'It got real:' what Brevardians who went to Washington D.C. on January 6 saw and felt
They call themselves patriots. Their harshest critics may call them insurrectionists or traitors. In Brevard County, they are, most simply, our neighbors.
While the nation still grapples with what happened in Washington D.C. on January 6, Brevard residents who attended the protests that devolved into a riotous mob that stormed the Capitol, resulting in four deaths, including one police officer, came back with a mix of emotions.
Some feel conflicted; others, not so much. Some say they're taking a break from politics; others vow they've only just begun and feel more emboldened. Rumors and misinformation that the violence at the Capitol was perpetuated by Antifa militants and other left-wing agitators disguised as Trump supporters was spread like wildfire. Reports circulated both online and on the floor of Congress when Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) cited false information that a facial recognition company had identified Antifa members.
Some of those Brevard residents at the scene Wednesday told FLORIDA TODAY that there was a perception that Antifa was in the crowd even before the protest became a riot.
Former Palm Bay City Council candidate Janice Crisp, who on her social media claims to associate with members of the militant far-right Proud Boys organization, was among those who went to the capital and said that the violence was caused by Antifa in cahoots with the mayor of Washington D.C.
Crisp did not respond to request for comment but in a Facebook live stream posted Thursday night she claimed that the lack of amenities such as port-a-potties and handicap accessible rest areas on the National Mall was evidence that the mayor and Antifa conspired against Trump and his supporters.
"We were targeted," she said, complaining about the lack of police protection and no cell service in a crowd of tens of thousands.
"There was Antifa all around us, they were riding bikes, and it was easy to spot them, the long shaggy hair... earrings all over their face... they did not look like Trump people, no Trump gear," she said.
Some felt there was simply no way their side would resort to such violence — which they all condemned — despite the fact that all those arrested or wanted by the authorities for the breaching of the chambers of Congress have been identified as Trump supporters. Some are even well-known figures in the pro-Trump movement.
Authorities said Friday that there was no evidence so far that Antifa or any other left-wing group had a hand in Wednesday's violence. Among those who stormed the Capitol: A Republican West Virginia legislator.
But few of those FLORIDA TODAY spoke to witnessed violent acts up close. Only one admitted to being within steps of the Capitol doors and witnessed fellow Trump supporters fighting with police and pushing against the police barricades that fell.
For him, the day ended with a moment of silent and somber reflection at the Lincoln Memorial.
It was a dark day in American history and these people saw it up close and personally. Here are the stories of Brevardians who were in Washington D.C. on January 6 to protest the certification of the electoral college vote which, after a delay caused by the mob, ultimately named Joe Biden and Kamala Harris the president and vice president by a margin of 306-232 over President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who oversaw the count.
Debra Verzi, 63 and Anthony Verzi, 68, Melbourne
The trip was a week in the making. Debra Verzi, a nurse volunteer, and her retired husband Anthony Verzi went back and forth, but around New Year's they decided to go.
"We felt it was necessary to go there and show the country that something wrong has occurred and people are standing up for it," said Anthony Verzi, who said he had volunteered for the Trump campaign for four months, making phone calls.
The election, the Verzis believe, was stolen. This claim has been repeated by the president and his allies since election day, though following the violence on January 6, some have changed their tune. Over 60 lawsuits failed to make a compelling argument or present compelling evidence for widespread systemic voter fraud to benefit the Biden-Harris ticket.
"But the bottom line is that we stood by and watched court after court refuse to even look at evidence," said Debra Verzi. "It was always some little — 'no standing — some little technicality."
While it is true that the Supreme Court denied hearing a longshot lawsuit brought by the State of Texas because it said the state had no standing to bring it, nearly 60 other cases were thrown out for a variety of reasons, including insufficient evidence.
But the Verzis believe differently, accusing the judicial system of "moral cowardice."
The Verzis stayed in Arlington the night before the protests and headed to the Ellipse around 9:30 a.m. to hear President Trump speak.
Speaking to a reporter as they drove home Thursday through Virginia, their two dogs in tow, Debra Verzi said she and her husband spent the morning mostly speaking to fellow demonstrators, who they said hailed from across the country.
"We really had some really wonderful conversations with a young couple there with their five-month-old baby from Ohio, people from California, Wyoming, I mean I could go on and on," she said.
This was her first time "literally marching on Washington" but she had attended other conservative gatherings in the capital in the past, including Tea Party events and a rally hosted by Glenn Beck years ago.
Mostly milling near the Washington Monument where a massive overflow crowd had gathered, Debra said: "We couldn't hear the speakers because the speakers were off to the right."
They strained to hear Rudy Giuliani and then the president speak, and only made out maybe 20-30% of what was being said over the noise of the crowd.
"It was a massive group. It was a very peaceful group," Debra Verzi said.
But before the president finished speaking, she said that parts of the crowd already began to migrate down the Mall towards the Capitol building. The Verzis followed.
"There was absolutely no cell signal so we couldn't even listen to the president's speech on our phone. So, we are just all walking towards the Capitol again. No problem. There was a lot of, a lot of people singing religious songs and patriotic songs during the walk," she said.
Throughout, they said, they were on the lookout for Antifa, because "some locals that live in the DC area ... said that we needed to be on the alert because Antifa was planning to infiltrate the group," she said. They scanned the crowds, looking for people who didn't "fit in," people who "didn't match your average conservative."
By the time the Verzis arrived at the Capitol, the cold was starting to wear them down.
"There were already a massive amount of people on the lawn, all the way up on the steps. But we chose to not do that, so we stood back. And because it was excruciatingly cold, I looked at my husband and I said: 'You know what, I think it's time to leave.' He said, 'Okay.'"
Unable to board the metro at the Capitol South station, which was closed, they went to the Federal station. But not before they saw a motorcade of black vehicles with flashing lights, which they now suspect may have been Pence being whisked away from the Capitol.
"It was a ton of black limos lights flashing flying out of the back of the Capitol and going wherever they're going so we're like, 'Oh gee I wonder what that is? What happened?" she said.
It wasn't until they got back to their hotel in Arlington and flipped on the TV that they found out what had happened.
Their reaction was that the people storming the Capitol couldn't be from their group.
She believes Trump supporters were "used" and some were "gullible" for going into the Capitol once it was breached.
The group she said she left at the rally "was not a group that would storm the Capitol, break windows ... But I will tell you, I do believe that there were some gullible people that went in when the windows were breached," she said.
"This country has become so divided, we are law abiding, tax paying citizens. We are your mother and your father, your sister, your brother, we are not radicals, we are very very ordinary people. And we just spent a day in the presence of some of the most ordinary people you would ever find on a road trip across this entire country."
The violence, she said, undercut their aims, which was to get Congress to force an investigation of the election in six battleground states that Trump lost to Biden.
"Then we could all go forward feeling that our country is not being taken over by Marxists who want to control everything including the media and tell us to just shut up and sit down," she said.
The Verzis said that they've left the Republican Party, which they now feel is corrupt.
"The Republican Party are a bunch of wimps and a bunch of go-alongs and they're just lining their own pockets," said Debra Verzi.
As for the future, the Verzis say Jan. 6 was enough excitement for now.
"It's your turn," Debra Verzi said, calling on the next generation to get involved.
Cheryl Lankes, 63, Melbourne
Like the Verzis, Cheryl Lankes, a former GOP state committeewoman for Brevard County, decided to go to Washington just a week before the protests. She hitched a ride on an overnight bus organized by a pro-Trump organizer in Indian River County.
The bus arrived early, around 7 a.m., and by 9 a.m. she was near the Washington monument ready to listen to the president and other speakers.
"We saw this giant pile of backpacks, for people in line. They couldn't carry anything in with them ... So, we decided not to go into that area, but rather watch it on a screen in front of the Washington Monument," Lankes said.
She too had been told to be on the lookout for Antifa. The bus organizer told everyone to be on the lookout for people wearing their MAGA hats backwards.
"We had heard on the bus that they were going to be non-patriot protesters, that Antifa and Black Lives Matters would be there. And we would be taking the risk ourselves if we decided to walk to the Capitol," she said.
Eventually Lankes and a small group from her bus that she hung out with decided to make their way towards the Capitol around 1:30 p.m. with the tail end of the crowd which she said mostly consisted of families and people wheeling elderly relatives in wheelchairs.
Along the way she recalled seeing various groups had assembled stands or tents, one that caught her eye was an Asian-Americans for Trump group clad in all orange.
"There was a lot more family. There were a lot more young people. There was a lot more diversity than I expected. And it was like a vacation-style event where people brought their children. You know, had a picnic in the park. It wasn't just angry old white people," she said.
But Lankes said she got no closer than the Capitol's Reflection Pool, by the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial.
"We saw more people climbing the steps, more people going across the balcony area. And, I mean, people were aggravated that they were going to be left out of their government and that their opinion wasn't going to count. Definitely not a happy bunch," she said.
Suddenly at one point, Lankes said she saw tear gas deployed in the distance and began to receive text messages from worried friends who were watching the events on television. She said that while she never felt unsafe, she left shortly thereafter.
"We decided to leave because we're older and we've left it up to the young people. We're like: 'we're too old for this!' We had a long walk back to the bus. It was like two and a half, three miles back," she said.
At 3:30 p.m., they got to their pickup point. Two hours later the bus arrived to take them home.
Adrienne Anderson, 32, Melbourne
Adrienne Anderson a small business owner from Melbourne, said she decided to go to Washington D.C. nearly two weeks ago. She flew there with a friend and met up with other acquaintances. She spoke to FLORIDA TODAY after flying back Thursday.
Anderson had attended the smaller events of January 5 as well, she said, but noted the weather was nasty, "It hailed a bit," she said so she didn't stay long.
The next day, she went to the area by the Washington Monument to hear Trump speak.
"People were just milling about from there all the way to like the Capitol, and the Lincoln Memorial. I would say a large, a large chunk of people were standing between the White House and Washington Memorial at that point in time," she said.
She said the crowd was "mellow" as she walked through. She saw a broad range of ages, from a WWII vet in a wheelchair to families with young children in strollers. Some brought folding chairs and blankets and ate food from their backpacks.
She settled near a big screen to watch the president's speech.
"I didn't hear his entire speech, I missed sort of at the end when people knew he was wrapping up and kind of started merging towards the Capitol in that direction," she said. Anderson said she wandered out ahead of the pack, so she wasn't cramped shoulder to shoulder.
There appeared to be no real order or organization to the march, she said, but noted there was unease when the crowd encountered a police barricade. Officers on the steps, she said, had their guns pointed down toward the crowd "like maybe they were expecting (something)."
She said people in the crowd began to wonder aloud why the police would be there with such a posture. It was a sight she said was unfamiliar from having attended Tea Party rallies, Stop the Steal rallies and the Million MAGA march previously.
"We've just never encountered a drawn weapon, upon arrival. So that was, that was odd," she said.
While chants of "Stop the Steal" and "We want Trump" grew so did a sense of unease, she said.
Anderson said she never got much closer than the lowest steps of the Capitol and watched from the ground level.
"As it filled in and got more full there was chanting and that kind of thing, but I never witnessed anything that would have ... incited some type of violence," Anderson said.
As people continued to pour in from the Mall, it pushed people further up the Capitol steps. Then, she noticed that some flashbangs went off, and she felt the presence of chemical agents in the air.
At that point, Anderson said she was by the lawn in front of the Capitol, and she encountered a young woman who had been exposed. "She was like, clutching her handbags. She was like, 'Oh my God! This stuff is in my face and my eyes are burning.'"
Anderson said her group offered water to the woman and others who at this point were leaving as authorities began to disperse the crowd.
"I was really shocked honestly because of the group of people that were there. I mean had it just been like men who are armed or, you know, (wearing)tactical gear and things like that. I could see the reaction of, you know, the Capitol (police) being like. 'Oh wow! This seems more of like a militia than it does a rally,'" Anderson said.
But she added that she did not see what was happening at the building itself. It was only later that she learned the Capitol had been breached.
"There was nothing we could figure out that had happened, and really at that point I think that's when people started kind of just rushing in to walk and go up," she said.
Like others, she too believed that Antifa may have been among the crowd,
"There was one young gentleman who had his hat on backwards and somebody asked him, 'Are you Antifa?' And he said, 'No Why would you think that?'
"And they said: 'Well, you know you have your hat on backwards,' and I hadn't seen anybody else with their hat on backwards. And he was like, 'Okay.' So he turned his hat around and wore it the front way."
Anderson returned to her hotel as it grew dark, only learning the full extent of what transpired once she left.
As she travelled home, speaking to others who attended, she said she felt more determined than ever to continue to push for what she believes.
"Hardly anyone there was sort of over it," she said.
"America has failed... a lot of us were really feeling like that. And we're definitely going to stay active and informed. And I think if there were more rallies, I think the majority of those same people would definitely go," she said.
While Anderson said she opposed violence, she said the prospect of more of it in the future is not unreasonable.
"We won't be silent, and the government better understand that ... We will fight the government if it tries to infringe on our rights," she said. "I don't necessarily think breaking any windows, or stopping the goings on at the Capitol was helpful, (but) I think maybe occupying it outside definitely made a point."
Drew Parker, 19, Merritt Island
Drew Parker, a freshman at Florida State University, decided the take the 12-hour drive to Washington D.C., alone, just a few days before the march. Stopping overnight each way at a family friend's home in Richmond, Virginia, he said.
"I realized that, as a young American, and a young person that if I truly believe in what I want to fight for, then there shouldn't be anything holding me back. And then if I truly want to stand up and defend my rights, and what I believe in. Then I would have no choice but to (go)," he said.
Parker, who is pursuing an undergraduate degree in political science, said he'd been to several Trump campaign rallies, both in 2016 and in 2020. He also attended the Black Lives Matter march in Cocoa following the death of George Floyd. Attending that march, he noted, was not because he supported Democratic politics, but because he felt upset after seeing video footage of Floyd's killing by Minneapolis police.
His decision to go to DC was motivated by three intentions: to protest what he thought was an unfair election; to show support for a president he felt has been unfairly maligned for his entire term "by the mainstream media" and to protest "in the name of freedom."
Parker parked his car at a metro station and rode the metro into downtown. He arrived around 9 a.m. to where the president would speak. He got close enough to watch the Trump speak in person. The crowd he said was "electric, energetic and there's so much love."
He described the speech as having two parts. The first was like a rally, but the second, about the election. That's when he said he felt a change in the mood of the crowd.
"People were frustrated because there were tens of thousands of people in the crowd who felt that their election was stolen from them. But there was more, I'd say, energy. Because people wanted to go and march to the Capitol and let Congress hear it," he said.
Parker said he did not believe the claims of widespread election fraud, and conspiracy theories related to Dominion voting machines and a Democrat plot to steal the election, but he did believe that elections officials and rules in some states had somehow benefitted Biden over Trump.
"When the speech ended, I walked up to the Washington Monument. And then for a couple moments kind of took in the gravity of the moment and just the endless amounts of people that I saw. And then I walked, or marched, I guess you could say, towards the Capitol."
Parker said he walked with purpose, arriving at the Capitol early, when the outer police barricade was still in place. He recalled being there as a crowd of people amassed along the metal grated barriers.
The escalation, he said, was gradual.
"I was near the front of the protesters so I could see where people were. And it was kind of like an isolated episode here or there, when people would push back and forth on the barricades and then they would push the cops," he said. "And it was kind of like an isolated thing on the left side and then the right side and the left side, and then it escalated, more and more, and then the crowd started to take the barricades, and eventually got all of them," Parker said.
He said a flashbang went off beside him and he covered his face after being exposed to tear gas. At that point he said he was feeling shaken up and he walked away for a moment before returning. He said he hadn't pushed on the barricades but when the police retreated, he felt adrenaline.
"I wouldn't say excitement, but there was an adrenaline there. And when they had retreated, I kind of took a step back from the adrenaline because at that moment, I realized that it was getting real," he said.
Reflecting on those moments, Parker said he felt conflict about the rioters beside him, but he decided to stay for a while longer.
"They are people who I felt for, because they looked angry and frustrated and that they were just taking out their anger and frustration the only way that they knew how," he said.
"It was kind of tough to watch in parts, because it was just something that I'd never experienced before," he said.
"I stuck around because... I felt it was important, as a young person, and someone who wants to serve my country later in life, that I wanted to be there and just get the feel of what was happening and just kind of taking in the gravity of the moment," he said.
"The best I can say is that there was a moment in time that I wasn't going to leave," Parker said, struggling to find the words.
As the crowd ascended the steps, he said he hung back at first, but then walked up to mid-level, where presidential inaugurations take place.
"There was cheering," he said, and chants of "Stop the Steal," "USA!" and "Fight for Trump."
He returned down the steps and went around the Senate side of the Capitol to see what was happening in the back. There he saw "the same thing but at a smaller scale" as rioters worked to break into the back Senate entrance of the building.
Parker then came back to the front of the building, and said he encountered a photographer for Slate who was coming out. The photographer informed him the Capitol was breached and that protestors were inside and at the doors of the chamber of Congress.
"I was shocked," Parker said.
Parker said he again climbed the steps and caught sight of smashed windows and the front doors broken open, with rioters freely entering and exiting the building.
"I can see one of the doors that people were working their way into and then also a couple of the windows that people were smashing open," he said.
That's when he decided it was time to leave.
Walking away, he said he learned from a group of five or so people speaking to an officer directing traffic that a woman had been shot. He said that's when his mood shifted to somber.
"I've been taking it in. In the last two days, and I think it's going to take a lot longer to fully understand what I was a part of. And what I was there for."
Parker said he had no reason to believe anyone he saw was Antifa, but he recalled seeing people bearing the insignia of far-right militias such as the Oath-Keepers.
"I was there for the same reasons that that those people were, but they took it out on the cops, and took it out on the Capitol, when the right course of action is to take it out in two years (at the ballot box), and take the House back that way," he said.
He decided he needed quiet, and walked to the opposite end of the Mall, and sat on the steps of the Lincoln memorial as it grew dark, staring out on the long rectangular reflection pool.
"I just prayed for America, and for the people in this country that we don't ever get so divided to where the union is at stake. And that we just keep pushing freedom and democracy."
Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon is a watchdog reporter for FLORIDA TODAY. Contact him at 321-355-8144, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @alemzs