CLEARWATER BEACH — Michael Taylor trudged over the crowded sugar sand, between sunbathers on beach towels and water-winged kids digging with plastic shovels. A few people peered at him from behind sunglasses. What was he doing?
“Livin’ that dream,” he told anyone who engaged with him on a recent Monday. “Livin’ that Florida dream.”
In his left hand, he carried a fishing rod and a pole flying a “Don’t tread on me” flag. They bobbed in front of the GoPro camera strapped to his chest and shooting video. Something else, dark and dull but obscured, kept intruding on the frame.
He fist-bumped a beachgoer and complimented the man’s tattoo, the symbol of the Three Percenters, an anti-government militia movement. The man asked about the thing slung over Taylor’s shoulder, that shadow on the screen.
“It’s an AR pistol,” Taylor responded. A shorter variant of the AR-15-style rifle. Fully loaded with a round in the chamber, he explained later.
Four Clearwater Police officers stopped him minutes later, about 100 yards from Pier 60. Taylor, who also carried a handgun on his hip, wasn’t worried. He was used to being stopped by cops — he sought it out, even. This is what the camera was for.
Taylor, proprietor of a YouTube channel called The Armed Fisherman, has for three years traveled Florida with his fishing pole, flag and weapons. He almost always provokes a police response, which he gladly uploads. The videos get tens of thousands of views, part of an online ecosystem of so-called civil-rights auditors, who invite and film confrontations with police and other officials.
Openly carrying firearms is illegal in Florida, but state law makes a few exceptions, including one that allows open-carry while hunting, camping or fishing, and while going to and from those activities. Taylor tests this law time and again.
He’s made hundreds of videos. He’s been handcuffed dozens of times. Occasionally, he gets arrested, though he says he’s never been convicted of committing a crime while auditing. (A Tampa Bay Times background check did not turn up any convictions.)
Taylor titled the Clearwater video, filmed on June 14: I Tried To Be Nice, But Tyranny Doesn’t Care. Within two weeks, it had nearly 140,000 views, and he was planning a return trip.
In the Clearwater video, a detective identified in a police report as Jon Cappa points out that Taylor chose to take a long walk down the beach, rather than park near the fishing pier.
“You think it’s appropriate, walking around with an AR-15 on your chest, where there’s children and everybody on the beach?” Cappa asks. “You don’t think that’s going to cause problems?”
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“I don’t care about people’s concern,” Taylor tells the officers. “I care about your reaction.”
‘The other side of the story’
Officers disarmed, detained and handcuffed Taylor, but turned him loose with his gun after about 40 minutes. Like usual, they determined his walk on the beach was legal.
Whether it was in good taste depends on whom you ask: He could look like the next mass shooter or a charming patriot, a menace or a martyr.
Taylor — a 41-year-old self-described “constitutionalist,” husband, father and chef at a farm-to-table restaurant near his home in Port St. Lucie — is fond of saying, “I’m just going fishing.” In a recent interview with the Times, he conceded that what he does is activism.
“This is important, because if I let them take this right away and say, ‘You can’t do that,’ eventually they can take away all our other rights,” Taylor said. He launched into a slippery-slope argument, at the bottom of which lay a U.S. resembling “communist China.”
By Independence Day weekend, Clearwater police had closed the case involving Taylor, then reopened it and referred it to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office, which is deciding whether he should face any charges.
Taylor acknowledged the case in another video and said he questioned whether he should return to the beach on July 3, as he had planned. But he’d already urged other people to join him there. He made the trip.
About 10 supporters turned out as Taylor, with his 2-year-old daughter in tow and his gun strapped to his chest, set up his fishing pole on Pier 60. At least one supporter filmed him.
A couple of police officers patrolled the area, but they told a Times reporter that they didn’t know Taylor was coming, and they didn’t approach him. The only brief confrontation came when Taylor spotted the beach patrol supervisor who had called police in June.
“Trouble came because of you,” Taylor tells the man in a video he posted soon after.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter acknowledged the legality of Taylor’s expeditions, but they took issue with his tactics and expressed concern that introducing a loaded weapon into scenes such as that increases the potential for violence.
“The law is archaic,” Slaughter said. “I think it makes sense if you’re trying to camp out and get to your campsite through the woods to carry a gun, but to intentionally walk through a heavily congested area with the sole purpose of trying to cause disorder or fear to make some kind of Constitutional point is irresponsible and ridiculous.”
After Taylor demonstrated in Palm Beach with the group Florida Carry in 2019, the mayor and police chief there wrote to a state senator asking that the law be changed to prevent open-carry in certain places, including guarded beaches. The senator, Palm Beach County Democrat Bobby Powell, introduced a bill in the next session that would prohibit open-carrying within 1,500 feet of schools, places of worship, public buildings and guarded beaches. It died in committee.
Taylor says he carries a gun while fishing for personal safety, because he was nearly robbed once, though he said he never reported it to police. He learned about the open-carry law, he said, from one of his primary inspirations: Jeff Gray, a St. Augustine truck driver whose YouTube channel, HonorYourOath Civil Rights Investigations, has more than 100,000 subscribers.
David Dewberry, a professor at Rider University in New Jersey, credited Gray with coining the term “First Amendment audit.” Gray, 51, began filming police in 2010, he said, in part out of frustration with speed traps that seemed more like money-making tools than benefits to public safety. The first time he did it, he said, “I wound up in cuffs.”
In contrast with later auditors, including Taylor, who lean on profanity or aggression when they encounter police, Gray prioritizes keeping a cool head. He cites the manners his mother taught him, and the directive of Patrick Swayze’s character in Road House: “Be nice.”
“If you do wind up getting arrested, which has happened to me eight or nine times now, you don’t want to be yelling and screaming and making a fool of yourself,” Gray said, adding that prosecutors have always declined to file charges. “You want to look like you were the calm, cool, rational person.”
He sees what he does as education, he said, for viewers and for police and public officials.
Auditing is a relatively new phenomenon enabled by technology and social media, but it has plenty of precedents, said Dewberry, who recently published a peer-reviewed study of First Amendment auditors. He traces an American lineage of civilians recording police, from Paul Revere’s iconic engraving of the Boston Massacre to the cellphone video that captured Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd last year.
Auditors, however, seek out encounters with police rather than witnessing and recording them spontaneously.
“We’ve all seen COPS,” Dewberry said. “Lots of us have seen Live PD.
“Those are heavily tilted toward the state’s point of view. Now we get to see it from the other point of view. That can make some people uncomfortable, but it’s the other side of the story.”
Dewberry found that auditors generally know their way around the law. Though his research focused on auditors expressing free-speech rights, he said they displayed firearms “enough where I noticed it.”
Gray, in fact, once dabbled in gun rights tests. His second-most popular video, with more than 2.7 million views, documents a run-in with Ormond Beach police he posted in 2014. He was openly carrying a handgun while going fishing.
That video contrasts sharply with Taylor’s Clearwater stroll. It begins when an officer approaches Gray. There aren’t any visible bystanders. Gray is quiet and compliant, and he’s soon released with his gun.
Still, he said, the experience left him shaken. The officer had drawn his gun. His wife and a close friend asked him to stop making open-carry videos.
“They were afraid I was going to get shot,” Gray said. “I quit doing it.”
Is his way ‘the right way?’
At least one auditor has been shot. In 2019, a security guard outside a Los Angeles synagogue wounded a woman who was filming the building.
Gray feels no regret about the subculture he helped spawn, he said, but reserves some ire for people he believes cross lines. He knows of an auditor in Texas who prowls residential neighborhoods, shining lights into homes at night, and has heard of auditors calling police on themselves to guarantee confrontations.
None of that applies to Taylor, who Gray called a friend and someone who does things “the right way.”
“I definitely think that law enforcement could handle it a lot better than they do,” he said. “They should definitely be knowledgeable of the very same law, the same statute that authorizes them to carry weapons.”
Taylor regrets the torrent of profanity he unleashed on Clearwater officers last month, he said, but he’s on edge after “three years of guns pointed at me, cops telling me to get face down on the ground, me being thrown in the backs of cars.”
The Clearwater incident wasn’t Taylor’s first time filming in Tampa Bay. In 2020, he showed up in John’s Pass Village, as did Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies, who detained and released him. He likes to follow up to see if officers have received additional training.
Gualtieri said deputies don’t get specific training on dealing with auditors, though there’s general guidance for when they’re being filmed: Be careful, and be aware of the law. A Clearwater police spokesperson said officers are trained on the issue.
“We’ll follow the law,” Slaughter said, “but I don’t think the law was created for what this gentleman is doing, which is to generate income by making a bunch of YouTube videos.”
Taylor, whose videos are sometimes accompanied by a PayPal link, said he makes a couple hundred dollars a month from his channel and puts the money toward more travel and videos.
His old channel, Soloyaker, generated thousands of dollars before YouTube removed its ability to make money due to a policy violation. Taylor said it was because he re-posted a banned Snapchat video from a man who threatened a mass shooting, in order to comment on it.
David Thomas, a professor of forensic studies at Florida Gulf Coast University and a former Gainesville police officer, said he welcomes citizens questioning, challenging and recording officers. But the presence of a weapon makes the possibility of violence palpable.
“If the officers have the skill level and knowledge they’re supposed to have, this should be fairly routine,” Thomas said. “What scares me is somebody is going to overdo it, and the officer is going to overdo it.”
Officers just arriving on a scene have no way of knowing the intentions of Taylor or any other armed person, Gualtieri said. All they know is that they’re about to approach somebody who’s “armed pretty extensively” in a populated area. The danger that scenario creates aligns less with auditors’ stated goals, he said, and more with a desire to “bait” the police.
“They’re pushing the limits of it,” he said. “And they want somebody to take action against them so they can be a martyr about it.”
Thumbs up and fear
Taylor insists he doesn’t want to scare anyone.
“There wasn’t mass hysteria on the beach,” he said. “A lot of people were happy to see me, giving me thumbs up.”
But Taylor doesn’t mention the people who weren’t happy to see him.
Not the people on the beach giving him a wide berth. Not the frightened children — a group of junior lifeguards — who fled just as police arrived, according to their report. Not the beach safety supervisor who called the police, nor the lifeguard who feared for his safety and called his boss, nor the worried woman who complained to the lifeguard in the first place.
After the officers let Taylor go, they watched as he walked to the pier. He fished for five minutes, then left. He wandered around the area for about 20 minutes, police wrote. Four more people called 911.
Asked later what he caught at Pier 60, Taylor said he’d come up empty.
“I think I was using the wrong bait.”
Times staff writers Tracey McManus and Natalie Weber contributed to this report.