As 2024 begins, threats against political leaders proliferate and plague US democracy

Former Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, who played a central role in resisting efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, drove into his east Phoenix neighborhood the day after Christmas and witnessed a chilling scene. I made it.

His home was located off a dirt road in a patch of unorganized desert land surrounded by sheriff’s deputies. An unknown caller reported there was a pipe bomb inside and a woman had been killed.

Sheriff’s deputies searched the home and questioned Bowers’ wife and grandson, Bowers and authorities said. We determined that neither claim was true.

The swatting incident, a prank call to emergency services meant to elicit a law enforcement response, was more than just a scary moment for Bowers and his family. This was one of many violent threats and acts of intimidation that have defined the lives of various government officials since the 2020 election.And now they’re casting a shadow The 2024 campaign comes as Americans prepare to vote in the primary season that begins this month.

Those on the receiving end span the spectrum of America’s democratic system, including members of Congress, state officials, local leaders, and judges. Some are well-known, while others have a relatively obscure role. The intensity has accelerated in recent weeks.

Bomb threats last week led to evacuations at statehouses across the country. Federal authorities arrested and charged a man with threatening to kill a congressman and his children, while other congressmen also responded to the scuffle. The Maine Secretary of State and the Colorado Supreme Court recently ruled that Donald Trump is ineligible to run for president for inciting an insurrection, despite accusations he made in speeches and social media posts. As a result, threats increased rapidly.

The swat took place Sunday night in Washington, D.C., at the home of Tanya S. Chutkan, the federal judge in charge of President Trump’s election destruction case, according to a person familiar with the matter and Chutkan’s family, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Police responded to Ting’s suspicions. The incident is under investigation.

Attorney General Merrick Garland called Friday. The wave of threats against government employees and civil servants is a “very worrying upsurge”.

Parts of the right have also been affected, but many of the targets have common traits. They are doing things and saying things that will anger President Trump.

Experts say acts of physical violence against officials and politicians have remained relatively rare since the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. But they warn that public servants could be harmed. The risk of intimidation influencing decision-making is already undermining the health of American democracy.

Officials who were targeted say: They fear that threats can escalate into physical violence at any time.

I’m really worried that a tragedy is going to happen,” Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Jill Karofsky said in an interview. “I believe the people who say they want to hurt us or kill us. I don’t think they are just threats.”

Wisconsin Supreme Court members issued a series of threats, many of them misogynistic and anti-Semitic, after ruling 4-3 in December 2020 upholding Joe Biden’s victory over Trump. I was hit by something like that.

Since then, the court has continued to receive threats, including one that came into the court clerk’s office on Thursday. The court has long been dominated by conservatives, but after last year’s election, liberals took over and began ruling on important political issues, including state legislatures. Redistricting.

Karofsky, a member of that narrow majority, said he was aware of the threat. In an attempt to intimidate the judge into changing his sentence.

“I think right-wing radicals are primarily trying to influence the judiciary in an anti-democratic way,” she said. “It’s through intimidation. It’s through intimidation. It’s through violence.”

On Wednesday, bomb threats in Georgia and Connecticut forced evacuations, closures or increased security at more than a dozen state capitols. kentuckymichigan, minnesotaMississippi, Montana, Wisconsin, Hawaii, Maine, Oklahoma, Illinois, Idaho, South Dakota, Alabama, Alaska, Maryland, and Arizona. The FBI said there was no information indicating the threat was credible.

Thursday, Arkansas, Florida, Maine; mississippi The same is true in Wisconsin, according to officials and local news outlets.

The day before sheriff’s deputies surrounded Bowers’ home in a previously unreported incident, Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene was the target of a swatting attack on Christmas Day. . So did Republican Rep. Brandon Williams of New York, according to social media messages from politicians and local news outlets. Federal authorities arrested a Florida man Wednesday and charged him with threatening to kill Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and his children.

“This includes threats of violence against those who administer elections, ensure our safe travel, teach our children, report the news, represent voters, and keep our communities safe. It’s just part of a larger trend,” Garland told reporters. Friday. “These threats of violence are unacceptable. They threaten the fabric of our democracy.”

He said Justice Department officials have been working to combat these threats for years and will meet on Friday to determine “how we can double down on these efforts in the new year.” He said that

Stephen Levitsky, a government professor at Harvard University who studies democracies around the world, said politicians and election officials who receive threats have had their livelihoods affected and are often forced to implement new security measures and other measures. He said other safety measures need to be adopted.

It also has an impact. About the decisions officials make when trying to safely perform their duties. Violent intimidation “makes our political system less democratic” for How does that change the political motivations, Levitsky said? For example, politicians have admitted to changing their votes because they feared for the safety of their families.

Levitsky noted that while violent threats span the political spectrum, the “vast majority” come from activists and far-right groups. Importantly, these threats are often not. Their government representatives are disappointed, he said. Rather, Trump et al. Appeared Sometimes the behavior is encouraged or condoned.

For example, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” over the weekend that she condemned the violence, but at the same time she was jailed for her role in the violent Jan. 6 insurrection. He echoed President Trump’s characterization of the people who were attacked as follows: I’m a hostage. ”

Just because there hasn’t been widespread political violence since the Jan. 6 riots doesn’t mean people feel safe, Levitsky added. Because too much “fantasy violence” is being played out on social media.

Liliana Mason, an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, said such threats “have the profound effect of keeping people from doing their jobs.” In the long run, it could deter people from running for office or participating in political campaigns, added Mason, co-author of her book “Radical American Partisanship.”

“So this not only intimidates current people, but it changes the composition of who will hold office in the future,” Mason said.

A study by Princeton University’s Bridging the Divide Initiative, which tracks political violence and threats against election officials, found that women and people of color, who are far more likely to receive violent threats in the first place, are also more likely to stay away from voting. It has been found. A job that threatens them.

Several swatters spoke about their experiences on condition of anonymity, saying law enforcement officials threatened and discouraged targets of swatting attacks from speaking publicly about the hardships such attacks cause. He often gives advice. Perpetrators of such threats often crave validation that they have caused fear and chaos. They say knowing that they are successful only encourages them.

But officials also said it’s important for the public to know when employees are receiving threats regarding the performance of their duties.

Maine Secretary of State Shena Bellows removed Trump from the state’s presidential primary ballot in late December under the Constitution’s insurrection clause, but came under fire the day after making the decision.

“I was prepared for anger, backlash and criticism,” Bellows said. A Democratic lawmaker said in an interview. “However, I was unprepared for the aggressive and threatening communications that targeted not only me but my family. I was also unprepared for the swatting incident.”

According to the Maine Department of Public Safety, an unknown man called emergency services and told them he had broken into Bellows’ address. Although Bellows and her husband were not home at the time, Bellows said law enforcement responded “completely and efficiently and were very communicative.”

She added that the incident “appears to have been designed to send me messages to silence me or to incite fear, and that is unacceptable.”

On Wednesday, Gabriel Sterling, director of operations and finance, said: officers of The Georgia Secretary of State’s office received a call from the police chief in his hometown of Sandy Springs, a suburb of Atlanta, inquiring about his safety. The police chief received a report of active threats at Mr. Sterling’s home.

When Sterling arrived at his home, there were 14 police cars outside.

“I’m more angry than anything,” Sterling, a Republican, said in an interview. “The purpose of these acts, regardless of who is doing them, is to cause panic and concern and to expend emotional and real resources on people.”

Sterling was Georgia’s chief elections official in the 2020 presidential election.he He strongly opposed President Trump’s attempts to cast doubt on the election results and his intimidation of election officials after the votes were cast.

“Somebody’s going to get hurt,” Sterling said at the time. “Someone’s going to get shot. Someone’s going to get killed.”

Sterling said the warning was prescient given that violent threats are becoming more common. In response to such threats, “you put on your big pants and keep going to work,” he told the Post. “We must not allow the institutions to be undermined by those who seek to undermine them.”

Like Sterling, Bowers has been repeatedly threatened and harassed since the 2020 election. He was out running errands when law enforcement received a call about the murder of a woman and a false report of a pipe bomb at his home. His wife and adult grandson were inside when police arrived.

“This whole thing kind of hardens me,” Bowers, who testified alongside Sterling in 2022 before the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, told The Washington Post. . “We don’t know if or why someone is trying to make our lives miserable. There’s just uncertainty.”

karofsky Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice, He said he thinks it is important to let the public know what authorities are working on.

“We are literally at a moment where democracy is at stake, and we have a group of insurrectionists who think it is perfectly fine to use violence and intimidation to get democracy. “You have to think about whether you’re going to hand over the doctrine and get the verdict that they want out of the court,” Karofsky said. “Or will we have a democracy where people obey the rule of law? And if I don’t stand up, and other people don’t stand up, and we don’t talk about this, we won’t be able to fight this fight.” You will lose.”

Wingett Sanchez reported from Phoenix and Marley from Madison, Wisconsin. Perry Stein, Peter Hermann, Keith L. Alexander, and Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.

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