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Tim Steller's opinion: A year after election, Tucson and America risk more political violence
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Investigative commentary

Tim Steller's opinion: A year after election, Tucson and America risk more political violence

Robert M. Norwood, 63, left these messages on his yard's outer wall, visible from busy East Golf Links. Seeing Norwood paint the wall, a passerby, John Hodson, put the homeowner in a chokehold. Hodson is awaiting trial on a charge of manslaughter.

On the Monday before Election Day 2020, a pro-Trump caravan paraded down East Golf Links Road on Tucson’s southeast side, flags flying.

Late the next afternoon, as the country tensed with anticipation on Election Day, Robert Norwood used spray paint to scrawl messages about putting country before party on his yard’s outer wall, visible from busy East Golf Links, witnesses and police reports say. It wasn’t unusual for Norwood to stencil pro-military, anti-Trump messages on a wall, but this was a messier, more urgent effort.

“My family has (5) gen. in this,” he wrote. “So far (6) lives lost in service to it. So don’t drive by waving your Trump flags.”

As he painted, wearing a respirator, John Hodson happened to drive past in his Jeep Cherokee, Tucson police reports say. Hodson parked, got out and tried to photograph the license plate of Norwood’s blue GMC van, he told police. He didn’t know it was Norwood’s house.

Norwood confronted him, the conflict turned physical, and before long the 53-year-old Hodson had the 63-year-old Norwood in a chokehold from behind.

As Norwood’s life slipped away, Hodson said this to two passersby who tried to intervene, according to Tucson police reports:

“This is the most American thing I can be doing.”

Witness Damon Johnson remembers it well. He told me Thursday, “That was the line he kept repeating to us. He said it multiple times.”

Killing over political graffiti — the most American thing he could be doing.

Tucson police arrested Hodson that day, but he is free on bond now, awaiting trial for manslaughter in May 2022.

It wasn’t the only case of serious, election-related violence that erupted in Tucson a year ago. And now, rather than easing with the passage of time, the tensions are high again. In fact, the risk of political violence feels like it’s growing as President Trump and high-profile supporters continue inventing ways to claim the election was stolen from them.

For some supporters, the next step seems natural.

“When do we get to use the guns?” a man asked in a forum put on by Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk in Boise last week. “That’s not a joke. I’m not saying it like that. I mean, literally, where’s the line? How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?”

"Every time I go past that wall now, it hurts my heart," says Damon Johnson, who witnessed the death of Robert Norwood on the Monday before Election Day 2020.

Schoolhouse shooting

Christopher Cardot wasn’t waiting for permission, Tucson police reports suggest. On Nov. 6, three days after Election Day, Cardot emerged from his midtown home carrying a 12-gauge shotgun. He told dispatchers he was firing the first shots of the revolution.

He said to an employee at Khalsa Montessori School’s Camden Street campus: “You need to get out of here. I’m gonna start the next Civil War, and I’m going to shoot up the place,” the police reports say.

Cardot, then 73, went on to fire shots into two vehicles in the school’s parking lot and strike other buildings before eventually returning to his home across the street, the reports say. Fortunately, students were still attending school remotely at the time, and only a few employees were on-site.

The Tucson police SWAT team responded, and a hostage negotiator convinced Cardot to come out unarmed to be arrested. The officer who drove him to the police station reported Cardot’s patrol-car commentary this way:

“’Trump won and they are trying to steal’ the election from Trump,” the officer wrote. “Christopher clarified that the ‘commies’ and ‘leftists’ were stealing the election. He advised that he waited several days after the election for someone to fight against what was happening, and no one was ‘forming militias and taking the country back.’”

‘Indoctrination center for youth’

Cardot remains in jail, facing eight felony charges, but I was able to interview him by phone Friday morning. He doesn’t dispute what the police say he did, but he told me the explanation is that the episode was the bottom of a steep bipolar descent. Now 74, he’s hoping to get out of the case with minimal prison time and probation.

“The purpose that I intended was not to harm anybody, or to make any kind of point,” he said. “It was acting out to cause the police to come to my place of residence with the intention of doing what they call suicide by cop.”

While the underlying cause may have been mental illness, the trigger was clearly political.

“I was upset about the election itself and still feel the election was not legitimate because of certain irregularities,” Cardot said Friday. “But that’s not what caused me to actually lose control. What I lost control about was I saw nobody on what I call my side, the conservative side or Republican side, resisting what was happening — fighting back, so to speak.

“I felt like I didn’t want to live in this country anymore. I was totally discouraged.”

He took his frustrations out on the school because of his belief that schools were becoming too politicized.

“I felt that it was an indoctrination center for youth, for young people,” he said. “The progressives have taken over the schools for the most part and have done so for 40-50 years. The way they’re trying to change the curriculum appears to me to be a way to indoctrinate the children.”

In jail, Cardot has been receiving the best medical care he’s ever had for his bipolar disorder, he said. While he has the same political beliefs, he’s read many books while in jail that have helped bring him to a new state of balance.

“One of the things that it made me realize is that I’m not going to change the world,” Cardot said. “I just have to try to adjust personally, not get involved and not get wound up about things that I have no control over. And try to live out the remainder of my time in peace.”

‘That idea is insane’

While Cardot is perceptive now about his journey to Nov. 6, he showed little appreciation of the damage that his descent into politicized madness had done.

Teacher Tiffany Ash was in the school when Cardot fired shotgun blasts nearby.

“He was right outside the window, and he was shooting. We thought, ‘What if he shoots this way, toward us?’” Ash said. “We crawled to the bathroom. We were in the bathroom, hiding in the bathroom for what felt like eternity.”

Ash texted her son and mother, but sent no words or details — just heart emojis.

When she and her two colleagues were able to leave, the SWAT team was outside Cardot’s house, and her Honda Element was destroyed. Despite insurance, it cost thousands of dollars to replace the car, she said.

But that of course was a short-term problem, and a shallow one.

“The trauma you’re left with — nobody understands it unless they go through something like that,” Ash said. “I don’t think people get it. This could have really, really been so much worse.”

And there’s also the anger. When I told Ash how Cardot characterized schools even now, she was exasperated.

“That right there is why he should not be out,” she said. “That idea is insane. We’re teachers! We’re teaching kids how to read and write and how to learn.”

Bannon’s rhetoric

Those ideas come from somewhere, of course. Cardot was an avid listener of conservative radio host Chris Plante and others.

At the time he lashed out, the idea that the election was stolen from Donald Trump was not widely held. Trump was saying it — he started saying it long before voting even started — but the votes were still being counted, and the outcome remained unconfirmed.

Since then, it’s become a central belief in the GOP worldview, along with the idea that the Democrats are communists bent on destroying America. Together, the two ideas work to rally Republicans around the fear that the country faces an existential threat.

On Oct. 23 in Tucson, conservative political operative Steve Bannon spoke at the Hilton El Conquistador for the Pima County GOP’s Lincoln Day dinner. He described an America in which only people like the attendees could save the country from an unnamed “they.”

“The model they want to pursue is the Chinese Communist Party model, slightly dumbed down,” he said. “What they want is a type of state capitalism with a total authoritarian government.”

This being a Lincoln Day dinner, Bannon riffed on the Civil War before returning to his point.

“Biden did not get 81 million votes. Joe Biden did not win this election, so what are we going to do about it?” Bannon said.

“Decertify!” members of the crowd shouted.

“This is not on Donald Trump’s shoulder,” Bannon said. “Like it’s not on Steve Bannon’s shoulders or Sean Hannity’s or Tucker Carlson’s or any of the great commentators. Like it wasn’t on Rush Limbaugh’s shoulders. It’s on yours.”

Debunked claims

Of course there has also been left-wing political violence — last summer’s siege of a federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon, stands out. But there is no comparable dynamic on the political left these days to the cultivated demonization on the political right — especially its sense of grievance and victimization.

This kind of talk has worrying effects. Some refer to the rhetoric of Bannon and his allies as “stochastic terrorism.” It tends to incite the most unstable or angriest individuals, but the speakers don’t leave any fingerprints on the resulting, predictable violent acts, like Cardot’s attack on a school.

And it’s not just violence that results. The rhetoric has made life miserable for many election officials.

People unfamiliar with elections, like the Cyber Ninjas company hired by the Arizona Senate to review Maricopa County’s election, have repeatedly claimed to find serious problems with elections, only for real election experts to disprove them after public perception is affected.

Doug Logan, the Cyber Ninjas’ CEO, claimed at a hearing that 74,243 ballots “had no clear record of being sent.” This claim took off on right-wing media, but it was easily debunked by records he had, as the Arizona Mirror reported. The votes were cast by people at early-voting centers in the last 10 days before the election.

Of course, nothing could convince those who wanted to believe.

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs testified in Congress last week that it hasn’t just been her receiving threats, but also the unelected officials who make our political system work.

“As an elected official, I expected that sometimes I would have constituents who were unhappy with me,” Hobbs said in prepared testimony. “But I never expected that holding this office would result in far-right trolls threatening my children, threatening my husband’s employment at a children’s hospital, or calling my office saying I deserve to die and asking, ‘What is she wearing today, so she’ll be easy to get.’

“Threats like these have continued against me and others. But what concerns me more is the near constant harassment faced by the public servants who administer our elections. These are people who truly make our government work.”

Violence leaves deep wounds

Harassment and threats are one thing — common these days, unfortunately. That can erode our civic life by driving good people out of important jobs.

But political violence — that’s pure poison. It not only hurts and kills people, but injects hatred into our public life that tends to feed on itself.

And if our justice system works, committing political violence will upend the lives of the perpetrators. Just look at the hundreds arrested after entering the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6.

Hodson did not return my call seeking an interview, but the police reports suggest how he might defend himself at trial. Hodson apparently didn’t know Norwood was painting on his own wall, Hodson claims Norwood threatened to get a weapon from his van, though no gun was there, and Hodson called 911 while he had Norwood in a chokehold. Still, the witnesses say they saw Hodson kill him and exclaim positively about it being “the most American thing” he could do. Hodson faces a possible seven to 21 years in prison if convicted.

And the ripple effects go further. Damon Johnson and his friend Jeffrey Zappia told me about the grim reality they encountered late on the afternoon of Election Day last year.

They were walking together to the nearby Fry’s supermarket when Johnson noticed Norwood writing on his wall. It was on their return when they saw Hodson on top of him, choking him. They crossed the street and told Hodson that Norwood lived there, and to get off. But it was too late.

“His face was purple,” Zappia said of Norwood.

When Hodson released him, they heard a last exhalation escape Norwood. Then they stood in front of Hodson’s car door to keep him from leaving, while another passerby, a nurse, attempted CPR and police showed up.

“Every time I go past that wall now, it hurts my heart,” Johnson said.

His friend, Zappia, said: “It was emotionally scarring to see a man take his last breath because of some dispute. I don’t think I’ll necessarily ever have that image out of my mind.”

These are isolated incidents, but they have big impacts. And they ought to convince the angriest among us to step back from the brink, consider that none of us has a monopoly on truth, and remember the humanity of their political opponents, their fellow Americans.

That, truly, is the most American thing you can do.

Tim Steller is an opinion columnist. A 25-year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his conclusions. Contact him at tsteller@tucson.com or 520-807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter


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