Georgians who joined Trump rally steeped in far-right rhetoric, activism

As Congress debated President Donald Trump’s fitness to serve out his presidency Tuesday night, six days after the siege of the U.S. Capitol, a smaller version of that drama unfolded before the Coweta County Board of Education.

Meeting in Newnan, residents called on the board to censure and remove one of its members, Linda Menk, for attending the pro-Trump rally on Jan. 6, the protest that preceded the deadly insurrection at the Capitol. Some called on her to resign.

Parent Kenya Brantley described the D.C. rioters as “insurrectionists, seditionists, traitors, murderers.” Brantley pointed out a noose was displayed outside the Capitol and that one man who broke into the Capitol wore a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt.

“This horrible day resulted in the loss of five American lives,” Brantley told the board. “And just when I thought my shock value had reached its maximum point, imagine my disappointment when I learned our very own, Ms. Menk, was present at this rally. I couldn’t believe it.”

Menk told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution she was nowhere near the Capitol when the violence began. On Facebook, she described the assault on the Capitol as a “false flag” event carried out by anti-fascist activists, a claim the FBI has denied.

Menk and many other Georgians who went to Washington for the Trump rally are not new to far-right activism. Prior to the rally, Menk’s partisan behavior and charged social media posts angered many in the south metro suburb.

Others who attended the Jan. 6 event in D.C., some of whom have since been charged with crimes, had visited “Stop the Steal” rallies, where baseless and debunked claims of election fraud were offered as settled fact. And still others had a history of trafficking in conspiracy theories and violent rhetoric online, according to their social media feeds.

Amy Iandiorio, an investigative researcher with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said those who attended the rally were there because of years of grievances and anger nurtured by the president. Social media echo chambers that propagated conspiracy theories and feelings of victimhood among Trump’s most extreme supporters reinforced their beliefs, she said.

“That sense of loss of something being taken or stolen — that is the basis for a lot of extremist ideologies,” she said. “I think is that what motivated the larger group of people that we saw.”

Some of those who breached the Capitol have been identified as members of far-right militias, white supremacist groups and adherents of the wild and baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, Iandiorio said. The ADL has identified 17 members of extremist groups inside the Capitol from photos and videos posted that day.

Extreme social media rhetoric

The AJC has confirmed some Georgians were among the rioters. Dominic Box, a Savannah resident, had a history of organizing rallies tied to the QAnon conspiracy theory. On Jan. 6, he broadcast the assault on the Capitol with enthusiastic commentary from inside the mob as it pushed past police.

Following the riot, Box lost his job at a local Nissan dealership. In an interview with the Savannah Morning News, Box denied association with QAnon and claimed he was at the Capitol as a “citizen journalist.”

“I’m still engaged with my friends and my networks here in Savannah, and I intend on still remaining active and in the things that are of interest to me,” Box told the newspaper. “And ultimately, I know that I was not involved in any violence and vandalism, any criminality or any illegal behavior, and my conscience is clear.”

Americus attorney McCall Calhoun was also among those who stormed and broke into the Capitol, he told the AJC. Like Box, he claimed to be there as an observer, although online video appears to show him among a group breaking through a police line that attempted to block rioters from reaching further into the building.

“It probably wasn’t the best idea, but it was what this group of people did and they did it for the love of America, not any hatred toward anyone,” he said of the group, which included neo-Nazis.

For months, Calhoun wrote inflammatory posts on social media, including threats to hang President-elect Joe Biden and referring to Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a “dead commie walking.”

The movement’s fringe

Mary McCord, legal director at Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, said the history of some of the Capitol rioters may result in more serious charges. Social media posts from prior to the Jan. 6 riot could reveal their state of mind as they marched on the Capitol, she said.

“When you can establish that kind of intent,” she said, “you can end up with enough evidence to charge more serious crimes and crimes like insurrection and seditious conspiracy.”

Cleveland Meredith, another longtime Georgia resident who went to Washington for the rally, gained notoriety when he paid to erect a billboard promoting QAnon in metro Atlanta in 2018. Last year, he showed up at a Black Lives Matter protest in Hiawassee carrying an assault rifle. His behavior was so worrisome that family members warned police to keep an eye on him when he moved to the North Georgia city.

The FBI arrested Meredith at a D.C. motel, confiscating guns, drugs and a cell phone. The motel was where he allegedly sent texts threatening to assassinate House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Most of those who attended the Jan. 6 rally, Iandiorio said, came from “the extreme wing of the pro-Trump movement” who were egged on by even more extreme actors from fringe movements, like white supremacist “accelerationists,” who hope events like Jan. 6 will speed the downfall of the U.S. government.

“That fringe is very hellbent to bringing chaos and the dismantling of the system,” she said, adding that extremists took advantage of people they viewed as more mainstream, cheering them on as they marched to the Capitol.

Menk unapologetic

This is not the first time Menk, who also is first vice chairwoman of the Coweta Republican Party, has faced calls to resign. A few years ago, her critics started a petition to remove her from the Board of Education.

A law firm probing allegations of bid-rigging found the allegations were untrue and said evidence it gathered strongly suggested Menk pursued a political agenda by “actively participating in building a case against her own Board to undermine their vote and create a public scandal.” The aim was to force out “liberal” members of the non-partisan board, the law firm said.

Last July, the school board was asked to censure Menk for racially divisive comments on her Facebook page that board member Amy Dees described as “vile.”

At times, the board’s Tuesday meeting grew tense. Chairwoman Beth Barnett repeatedly banged her gavel and admonished speakers not to personally attack Menk before ruling one woman out of order. Cynthia Finney, the president of the Coweta County NAACP, called for Menk to resign.

Others defended Menk, saying she was entitled to attend the rally in D.C. and was exercising her First Amendment rights there. Menk said she would not apologize for going to D.C.

“I participated in a very peaceful rally in support of your protection — the protection of your right to vote and to have your voice and your vote count,” she told the audience. “I don’t have to agree with it, but I am going to fight like the dickens to protect it and I will die to make sure you get it.”