Georgia Today: Insurrection Shines A Light On Militant Groups
In the week since the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the FBI has announced dozens of arrests, with many more to come. Some of the rioters have lost their jobs, with others placed on no-fly lists. Chris Joyner is an investigative reporter with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. On Georgia Today, he discusses his reporting on Georgians swept up in the insurrection.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy, it's Thursday, Jan. 14th, 2021. Last week, a seething mob of Donald Trump supporters encouraged by the president attacked the U.S. Capitol while lawmakers were attempting to certify the results of the 2012 presidential election.
(crowd chanting): USA! USA! USA!
Steve Fennessy: Some would-be insurrectionists even chanted for Vice President Mike Pence to be hanged.
(crowd chanting): Hang Mike Pence! Hang Mike Pence!
Steve Fennessy: In the weeks since the FBI has announced dozens of arrests with many more to come.
Some of the rioters have lost their jobs. Others have been placed on no-fly lists. The insurrectionists came from all over the country, including Georgia. Today, I'm joined by Chris Joyner, an investigative reporter with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Chris Joyner: Hey, how are you doing?
Steve Fennessy: Anything new today, Chris, that you're working on?
Chris Joyner: You know, we're continuing to track individuals who may or may not have played a role in the in the Capitol riot.
Steve Fennessy: How long have you covered extremist movements in Georgia?
Chris Joyner: I really began devoting time to it following the Charleston massacre in 2015.
Newscast: Good morning, America. Breaking news: Deadly church shooting tragedy in Charleston. At least nine people killed overnight in a massacre in historic black church.
Newscast: I do believe this was a hate crime.
Newscast: Police say this suspect, a white man in his 20s, walked into the Bible study, sat down with a group and opened fire.
Chris Joyner: When you saw neo-confederates and other kinds of extremist groups, you know, coming together and expressing their discontent over the removal of the Confederate flag and things like that. That was when I really started giving it a lot of my professional attention.
Steve Fennessy: Chris, you spent a lot of time covering extremist movements in Georgia. I'm curious what the buzz was in the days and weeks leading up to Jan. 6th and the insurrection in our nation's capital?
Chris Joyner: Well, I mean, a lot of the people who exist sort of on the fringes were in really highly anxious period.
Ever since the November election, there's been this belief that among the people on the fringes that President Trump would have some sort of, you know, surprise that would turn it around. He would not leave office. And when the president called for a rally on the 6th, you know, a lot of those a lot of that anxiety sort coalesced around that date. So you saw it a lot online, a lot of people saying be patient, you know, wait for instructions, those kind of things. And then as we got closer to the date, you start seeing some real organizing activity as groups prepared to — to head to Washington.
Steve Fennessy: So you mentioned that, you know, the people who are going up to D.C. were coming from various strata within the Trump supporter movement. What kind of what did that span? What do they look like?
Chris Joyner: Well, I mean, you have a lot of Tea Party supporters of President Trump. I mean, just the sort of most conservative wing of mainline Republicans, people who identify less as Republicans and more as Trump supporters. So these are people who might call themselves nationalists or populists. You know, they have a particular worldview that is distinct from the Republican Party writ large. And then you have, you know, people much more on the fringe. So you have the militia and patriot movement. You know, this would include Three Percenters or Oath Keepers or Patriot Prayer, these people who have a much more fringe outlook and deep suspicion toward the federal government.
Newscast: Tonight, with more on what voters can expect on election night, a new report shows Georgia could be at risk for violence by armed militia groups when the election ends.
Steve Fennessy: In terms of the growth of these paramilitary groups in Georgia. How has that tracked over the course of the Trump administration?
Chris Joyner: I've talked to different people, experts about this. And there is some belief that actually in recent years that recruiting might actually have been inhibited by — by President Trump. The militia movement goes back well before President Trump really did the early days of the Obama era.
And, you know, it's always been an oppositional movement oppositional to the federal government. And when Trump came to power in 2016, there was some confusion in the movement, particularly as it revolved around recruiting, as the militia groups align more closely with him. It's just not like it not it's not a natural pairing for an anti-government group to identify strongly with, you know, someone who wields a lot of executive authority. I mean, this is a this is a group that's actually supposed to be opposed to the centralization of federal authority.
Steve Fennessy: I could see where that that would create a little cognitive dissonance for a lot of them.
Chris Joyner: Right.
Chris Joyner: You had perhaps maybe some inhibiting of recruitment at the same time, you had a sort of centralization of the movement. I think you saw groups sort of coordinating militia groups, which are they have a really hard time coordinating from group to group just because of their internal differences. You saw some of that going on, the past few years. It’s one of the things that gave it strength, but it is a movement that’s always constantly fracturing.
Steve Fennessy: Is there any estimates on on how large the movement is in Georgia in terms of if you look at the various paramilitary groups, how many people are we talking about?
Chris Joyner: Well, I think certainly you're talking, you know, thousands. I've seen estimates of, you know, 20 to 30 active militia groups across the state. But some of these, you know, their level of activity varies from, you know, being online primarily to actually going out and training on a regular basis.
Newscast: These groups are still active, gaining members online and honing their combat skills in training camps. The News Hour’s PJ Topia went inside one of these camps to produce this report.
Newscast: This is the kill house. Part of a training ground for a right-wing militia in the American South
Militia member: This is for conducting military operations in urban terrain. We want to practice and rehearse, moving out to these structures, covering each other and taking cover and concealment everywhere we can find it.
Militia member: Two shots, two kills.
Newscast: These men and women call themselves the Georgia Security Force.
Militia member: Clear my rifle
Chris Joyner: Georgia Security Force, probably the most well-known simply because they're opportunistic in how they approach the media.
Militia member: Our common goal is to provide for security for ourselves, our friends and our families and then and the other people in our states if and when the need should arise.
Newscast: Their leader, Chris Hill, a.k.a. Blood Agent, says the need could arise at any time.
Chris Joyner: Those that train —probably could count those number of militias on — on two hands, certainly. But those are the ones that maybe are a little more concerning because they're trying to become operational as a sort of paramilitary unit.
Steve Fennessy: Can you talk a little bit about how much overlap there may or may not be when you when you talk about these the strange agendas that are being pursued?
Chris Joyner: Sure, yeah. QAnon is an entirely separate segment of sort of this universe of people who might have been at the Capitol. You know, they adhere to a wide-ranging conspiracy theory that holds that there's a, you know, secret underground cabal of Democrats and celebrities that have a grasp on the world and that that Donald Trump was anointed to do battle with this evil group in and, you know, eventually predicted to emerge victorious and you'd have this whole new world that would come out of it.
Because it is so wide-ranging, parts of it have become ingrained in the militia movement to a degree that I found sort of surprising. 2020 was a really big year for QAnon. Part of that had to do with the pandemic, which was, you know, the conspiracy theories about the pandemic were absorbed into the sort of QAnon network of conspiracy theories. People were more inclined to stay at home. So they were online more often and they got sort of drawn into these at the time, Facebook groups that were incubators for QAnon and that did find its way into some channels of the militias as well. So there was there was crossover there between the QAnon conspiracy theory and the like, the Three Percenters, for instance.
Steve Fennessy: Where does that name come from?
Chris Joyner: Three Percenters? It actually comes from the sort of, you know, historically dubious understanding of the American Revolution that three percent of the colonists took part in armed uprising against the British. So this would be sort of like they see themselves as sort of a vanguard against tyranny.
So in the days and weeks following the general election in November, we have Donald Trump consistently saying that the results were fraudulent, that he, in fact, had won. And we have it felt like we were kept looking, OK, we'll look forward to this date because a lot's going to happen then. And then as he keeps losing court cases, as the Electoral College submits its votes to authorize him as president, we're now kind of building up to Jan. 6th when the Senate is supposed to — constitutionally, anyway — convene to authorize and certify the results of the election.
Newscast: Good evening. A group of 11 current and incoming Republican senators today announced plans to reject Electoral College results in certain states won by President-elect Joe Biden — this despite no credible evidence of widespread fraud in the election.
Steve Fennessy: So what was the chatter that was going on? What was what message were Trump supporters taking in those days and weeks leading up to Jan. 6th?
Chris Joyner: Their backs were against the wall. This was a final opportunity. They felt like they were getting strong signals from the president himself as to there being some way they could change the outcome on this date if enough pressure was applied to, say, Vice President Pence or to Republicans in the Senate. I think one of the things that's sort of striking about this moment, compared to others, is these are not groups that normally talk to each other.
Over the last several years, the level of crosstalk between, you know, disparate factions of outright racist groups, white nationalist groups to, you know, militia groups, they may not share those same beliefs, but they there's a thread that runs through it that had allowed them to talk to each other and coordinate primarily on social media in a way that we had not seen before. That sort of led us to this moment, I think.
Donald Trump: We're going to walk down to the Capitol and we're going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women, and we're probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them because you'll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.
Steve Fennessy: So we have President Trump addressing this rally and then urging them to move on to the Capitol to march down Pennsylvania Avenue. What were your thoughts as you saw this, I'm assuming you saw it on TV?
Chris Joyner: Well, it's funny, I was actually at the Capitol in Atlanta because there was a smaller gathering there that I was keeping my eye on. These were people, though, who, for whatever reason, couldn't make it to Washington either because they didn't have the resources or it was just too much of a burden for them to try to make it for some other reason. So it was 60, 70 people or so, but it was a mix of conspiracy theorists and Trump loyalists and some militia members. So they just — they stayed on the sidewalk. They, you know, they shouted at the cars that went by, waved flags and eventually went home.
Newcast: And good afternoon, you are watching ABC News Live, we are following breaking news at this hour. Capitol Hill right now, a tinderbox. We’re gpoin to go to live images coming in. These are pro-Trump supporters who have taken to the steps of the Capitol. Right now, it is unclear if Capitol police are outnumbered at this hour.
Steve Fennessy: You were at the Capitol on Jan. 6th in Atlanta, outside the Gold Dome. At what point did you become aware that this mob in Washington had actually overrun the U.S. Capitol in D.C.?
Chris Joyner: Well, I actually came in from the sidewalk into the Capitol bureau of the AJC to do some some work on the story I was going to have to write. And it wasn't until I got inside that I realized that the crowd in Washington had marched on the Capitol and breached and was inside. And that was not known at the time to the group out in front of the Capitol here in Atlanta. And by the time it became a very serious thing that that group, fortunately, was breaking up. So they didn't have the opportunity to sort of, like, become sort of animated by that and become a problem for the Georgia Capitol police.
Newscast: Tonight, dramatic images at the U.S. Capitol Building where just today it was the scene of one of the darkest days in American history, a failed insurrection.
Steve Fennessy: The word that's been used by most in the mainstream media and certainly by me has been “insurrection.” Is that a word that they would use to describe what occurred on Wednesday of Jan. 6th?
Chris Joyner: Oh, absolutely not. You know, no. I mean, they have sort of coalesced under the — the banner of “patriot,” you know, whether they come from, you know — whatever ideological area they're coming from, they all seem to self-identify as patriots, you know, which puts them on one side. And, of course, you know, non-patriots would be on the other, treasonous people would be on the other side. And so they would not consider this insurrectionist. And you could — you could actually, if you, as many people have, watched some of the video of people as they broke in, you know, and you can hear them say, this is, you know, the people's house.
Chanting mob: Our house! Our house!
Chris Joyner: And they felt like they had every right to be where they were and didn’t, in the moment, feel like it was, you know, an insurrection. Although you did have people use the word “revolution.” You know, which is a different way of looking at it, right? You know, you had people saying this was the second revolution. This was, you know, 1776 all over again.
Steve Fennessy: Congressman Jody Hice posted that on Instagram.
Chris Joyner: A really good example. Yes.
Steve Fennessy: Just ahead, Chris Joyner on some of the Georgians who took part in the riot. This is Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. One of the people who died last week during the attempted insurrection was 34-year-old Roseanne Boyland from Kennesaw. Like many who had converged on Washington, Boyland wrongly believed President Donald Trump had won reelection. She often took to Facebook to spread outlandish conspiracy theories. A friend, Zedith Drane, knew her since kindergarten.
Zedith Drane: I don't know, like, I was considering unfriending her because I'd seen her making a lot of right-wing comments and buying into QAnon stuff and spreading conspiracy theories. And I tried talking with her about being like, hey, you're going down the rabbit hole. I'm kind of worried about you.
Justin Cave: Our family is grieving on every level for our country, for all the families that have lost loved ones or suffered injuries and for our own loss.
Steve Fennessy: Justin Cave was Roseanne Boyland's brother-in-law. He says that as he watched the events unfold, he hoped Boyland was not in the crowd.
Justin Cave: Roseanne was really passionate about her beliefs, like a lot of people are. I've never tried to be a political person, but it's my own personal belief that the president's words incited a riot that killed four of his biggest fans last night. And I believe that we should invoke the 25th Amendment at this time.
Steve Fennessy: I'm speaking with Chris Joyner, an investigative reporter at the AJC. Chris has been reporting on the extremist movements in Georgia for years now and most recently has been writing about the Georgians who've been swept up in the insurrection. I asked him what he's learned about Roseanne Boyland.
Chris Joyner: Well, I mean, we know that she was, well, they say, a woman who had very strong opinions about President Trump, that she had at least some association with the QAnon movement, according to family members, you know, elements of it. And you can see from photographs that were taken before her death that she was very excited and happy to be there. She was not someone, for instance, who I was familiar with prior to that. You know, she was just someone who had strong feelings and had believed that the election was stolen and and like sort of an average person you might find in that crowd. You know, she died essentially from being crushed by the crowd at the Capitol building. I mean, a real — one of, one of several medical emergency deaths in that crowd.
Steve Fennessy: In the following days, we started to learn that arrests were being made,
FBI Assistant Director in Charge Steven M. D’Antuono: The men and women of the FBI will leave no stone unturned in this investigation. Since these events, the FBI has worked hand in hand with the United States attorney's office and our law enforcement partners here in D.C. and across the country to arrest and charge multiple individuals who took part in the destruction. In six days, we have opened over 160 case files, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Steve Fennessy: I can imagine that you are on high alert for what that would look like in terms of Georgians being named, what were you looking for?
Chris Joyner: Well, I mean, I was looking for some people that I was familiar with who might have been there. Some some of those names have not popped up, but others have.
Newscast: More than a dozen people now facing federal charges in Wednesday's riots, including a man with Georgia ties. And that is where our continuing coverage begins. Tonight, we are learning more about the Georgia man who has been identified as Cleveland Meredith Jr.
Chris Joyner: Cleveland Meredith was a name we were familiar with because of his adherence to the QAnon conspiracy theory, had been someone we knew as having been behind QAnon billboard on Cobb Parkway in Acworth.
Steve Fennessy: And what was Cleveland Meredith — what — how does he make his living? What what does he do?
Chris Joyner: He had been part owner of a car wash in Cobb County, but more recently he had sold that and he had moved to north Georgia.
I spoke to police up there who said they were aware of them, in part because, you know, family members who are concerned about him had contacted them
Steve Fennessy: concerned because of. Because of what?
Chris Joyner: Well, I think that they were concerned about his mental health. You know, if and if you look at the charging documents, you can see that he was engaged in a text conversation with a relative who was expressing some worry, trying to talk him down. He had in these texts and these were the charges come from against him. He had allegedly threatened House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, had talked about the guns and ammunition that he had brought to D.C. He actually missed because of some problems with his trailer that he was hauling behind his pickup truck. He had actually missed the rally but was held up in a D.C. hotel and was, you know, threatening the speaker, saying what he would do with, you know, his plans to — to assassinate her, essentially talking about his weapons
Steve Fennessy: And what was in his trailer?
Chris Joyner: Assault rifles, lots of ammunition, a couple of pistols. I think it was actually one assault rifle, and that's one that he's been seen with before. He also had some — some drugs on him, sort of a gummy — marijuana gummy kind of thing with him. And he had texted about it to the relative before. And the FBI, when they paid him a visit, confiscated all that and his cell phone with the text messages on it. So that's what the charges stem from, from him.
Steve Fennessy: One of the stories you wrote two days after the insurrection on Jan. 6th was you had an interview with a man named McCall Calhoun.
Chris Joyner: Right.
Steve Fennessy: Who is McCall Calhoun?
Chris Joyner: He's a lawyer in Americus, Ga., down there in south central Georgia. And he's been a lawyer for 30 years. I guess down there. General practice, solo practitioner, has a criminal defense, does wills and things like that as well, I think. But online, he has a real extremist persona, anti-communist revolutionary, he calls himself. He has lots of, you know, shares lots of conspiracy theories about Joe Biden and other Democrats. And lots of violent ideology, lots of threats against individuals, threats against Antifa, threats against the alleged communist forces that he believed were taking over the government. And he's been doing this for a while. I think he was known for that. He he has held a couple of Second Amendment rallies over the past six, eight months in Americus, one of which attracted several dozen people and Support the Second, a smaller crowd. So, I mean, he was sort of primed to to go to this rally, he’s sort of like the target audience for this rally.
Steve Fennessy: And what did he have to say about it having been there?
Chris Joyner: Well, it's funny. He was among according to his own version of events, he was among the first to breach the Capitol. But he considered himself, if you if you talk to him, he considered himself sort of a documenter. And he didn't consider himself part of the mob, even though he was clearly, you know, in that group going in. But he felt like, you know, this was he felt he needed to be in there because he said it was history and he wanted to document it with his phone. And so he was taking pictures and sending information back to friends on social media about it.
Steve Fennessy: Is he anticipating getting a knock on the door from the FBI?
Chris Joyner: At the time I spoke to him, which was before a lot of these arrests went down, I don't suspect that he was thinking about that as much as he had not pulled down a lot of his social media at that time, which is one of the first things that they tend to do when they think they're about to be arrested. I think he was interested in framing what he did in the most favorable way. I mean, he compared himself to Rosa Parks. He compared himself to revolutionaries. He said what he was doing was civil disobedience.
And I talked to him at length about, you know, I say, you know, you're a lawyer. Did you not at any point think, well, this is not the legal way to enter the Capitol? And he would get sort of reflective about it, but eventually would say, you know, he didn't think that he really did anything wrong and that, you know, he compared the other rioters to tourists. He said, you know, if they were really rioters, they would have torn down, you know, the priceless paintings and statues.
But that's not what they were there for. But, of course, what they were there for was to interrupt the democratic process. And that's, that's the focus, the riot, not vandalism.
Steve Fennessy: What are we to expect in the coming days and weeks in terms of just the number of people who — who might be facing charges connected to all this?
Chris Joyner: One of the things that occurs to me is that we're going to have to figure out how to separate people who came to the rally and even may have marched down towards the Capitol from the people who breached the Capitol. You know, I'm getting, I get lots of tips, you know, sending me photos and things that here's somebody at the rally. Now, you may vehemently disagree with them and believe that they're wrongheaded and and deluded about the outcome of the election. But I've told those people, as you know, as far as I know, people can go to the rally. And that's not —
Steve Fennessy: That's — that's protected.
Chris Joyner: Yeah, and exactly that's not, that's not where the problem occurred.
Steve Fennessy: To close, I'd like to ask you to take out your crystal ball, which I know you have handy, but so you've spoken about how all of these various factions who have coalesced around Trump where before they may not have communicated much with each other, you know, they’re, now they are communicating. Where do you see all this heading as we transition to a Biden administration?
Chris Joyner: You know, I wrote a piece for the for the AJC that ran a few days before the riot that said that these movements were not going anywhere, that, in fact, some of them may be — may benefit from a Biden administration. And as we talked about the militia, that's just some more comfortable space for them to be anti-government than to be aligned with the president of the United States.
So some of them may find it easier to recruit if, for instance, the Biden administration is pushing gun control legislation, for instance. That's a that's a big red flag for, so to speak, for — for that movement. So I don't think that we're going to see in the short term these groups disappear. I'm kind of interested to see how they continue to coordinate across ideologies. That's not been something that the extreme right or frankly, the extreme left has been able to do for any length of time. They are these are people who are they live in a different reality and they tend to have a lot of litmus tests on what it means to be who they are. And if you don't tick all those boxes, then you are an enemy, sometimes a worse enemy than the people you would think would be their most likely enemies. You know, the militia movement fights among itself in a tooth-and-nail sort of way that, you know, has always sort of kept it from, from organizing effectively.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to Chris Joyner, an investigative reporter with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach President Donald Trump. He's accused of inciting an insurrection just before the deadly Capitol riot on Jan. 6th. Trump now becomes the first president in history to be impeached twice.
The articles of impeachment now head to the Senate, which likely won't take it up until after President-elect Biden takes office next Wednesday. Meanwhile, the FBI is warning of plans for armed protests at all 50 state capitols and in the nation's capital in the days leading up to Biden's inauguration next Wednesday.
I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Our producer is Sean Powers. You can subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts.