Reprinted with permission from ProPublica
In 2009, Kevin Greeson traveled from Alabama to witness the inauguration of President Barack Obama, at the time one of his political heroes. Twelve years later, a stone's throw from where Obama had been sworn in, Greeson died of a heart attack while demonstrating in support of President Donald Trump during the Jan. 6 siege of the Capitol.
Greeson had undergone a stark political transformation in those intervening years. A longtime Democrat who once championed unions and supported progressive politicians, Greeson had become a staunch Trump supporter by the time he died outside the Capitol at the age of 55.
In the weeks leading up to his death, he gave up Fox News for less mainstream right-wing news sources and wrote a series of posts on the conservative-leaning social media site Parler advocating political violence in response to what he saw as Democrats' efforts to "steal" the 2020 election from the president.
"Let's take this fucking Country BACK!! Load your guns and take to the streets!" he wrote on Dec. 17.
While Greeson's inflammatory Parler posts and false online rumors that he tased himself to death have drawn considerable attention, his political transformation has not.
"He was a vice president at the union, and he was an Obama supporter," said Mark McDaniel, the Huntsville attorney representing the Greeson family. "He got interested in Trump because he felt he was more business-minded, and as the economy kept getting better, he kept getting more interested in Trump."
For much of the late 20th century, north Alabama was home to a number of large factories and industrial facilities that provided blue-collar jobs with decent wages to people like Greeson. But many of those positions were eliminated over the past two decades as manufacturers and plants closed or sold to foreign companies — and as the jobs disappeared, the Democratic Party's support dwindled.
"I think things are getting more polarized," said Doug Norman, a 73-year-old retired Decatur man who ran a waste oil recycling company for many years. "Over the last 10 years, there was a shift."
Over a plate of eggs Benedict at Whisk'd Cafe, a lunch spot in Decatur near the former Goodyear plant where Greeson worked for over two decades, Norman said that, like many other longtime residents, he has become more committed to Republican politics over the past 10 years. He, too, said he believes the 2020 election was "stolen" from the president.
"I think a lot of people saw where the stock market, unemployment and economy were going, and they started moving toward Trump," he said. "A lot of my friends weren't even into politics, but Trump kind of activated something."
Greeson wasn't the only Trump supporter from north Alabama with high-profile ties to the Jan. 6 insurrection. Lonnie Coffman, a 70-year-old from Falkville, a rural community about 30 miles from where Greeson lived, was arrested near the Capitol the night of the riots. He was indicted on 17 federal weapons charges after police allegedly found materials to produce Molotov cocktails and five illegal firearms — including an AR-15 — in his pickup truck.
A.J. Kramer, the federal public defender for the District of Columbia, said Thursday that his office is representing Coffman but that it had not yet made any filings in his case.
Nancy Stephenson, who worked with Greeson at the Goodyear plant, left Alabama in 2007 for Memphis, Tennessee, and then for Houston. She returned in 2016 to find a changed — and charged — political landscape. According to Stephenson, the steady elimination of good jobs had combined with concerns about immigration and the Affordable Care Act to drive many people she knew in the area to take a hard right turn.
"When I left, they were into golf clubs and fishing poles," she said. "When I got back, it was automatic weapons."
"It's All Republicans Now"
For 21 years, Greeson worked at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company plant in Decatur where his father worked before him. He started out on the factory floor and eventually took on a leadership role with Local 88T of the United Food & Commercial Workers union.
Greeson stopped working at the plant in 2006, according to his LinkedIn profile — the same year a South Korean firm, Hyosung Corp., purchased the red-brick complex.
In the early 2000s, many people who worked in manufacturing in north Alabama supported Southern Democrats, and Obama enjoyed support on assembly lines and in union halls. The region was mostly red, but not intensely so, and there were pockets of blue.
Morgan County, home to the former Goodyear plant, and neighboring Limestone County, where Greeson lived, both favored George W. Bush in 2000 with around 60% of the vote. But over the years, north Alabama grew more Republican. By 2016, Trump received more than 70% of the vote in both counties. And there were no longer blue counties nearby.
Bryan Duncan, a corrections officer at Limestone Correctional Facility and an Athens resident, said he's felt the political winds shift since he first moved to north Alabama over two decades ago.
"It's all Republicans now," the 45-year-old said as he headed into Walmart in Athens on Tuesday afternoon. "I think people became more interested in the Republican Party especially due to social media and the easy access to everybody's opinions. It's easier to find more people on your side."
Valeria Vizcarra, an Athens waitress, said that though she is only 20, she is old enough to have seen how politics have affected her community. "When Trump came into office, they became more outspoken for sure," she said Tuesday. "They like that he was a businessman."
She, like Stephenson, said that locals see in Trump a leader who's looking out for the middle class.
"I believe the Obama policies caused a lot of soreness in this area," Stephenson said. "And I honestly think people thought Trump was going to make them wealthy."
Jess Brown, professor emeritus of government and public affairs at Athens State University, said many people share a "frustration" with the way the economy has declined in north Alabama.
"People who lack specialized skills and probably an education beyond a high school diploma in today's market are not experiencing social mobility," he said. "That simply was not the case for generations of people following the industrialization of America."
For most of his adult life, Greeson got the majority of his news from mainstream sources like CNN and AL.com, according to his wife, Kristi, who answered questions through the family attorney, McDaniel.
But over the past few years, Greeson gravitated toward Fox News and other conservative outlets as he became enamored with Trump and the good he believed the president was doing for the economy and for American industry.
In the days after Trump lost his reelection bid in November, Greeson posted on Parler that he, like many diehard Trump fans, no longer trusted Fox News, and that the cable channel had "jumped ship." Instead, he declared that he would only consume news produced by the pro-Trump, far-right outlet Newsmax, and that he would use Parler instead of Facebook.
"I'm done with Facebook and Fox News!" he wrote in a November Parler post, called a Parley.
"We can't get anything true from the news media," he wrote in another November Parley. "NewsMax is the only channel I'm trusting at this point."
Greeson's wife, who declined to respond to questions about her own politics or how her husband's political transformation impacted their family, told McDaniel she saw the shift in her husband's media habits.
Greeson became convinced that Trump had won the November election, a false narrative ceaselessly pushed by both the president and many far-right outlets.
Brown said it didn't surprise him to learn that Greeson's views intensified as he consumed increasingly fringe media.
"The new media landscape of America encourages extreme political behavior," Brown said. "Do I think there's a component or subset of the electorate in north Alabama that's gone down that intellectual rathole? I certainly do, but I think they've gone down that same rathole in Colorado and in Montana and other places."
In the weeks after the election, Greeson posted a series of violent messages on Parler, calling for people to take up arms against a political system he considered corrupt. He shared support for the white supremacist Proud Boys movement, called for Obama to "be put to death" and expressed his apparent hope that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would die of COVID-19.
On Nov. 29, Greeson called for members of Congress to support Trump's attempts to overturn the election: "Stand the fuck up! Our President is being took (sic) out of office in [a] coup and you motherfuckers do nothing!! It might take a few years but Trump and the American people will take you fucks out of your office."
A Final Trip
On Jan. 5, Greeson drove from Alabama to Washington, where he did some sightseeing that evening and spent the night at a friend's house in Virginia. The next day, he joined the crowd of protesters who had gathered on the National Mall to express support for Trump and demand that Congress "stop the steal" and overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
McDaniel said that despite Greeson's menacing online rhetoric, his wife does not believe he had any intention of committing violence on Jan. 6. And unlike Coffman and some other attendees of the events that day, police have not alleged that Greeson had illegal weapons or committed a crime in Washington.
"I think that he looked at social media as something where he was just talking to friends. Nothing in this man's life would lead anyone to believe that he was headed up there to do anything bad or anything sinister," McDaniel said. "According to [Kristi Greeson], he was just a really big Trump supporter, and he wanted to go up there and show his support and live the experience."
Little information about exactly what happened in the minutes and hours preceding Greeson's death is available. In a written statement sent to members of the media after his death, his wife noted that he "had a history of high blood pressure, and in the midst of the excitement, suffered a heart attack."
McDaniel said Greeson was on the phone with his wife when he went into cardiac arrest.
"He was talking to her on the phone and he quit talking," McDaniel said. "She was upset because she thought he had hung up on her."
McDaniel said that in the days following Greeson's death, his wife spoke on the phone with a reporter who saw her husband in the moments before his death and a person who attempted to resuscitate him, and that they both told her Greeson was outdoors on the Capitol grounds at the time.
The Metropolitan Police Department incident report states that he "was in the area of the United States Capitol in attendance of first ammendment (sic) activities" when he had a heart attack.
According to the incident report, Greeson was declared dead at 2:05 p.m. on Jan. 6. Minutes later, the first rioters broke into the Capitol.