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."
He landed back in South Florida, joined the North Miami Beach Police Department in 1998, and sank into what he calls the lifestyle of "sheep." He remembers the exact moment he began to drift from the herd. It was more than a decade ago, and Harrell was prowling a Broward beach wearing nothing but a Speedo and a nipple ring. "I bumped into a commander, and he was just like, 'Uhhhh, um, OK...' That was when I knew I was different."
But he didn't yet know just how different. That realization came last year, eight years after he and his wife divorced and she moved with their boys to New York. As Harrell recalls, his PlayStation had broken, so he was stuck clicking through the stations. A puzzling show called Ancient Aliens came on. It transfixed him. "I thought, If they were trying to cover something up about life outside our planet, what else would they be covering up? Then I started doing research and learning more of what they were really doing."
They were apparently doing a lot. In the span of several days, Harrell's social media identity took a wild turn. Conspiracy theories supplanted romantic squabbles with his girlfriend, whom he's dated for years and refers to as "baby mama." A Guy Fawkes mask soon infiltrated even the most idyllic of photographs showing the child he's had with "baby mama." And then there were streams of articles that had been spawned in the darkest fringes of the internet.
He dislodged a story claiming that the U.S. staged 9/11, another that the "powers that be are suppressing information," and one more alleging the EPA has been testing "lethal pollutants on humans." Last January 3, he posted a picture of himself in his police uniform clutching his Guy Fawkes mask. "Expect Us!!" he wrote as a caption and called himself an "Oath Keeper" -- one of a cadre of law enforcement types who fear that the government may soon outlaw guns. They contend their vow to "defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic" trumps allegiance to any democratically elected government.
After he began posting his new political views on Facebook, rumors shot through the local police community. "Everyone was saying, 'Eric's gone 43,' " recalls Miami-Dade officer Ciprian Puscas, referring to the police code for the Baker Act. "People had thought he'd gone crazy." Puscas, however, was intrigued. He hadn't yet met Harrell but arranged a meeting at an IHOP on NE 163rd Street. "That was when I started to awaken too," Puscas says. "We talked about 9/11, Benghazi, and the 'fast and furious' scandals... It's easy to dismiss someone as crazy, then move on to talk about the football game."
In the months before he donned his cape and mask for his November protest, Harrell felt the same friction at his own department. "Everyone just talks about sports, and no one's awake to what's happening," he confides. "One time I confronted a captain and said, 'If the government tries to take our guns and trample the Constitution, are we going to carry out that order?' And he said, 'Uhhh, I'll have to ask my supervisor.' And I was just shocked. Everyone else was saying, 'Man, when did you become so weird? We want the old Eric back.' And I had to tell them, 'The old Eric's gone. I've evolved.' "
On November 22 -- the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination -- Harrell made his final adaptation, refusing to remove his mask or identify himself to police, who arrested him. His department immediately placed him on administrative leave. "Though you have historically had a good employment record, over the recent past you have demonstrated a pattern of behavior which has generated significant concern," Chief of Police J. Scott Dennis wrote Harrell in a letter dated December 6, demanding he take a psychological evaluation.
Days later, however, charges against Harrell were dropped, and Broward prosecutor Sarahnell Murphy wrote in her closeout memo that the 1951 Florida mask law was "vague, ambiguous, and overbroad." Murphy said Harrell, even though he's a cop, has a "lawful right" to "protest in a non-threatening manner" in the "public forum." The law, she wrote, hadn't obligated Harrell to identify himself or to remove his mask.
The North Miami Beach Police Department tells New Times that the internal investigation is still open but that the agency dismissed the pending psychological evaluation and put him back on duty.
One of Harrell's first days back on the job will be the graveyard shift on New Year's Eve -- just in time, he says, for all the crazies to be out.