Life in the Crosshairs – How Some Public Feminists, Atheists and Other Activists Cope With Death Threats

Valerie Tarico,  truthout

More than twenty years have passed, but Jonathan Hutson still vividly remembers one specific day during his stint as editor of a New Hampshire weekly.

[I was] writing a series on the titans of trash — about racketeering by the nation’s two largest garbage haulers. A lawyer came to my office one day to convey a warning about my latest investigative reporting. “Jonathan, I hope I don’t open up the pages of the Union Leader one day,” he said, “to read that the editor of a certain weekly newspaper got into his car, turned over the ignition, and got blown sky high.” “That shall not happen,” I said. “How can you be so sure?” “Because I don’t own a car.”

To some extent the specter of violent death hangs over us all, lurking at the edge of consciousness most of the time, perhaps brought into focus by a mass shooting in which victims remind us of our children or friends, or of ourselves. Or maybe we are shaken by a local story about domestic violence, a murder suicide, a drive by, or road rage turned lethal.

For women in particular, the threat never completely disappears. A cartoon that made its way around Facebook underscores the point. On one side a thought bubble above a male figure reads, “What if she gave me a fake number?” On the other, a bubble above a female says, “What if he rapes and kills me?”

Mercifully, for most of us most of the time, the risk of violence seems small and distant. Even so, it can shape how we live. It can make us hesitate to say no. Or yes. It can make us hesitate to stay home alone. Or go out at night.

Or speak our minds.

Fear has the power to paralyze and silence even strong, determined people, which is why threats of violence are such a potent, common, and toxic presence in political discourse. Consequently, it is a wonder, and a gift to us all, when engaged citizens like Jonathan Huston refuse to be silenced.

Threats of violence can be explicit or implied, verbal or behavioral. They can target a single individual like the president, or a class of individuals, like queers. And the intimidation can take many forms: the mob lawyer’s casual comment about a car bomb; an assault weapon slung over a shoulder in a Texas restaurant; a Louisiana law forcing abortion providers to publish their names, addresses and photos; the body of a lynch or rape victim swaying from a tree.

As a psychologist turned writer, I found myself wanting to understand more about what life is like for activists who find themselves living—to borrow a biblical phrase—in the valley of the shadow of death. I wanted to understand also why some of them, instead of backing down decide to lean in. So, I started asking around. One of the first things I learned was how surprisingly many people within two degrees of separation from my own life had dealt with threats of violence at one time or another. The second thing—less surprising—was that staying centered and engaged in the face of even threatening innuendo is far from easy.

Progressive commentator “Gottalaff” had been in the public eye for years as an actress in stage shows, comedy, radio and improv, when one man’s reaction to her quirky posts at The Political Carnival turned ugly. First the comments were just rude, but then they got personal:

He Google mapped me, and he showed me a map within a few miles of my house. And he said, “It shouldn’t be hard to figure it out-where you live.” I was fully dressed, locked in my house, but it’s the same kind of feeling one would get if you saw a peeping Tom. When it got that close I got really scared. I stopped using my real name; I use California instead of where I live. I was an actress on TV, I used my picture and real name all the time – and politics changed all of that.

That first cyberstalker was followed by another and then another, who tweeted hundreds of pornographic images, close-ups of defecation, strings of gendered slurs, and graphic details of the sexual violation she deserved. He made repeated attempts to find out the identity of the woman behind her public persona. Today Gottalaff doesn’t give her real name to anyone she hasn’t met.

For blogger, Jesse Wendel, who spends his days as a professional in information technology, the first warning of danger came in the form of a physical assault. Wendel had encountered violence in prior work as a Nationally Registered EMT-Paramedic. “People have attacked me before but they were drunk or mistook me for cops or were high. That just goes with the territory when you’re a paramedic.” But this was different.

Wendel was in a bar next to a favorite breakfast place he had written about. He was blogging a sports event when a man interrupted. He told Wendel that he wrote badly, then escalated to calling him names. Over the course of the event he left and returned several times and then, unexpectedly attacked. As Wendel struggled to protect his head and neck with a cane that he requires to walk, the bartender and others pulled off the assailant.

Wendel emerged physically intact, but the assault and then stalking by the same man, changed his life.

Once I saw him at the house, I got my daughter out of the house. She was eighteen. I moved her out within two days, so that it was just me. Then I moved out three weeks later. My home was already being renovated to put it on the market. That was already scheduled. I was going to move out in two months but I moved out right then. I rented a room and was gone. I got a carry permit, which I didn’t have till then. I didn’t go back to the house. Nobody knows where I live. My children don’t know where I live, my office doesn’t know where I live, my mail doesn’t forward there. I never went back to that restaurant. It was my favorite place. I never went back to say goodbye.

Afterward, Wendel experienced post traumatic symptoms: sleep disturbance, hyper-vigilance, and what he called paranoia. “Like a constant condition orange – never letting my guard down.” Over the course of six months, the symptoms dissipated to the point that they got triggered only occasionally—by a public shooting, for example, or a car accident. At the time I spoke with him, his blogging had slowed to a trickle. “I may pick it back up as we move back into the election cycle,” he said. “It’s fun to go to the conventions. Then again I may not.”

Political writer Cliff Schecter knows what that feels like. “You’re naked,” he says. “You’re putting yourself out there, and there’s nobody telling you what’s smart to do and what’s not smart to do.” In 2008, Schecter published a book titled The Real McCain. In it, among other things, he broke a story about John McCain’s explosive temper—about him calling his wife a cunt. Abruptly Schecter found himself in the public eye—mentioned in Vanity Fair and on John Stuart, invited onto left and right wing talk shows that sought to influence the election—and he found himself notorious. He received emails saying he should leave the U.S.: “The country would be better off if you were dead.”

In the US, death threats often target left leaning activists, feminist women, or religious and racial minorities. Former national president of Planned Parenthood Gloria Feldt is all of the above. Feldt believes that growing up as a Jewish child in a small Christian town helped to prepared her for the threats she received as an abortion service provider. “I do think that when you are Jewish (I grew up in a small town in Texas, in the Bible belt) you learn a kind of public courage or else you go crazy.”

For Feldt, the threats—coupled with racial slurs—first heated up when she became CEO of Planned Parenthood in Arizona, and for almost two decades coping with them was a way of life.

I had stalkers, picketers at my home. I had telephoned and written death threats. Institutionally we had bomb threats. When you’re at a local affiliate and providing direct services and people know you more intimately, the kinds of threats are likely to be more up close and personal. In a local clinic role, folks know who you are, where you live, what you drive. I had a lot of anti-Semitic screed combined with physical threats. Neo Nazi language really stuck in my mind. They snorted like pigs.

The onslaught was frightening, but Feldt drew on the toughness she had acquired during those childhood years in Texas and other early encounters with hostility. For example, soon after moving to Phoenix in 1978, Feldt once went to see her dentist, whose office was in the same strip mall as a private reproductive health clinic. As she parked her car, a dozen “sidewalk counselors” swarmed around her, telling her not to kill her baby.

I felt my blood pressure go up and my heart start pounding. I knew who they were, I was well aware of their tactics and I wasn’t even pregnant, but even so I felt the reaction one has in that situation. It gave me an insight into what it feels like to be a patient and be accosted like that. It made me want to do everything I could to limit the protesters’ access to patients. I think it also prepared me emotionally for when we started getting aggressive demonstrations.

Violence and threats of violence cast a long shadow. When a public figure gets targeted, whether by an individual stalker or a political/religious sector that wields threat as a means of social control, family members become collateral damage.

After graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy and law school, Mikey Weinstein, launched a coveted career as a Judge Advocate Officer, later becoming a political appointee in the Reagan administration and an advisor to third party presidential candidate Ross Perot. During his years in the Air Force, it never occurred to Weinstein that his greatest risk of violent death would be at a podium or in his own home. But in 2005 Weinstein founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation to fight the growing influence of Christian dominionists in U.S. military academies and service branches.

In the intervening years Weinstein has received literally thousands of messages wishing or threatening harm to him or his family. He no longer makes public appearances without security. I spoke with Weinstein’s son Casey and daughter-in-law Amanda, both Air Force Academy graduates, and with his wife Bonnie about the impact on their lives.

As we all know, people say things in email that they wouldn’t say face to face, and they threaten things they wouldn’t do, so at first Casey didn’t know how seriously to take the threats his dad was receiving. Then someone vandalized the house.

A dead rabbit was left on the front porch. Tires were slashed. The front window was shot out. Feces left on the porch. Then they started threatening my mom. They read off her license plate number and they knew we were going to a game and said that her blood would be all over the car. That was pretty freaky because that means they clearly have seen your car and have seen her. They know the address—have been to the house. They know where the house is and could get to us if they wanted to.

What cut the deepest was the reaction of some friends, who pulled away. That, in combination with the swastika that was painted on the front of the house. “The swastika really got me thinking. I just had a vision of them standing feet away from our door, putting a swastika on the house. It brings up a lot of images that are engrained in Jews. It brings you back to that fear of helplessness. Or that fear of people turning against you. When they carry out some physical act, that brings it home.”

For Bonnie, who has multiple sclerosis, the constant sense of siege exacerbated her symptoms. She found herself making the rounds of specialists, on multiple medications. “I’m not a crier,” she says, “I’m more of an internal person. It affected me physically.” She recalls, in particular, a series of phone calls they received, first live and then recorded. The voices were those of young children, chanting: “Now we lay you in your grave. If you die before you wake we pray the devil your soul to take.” In the background adults egged them on.

Like Jesse Wendel, Bonnie lives with an ever present sense of heightened vigilance.

It’s like when there’s a rapist in the area. Women have to go on alert. They get an escort in the parking lot. They carry mace. Woman can probably be more empathetic to that. When the dogs are barking, I stop what I’m doing. I look and see. When the doorbell rings and I’m not expecting someone I grab the gun by the door. It’s a different lifestyle. I’ve always been comfortable with guns. I used to go out shooting with my dad. But I never chose to have them in the house. This was a decision we made to have them in the house.

Amanda says that since most of the threats target Mikey and Bonnie that gives her a little breathing room. When asked if she carries a concealed weapon, she responded wryly. “I teach statistics, so I don’t feel any safer with a gun.” She does double check the locks on the doors, and make sure lights are on outside the house.

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