VENICE, Fla. (AP) — It was less than three weeks before the Sarasota County, Florida, school board election when the former White House national security adviser weighed in on the local political race.
“These ‘woke’ members need to be defeated in detail this upcoming election,” Michael Flynn posted on Telegram on Aug. 6. “Our children’s lives and futures are at risk when our school boards here in Florida and around the nation shove (critical race theory) and transgender nonsense down their throats.”
A few days later, the retired three-star Army general who spent decades enmeshed in international conflict weighed in again on the local election: “‘WOKE’ SOBs operating in many counties and on many school boards across the country” have to be voted out or censured “and some just need to be arrested.”
Later that month, Flynn’s chosen candidates — who were also backed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis — defeated three school board candidates backed by Democrats.
Flynn, who just eight years ago under President Barack Obama led the U.S. military’s intelligence agency, now is at the center of a far-right Christian nationalist movement that has a growing influence in the Republican Party. In speeches across the U.S., he urges his supporters to get involved in local politics as a way to change the country from the bottom up.
“Local action equals national impact,” Flynn says at nearly every stop.
In Sarasota County, Flynn and his allies have created a kind of laboratory for his approach, energizing local conservative activists through social media and public appearances, and gatherings at a venue called The Hollow that has become a meeting place for the far right. He questions American democratic institutions, repeats lies about the 2020 election, attacks the news media and embraces conspiracy theories about COVID-19. One of the groups he’s welcomed into the fold is the violent extremist group the Proud Boys.
The political marriage between a man who once sat at the right hand of President Donald Trump and local extremists in Sarasota County starts in some ways on Jan. 6, 2021, and with their failed attempts to thwart the democratic process and keep Trump in power.
It was insurrection day and Flynn, American flag hat atop his head, sat in the VIP section of the rally as Trump urged his supporters to march on the U.S. Capitol and stop Congress from confirming that he had lost the election.
Less than 2 miles away, James Hoel, decked out in tactical gear, a walkie-talkie on his chest, advanced past the Capitol barricades with fellow members of the Proud Boys, at the vanguard of the deadly riot.
There’s no evidence the two men knew each other on that day. But in the 21 months since Trump’s fight to stay in office came to an end, their paths and interests have crossed again and again.
The Associated Press and the PBS series “Frontline” reported last month that Flynn’s movement envisions Christianity as the basis of American life and institutions; where the right to bear arms is paramount; where abortion is illegal; where concepts such as systemic racism and gay or transgender rights have no place in the schools; and where people who disagree are called “Marxists,” or perverts, and are excluded from American civic life.
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Flynn has drawn together election deniers, mask and vaccine opponents, insurrectionists and leaders in state and local Republican parties who are continuing the attack on American democracy and institutions that came to a head on Jan. 6.
After the failed insurrection, Flynn moved to Sarasota County and set out to build a political community of like-minded people. He found an operating base of sorts at The Hollow in rural Venice. It’s a 10-acre site that’s at times a children’s playland, wedding venue, organizing space and weapons training ground.
The Hollow’s owner, Victor Mellor Sr., is a former Marine who posted on Facebook that he “Just knocked on front doors” of the Capitol on Jan. 6. Mellor told “Frontline” that he was proud he was there that day and once suggested on social media that he would have a “J6 reunion at the Hollow.”
Flynn first visited the site in May 2021, and the next day, Mellor posted on Facebook that there was a “war going on” and pledged “all our resources to the Flynns in this battle.” Since then the Hollow has turned into a center of activity for Sarasota County’s far right.
Last fall, the Hollow drew thousands to events with Flynn in attendance where doctors distributed mask and vaccine waivers for school children. The site hosts political groups and candidates, offers free playdates — with water slides, zip lines and a bouncy house — has advertised classes on “Biblical citizenship,” food storage and wound and trauma care, and provides access to a neighboring, unpermitted gun range to ex-military and law enforcement. The gun range has hosted groups as large as 40 and has offered free shooting lessons to children as young as 6.
Visitors enter through a bunker-like windowless hallway, painted black and filled with quotes, many of which push the idea that violent revolution is part of the nation’s history and possibly its future. “To disarm the people is the best and most effectual way to enslave them,” reads one. A Thomas Jefferson line reads: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
In a meeting space inside, a banner promises “any attempt of violence towards our children will be met with overwhelming deadly force.” On another wall hangs a “soldier’s prayer,” signed by Flynn, that reads in part: “Let Your truth be my shield and buckler/Against the fiery darts — the lies — of the enemy.”
The bunker then opens onto an expansive outdoor space decorated with American flags and bunting and landscaped with palm trees, pathways and pergolas. One winding path connects to an adjacent property that includes the gun range. Mellor said he added a 10-foot cross at Flynn’s suggestion.
Reporters for AP and “Frontline” visited the outskirts of the Hollow in February. Later, Mellor invited a “Frontline” crew inside for a tightly controlled visit and sat down for an interview. Mellor said he was not a right-wing extremist and expressed concern the Hollow would be portrayed as “a militia camp.” He added: “But it is absolutely the opposite spectrum of that.”
Flynn has been visiting the Hollow regularly for over a year, and supporting it financially. After Hurricane Ian swamped the site with several feet of water, Flynn and Mellor visited it together by boat, Mellor told AP. He shared a photo of the two of them, surrounded by floodwaters, folding an American flag.
It was at The Hollow where Flynn was seen mixing with Proud Boys, including Hoel.
Photos and video posted on Facebook and a public Telegram chat show Flynn at The Hollow with men wearing the Proud Boys’ signature yellow and black shirts or other gear with the group’s logo. Sarasota lawyer Ron Filipkowski, who tracks far-right figures online, circulated a photo posted on Facebook in September 2021 that showed a man wearing a Proud Boys hat, yellow shirt and bandanna standing with Mellor and Flynn.
The Proud Boys played an important role in the insurrection. One of its members, Jeremy Bertino, pleaded guilty this month to seditious conspiracy for his role in the attack.
Samantha Kutner, an extremism researcher who is an expert on the Proud Boys and runs the consultancy Glitterpill LLC, said grievance is a driving factor in the group: they paint themselves as victims of a progressive society that wants to emasculate them.
Many Proud Boys attended the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. They’ve been designated a terrorist organization by the governments of Canada and New Zealand and labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy group.
Hoel and other Sarasota Proud Boys have taken Flynn’s presence and words as a rallying cry, echoing them in public Telegram chat groups they use to organize their political activities. They have often shared messages from Flynn as a way to encourage each other to get involved in local politics.
In October 2021, Flynn was the featured guest for a family event at the Hollow, “Halloween with General Flynn.” Messages from a public chat on Telegram show Proud Boys and their wives organized to volunteer.
On Oct. 19, Proud Boy Nick Radovich suggested a person whose username is “MilkshakePB” could volunteer for the event. “I can try and take Halloween off to help. Is there a job list and time slot,” MilkshakePB replied. A Proud Boy who goes by the nickname Milkshake has been charged and pleaded not guilty for his alleged actions on Jan. 6.
“Interested in seeing General Flynn and (state GOP Rep. Anthony) Sabatini at the Hollow at no cost? Can you help volunteer for 3 hours at the Halloween event?” Radovich’s wife, Melissa, wrote Oct. 23, one of several posts she made about the event.
The event promised a “haunted hike” and trick-or-treating for kids, but it also included political speeches by a number of far-right activists, including Flynn and Kimberly Fletcher of Moms for America, one of the groups that organized the rallies in Washington on Jan. 5 and 6, 2021. Organizers said 1,000 people came. A video shows that during the event, Flynn got a standing ovation before telling the crowd that Republicans need to improve their election tactics.
“I can tell you exactly how the Democratic Party does precinct training and then who they put in charge,” Flynn said. “They know exactly where to put people, where to put the thugs.”
He suggested those in the audience should register to be precinct volunteers and poll watchers.
Later that night, Nick Radovich posted a video in a public Telegram chat saying he had met Flynn, and the general had congratulated him for being part of a group that protested outside the school board chair’s house, calling for her to come outdoors for a " redress of grievances.” Local media had reported on Proud Boys’ involvement in the protest.
“He said good, keep it up,” Radovich said in the video. “So, anybody seeing this should know that we have his approval.”
Two weeks later, Hoel posted a photo he took with Flynn at the Hollow: Hoel wears a Proud Boys shirt, and next to him, Flynn holds up for the camera a Proud Boys emblem.
Mellor told “Frontline” that some Proud Boys had volunteered at the Hollow before he knew they were members of the extremist group.
“They’re just dads and husbands and their kids come out here, OK? You know, they’re part of the society,” he said and added that the Proud Boys are “just another organization that just like any organization is welcomed here.”
It is not clear whether Flynn has a formal relationship with the Hollow, and he and Mellor declined to answer questions on the subject.
Mellor said in a written statement that one of Flynn’s nonprofits, America’s Future Inc., had recently donated $25,000 to purchase an observation dome for a 14.5-inch telescope for the Hollow’s new science and nature program. Flynn has also been soliciting money for the Hollow through a crowdfunding campaign for The America Project, a group he started last year and that AP and “Frontline” previously reported has been spending millions on efforts to advance its agenda, including by undermining trust in elections.
Some Sarasota residents told AP and “Frontline” that Proud Boys have tried to intimidate people at school board meetings — labeling those who supported masks or sympathized with gay children as “perverts.”
Angela Wynn said she was harassed by a group of Proud Boys when she attended a women’s rights rally with her 10-year-old. She believes Flynn’s outspoken presence in Sarasota has given members of the group confidence and validation.
“Maybe back in the day they would have tried to hide who they are,” Wynn said. “But now they’re just so emboldened and they have this sense of empowerment.”
At one protest, children were photographed hoisting Proud Boys flags.
Carol Lerner, a public education activist and retiree in Sarasota County who is opposed to Flynn’s politics, has visited The Hollow twice and tracked the Proud Boys activities in Sarasota and at The Hollow.
She says Flynn, with the help of Mellor and the Proud Boys, is building an infrastructure to further the attack on American democracy that came to a head on Jan. 6 and using The Hollow to build a community and teach children anti-democratic values.
“It’s pretty. It’s nice. It fills a need. Then you look at what their worldview is, what they’re fighting for. It’s scary. It’s quite frightening,” Lerner said. “It’s kind of like a socialization of insurrection.”
Flynn has said in public speeches that he and his supporters have “flipped” 250 school boards across the country to people who agree with his views. He declined to provide a list of the communities he was referring to. But it’s certain that he counts Sarasota County as one of his success stories.
Flynn, Mellor and the Proud Boys supported candidates in Sarasota that they believed would stand against mask and vaccine mandates, ban books they see as objectionable and stop any talk of sexual orientation.
Campaign finance records show that Mellor, his business and The Hollow together donated more than half the money raised by a political action committee that backed those candidates. The PAC paid for a mobile billboard calling one Jewish school board candidate a liar and “baby killer,” drawing condemnation from people who noted the term’s history as an antisemitic slur. Flynn’s The America Project kicked in $5,000 to the PAC in the days after the uproar.
As the school board campaign raged, Flynn and his supporters branched out beyond schools. “General Flynn is submitting his application to the Republican Executive committee on Monday,” Nick Radovich wrote on Telegram July 9. “Patriots need to control the Republican party, my wife will bring you an application to join so we can take over the republican party and get rid of the RINOS. Send me date and time where she can meet you.”
In the following weeks, dozens of people submitted paperwork to join the executive committee of the Sarasota County Republican Party, including Flynn, several Flynn family members, Hoel and his wife. The Herald-Tribune newspaper was first to report Flynn’s application to the committee.
On Sept. 8, Hoel and Flynn were sworn in to the party’s executive committee. Flynn signed up to be a poll watcher.
A Sarasota Republican Party spokesman, Rod Thomson, would not comment on whether the party endorses the views Flynn espouses. He said the party was just following its rules when it approved Flynn and Hoel to the 270-member executive committee.
Kutner and others who study extremism see a mutually beneficial relationship between Flynn and Proud Boys, likening it to when then-President Donald Trump called for the Proud Boys to " stand back and stand by " ahead of the 2020 election. Flynn is working to consolidate various factions within the GOP, while Proud Boys are trying to gain visibility and legitimacy while deflecting from their actions and involvement during Jan. 6, Kutner said.
“They are trying to engage in local politics,” she said, “because that’s where the fight is now.”
Mellor told AP in a written statement that he and Flynn are “experiencing and nurturing a true grassroots movement in its purest form.”
“I assure you; this is only the beginning.”
Flynn has not answered several questions sent to him since August, both before and after AP and “Frontline” published the article about his political movement on Sept. 7. But a few days after it ran, he held a 90-minute live-streamed response without providing any substantive rebuttal to the article’s findings.
He did, however, reiterate his commitment to local action.
“We’re on the battlefield that I believe is the most important battlefield, which is the local battlefield,” he said. “The terrain that I have chosen to fight on is the local battlefield, the local terrain. And I think that that’s the terrain that will win the day.”
By MICHELLE R. SMITH Associated Press
“Frontline” producers Richard Rowley and Paul Abowd, and AP news researcher Randy Herschaft contributed to this report.