Living In The Florida County That Became A Breeding Ground For Capitol Rioters

Seven residents of Brevard County — where cruelty and violence are fixtures of "Make America Great Again" politics — have been arrested since Jan. 6, 2021.
Phil Heck sells right-wing merchandise by a road in Brevard County, Florida, on Dec. 16.
Phil Heck sells right-wing merchandise by a road in Brevard County, Florida, on Dec. 16.
Octavio Jones for HuffPost

Brevard County, Florida, home to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and the SpaceX project, typically makes headlines for sending people beyond Earth. Recently, however, it has drawn attention for a different reason: the number of residents it sent to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021.

Federal authorities have accused seven Space Coast locals of taking part in the historic attack on the U.S. Capitol, giving Brevard County the dubious distinction of having the sixth-highest number of people arrested in the riot investigation in the country, according to a George Washington University analysis. (The top five counties represent major urban areas: Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago and Seattle.)

Among those arrested were a high school teacher who coached the football team; a pastor at a local church; his son, the church’s vice president; a parishioner at the church; and an Army veteran who belonged to the far-right militia the Oath Keepers.

Why do so many of the rioters hail from this coastal region east of Orlando? In the year since the Capitol riot, academics have studied data to divine why places like Brevard County were such hotspots — an effort to better understand the underlying social conditions driving conservative Americans toward violent insurrectionism.

Heavy traffic in downtown Cocoa, Florida, on Dec. 22. Brevard County is one of the least-populated areas in the country where multiple suspects in the Capitol riot have been based.
Heavy traffic in downtown Cocoa, Florida, on Dec. 22. Brevard County is one of the least-populated areas in the country where multiple suspects in the Capitol riot have been based.
Octavio Jones for HuffPost

Perhaps the most compelling study on the subject was published by Robert Pape at the University of Chicago, who found that Capitol insurgents were more likely to come from counties where the white population was getting smaller. “For every one-point drop in a county’s percentage of non-Hispanic whites from 2015 to 2019, the likelihood of an insurgent hailing from that county increased by 25 percent,” The Atlantic reported, citing his research.

For Pape, a political science professor and expert in political violence, the findings were further evidence that the Capitol attack was fueled by white nationalist fears over the “great replacement” — the conspiracy theory that one day Black people, Hispanic people and other minorities will not only overtake whites as the majority population in America but will also have more rights.

Brevard County is indeed home to a diversifying population. In 2020, according to an analysis of census data by Florida Today, 74% of Brevard County identified as white, an 11% drop from a decade earlier. (The seven Brevard arrestees are overwhelmingly white, all men and have a median age over 40 — a profile consistent with the majority of the over 700 Capitol riot suspects arrested from around the country. They all either declined or did not respond to interview requests for this story.)

A expletive-bearing flag denigrating President Joe Biden and a Confederate flag fly over a home in Brevard County, Florida, on Dec. 16.
A expletive-bearing flag denigrating President Joe Biden and a Confederate flag fly over a home in Brevard County, Florida, on Dec. 16.
Octavio Jones for HuffPost

But some people in Brevard County have another, related theory for why so many of their neighbors were arrested in the storming of the Capitol: They were inspired in part by the rhetoric and actions of their local elected lawmakers and officials.

Brevard is home to a group of bellicose Republicans — all of whom have embraced former President Donald Trump’s lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen — who in recent years have targeted their political opponents with a particularly vile and vindictive mix of harassment and mendacity. The result has been incidents of alleged violence, vandalism, intimidation and even a false report of child abuse.

In this coterie are a sheriff with extensive ties to the extremist constitutional sheriffs movement; a state representative who may have created a website to falsely accuse two of his enemies of having an affair; a county commissioner who has advocated that a local Democratic official get an abortion so that her “litter” wouldn’t be a “scourge on humanity”; a mayor who bragged about stockpiling weapons to use against Democrats; and a U.S. congressman who recently said “Let’s go, Brandon” — a euphemism for “Fuck Joe Biden” — on the House floor.

The aggressive style of politics here predated the attack on the Capitol, local residents told HuffPost, and has only escalated in the year since. Brevard County should be a warning to the rest of the country that “Make America Great Again” political violence didn’t reach its high-water mark on Jan. 6, the residents said. To the contrary, tensions are bound to intensify heading into the midterm elections this year and the presidential election in 2024.

Brevard could prove a harbinger of the political turmoil to come.

“I Probably Cried Every Day”

The attack on Brevard County School Board member Jennifer Jenkins included a coarse message burned onto her lawn.
The attack on Brevard County School Board member Jennifer Jenkins included a coarse message burned onto her lawn.
Octavio Jones for HuffPost

“F U.”

That was the message, burned onto the front lawn with weed killer, that greeted 34-year-old Jennifer Jenkins outside her home on the morning of Sept. 1.

The night before had been one of the most surreal of her life. About 20 right-wing, anti-mask protesters had gathered outside her young family’s house in Satellite Beach, haranguing her and her daughter. “Be careful, your mommy hurts little kids!” Jenkins remembers one of the protesters screaming. “You’re going to jail!” said another. One protester even went out of the way to cough in Jenkins’ face. “Give her COVID!” someone screamed.

Jenkins had never anticipated this. When she ran for school board in early 2020, it was mostly so she — an elementary school speech pathologist at the time — could work to raise teacher salaries. To the surprise of many, she ended up defeating the Republican incumbent by 10 percentage points, despite being a Democrat in a red county.

She was thrilled, but the coronavirus pandemic arrived a short time later, a once-in-a-century crisis that, combined with an already tumultuous presidential election season, had the effect of conscripting Jenkins into the culture wars.

Right-wing protesters first turned up outside her house in April, a group of about 15 people angry over school codes that allowed trans students to use bathrooms that aligned with their gender. (Others on the school board had supported the codes, which were not new, but the protesters targeted Jenkins, one of the board’s two Democrats.) “Pedophiles!” they screamed at Jenkins and her husband, a local teacher. “We’re coming for you,” another protester yelled. “We’re coming at you like a freight train! We are going to make you beg for mercy. If you thought Jan. 6 was bad, wait until you see what we have for you!”

Then an anti-mask MAGA group called Moms for Liberty, formed by the Republican whom Jenkins defeated for the school board seat, became a fixture at school board meetings. Jenkins had to have a police escort to and from her car to protect her from the mob of Trump supporters carrying flags and yelling at her through megaphones in the parking lot. (Moms for Liberty has since gone national, targeting school boards across the country.)

The protesters who made it inside the meetings disrupted speeches by LGBTQ students with chants of “Shame!” Outside, members were “banging on the doors and windows” of the building, Jenkins recalled, in what she referred to as a “mini-insurrection.”

“It was the most disturbing, disgusting scene on the planet outside of our school board,” she said.

By late July, after Jenkins came out in support of a mask mandate in schools, Republican state Rep. Randy Fine posted her personal cellphone number on Facebook, encouraging his tens of thousands of followers to call her. “COVID is neither highly transmissible in school AND has nominal effect on children,” Fine wrote in the since-deleted post. “If you want to stand up for your rights, call Jenkins RIGHT NOW and let her know exactly how you feel.”

Jenkins was inundated with menacing calls and texts. In the following months, as reported by The Daily Beast, Fine escalated his attacks on Jenkins. Her support of masks was “literally government-sanctioned child abuse,” Fine wrote in one Facebook post. There was “a special place in hell” for Jenkins,” he said in another.

Then, on the evening of Sept. 1, about 20 protesters turned up outside Jenkins’ home again. Jenkins initially did her best not to engage with them. But around 8 p.m., she tried to read a bedtime story to her daughter as protesters walked by the bedroom window. “Mommy, when are the mean people going to leave?” she said her daughter asked.

“And I just got pissed,” Jenkins recalled. “Like I just finally lost my shit, and I went outside.”

She yelled at the protesters. That’s when Janice Crisp — a local MAGA activist who months earlier had filmed herself giving the white nationalist “OK” sign as she drove to D.C. for the Jan. 6 rally — coughed in Jenkins’ face.

“Randy Fine says hello!” Crisp screamed at one point. Another protester swung a Gadsden “Don’t tread on me” flag at Jenkins, nearly hitting her in the head. Eventually they all left.

Jenkins discovered the “F U” burned into her lawn the next morning.

Later that day, an investigator from the Florida Department of Children and Families arrived at her home. An anonymous caller had lodged a fake accusation of child abuse against her. The investigator questioned Jenkins about how she disciplined her daughter, even eventually inspecting the child for burn marks that weren’t there.

Police are now investigating who called in the fake report, which Jenkins is sure is connected to the protests.

“There was a point where I probably cried every day. … It’s really hard. Because it doesn’t only affect me, it affects my family,” Jenkins said. “It’s been horrible, and I feel like my job has been kidnapped.”

Fine didn’t respond to a request for comment about his role in Jenkins’ harassment.

Jenkins feels a duty to keep going. She has been moved by the gratitude she received from LGBTQ students and their families, and from parents grappling with how to educate their students safely during a historic pandemic.

“I have this, this horrible burden of not letting people down and balancing not letting the people who are torturing me know that they’re torturing me,” Jenkins said.

In November, Jenkins filed for an emergency restraining order against Fine to prevent him from targeting her online. They’re due in court next week.

“Never Challenge My Authority”

Blogger and journalist Robert Burns in his subdivision in Brevard County on Dec. 22. Burns says a state lawmaker who represents the county was behind an assault on him in November.
Blogger and journalist Robert Burns in his subdivision in Brevard County on Dec. 22. Burns says a state lawmaker who represents the county was behind an assault on him in November.
Octavio Jones for HuffPost

In early November, Robert Burns, a 41-year-old Army veteran who served as a medic in Iraq, was on the phone while walking through Turkey Creek Sanctuary in Brevard County when two large white men approached him.

“Are you Robert Burns?” one man asked.

“Yes,” Burns replied.

“Are you Randy Fine’s Robert Burns?” the man continued.

“Yeah, unfortunately,” Burns replied.

“Oh, OK, so you like to rape and abuse women and children?”

Burns and the man started to fight, falling to the ground. As they wrestled, Burns says the second man hit him over the head with a heavy object, knocking him out.

Burns, who says he has post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries from his time in Iraq, woke up minutes later. The men were gone. Photos he shared with HuffPost show him in the hospital that evening with bruised ribs (from where he thinks the men kicked him while he was unconscious) and other injuries to his neck, head and hands.

A Palm Bay Police Department spokesman told HuffPost an investigation into the incident was ongoing.

Years ago, after leaving the Army, Burns moved back to Brevard County, where he grew up. He got into politics, doing social media consulting for local candidates. He launched a politics blog called the Space Coast Rocket, which was often critical of Fine. Burns eventually ended up serving as the campaign manager for Fine’s opponent in the 2020 Republican primary.

Fine began to obsessively target Burns online, repeatedly calling him a “rapist,” a charge stemming from accusations that Burns sexually assaulted a woman while in the Army.

(Burns vehemently denies this accusation, saying he and his accuser had consensual sex while inebriated. The rape charges against him were dismissed by the Army. The accuser, however, maintains that it was rape. In July, Fine paid for the woman to fly to Florida to hold a press conference to make her case against Burns.)

Fine has also baselessly accused Burns multiple times of having an affair with Jenkins, the school board member. His only evidence for this claim was a photo — presumably taken by one of Burns’ neighbors — of Jenkins leaving Burns’ house in the middle of the day.

On Nov. 3, Fine posted the photo on Facebook, linking to an anonymous blog on a website solely devoted to lashing out at Burns. “While taxpayers pay Jennifer ‘Jezebel’ Jenkins for her school board duties, many of those hours are spent in the home of political consultant…Robert Burns,” the blog began. (A Daily Beast investigation found that Fine likely had a role in the launch of this Burns-focused website. He didn’t respond to HuffPost’s question about his alleged involvement.)

The post was published just minutes before Burns was approached by the two men in the park.

Burns and Jenkins are friends, and they did meet at Burns’ house — not for a secret tryst but to work on compiling evidence that Fine’s harassment of them violates a state cyberstalking law that Fine himself helped pass. They have since handed over that evidence to a local prosecutor. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating Fine over these complaints.

Burns said he thinks so many Capitol rioters came from Brevard County because of the example set not just by Fine but by other local officials who target their political enemies with relative impunity. (Fine said in an email to HuffPost that he strongly condemned the Capitol rioters after Jan. 6, pointing to Facebook posts he made at the time calling them “dirtbags” who deserved “the maximum possible punishment, up to and including capital.”)

Take Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey, for example, Burns said.

Burns claims that one night — after a county commission meeting where he questioned Ivey over the sheriff’s budget — a sheriff’s deputy pulled him over after midnight, accusing him of having run a stop sign in the quiet subdivision where he lives. Burns said the deputy kept him there for 45 minutes.

At the next county commission meeting, Burns heard through a friend that Ivey bragged about the traffic stop. “I had my boy take care of [Burns],” Ivey allegedly said. “He’s a nobody. He thinks he can do this. I’m gonna make sure he ends up in front of a judge that’s going to have him picking up dog shit on my chain gang.”

HuffPost could not independently verify these accusations, which Ivey called “outrageous” in an email to HuffPost. (However, Ivey has used chain gangs in Brevard, the draconian act of tethering inmates, all wearing striped uniforms, together by the ankles with chains and forcing them to do road work.)

“Thank you for reaching out to me and here is a great picture of me and my dog ‘Junny’ that you can feel free to use in your story!!” Ivey wrote in his email to HuffPost. “Please be sure to send me a link to the article as I always enjoy a good chuckle.”

Ivey has publicly aligned himself with the constitutional sheriff’s movement, an inherently insurrectionary network of sheriffs who believe they are the ultimate law enforcement authority in their counties, outranking officials from the federal or state government.

This far-right extremist movement is closely tied to the broader, anti-democratic militia or “patriot” movement, which is animated by a multitude of conspiracy theories about gun confiscation, Muslims and immigrants. (Ivey, who once spoke at a Trump rally in Tampa, was among those sheriffs in 2019 who pledged to detain immigrants on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.)

Ivey treats the press as his enemy. His department allegedly refused to talk to a Black reporter from Florida Today after deeming him “big, boisterous and pushy.” Ivey more recently told another Florida Today reporter to “never challenge my authority.”

Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey and his dog.
Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey and his dog.
Courtesy of Sheriff Wayne Ivey

A Legacy Of Hate

Elsewhere in Brevard County, Henry Parrish, the former Republican mayor of Cocoa, posted a message essentially encouraging his party to prepare for civil war against Democrats.

In a Facebook comment directed at Bryan Lober, a Republican county commissioner, Parrish wrote: “In my opinion it’s fair to note at this point we’re not the ones making the case for the Dems to be eradicated from the planet. They themselves are…The founding fathers knew that this was the most likely scenario to threaten our republic. I say let the socialists/communists keep having their meetings [while] I’ll be buying more AR-15s. Now that’s reality.”

Parrish did not respond to a request for comment.

Lober, the Republican county commissioner, has himself made a series of truly disturbing remarks about his political opponents.

In 2019, in a comment thread on Lober’s Facebook page about Democrats protesting a Trump rally in Orlando, a commenter wrote: “Word of wisdom to the protesters – Beware of the Dodge Chargers!” a seemingly fumbled reference to the Dodge Challenger that a neo-Nazi drove into a group of anti-racist protesters, killing Heather Heyer, at the 2017 white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Another commenter responded: “If you hit one back up and go again. (just kidding).”

To that comment, Lober responded, “I wouldn’t recommend using a snow plow. It might look intentional.” He then added an emoji of a goofy face with a stuck-out tongue.

Responding to backlash over the comment, Lober claimed that he thought “Dodge Chargers” was a reference to the model of car used by police in Florida. His “snowplow” comment, he said, was a reference to an incident in Massachusetts in which anti-Trump protesters were splashed with slush. (Florida is one of a handful of states in the country where conservatives have passed laws making it easier for drivers to run over protesters with their cars with impunity. Fine, a close ally of Lober’s, voted for the law.)

In another Facebook post that year, Lober suggested that one of his female opponents — then-Brevard County Democratic Chair Stacey Patel — should get an abortion.

“I’m not typically a big abortion proponent but in Patel’s case, I might look the other way as I can only imagine what a scourge of humanity (and on our economy) her offspring would prove to be given that her litter would likely be raised with an entitlement mentality, zero work ethic and taught the hypocritically racist and sexist position that the white man is evil,” Lober wrote.

Patel called the comments “cruel” and said it was “entirely inappropriate to dehumanize one’s political adversary.” To refer to “my potential children as a ‘litter’ and a ‘scourge on humanity’ is truly beyond the pale.”

In an email to HuffPost, Lober called the post “a poor attempt at humor.”

“In hindsight, I regret having made that comment but I believe the response to it has been massively overblown,” Lober wrote. “To be talking about this years later is a bit much.”

When Stacey Patel was Brevard County Democratic chair, a Republican county commissioner suggested she get an abortion and not create "a litter."
When Stacey Patel was Brevard County Democratic chair, a Republican county commissioner suggested she get an abortion and not create "a litter."
Courtesy Stacey Patel

Patel doesn’t think it’s a “bit much.” She and her husband, Sanjay, who is also involved in local Democratic politics, have been frequent targets of GOP officials in Brevard. Fine, for example, recently referred to the couple as “human feces.”

This kind of behavior by white reactionaries is part of Brevard County’s DNA, Patel said. After all, she noted, one of the first major assassinations of the civil rights era took place here. In 1950, Harry T. Moore, who headed up the state chapter of the NAACP, and his wife, Harriette, were murdered when a bomb exploded at their home in the town of Mims. Law enforcement investigations later implicated area Klansmen in the murders, though none were ever convicted.

In 2008, the Patels erected a sign celebrating Barack Obama’s election victory in their front yard. “A truck came by with baseball bats and destroyed it, egged our house and they yelled ‘sand-n****r’ and ‘terrorist’ at my husband,” Patel recalled.

Such actions, and the rhetoric of the local GOP officials, Patel said, are meant to intimidate people into not participating in democracy.

“People don’t want to be treated like we have been treated,” she said. “So their willingness to run for office or say what needs to be said is definitely diminished.”

Patel’s dad was in the military, so her family moved around a lot. She went to high school in Brevard County, moved away for a while and then moved back with her husband about 15 years ago. During the pandemic, she set up a widely used mutual aid program to help feed and clothe their neighbors. Brevard is her home, yet now she and her husband discuss daily whether it’s time to “move to safer ground.”

“If you’re a military brat, nowhere is ever home,” Patel said, briefly breaking down in tears. “And so you think when you give everything you have to a place — and really, like, I don’t work for money, I just try to serve my community in the best way that I know how — and when you do that, you think you’ve earned your ability to call a place home, but I’m not sure that we’ll be able to do that.”

“And that makes me very sad, because we have a beautiful community here. But, I’m sorry, I’m just… I’m not sure that we’ll be able to stay.”

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