By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Though the conditions of this sun-soaked December afternoon hardly called for it, Ericson Harrell was happy to fetch his mask. In the past year, since this North Miami Beach cop "evolved" into something he calls an "oath keeper," he's always had his mask at hand — just in case. "There's a war coming," he says, and every freedom-loving American man would be a damn fool not to have a mask.
So Harrell, 39, who could double for the Rock, approached his silver Dodge truck parked outside his single-story Sunrise home and reached inside with a pair of thickly muscled forearms. He rummaged for a moment, apologizing profusely for the clutter, the papers, the baby seat. Then, with a big goofy grin, he withdrew his Guy Fawkes mask, popularized in the movie V for Vendetta, along with Dracula's cape and cowl. "Here they are!" he cackled. "I take these with me wherever I go."
He glanced up at the sky. "Wuh-oh," Harrell murmured, suddenly serious. "That worries me." He pointed at several white streaks of billowy vapor slithering across an otherwise cloudless sky. Was it smoke? Or was it, as most experts would posit, vapor left by a passing jet? Neither, conspires Harrell, his grip upon mask and cape tightening. "They're called chem trails. We think they are shooting chemicals into the atmosphere to cool everything down. Can you feel it? Everything is about to get cooler."
A moment passed. Things felt about the same, but suddenly I wasn't so sure. We settled onto a pair of plastic chairs outside his house. "So," I asked, "who's 'they'?"
Harrell — who considers himself neither a Tea Party patriot nor an Occupy soldier but a "Constitutionalist" — eyed my iPhone sitting on the windowsill. They could be listening.
"Exactly," he says. "Who's 'they'?" He contemplated the matter for five long seconds. "No one knows the answer. That's the million-dollar question."
Right now, there are perhaps more pressing questions involving Ericson Harrell. In late November, following months of spouting antigovernment bloviations online, the longtime North Miami Beach cop was arrested while staging a solitary protest against Obamacare at a busy intersection in Plantation. The broad man hoisted an inverted American flag and wore a cape and a mask showing the countenance of Guy Fawkes — a revolutionary figure in the 1600s who today encapsulates antigovernment sentiments. Within 15 minutes, two baffled Plantation cops materialized and, after Harrell declined to identify himself or remove his mask, arrested him on charges of "wearing a mask" and "concealing his identity."
They invoked an obscure state law passed in 1951 that forbids anyone older than 16 from wearing a hood or mask that hides "any portion" of his or her face. Originally intended to quell the Ku Klux Klan, the charges, not to mention their unusual circumstances, sparked attention across the nation. The Raw Story vacuumed up 32,000 "likes" of its coverage of Harrell. Hundreds of people shot friend requests to Harrell on Facebook. Questions bubbled: Did the arrest infringe upon his First Amendment rights? Should cops refrain from airing controversial personal views in public? And was Harrell, who's vested with grave power in our society, insane?
Harrell, who's been a cop for 15 years and a U.S. Marine for half a decade before, may not be crazy — but he's definitely peculiar. He has a nipple ring, wears kilts and Speedos, openly shares his zest for hard-core pornography, frequents "adult parties," digs the Fetish Factory, and flies an inverted American flag from his truck beside a bumper sticker that screams "Infowars.com," a conspiracy theorist website. He also thinks the American government planned 9/11 to lubricate the highway to war, contends global warming is artifice, suspects the media are "state-run," and reckons the Sandy Hook tragedy was staged to warm Americans to the idea that guns should be banned.
From the assassination of JFK to Barack Obama's birth certification, conspiracy theories have long seduced Americans for the way they make sense of often-messy realities. And in the aftermath of Edward Snowden's revelations about massive surveillance programs, which has only fueled national paranoia, Harrell presents a vivid illustration of how even some of America's most faithful public servants have grown suspicious of our government and confused about who, exactly, can be trusted.
"I've had enough of following orders," Harrell says. "I woke up. I've been living a lie. I've evolved."
Born in 1974, Harrell grew up in Northwest Miami-Dade County. He attended Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High School and immediately joined the Marines upon graduation when he was 17 — so young his mom had to sign a consent form. His military service, he says, was where the "brainwashing" began. "They break you down," he explains, "and then they build you back up into whatever they want."
But even then, there were hints of an emerging iconoclasm. While stationed at the American Embassy in Moscow in the mid-1990s, he met a Lebanese woman named Lilian and married her. He had two boys with her in the wake of 9/11. The contrast between his family and the anti-Muslim sentiment he felt in the armed forces made him question his life's trajectory. "It was when I steered away from the military, the whole 'kill, kill, kill,' " Harrell says. "My wife was Muslim, and my boys, they're half-Arab."