By now McLennan County residents who follow the Waco Tribune-Herald are aware of several grim facts that hit home regarding the Jan. 6 insurrection that halted Congress in its constitutional pursuit of tallying Electoral College votes and sent the vice president of the United States and lawmakers scrambling for their lives. First fact: One of our own, 39-year-old vineyard owner, husband, father of three boys (ages 14, 10 and 3, all named for Texas heroes), veteran and former teacher Chris Grider of nearby Eddy, is among those arrested, charged and indicted in the storming of the U.S. Capitol. He hails from a strongly conservative state that temperamentally has never quite gotten past its roots as a rough-and-tumble frontier republic. A count last month showed Texas leading the nation in most insurrectionist arrests thus far, followed by New York and Florida.
Second fact: A dispute has arisen over the federal charges: The FBI says Grider played a pivotal role in battering away glass in the ornate doorway to the Speaker’s Lobby through which unapologetic QAnon enthusiast and gung-ho Trump combatant Ashli Babbitt, 35, another veteran, was climbing when fatally shot. Prominent Houston criminal defense attorney Brent Mayr offers another scenario in which gentle-hearted Grider was seeking to help alleviate crowding and lessen the potential for violence and injury when Babbitt, clearly of a different mindset, was shot. Third fact: With his release last week (and on an unsecured bond) after a month in detention, Grider now gets to learn what it truly means to be a second-class citizen, something many white Trump supporters only imagine themselves in all their worked-up grievance. He must remain in his home between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.; cannot possess a firearm or any other weapon; and can sample but not revel in the fruits of his vineyard labors. (Incidentally, the D.C.-based federal judge who clearly showed far more mercy toward Grider than the earlier Austin-based magistrate who favored his continued detention is Ketanji Brown Jackson, 50, a Harvard-trained, Obama-appointed African-American jurist eyed by the Biden administration as a strong candidate to succeed Merrick Garland on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and perhaps one day even 82-year-old Justice Stephen Breyer on the Supreme Court of the United States.)
As one studies the allegations against Chris Grider and other Texans arrested and charged in the Capitol riot, one encounters an undeniable truth: Many of those staring at trials, possible convictions and lengthy imprisonment were spoiling for a fight, given their insurrectionary social-media posts leading up to the Jan. 6 rally at the Ellipse, a park near the White House. That’s where President Trump completed the job, urging self-styled patriots from all over the nation to head for the Capitol where disputed presidential election results would be counted, and to “fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, who assisted in perpetuating the “Big Lie,” for weeks encouraging groundless beliefs in a stolen election — sometimes to degrees that left even the president embarrassed — also appeared before the crowd, calling for “trial by combat.” Days earlier, Grider’s own newly elected Republican congressman, Pete Sessions, a vigorous Trump supporter, posted a similarly rousing (and now deleted) message on social media: “Had a great meeting today with folks from ‘Stop the Steal’ at our nation’s Capitol. I encouraged them to keep fighting and assured them I look forward to doing MY duty on January 6th.”
Even before the rally was done, some demonstrators had begun to head for the Capitol. By the time they arrived, many had become heartened insurrectionists. Others appeared so even before arriving in Washington, D.C. Yet others, arguably against their better judgment, got swept up in the excitement among the several hundred who subsequently stormed the building. Mayr insists his client is no believer in crazed QAnon theories or right-wing militia dogma but rather an impressionable Trump supporter who innocently attended the “Save America” rally as possibly his last chance to see an idolized president in person and support that president’s repeated questioning of election results. To hear Mayr, Grider subsequently entered the Capitol with other like-minded souls in somewhat orderly fashion through an entrance where Capitol Police resistance was arguably tepid to the point of accommodation — something Mayr says Grider’s cellphone footage can prove.
Nonetheless, Grider finds himself charged with committing an act of physical violence on Capitol grounds or in its buildings; impeding passage through Capitol grounds; disorderly conduct in a Capitol building; obstruction of an official proceeding and aiding and abetting; disorderly or disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds; entering and remaining in a restricted building; and destruction of government property and aiding and abetting — good enough to earn him more than 30 years in prison if convicted and sternly sentenced on all charges. His oldest sons would be older than he is now when such a sentence was served. What might cause Grider most grief with prosecutors is that he was mere feet from Ashli Babbitt when an imperiled Capitol Police lieutenant trapped behind the Speaker’s Lobby doorway fired his pistol, blasting her backward and out of the window frame, ending forever further insurgency on her part.
The most-disputed point could come down to reasonable doubt. The FBI arrest warrant affidavit alleges that Grider assisted in the attack on the Speaker’s Lobby doorway: “At one point, a man standing next to Grider wearing a fur-lined hat and a black Nike shirt with a yellow Pirelli Inter Milan soccer emblem on his chest is observed attempting to break the glass window separating the mob from the House chambers. Grider is then observed handing a black helmet to this individual, then speaking to him as Grider appears to knock on the top of the helmet, signifying that it is a hard instrument. Subsequently, the individual accepted the helmet and proceeded to use it in order to strike the glass doors, breaking the glass that Babbitt eventually attempted to jump through.”
Mayr tells me that Grider’s intent was anything but insurrectionary, anything but intentionally aiding and abetting: “The video [of the incident] ties into this. He got this helmet thinking, ‘Hey, I might need this in case this thing really gets out of hand,’ but when he’s there at the door, you see him holding the helmet. The other kid asks him, ‘Can I have that?’ And he says, ‘Yeah, here, take it, I’m getting the hell out of here!’ Listen, you don’t hear him on the video. You don’t actually hear that dialogue. But it was basically one of those things where the kid was like, ‘Can I take that?’ and it’s like, ‘Yeah, take it.’ What you don’t hear on that video, you don’t hear him telling that kid, ‘Hey, start smashing those windows in.’ You don’t hear him yelling, ‘Kick the doors down.’ You don’t hear him doing any of that stuff. What do you hear him telling? He’s telling the police officers, ‘Hey, this is getting out of hand.’” Judging from video of the scene, the context involving Grider, Babbitt and 29-year-old Zachary Alam, alias “Helmet Boy,” subsequently arrested at Penn Amish Motel near the Pennsylvania Turnpike after a family member squealed on him, is a confused one with arguably clashing priorities all around.
Among the confounding aspects of the case is that Grider, however misguided one might find his politics and adoration of President Trump, doesn’t fit easily with other Texans arrested in the wake of the Capitol melee. He’s co-owner with wife and high school sweetheart Crystal of Kissing Tree Vineyards near the little Central Texas town of Eddy (complete with tasting room in a historic building there), a cattle and sheep endeavor on a 130-acre spread owned by his mother-in-law and, more recently, a wine-sampling enterprise complementing upscale dining just up the road in burgeoning Waco that only closed amid economic hardships reportedly driven by an out-of-control pandemic. Unlike some of the Texans rounded up, he’s a clean-cut young man with a blond Beatles haircut and mannered demeanor in public appearances. On the surface, he just doesn’t figure among irate, conspiratorial white Texans supposedly left behind by a politically correct culture, cheated by rapidly changing demographics and undermined by an industrial age marred by automation, cheap foreign labor and bad trade deals.
He sure doesn’t seem in the same company as feisty North Dallas real estate agent Jenna Ryan, 50, whose well-known right-wing proclivities in her community led her to take a private jet to D.C. and proclaim on Facebook the morning of the insurrection: “We’re gonna go down and storm the capitol. They’re down there right now and that’s why we came and so that’s what we are going to do.” Nor does Grider, an Air Force veteran, stand easily with retired Air Force Lt. Col. Larry Brock Jr., 53, a Grapevine resident seen in the Senate chamber wearing a combat helmet and carrying plastic zip-cuffs who on Jan. 6 posted (according to the FBI): “Patriots storming” and “Men with guns need to shoot their way in.” Grider surely isn’t of the caliber of Garret Miller, 34, of Richardson, who not only posted selfies of himself inside and outside the Capitol during the insurrection and vowed “next time we bring the guns” but by tweet also threatened the life of every patriot’s favorite socialist bogeywoman, Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And Grider certainly doesn’t fit the mold of arguably definable Texas insurrectionists Ryan Nichols, 30, of Longview, and Alex Harkrider, 33, of Carthage, charged with several crimes including conspiracy and unlawful entry with a violent weapon; violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds; and, in Nichols’ case, assault on a federal officer using a deadly or dangerous weapon. At one point inside the Capitol, Harkrider reportedly posted: “We’re in. 2 people killed already. We need all the patriots of this country to rally the f—- up and fight for our freedom or it’s gone forever. Give us liberty, or give us death. We won’t stand for it.”
Character references in court should be taken with more than a few grains of salt, but those offered on Grider’s behalf in detention hearings argued he was of little risk to his community if freed on bond. (Names of those writing letters were redacted here out of fear of retribution.) His mother-in-law praises him as “the answer to any mother’s prayers for her daughter.” She writes how, as the father of three boys, he “sets time aside for each boy in which he takes them on an adventure trip every year,” including last year a treasure hunt in Michigan with his 14-year-old and canoeing the Frio River with his 10-year-old. An acquaintance writes of Grider’s “hands-on approach with his businesses and winery, taking lots of time and effort to speak with customers, feed his animals, work in the garden with his wife and attend soccer games for his kids.” Investment in community is stressed by a neighbor: “He is not a violent person; always laughing and joking. He gives back to the community. When the Bruceville-Eddy Police Department wanted to get a K-9, Christopher was the first person to step in and donate and help collect donations to make that happen.” Another letter writer, possibly cognizant of the racism and xenophobia many see as characterizing the former president’s rhetoric and policies, notes that in his labors in the community Grider has hired “people from all backgrounds and races.” His Christian faith is regularly invoked.
Two letters offer glancing insights into the fix he’s in. Grider’s pastor from Chilton, just east of Eddy, cites the tremendous business and societal upheaval of the past year that has thrown lives and livelihoods out of balance to the point of surrealism, frustration and despair:
“Chris has two businesses: one in Eddy and one in Waco. Due to the stress of the Covid19 virus, the Waco restaurant had to close its doors. Chris works hard to support his family and is a dedicated businessman. This Covid19 virus has created a lot of stress within the community and has hurt many people. It has hurt his family and business. I am making a plea for Chris and his family. He has a family to take care of and a business to run. He needs to be back at home taking care of his family and working hard to keep his business open. Chris is the provider for this family and, in my heart, I do not believe that he went to Washington to cause any damage.”
Road to regret
Other letters offer similar testimonials, only reinforcing the larger question now looming over Grider, his family, lifestyle and dreams: What led him to travel to Washington to participate in a predictably rowdy rally built on exaggerations, lies and anger, a gathering primed for real trouble amid reliably incendiary rhetoric by the president and his lieutenants? Most letters skirt this incongruity, but one of Jan. 27 from an unusually discerning family member to Magistrate Susan Hightower addresses the question as well as disjointed family relations in pandemic times:
“After my grandfather passed away, [Grider] and my sister moved onto the family farm and through dedication and hard work they not only maintained the farm but purchased several buildings in downtown Eddy, Texas, began a winery and eventually expanded to opening a restaurant in Waco, Texas. Together they worked with city officials in Eddy to help revitalize the downtown area. But his allegiance, his commitment, his dedication were all abused by a misguided malcontent that he idolized who set him on a wave of sedition disguised as righteousness, based on lies, that brings us to where we are today.
“Because of the pandemic, we have seen each other less in the past year than we normally would. Because of the quarantine, we missed our family’s annual celebration of my mother’s birthday at a Texas Rangers’ game. While we seldom talk politics (he is a conservative and my family and I are liberals), we still missed seeing everyone over the holidays. My daughter’s wedding was this year and her guest list had to be pared down to just the parents. My brother passed away and we still haven’t met to spread his ashes. A lot of things continue to change.
“Now that he has been set adrift by powers that no longer need him, I cannot say where the currents will take him, but following this dose of reality, based on the truth, I can say that his allegiance to this Court will see him honor any commitment he makes to your Honor. His dedication to his family and friends should assure you that he will not pose a danger to the community but will allow him to raise my nephews in a loving manner. And let me assure you that if he were to [flee] these responsibilities, he would find no safe harbor with me or my family.”
And so father, husband, veteran, good neighbor and Central Texas winemaker Christopher Grider ponders conviction and imprisonment while the object of his reportedly crumbling adoration remains free to live in luxury in Florida and contemplate whatever reckless course of action he chooses next. Grider’s Republican congressman has by now pulled what some constituents contend was an inflammatory social media shoutout originally posted just ahead of the Jan. 6 insurrection; on a radio show in Brazos County this month, Pete Sessions instead assumed a rigorous law-and-order stance regarding the mob that drove him and others into hiding: “Those people must and will be held accountable — and that does mean significant jail time, every single one of them.” (On Jan. 20, a day before Grider turned himself in to authorities, Sessions posted his formal congratulations to President Biden: “As we commemorate the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, may we remember to pray for our great nation and its leaders. The United States of America is a blessing from God. Let us cherish our delicate democracy.”)
Grider’s attorney says his client no longer concerns himself with his fallen idol’s tenure but how a simple trip to the nation’s capital went awry and what he now stands to lose. “Despite whatever the evidence shows he did or did not do at the United States Capitol, the fact remains that Mr. Grider is not a violent or dangerous person,” Mayr argues in a Feb. 11 court filing to U.S. District Judge Jackson. “Every action of his life proves that, and nothing that occurred in that maelstrom in the Capitol Building on that fateful day proves differently. He no longer cares about politics or who is president of the United States. All he cares about is what has always mattered most to him: his family, his business, his community and his church. It is time to let him return to them.” Meanwhile, a sobering Jan. 28 University of Chicago study, “The Face of American Insurrection: Right-Wing Organizations Evolving Into a Violent Mass Movement,” indicates that of the nearly 200 individuals by then charged in the Jan. 6 unrest, only about 10 percent had clear ties to white supremacist groups — and that most appeared to be ordinary, everyday Trump supporters. Many claim they were moved and motivated by President Trump. One of the report’s most disturbing findings: “What we are dealing with here is not merely a mix of right-wing organizations but a broader mass movement with violence at its core.” The study’s authors insist that “we need to do more to understand who we are dealing with in the new movement. Targeting pre-2021 far-right organizations alone will not solve the problem. Political violence coming from a new mass movement requires new political solutions.”
Whatever his sentiments now (and he pleaded not guilty to all charges last week), Grider must count himself among Trump followers who, whether defiant or repentant about their actions on Jan. 6, whether scheming insurrectionists at heart or naïve camp followers, were consumed by the heady intoxication of the day. Even if Grider resisted QAnon madness, his involvement in the Jan. 6 riot lends validity and force to the QAnon motto adorning the apparel of so many that day: “Where we go one, we go all.” Many such as Grider consequently find themselves not only charged with serious federal crimes but destined to be footnote characters in the first sacking of the Capitol since the British captured and torched it during the War of 1812. They may face greater scorn and legal liability given that the towering, magnetic figure widely credited with inciting them has apparently slipped free of accountability and desperate apologists such as Republican Sen. Ron Johnson continue to blame the Jan. 6 rebellion on “fake Trump supporters” and other leftist “provocateurs” — a starry-eyed, dangerously delusional conclusion that detailed federal charging papers fail to substantiate. And whether those such as Grider are found innocent or guilty, whether they aspired to be strategic knights in a nightmarish chess match to invalidate the votes of millions of fellow Americans or wound up unwitting pawns forgotten by their manipulators as soon as they fell on the field of play, their names will figure on rolls of dishonor, national betrayal and homegrown treachery in an American tragedy that ranks as critical, traumatic and consequential as the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York City and the Pentagon across the Potomac from Washington, D.C.
The 9/11 attacks engineered by calculating anti-American terrorists were clearly set on humbling America’s dynamic center of commerce and short-circuiting the nerve center of our nation’s military might; by contrast, the 1/6 onslaught pivoted on a jumbled assortment of goals and impulses and whims — everything from appeasing an irascible president given to provocative, misleading statements, to undermining the very democracy at the heart of our constitutional republic, everything from testing increasingly anemic Article 1 powers, to just raising hell and playing sunshine patriot amid a cascading sea of U.S., Trump and Confederate battle flags, plus that yellow “Gadsden flag” Grider imprudently wore as a sort of cape on Jan. 6, complete with iconic coiled timber rattler and motto “Don’t Tread on Me.” In the end, Chris Grider got bitten but not by the Gadsden rattler. Nor can he necessarily find sympathy in all corners of rigidly conservative Central Texas where his political loyalties might ordinarily be shared and celebrated. As a 75-year-old Waco resident — a military veteran and diehard Texas winery aficionado who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 — fumed the other day regarding the Capitol Hill mob: “They made me look bad. They all need to be rounded up and prosecuted — every last one of them.”
For once I share my friend’s outrage, even if it took the storming and sacking of the Capitol to do it. Yet the way forward in complicated legal matters such as United States of America v. Christopher Ray Grider might best benefit from the very truth and justice that Mr. Grider’s idol so long denied so many others.
Warning: Some coarse language and violence. The full video, which shows graphic images of a fatal shooting, can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfiS8MsfSF4
Veteran Texas journalist Bill Whitaker recently retired as Waco Tribune-Herald opinion editor.