To See the Danger of a Domestic “War on Terror,” Look No Further Than This Florida Case

Convinced his state capitol was set to be attacked by violent, far-right extremists, a Florida man called for armed resistance on social media and was promptly jailed. The episode is a case study of how easily a domestic "war on terror" will be turned on the Left.

Law enforcement officers walk out of the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building on January 28, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

In the wake of January’s pro-Trump protest-turned-riot at the Capitol, some have warned of the dangers of a “war on terror”–style response to the episode, and how easily it could be turned against a host of activists, dissidents, and marginalized communities. A recent criminal case out of Florida shows these warnings are not just theoretical.

On January 15, in Tallahassee, the FBI arrested thirty-three-year-old Daniel Alan Baker, a veteran and self-described “hardcore leftist” who had traveled the country last year participating in protests against police brutality. Described by various news outlets as involved in a “Florida Capitol plot” or plotting an attack on Trump supporters, Baker has been slapped with federal charges and denied bail on the grounds that he’s a flight risk.

“Extremists intent on violence from either end of the political and social spectrums must be stopped, and they will be stopped,” said US attorney Larry Keefe. “This arrest serves as a message to anyone who intends to incite or commit violence in the Northern District of Florida: if you represent a threat to public safety, we will come for you, we will find you, and we will prosecute you.”

Baker’s arrest was as dramatic as any of the scenes that came out of the Capitol three weeks ago. According to witnesses, early on a Friday morning, agents rushed Baker’s apartment, guns drawn, broke open the door, and threw a flash bang grenade, before arresting Baker “without incident.”

How did a man described by his blind, elderly landlady as “a joy, very intelligent” and “considerate of the others who live here, quiet, well-behaved,” turn into what Keefe described as a “dangerous extremist” whose arrest had made the public safer? And what exactly had Baker done to justify a swarm of federal agents smashing down his door?

Convinced of a Coup

As the FBI’s criminal complaint lays out, Baker stands accused of “threatening the use of violence in the United States” and “using social media to recruit and train like-minded individuals in furtherance of his Ant-Government or Anti-Authority Violent Extremist Ideology.”

It certainly sounds alarming. Such language suggests a left-wing version of this month’s thwarted violence in Washington, DC, and all manner of frightful scenarios: a plot to bomb the state capitol, to assassinate state lawmakers, or perhaps even to massacre the police officers he’d spent the previous year demonstrating against.

But in fact, the FBI has neither presented evidence, nor accused Baker, of anything of the sort. Instead, the government’s case against Baker centers exclusively on his constitutionally protected speech — “extremist rhetoric,” in the FBI’s words. Namely, this refers to a series of social media posts targeting, as the complaint outlines, “those he claims are white supremacists, fascists, United States persons with different ideologies than his, and allies of the United States.”

As thoroughly documented, Baker in recent months had become concerned that Trump was planning a “violent militant coup” since losing the election, and believed at several points that the United States was about to erupt in bloodshed and even civil war, even as these predictions failed to come true. These fears were escalated by what happened at the US Capitol weeks earlier.

“With the riot, he was afraid there was going to be an armed coup, and it was going to happen at the state capitol,” says Jack Fox Keen, a friend of Baker’s.

Alarmed at reports that Trump supporters and far-right demonstrators were planning armed protests in state capitols around the country — and concerned that local law enforcement neither had the numbers nor inclination to repel them — Baker urged people to take up arms and confront the protesters, envisioning himself and his allies encircling the crowd and trapping them inside the Capitol, before driving them out of the state.

“They are staging an armed takeover, so only an armed community can stop them!” Baker wrote in the description of the “Defend Tallahassee” Facebook event he created, warning that “the enemy will have high power rifles and explosives,” and “is coming from every racist community in the area.”

Prosecutors are also pointing to a flier titled “CALL TO ARMS JANUARY 20TH!” Baker allegedly posted as a comment to a local Tallahassee news station’s web article and printed physical copies of. Warning of “an ARMED COUP at every American Capitol,” the flier called on Floridians to “protect capitol RESIDENTS and CIVILIANS from armed racist mobs WITH EVERY CALIBER AVAILABLE,” and again urged attendees to “encircle” any protesters, “let them take the capitol and fight with the cops, SURROUND THEM AND TRAP THEM INSIDE!”

“This is an armed COUP and can only be stopped by an armed community!” the flier reads. “If you’re afraid to die fighting the enemy, stay in bed and live.”

This is the entire basis of the prosecution’s claim that Baker was “using social media to recruit and train” others to further an “Anti-Government or Anti-Authority” agenda: a Facebook event, a flier, and a handful of comments, all centered on protecting government property and personnel from what he believed would be an armed, far-right assault. The complaint highlights Baker’s most inflammatory language, ignoring the fact that he repeatedly made clear that his goal, if any such incident even happened, was to trap pro-Trump protesters in the Florida Capitol, and to protect those who might be threatened by them.

“He felt he needed to defend black and brown people from white supremacists,” says Keen. “In his way he was using his privilege to defend.”

Roommate Eric Champagne says Baker was “writing to a polarized audience” to mobilize people to come out, and that his real plans were a step down from even this rhetoric.

“What he was discussing with me was doing normal street medic stuff, driving around,” says Champagne. “There’s concentric roads around the capitol, you can drive around and not be attacked, but you can stop and help someone who’s injured. This time he would just have a registered firearm just in case.”

Baker had experience as a medic, and was at the time trying to raise money for an EMT program at his local community college. Those who know him recall stories of Baker rushing to apply first aid to strangers shot at protests or involved in accidents.

“I always felt very safe with him, knowing there’s a fallback there,” says Susanna Matthews, Baker’s landlady. “Cause I’m eighty years old and blind.”

The Most Dangerous Memes

Perhaps most alarming is that the charges against Baker aren’t just based on his rhetoric around the pro-Trump Capitol protest that barely materialized. They also involve his activism, and a series of earlier, unrelated posts critical of police and military and using leftist slogans.

The complaint focuses on Baker’s 2020 travels across the country to “participate in protests that have resulted in violence,” referring to last year’s George Floyd protests, including his time in Seattle’s CHOP/CHAZ movement. The sole example of his supposedly menacing behavior? Instructing “his followers on how to debilitate law enforcement officers by filling up balloons with paint and to throw them at law enforcement.”

Baker’s criticism of and hostility to police makes up a large part of the complaint. Baker posted that police sound “like cold blooded nazis,” that his style of street judo “works against cops wearing body armor,” that he was “hunting” cops, and his general sense that police had been infiltrated by the far right (something that is objectively true) and were complicit in the Capitol riot (a suspicion shared by at least some lawmakers). At one point, the complaint cites Baker photographing and posting online photos of unmarked law enforcement vehicles parked at his home (“for intelligence purposes for his following”).

Some of Baker’s rhetoric crossed over into violent imagery, telling followers, “Hospitalize your local fascist” or that he was “so fucking down to slay enemies again” — though as cases like the Occupy Wall Street protests showed, such rhetoric doesn’t necessarily translate into action.

More goofily, the FBI also cites a handful of unremarkable yet superficially threatening leftist cliches in Baker’s posts: “I want to watch capitalist society burn”; “death to amerikka”; a meme that shows him “eating the rich”; or the fact that he played “anarchist-type monologues” in the background of his workout videos. It was also partly on the basis of such “repeated public endorsement of violence and violent acts” that the court denied him bail. Baker’s attorney has contended this is all political hyperbole, or at worst, too “conditional, equivocal, speculative, and unrealistic” to be taken seriously.

“Politically he was not an accelerationist, but online he liked to feed the delusions,” says Champagne.

He points to a tongue-in-cheek post cited in the FBI’s complaint: a YouTube video Baker put up in the wake of the Capitol incident of Trump supporters attacking a protester. “I have acquired a sponsor (Soros, you know, the antifa card was finally approved) and I and my donors will be offering cash rewards for information leading to the verified identification of any and every individual in this video,” he wrote in the description.

The post was brought up by an FBI agent in Baker’s initial hearing, say those who attended. When the public defender asked the agent if he knew who George Soros was and if he really believed he was financing Baker, the FBI agent replied that, not knowing who Soros was, he couldn’t say. The answer prompted laughter in the courtroom. “I thought to myself, ‘Well, I’m not sure where you’ve been for the past however many years,’” recalls Matthews.

There are also more serious questions about law enforcement’s conduct. Matthews and Champagne both recall the FBI agent later testifying that he had immediately identified himself as one when carrying out the arrest. Yet according to them, agents initially presented themselves as Postmates workers, and only identified themselves as FBI later — according to Champagne, once they had already broken down Baker’s door and thrown a flash bang. Matthews was so frightened by the “raving maniac” who first knocked on her door, she called 911, while the roommates — on edge due to right-wing death threats Baker had received in the past — had their own guns drawn.

An Outlier, or Only the Beginning?

Keen and Champagne maintain that the government’s portrayal of Baker is distorted and stripped of context. The complaint cites his other-than-honorable discharge from the military after going AWOL, for instance, but they say it neglects to mention this was because he’d been sickened by the rape culture he encountered upon enlisting. And while they disagree with his rhetoric online, they say Baker wasn’t violent, and instead believed in the tradition of armed self-defense, teaching both of them martial arts.

“When he trained me, he said the best rape defense was knowing jiu-jitsu and being armed, and that vulnerable people in society should protect themselves,” says Keen.

They stress his very real fear about impending far-right violence, and the post-traumatic stress disorder his military service left him with. That included his time in Syria fighting with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, cited as an example of the danger he posed in both the charges against him and to deny him bail — even though the US military has backed the very same group.

Yet at heart, Baker was — similar to many of the Capitol protesters who were spurred on by right-wing lies about the election result — responding to the news he was consuming. Much of the news media at the time designated the event as an “attack,” a “siege,” “terrorism,” and even an “insurrection” — meaning an armed anti-government uprising — and portrayed it as dangerously close to overthrowing US democracy. The following weeks were saturated with lurid warnings of far worse, more organized violence to come, based largely on claims from various authorities, like an FBI bulletin that predicted the armed storming of government buildings across the country. That included this CNN piece that Baker included in his flier.

He was also responding to the language of politicians. Baker uploaded to YouTube this video of former Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA), now in the Biden administration, calling on Americans to “stand up, man up, woman up, and defend this constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic.” On his channel, Baker pointed to the statement as a call to arms, citing it to justify his plans to confront protesters on inauguration day.

If nothing else, Baker’s case shows how easily the martial climate that has prevailed since the Capitol riot can be turned on unrelated individuals who hold vastly different beliefs. Baker’s case is not unlike the government’s prosecution of even nonviolent pro-Trump protesters at the Capitol, which has rested partly on inflammatory social media posts and statements of their own. This is a particularly easy standard to apply to the Left, whose staunchest pacifists use slogans and engage in activities that law enforcement and prosecutors can misconstrue as scary and violent.

In this way, the vow of Larry Keefe, the US attorney who announced Baker’s arrest, to go after “extremists” and “terrorists” across the spectrum in the wake of the riot is especially loaded. Keefe is a Trump appointee whose confirmation was secured by his pro-Trump ally, Representative Matt Gaetz. Gaetz has baselessly blamed antifa for the events at the Capitol, and last year wanted to “hunt them down like we do [terrorists] in the Middle East.”

This isn’t isolated. New York police recently cracked down on Martin Luther King Day marchers, with the city’s mayor citing the Capitol riot as justification. Republican lawmakers across the country swiftly used the riot to repackage and rush through anti-protest bills they first devised in response to last year’s anti-police brutality protests, most notably the vehemently pro-Trump Florida governor, Ron DeSantis. It’s exactly what both liberal and conservative authoritarians hoped for in the wake of the riot: that anything done in response to the pro-Trump crowd that stormed the Capitol would be later used to clamp down on protest from the left.

How far this campaign will go remains to be seen. More immediately, Daniel Baker is awaiting trial in a special, segregated housing unit in prison. Online isn’t real life, unless the government decides to prosecute you for posting.