keepers.

At least two have run for office as Republicans – former Palm Beach County Commission candidate Jody Tagaris and Miami Proud Boy Gabriel Garcia.

Some appear to be well off.

Tagaris, a Republican activist who served on the Palm Beach GOP’s executive committee, received a Porsche, $100,000 and a $460,000 house near Jupiter in her divorce, according to the Palm Beach Post. Garcia, a former Army captain who served in Iraq and earned a bronze star, listed his net worth as $1.3 million when he ran for a state House seat in 2020. One insurrectionist drove from South Florida to D.C. in his Tesla. 

Others appear to have little money. Many can’t afford an attorney and were appointed public defenders.

The Floridians arrested for participating in the riot are from 24 of the state’s 67 counties.

Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, noted that Florida is a large state with many different groups of people and types of communities that is rapidly evolving, which can be a recipe for conflict.

“Florida is so diverse, from the Panhandle down to South Florida,” Levin said. “You’re also seeing the type of diversity that is thrashing itself out in conflict … up state, down state, rural vs. urban … international vs. people who maintain that change is coming too fast for them.”

Marion County has the most individuals arrested so far, with four. Duval, Brevard, Broward, Orange and Pinellas counties each have three residents arrested, while Sarasota, Manatee, Collier, Escambia, Volusia, Palm Beach, Clay, Miami-Dade and Hillsborough counties each have two individuals arrested.

While the Florida insurrectionists have many differences, they often have a few things in common, such as gender, age and political beliefs. Only five of the group are women.

And while the arrestees include a pair of 21-year-olds and 67-year-old Tagaris, most are in their 30s or 40s. The average age is 41.

Many are registered Republicans who have expressed strong pro-Trump views. In photos provided in federal charging documents, many stormed the Capitol wearing MAGA hats or other Trump gear.

Fernandina Beach resident Jeffrey Register, 39, wore a “God, guns and Trump” hoodie into the Capitol, later telling the FBI his goal was to “affect Congress’s decision on” certifying the Electoral College vote. According to his indictment, Register added that he wished he had made it to the U.S. House chamber “to show his support for President Trump.”

Roughly one in four of the Florida insurrectionists is associated with either the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers, making the state a particular hotbed for individuals active in extremist groups who are facing charges stemming from Jan. 6. That raises the question of whether Florida has a problem with such groups.

Proud Boys active in Florida

The far-right Proud Boys, a self-described “western chauvinist” group, have been active in Florida for years, including at mainstream political events. Six Proud Boys from Florida — and about two dozen total — have been arrested in connection with Jan. 6.

One reason Florida may have a more active Proud Boy contingent is that the group’s national leader, Enrique Tarrio, is from Florida. Tarrio was arrested in Washington, D.C., two days before Jan. 6 on a property destruction charge related to the burning of a Black Lives Matter banner at a church and weapons charges.

Garcia, the Miami Proud Boy, recorded a video inside the Capitol in which he turns to the camera and says “free Enrique,” according to his indictment.

“We do see in Florida, just by the presence of a couple figureheads being based down there, we see a lot of visual activity related to the Proud Boys,” said Amy Iandiorio, an investigative researcher with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.

Ormond Beach Proud Boy Joseph Biggs, 37, is described in a motion filed by federal prosecutors as a leader within the group who was too dangerous to be awarded pre-trial release, according to the Daytona Beach News-Journal.

“The true nature of Defendant’s dangerousness stems from his role as a leader, and his ability to encourage and coordinate the actions of others in breaching the Capitol at a precise place and time,” prosecutors wrote of Biggs.

Biggs is an Army veteran deployed twice to Iraq and awarded two purple hearts. His attorney said in a court filing that he worked for conservative media outlets, including InfoWars, and struggled with “combat-related PTSD, depression and some related alcohol problems.”

Starting in December, Biggs and other Proud Boys began encouraging members to attend the Jan. 6 demonstration. According to federal documents, Biggs posted a message on the social media site Parler in late December announcing the Proud Boys plans for Jan. 6 and saying it’s “gonna be epic.”

Biggs entered the Capitol through an open door about 50 seconds after another Proud Boy smashed through a window with a shield with a crowd of rioters and opened the door from the inside, according to his indictment. In a video, Biggs said “This is awesome!”

Prosecutors say Biggs has been “completely unrepentant” about his role in the Capitol riot. He has denied knowledge of “any preplanning of storming the Capitol.”

Florida Proud Boys Paul Rae, a 38-year-old from Largo, and Arthur Jackman, a 30-year-old from Orange County, were captured on video inside the Capitol with Biggs, their indictments state, and they all posed together for a picture outside.

A prosecutor said Rae admitted to a pretrial services officer after his arrest that he had recently used cocaine, according to the Tampa Bay Times. A judge ordered him to surrender seven guns.

Jackman, who has “Proud Boys” tattooed on his left wrist and is married to a sheriff’s deputy, told the FBI he joined the Proud Boys in 2016 to support Trump, believes the 2020 election was stolen and came to D.C. on Jan. 6 to “support President Trump and to stop the steal,” according to his indictment. Multiple news reports said he later wore a shirt in court that said “Proud Boys did nothing wrong” on the front and “I am a Western chauvinist and I refuse to apologize for creating the modern world” on the back.

The three other Proud Boys arrested from Florida are Garcia, 49-year-old East Naples resident Christopher Worrell and 28-year-old Bradenton resident Daniel Scott, who has Proud Boy tattooed on his arm and is known as “Milkshake.

An image included in Worrell’s indictment appears to show him and Scott advancing on the Capitol in the same group as Biggs, although there’s no indication in the indictments that they knew each other. Multiple images appear to show Scott and Worrell next to each other.

Both Scott and Worrell have been charged with assaulting an officer. Worrell allegedly used pepper spray on a line of officers. An indictment stated Scott – who wore a “God, guns and Trump” hat to the Capitol – can be seen in a video pushing two Capitol police officers backward up a set of steps and pulling one of the officers into the crowd.

In addition to the Proud Boys, another far-right group that played a significant role in storming the Capitol is the Oath Keepers, an anti-government militia.

Florida Oath Keepers in Capitol riot

The federal government has charged 16 Oath Keepers with engaging in a conspiracy to stop, delay or hinder the certification of the Electoral College vote.

The investigation is ongoing. Additional charges unveiled in late May added three more Florida Oath Keepers to the list of those indicted, bringing the state’s total to seven.

They include Graydon Young, 54, an Englewood daycare owner; Joseph Hackett, 51, a Sarasota chiropractor; William Isaacs, 21, of Kissimmee and Jason Dolan, 44, a former security guard at the Four Seasons Resort in Palm Beach. They also include a married couple, Kelly, 52, and Connie, 59, Meggs of Dunnellon.

One arrestee Kenneth Harrelson, 41, of Titusville, is an Army veteran who testified at a detention hearing that he shot his neighbor’s dog in 2004 and had previous arrests for drug possession and battery, according to a motion by prosecutors to deny him pretrial release. The motion also states that Harrelson likely stashed weapons at a Comfort Inn near the Capitol as part of a “quick reaction force.”

On Jan. 6 the group operated like a paramilitary unit, as the seven Oath Keepers from Florida joined with Oath Keepers from Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina, Texas and Alabama to advance on the Capitol.

Members of the group donned camouflage uniforms, helmets, armored tactical vests, gloves, goggles and radios as they moved up the steps of the Capitol in a “stack” formation, each with a hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them.

All the Florida Oath Keepers were in the stack, according to the indictments outlining their alleged actions. “At the top of the steps, the Stack joined and then pushed forward alongside a mob that aggressively advanced toward the Columbus Doors at the central east entrance to the Capitol, assaulted the officers guarding the doors, threw objects and sprayed chemicals toward the officers and the doors, and pulled violently on the doors.”

The mob breached the doors and the stack entered the Capitol and moved into the Capitol Rotunda.

Members of the group face a long list of charges, including destruction of government property. One is charged with assaulting a police officer and a number face charges of obstructing, impeding or interfering with an officer.

The indictment states the group began planning “at least as early” as Election Day. There was training to “teach and learn paramilitary combat tactics in advance of the January 6 operation.”

On Nov. 9, an individual identified as “Person One” in the indictment, believed to be the Oath Keepers national leader Stewart Rhodes, convened an online meeting attended by Hackett, Kelly Meggs and Harrelson. Meggs – known as “Gator 1” in the group’s online chats – and Harrelson – known as “Gator 6″ – also are described as leaders in the Oath Keepers.

“We’re going to defend the president, the duly elected president … Because if you don’t, guys, you’re going to be in a bloody, bloody civil war and a bloody — you can call it an insurrection or you can call it a war or a fight,” Person One said, according to the indictment, before urging people to go to Washington, D.C.

The Oath Keepers formed in 2009 and initially focused on what they viewed as federal government overreach, said Sam Jackson, a professor who teaches in the University of Albany’s College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity, who wrote a book about the group. But after Trump was elected, Jackson said the group pivoted, swung behind him strongly and engaged more in conflicts with “left-leaning Americans.”

“I’m not at all surprised that Oath Keepers were involved in some way,” he said of events at the Capitol. “If we think back to the group’s history, they have long engaged in conspiracy theories on a whole number of topics, including elections, especially presidential elections.”

Jackson and other experts on extremism cautioned, though, about focusing too much on the Oath Keepers and other groups when trying to understand the Jan. 6 events at the Capitol.

The overwhelming majority of those who participated, including the Floridians, are not affiliated with groups such as the Oath Keepers or Proud Boys.

The other 72%

While 28% of those arrested from Florida are affiliated with a right-wing extremist group, that leaves 72% who aren’t.

The majority of those arrested “are just motivated by extreme pro-Trump views or just an animated political ideology, but we wouldn’t put them in the category of an identified extremist group,” Iandioro noted.

“I think it highlights how motivating mis- and disinformation can be when people are exposed to a narrative or information that by design is made to feel a sense of loss or grievance,” Iandioro added. “We’ve seen a narrative that election was wrongfully taken from voters, from the president.”

Florida is representative of the modern landscape of extremism, Mines said, broader and more fractured, connecting people across wide geographies. “You’ve got a lot of folks that maybe they don’t have ties to domestic extremist groups, maybe they don’t have solid ties to specific conspiracy theories, but still showed up at the Capitol on the date.”

While Mines cautioned against focusing too much on demographics, Levin pointed to Florida’s “more conservative demographic” as one potential explanation for why more individuals from the state would be motivated to take drastic action in response to the stolen election narrative. He also said places such as Florida with changing demographics can be more volatile.

“It has been a state where anti-government fears have been aroused in the local populace and have a significant degree of support, and it’s also a state that is both politically and demographically changing,” Levin said. “And when we see places on a tipping point … we often see different types of backlash and I think that’s what you’re seeing there.”

Levin believes Florida may be more prone to having ongoing extremism problems.

“Florida, is it red? Is it blue? Is it conservative? Is it Anglo? Is it more diverse? Florida itself is sorting that out,” he said. “At a time when we see fragmentation nationally, regions experiencing a combination of changes are the types of places we’re going to see elevated activity of all types.”

Sarasota Herald-Tribune report Tim Fanning contributed to this report. Follow Herald-Tribune Political Editor Zac Anderson on Twitter at @zacjanderson. He can be reached at zac.anderson@heraldtribune.com.

 Image Credits: https://www.voanews.com/usa/us-opens-criminal-probe-assault-capitol