Global Photography of John Elliott

Published 2023-02-28


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The Red Wrath of MAGA

Published 2023-02-28

Central Florida, which has seen more arrests of residents than any other region in the USA relating to the 2021 “Stop the Steal” riots at the Capitol building, provides insights into the mounting extremism of the Republican party.

Story and Photography by John D. Elliott

[Note: This blog story was originally entered in 2022 and revised in early 2024.  A more updated version of this article has now been published in the international magazine Fair Observer.]

Ben Pollock emerged from the Federal Courthouse in Ocala, Florida, with a dazed and resigned look after the arraignment hearing of two of his eight children, son Jonathan and daughter, Olivia.  “We’re seeing the destruction of America,” he said to me and a lone television reporter, grimacing and with tears welling up in his eyes.  They had been captured two days prior –  three years to the day from when they and thousands of rioters participated in a violent attack of police officers in their path as they advanced upon the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021.

The siblings had been cornered in the town of Groveland in Central Florida and arrested by the FBI along with another “J6” suspect.  Jonathan, who had been on the run for nearly three years, was documented in video recordings angrily hurling himself at a Capitol Police officer and in another segment striking other officers with a riot shield and flag pole.  He was wearing a ballistic vest, knee pads and gloves with plastic knuckles. While fighting, he punched an officer in the head, pushed a fallen officer into the ground and pulled another down a set of steps while wrestling away a plastic shield. The FBI says Pollock appears on video striking officers with it.  At the Upper West Terrace, Jonathan had climbed onto bleachers, grabbed an officer by the shoulders, and tried to throw him over a metal railing, a 53-page arrest alleges. Jonathan had carried a $30,000 bounty on his head while he was on the run, but the FBI said the reward wasn’t instrumental in his capture. The affidavit also stated Olivia Pollock punched at one officer, elbowed another in the chest, and tried to wrest a baton away from a third.

Ben had also accompanied his children that desperate January day of rage as they advanced toward the Capitol along with as many as 120,000 protestors, including some 300 Proud Boys, in an effort to “Stop the Steal” – as outgoing President Donald Trump repeatedly framed it after failing to coerce various state officials to declare fraud. The father recalled the rubber bullets which failed to deter him and the other rioters impelled by a fateful concoction of outrage over Joe Biden’s election win and loyalty to the “Make America Great Again” MAGA slogan appropriated by Trump.  “Everbody there that headed down from that Trump rally was defending theirself,” Ben insisted in a southern accent. “That’s what breaks my heart.”

Family concerns were also claimed by Derrick Evans, another convicted J6 felon.  He is now in an unseemly run for U.S. Congress to represent a part of West Virginia.  On the same day the Pollock siblings were apprehended, I drove to and attended a presentation Evans made at the Laurel Manor Recreation Center in The Villages, a sprawling retirement community of more than 150,000 residents just northwest of Orlando, Florida. En route to the town, I passed faded MAGA signs, tattered pro-Trump flags, and updated banners promoting his 2024 run.

Evans, who served three months in prison, received a rousing reception from more than 100 attendees of the event sponsored by The Villages MAGA Club.  He detailed the day he had been arrested and driven away from his house from the perspective of one of his children. “My little girl…she’s standing in the big window, and she’s just bawling her eyes out crying, ‘I don’t know where Daddy’s at or where he’s going.’ And as a father, that’s really hard ‘cuz you’re you’re watching your little little girl there…And I’ll tell you the PTSD is real from that as well.”

At the time of his illegal entry into the Capitol, Evans was a newly-minted delegate in the West Virginia House of Delegates and had brazenly live-streamed his view and himself “selfie-style” at the intrusion through the East Rotunda doors along with hundreds of Trump supporters, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and “normies,” or non-affiliated rioters.  Before pushing into the building and amidst the din of hollering rioters and insistent alarms, he shouted at and obstructed the police officers trying to protect the U.S. Congress as it counted the electoral votes for the 2020 Presidential election: “Bring the tear gas – we don’t care, we’re taking this country back whether you like it or not! The cops are running. The cops are running! Here we go! Here we go! Open the doors.” A fellow rioter shouted, “Whose house?!” and Evans yelled back, “Our house!” He laughed at a police officer running from the crowd that jammed officers against the doors.

When he was charged with specific crimes as part of the seditious attack and made a virtual court appearance in March, 2021, he seemed to be a different man. By then, Evans had resigned from his State House office.  He told the judge he took full responsibility for his actions, stating, “I will forever bear the reminder that I made a crucial mistake. I let down myself, I let down my community, I let down my family.”

During his entire two-hour speech at The Villages, while he spent most of the time detailing his inconveniences in prison, Evans neglected to mention the emotional damage and PTSD inflicted upon the thousands of guards and police officers when the pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol.  Including those impacted that day, five police officers died and nearly 140 officers were injured, with collateral damage estimated thirty million dollars.  More than 1,230 people have been charged with federal crimes in the riot, many as felonies, from assaulting police officers to seditious conspiracy. Evans has been one of approximately 730 people to date who have pleaded guilty to charges at trials decided by a judge or a jury.

Recently-promulgated extremist flag showing the iconization of Ashli Babbitt as MAGA “martyr”. The drop of blood at her neck signifies her death, and the four stars indicate her as one of the four MAGA “martyrs” of the insurrection. Credit: Mia Bloom

Evans instead focused on his time in prison studying the Bible or on the plight of other J6ers. He lionized all the insurrectionists who died that day or as a result of their actions, such as Ashli Babbit, whose mortal wounding video went instantly viral.  She had been fatally shot while advancing in the vanguard of a group entering through the shattered Speaker’s Lobby window leading to the innermost Capitol chambers. Babbit has since become a martyr to the MAGA movement, her story replete with fabrications such as “she was unarmed,” was “very young,” and shot in the neck. The fact that she was shot by a black U.S. Capitol officer has become another dog whistle to the white supremacists within many America First sub groups.  And the Proud Boys militia has repeatedly messaged vengeance for her “murder.”

Evans, after serving his prison time, swiftly recanted his sworn testimony of remorse, prompting the U.S. District Court to issue a post-sentencing Notice regarding the “speed and degree” of his “aboutface.”   The Notice critically referred to a radio interview with a conservative podcaster, where Evans detailed how he “was railroaded.” At his speech in The Villages, Evans insisted, “…it was by and large a mostly peaceful protest on January 6th. There were family members there, there was a street preacher, there were people singing gospel music, there was a lot of prayer.  It was the most patriotic day of my entire life. The atmosphere that day was just absolutely amazing!” He claimed he had “No idea that any of these other things were taking place,” since he was at the East side of the building.  He repeatedly referred to the enraged mob as “patriots” and himself as a “political prisoner.”

Evans recalled to the rapt and overwhelmingly elderly audience, “So on that day, on January 6th, I was only exercising my natural, God-given rights of free speech.  I know the left wants to paint this false scenario of insurrection and we’re trying to overthrow the government.  You know, it’s really fascinating when you think about that. American citizens – and more importantly conservatives – are the most armed people in the entire world. We have more guns and ammunition than probably any military in the world.” The audience whooped in approval. “And we showed up that day unarmed. Which should show you the intentions that we had.”

As I panned my camera lens to document some of the audience members, I was invariably met with concerned looks or even suspicious stares.  There were apparently no other journalists at the engagement, although the $10 tickets were readily available for weeks on EventBrite.  After the event ended, a man in the audience confronted me. “You took a lot of pictures – are you with a paper?  You’re not FBI? Because I noticed you took my pictures. You stopped and focused on me – I saw that!” I shook his hand, heard him say his name was Nick, and hurried away toward a gathering of audience members greeting Evans and posing for pictures.

Evans’ position on guns has consistently remained on the fringes of extremism since he emerged as a frequent instigator of conflict, harassment, and inflammatory remarks at West Virginia and Kentucky women’s reproductive health clinics in 2019. On Christmas Eve, 2023, he tweeted on X: “Firearm dealers should be allowed to sell guns by mail without seeing the buyer or verifying a signature…” In his speech, he made a dark prediction. “I’ll just tell you right now, if Biden wins – whether it’s legitimate or not – I’m going to…up my prepping game and buy more things to sustain my family underneath a great depression, ‘cuz that’s what we’re going to have.” And regarding immigration to the USA, he railed, “These people who invaded our country should be staring down the barrel of a gun right now, that’s what I think!” 

So I wanted to know how Evans would respond about being denied his “2nd Amendment rights,” as many in the MAGA faction term it, and when he thought he might have his confiscated weapons returned.  He said, “Ahhhh – as soon as I get off of probation. Yeah, I get off of probation in two years. Luckily technology is going to outpace the laws … air pistols, those things are legit!” “You mean those can fly under the radar?” I queried. “Well, I can have those legally,” he confirmed. “Firearms – you know there’s some loopholes there and I can work around those.”

I then asked him if he regretted his contrition and apologies delivered in court at his sentencing.  “Not really,” he replied, “because at the time I just did whatever my attorney told me to do so I could get back to my family…if there was gun to your head, you do what you need to do to protect your family…”

Evans’ insistence that January 6 was a “mostly peaceful protest” echoed what I consistently heard from speakers at a “Rock the Red” MAGA gathering in Ocala, Florida, in June 2022.  Anti-MAGA protestors were kept at bay outside that venue, the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion. Inside, there was an awkward duel of adjacent promotional booths for Trump and his then-leading opposition, candidate Florida Governor DeSantis. Conservative luminaries and back-benchers spoke throughout the day on themes such as recent state GOP election victories, excoriated LGBTQ rights, and provided a dizzying laundry list of QAnon conspiracies.

Trump’s son, Eric, spoke at length, declaring about the January 6 siege, “I don’t think there’s any more patriotic people than what you saw that day!” He decried how Democrats and “Communists” have “ taken over every school board in the country…changed the textbooks… changed the curriculum.” After claiming that the Democratic party was “taking God away from us,” “destroying the nuclear family,” and wanting to “destroy our Constitution,” he angrily wondered aloud, “How the Hell did we get here?”

Another speaker that day in Ocala was Brendon Leslie, who operates a conservative and partisan news website in southwest Florida.  He lamented to the receptive audience “Ashli Babbitt being shot, murdered in cold blood by Officer Byrd.”  He complained that, “… the FBI is running around exercising what’s called plenary power, that they were never granted. They’re running around kicking in doors, taking American citizens, hauling them to D.C. – no extradition. None of this is being done correctly. They’re not following the rules!”

Leslie provided some historical context for his bitterness by going back to 9/11 and the presidency of George W. Bush. “We made it horrible decision to stand behind that Patriot Act; it’s now being used against American citizens.” He warned that the roundup of January 6 suspects was just the beginning of a more sinister campaign. “Let me tell you that you, the conservative base, you’re next. It’s just a matter of time. It’s about dissent: those who dissent … they will come for you! That’s the first wave that you saw there.”

Joe Flynn, a leader of the “Stop the Steal” effort, came on stage after everybody watched selectively edited January 6 footage, proclaiming, “You just witnessed unbelievable bravery!” Referring to Trump’s loss, he inveighed to Democrats, “You’re not going to get away with this!” Joe is the brother of former General Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States during the presidential transition, and was pardoned by Trump in late 2020. The general subsequently tried to persuade Donald Trump to use the military to overturn the 2020 election.

Even as early as the Rock the Red event, many MAGA adherents were calling for an impeachment of President Joe Biden, in spite of many leading Republicans continually pointing out that there was no evidence of the president’s wrongdoing. Featured speaker Roger Stone, in addition to calling for impeachment, criticized the January 6 Congressional Hearings, calling it a “kabuki dance.” He also demanded additional closed-circuit TV footage of the deaths of Ashli Babbit and another MAGA participant in the day of anarchy at the Capitol.

Back at The Villages, five people charged with voting fraud have either pled guilty or been found guilty in recent months. After the fraudulent vote-by-mail scheme was uncovered, all escaped with light sentences, which consisted primarily of attending civics classes. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis — who vowed to crack down on election fraud — has not referred to all the arrests in this community where he likes to hold fundraisers and rallies.

January, 2024 meeting of the Marion County Republican Party, Ocala, Florida.

Equally to the pain of conservatives, the entire Florida GOP was rocked in recent months by a scandal that received bipartisan outrage: State GOP Chair Christian Ziegler was accused of rape in October by a female acquaintance. The case gained national attention and roiled the Florida GOP, prompting the party to remove Ziegler as chair, and he is now facing a new felony charge of video voyeurism. At a meeting of the Marion County Republican Party I attended at the Ocala Golf Club in January, Brigitte Smith, Chairperson of the executive committee, referred to the change of command, and in exasperation exclaimed to the audience of members, “We’d like to look forward. That was a nightmare!”  Marion County is the largest in Florida.

With Christian evangelicals composing the majority of the MAGA movement, religion has become another divisive point in partisan politics.  Not only does polling show that white evangelical support for Trump has grown significantly since he ran for president in 2016, but what it means to be evangelical appears to have shifted as well, to include a zealous allegiance to him – even more than any particular religious tenets. The GOP strategy in the past ten years of running like-minded candidates for every public office has been enormously successful.  Issues that have been considered settled law for fifty years are constantly being gnawed away, as school boards and public officials probe weaknesses and take advantage of appointees of conservative legislators and governors.

After the meeting of the Marion County GOP, I went up to Beckie Sirolli, one of the GOP candidates for State House.  Her campaign brochure proclaims: “My Christian faith drives my passion for public service.”  I was curious about her mention at the meeting of a bill she and others are supporting: Volunteer Chaplains in Public Schools.  Republican Representative Stan McClain had filed the proposal (HB 931) for consideration during the legislative session the week prior. I asked her, “What’s to prevent a Buddhist or a Muslim from becoming a chaplain?” Her immediate response startled me: “Or a Satanist! … I want to talk to the legislators about it, because it’s got to be a recognized religion, and approved…” I pressed a bit: “Or a Unitarian?” She replied, “No, not some false, weird religion coming in and being a volunteer.”  Ironically, when I went to her campaign website, I read that one of her platforms was, “I’ll work with other representatives to ensure our children are being educated, not indoctrinated!”

Sirolli then proceeded to dispense the long-debunked trope, that “They took God out of the [public] schools,” and waxed nostalgic about her childhood, when there was “a mobile van that came…and we go out there and would learn about the Bible…” I nudged her, “My daughter can bring a Bible to school – that’s never been a problem.” With surety in her voice, she concluded, “In some schools, it is. They tell you not to. We need to make sure that they are not opening the door for some kind of religion that WE don’t want our children exposed to.  And you know some people are going to be screaming.”

Bellicose jargon has become the norm at GOP gatherings. In a speech on January 6, 2024 in Iowa, Trump applauded those who have been charged with participating in the riot and called on President Biden to release the rioters who are incarcerated, who Trump referred to “hostages.”  His campaign flyers say, “They’re not after me, they’re after you … and I’m just standing in the way!” And at a New Hampshire Trump rally in mid-January, former Republican presidential rival Vivek Ramaswamy exclaimed to the crowd, “We are in the middle of a war in this country – between the permanent state and the everyday citizen.”

Three years after the attack, Republicans are more inclined to normalize political violence, and since the infamous date, there has begun a march of social media posts referring to a “slow Civil War.” As if the devastating War in the 1860s wasn’t bad enough, today’s USA holds more than 4 million modern guns and rifles – about two for each U.S. citizen adult. And Florida has so many owners of firearms that it’s both known as the “Gunshine State” and nicknamed “the cradle of the insurrection.” The state is home to more than one-third of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers charged for their involvement in the January 6 riot.

Recent polls indicate Republicans are increasingly sympathetic to those who stormed the U.S. Capitol and likely to absolve Donald Trump of responsibility for the threat to democracy and violence than they were on that deadly and wrathful day. Last October, a startling 33 percent of Republicans (and an even larger 41 percent of pro-Trump Americans) agreed with a poll statement that “because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” In the words of one of the arrested J6 rioters, Jenna Ryan, “They are taking our country from us, and this is a prelude to the war that is about to happen.”

At the third anniversary of the riots, 1,267 people had been charged for crimes related to the breach of the U.S. Capitol, including more than 440 individuals charged with assaulting or impeding law enforcement, a felony.  A tabulation shows that the highest number – approximately 10 percent of the total individuals arrested – come from Central Florida.

Gabriel Pollock stands outside the Federal Courthouse in Ocala, Florida after the arraignment hearing of his brother and sister, who were documented on video attacking Capitol police officers on January 6, 2021.

In the parking lot outside of the Federal Courthouse in Ocala, and after the arraignment hearing I attended there, I spoke with Jonathan and Olivia Pollock’s brother, Gabriel.  Owner of Rapture Guns and Knives in North Lakeland, Florida, Gabe proudly reflected on an aspect of his brother’s capture. “When they arrested him, [the federal agents] had to pry the Bible out of his hand.  That’s the type of people that you’re dealing with.”

On February 22, 2024, the Pollock siblings appeared for a hearing in Federal Court in Washington, D.C., where they were summarily denied bond; they are now being held in pre-trial detention, with the next status conference set for April.  In spite of two of his children facing sentences of years in prison, their father continues to cling to the MAGA vision.  “I was there on January 6, but the actual insurrection took place on November 3rd, and Ashli Babbit deserves a monument.  It’s not that my children are going to spend the rest of their lives in [prison]. They’ve got the purity of God living in ‘em.”  Ben concluded in an ominous tone: “This country doesn’t have years!”

Banner photo: Speaking at the “Rock the Red” political rally for GOP conservatives in Ocala, Florida in June, 2022, Roger Stone angrily denounces President Biden and calls for his impeachment. Stone worked behind the scenes to aid Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election. He had been sentenced to 40 months in prison for multiple felonies, including witness tampering, lying to Congress, and obstructing the House investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia in 2016, but Trump commuted his sentence before it even began. Stone has recently denounced Trump and predicted he would lose to Biden.



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