Harassment against public officials spiked after Jan. 6 riot

Capitol Riots

FILE – In this Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, violent rioters supporting President Donald Trump, storm the Capitol in Washington. A participant in the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol was taken into custody Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022, in Southern California after an hours-long standoff, authorities said. Eric Christie was arrested in the Sherman Oaks neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley, according to Laura Eimiller, an FBI spokesperson. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

(NewsNation) — The year that followed the riot at the U.S. Capitol was one of increased harassment and threats against federal public officials in the nation’s capital as well as local leaders in cities such as Anchorage, Alaska.

“We witnessed our own version of Jan. 6 in Anchorage, Alaska, and we stood against them, fought them down,” said Chris Constant, vice chair of the Anchorage Assembly.

In October 2021, a city employee attempted to cut a public meeting’s livestream and dismiss security amid heated debates about COVID-19 mask mandates, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

Constant told NewsNation that the harassment of local elected leaders peaked in Anchorage around the time municipalities began enforcing COVID-19 mandates. The restrictions came with strong opposition and drew waves of people to city meetings, he said, and eventually to his home.

“They’re circling the house with trucks, blaring horns, ‘You can’t hide from us!’ ‘Open Anchorage!’ ‘We’re coming for you!’ Just insanity,” Constant said.

In the two years that followed the Jan. 6 riot, harassment, violence and threats against public officials were on the rise across the country. Threats and attacks against national figures including Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Paul Pelosi, husband of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, made headlines.

Police in Albuquerque, New Mexico, are investigating shootings at four elected officials’ homes and offices, NewsNation affiliate KRQE reported.

“Three of the bullets passed through my 10-year old daughter’s bedroom,” New Mexico state Sen. Linda M. Lopez said in a statement. “I am asking the public to provide any information they may have that will assist the police in bringing about the arrest of the perpetrators.”

It was not immediately clear if the incidents were connected. No injuries were reported.

A 2021 National League of Cities survey of local officials found that 87% reported an increase in attacks on public officials in recent years, and 81% said they personally experienced harassment threats or attacks.

Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin and Arizona reported the highest number of harassment claims, according to a separate Princeton University report.

Of the 400 cases observed in the NCL report, the majority stemmed from concerns over elections, education or the government’s response to COVID-19.

Minnetonka, Minnesota, City Council Member At Large Deb Calvert received backlash for the city’s public health restrictions. The aggression ultimately emboldened her, she said.

The mask mandates seemed to fuel otherwise stereotypically “civil” Minnesotans, Calvert said. Soon, she and her colleagues were fielding hundreds of emails and phone calls, occasionally met with incoherent screaming on the other end of the line.

“That was the first time I ever hung up on someone, because there was no use trying to converse with this person,” Calvert said. “I literally couldn’t understand what they were saying.”

In the summer of 2021, Calvert was campaigning door-to-door when a man shouted at her to leave his property and called her a terrible person, the councilwoman said.

“I said, ‘Sir, I’m leaving your property. There’s no reason to be so angry. Just don’t vote for me,’” Calvert said. “I didn’t even feel safe turning around and walking down the stairs, so I backed all the way down the stairs and a car saw this man being incredibly aggressive to me and actually stopped to make sure I could get off the property.”

Calvert caught her breath and continued going door-to-door. She now takes extra precautions, such as telling people where she’s going, and tries to bring a partner.

Back in Anchorage, Constant wasn’t campaigning, but rather talking to a neighbor, who pointed out that a camouflage hunting camera was strapped to a tree facing Constant’s house. 

He took the matter to the police, who weren’t able to track down the camera’s owner, Constant said. 

“It’s created a little box in the back of my brain in which I pushed all of my insecurities and doubts and fears and closed it off and did my duty,” he said. “It just was a matter of bottling it up and moving forward because you have a job to do.”

As time went on, Constant said what might have typically been normal assembly meetings grew disorderly. 

Some who attended a meeting in September of 2021 wore six-pointed yellow stars that said “Do Not Comply” in an effort to compare mask mandates to the Holocaust. Four people total were arrested during the meeting. One man was kicked out after hurling a derogatory and homophobic insult at Constant, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

Things have calmed down some since the onset of the pandemic, both Constant and Calvert agreed.

Moving forward, the NCL recommended that cities plan in advance for de-escalation and security protection, as well as instituting a code of conduct for public city meetings and prioritizing the mental health of their elected officials.

The preservation of local news also plays an important role.

“According to a study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, more than one-fourth of the country’s newspapers have disappeared, leaving residents in thousands of communities in news deserts,” the report stated.

The local news outlets in Anchorage and Minnetonka have helped to uncover some of the harassment over the past two years, both politicians agreed, but the harassment hasn’t stopped.

Just this week, Constant, who is gay, received another email using homophobic language. He saves messages like those in a folder labeled “Bigots and Haters” and fantasizes about publishing them someday. Since they came through his professional email, they’re already a part of the public record.

“It was bad,” Constant said. “We have a lot we can learn from it, and it’s getting better. And let’s not forget the lessons that we learned, because we may find ourselves here again.”

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