Why Activists Get Death Threats

Activists talk about the dangers of standing up for controversial ideas.

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 Hutson 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.”

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 Regan 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, so many that the family recently compiled them into a book. Weinstein 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.

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.

Amanda admires Mikey but is angry at the price the family has had to pay.

I’m very proud of him and he’s the only one and I don’t want him to stop. At the same time it takes a toll on the family. Is it fair for one family to take it all on? The answer is no. It’s not fair. It not fair! He’s just fighting for what should have been. It’s in the constitution. It’s not fair for one family to have to take that on.

All three members of the Weinstein family that I spoke to have lost relationships because of the work Mikey does. Amanda’s family is Evangelical—she was once a member of Ted Haggard’s church in Colorado Springs—and some relatives think Mikey’s advocacy is wrong. Bonnie’s family, also Christian, is split. But some relatives and friends have rallied around them. And that makes a world of difference. One positive note cancels out ten death threats, says Casey, or one person offering to help in the fight. Bonnie draws an analogy to being attacked by a bear in the forest:

You’re being chased by a bear and you fall, and your friend runs ahead of you and realizes you’re not there. Do they keep running or do they turn around? The people you think will keep on running sometimes turn around and come back, and the people you think will turn around sometimes don’t.

In what he sees as a fight to defend America’s constitution and founding principles, Mikey is all in—answering texts at the dinner table and responding to calls at all hours—and he can drive family members crazy. But despite her husband’s obsessive engagement and despite the risks to life and health, Bonnie has chosen to stay and help him as best she can. “To be attached means I am also attached to a tumor, but could you back out of your child’s life? That’s where I’m at. For me it’s simply not possible.”

Young atheist blogger Kacem El Ghazzali, born into a Muslim family in Morocco, can only dream of that kind of support. El Ghazzali began writing at age 20, questioning Islam and religion more broadly. After his views aired on an international channel discussing atheism in the Arab world, he started getting death threats. The most frightening came via Facebook; the sender promised to slaughter him like a sheep in the city of Al-Hajib, where he often went to meet with friends. El Ghazzali knew from the start that open criticism of Islam was risky—“There's nothing new about this. There are so many free minds that were deprived of their sacred right to life by the warriors of Allah.”—But he is defiant.

The believer who protects his god by committing murder has no respect for that god. If Allah the all powerful can neither make me a believer nor protect himself, then why am I supposed to worship him in the first place? The believer inadvertently insults Allah when he declares "I'm defending Allah,” for we only defend that which cannot defend itself.

El Ghazzali’s father found out about the threats (and about El Ghazzali’s lack of belief), and struck him, breaking his glasses. Other family members sided with his father, and most of his friends turned away. He was kicked out of school. The threats escalated and became more specific, and El Ghazzali went into hiding, ultimately seeking and obtaining asylum in Europe, where he has continued to oppose Islamic theocracy.

Why do they do it? What causes an otherwise sane person to choose life in the valley of the shadow of death?

Defiance like El Ghazzali’s is certainly a part of the picture. Fear shares space in the human psyche with anger and resolve. Our basic instinctive reactions to threat are flight or fight, and sometimes predators who mean to trigger one instead trigger the other.

But beyond those fundamental animal instincts, lies something profoundly and uniquely human—a sense of calling or purpose, a conviction that the fight I am fighting, however risky, is a core part of who I am.

Asked why he keeps at it, Kacem El Gazzali becomes emphatic: “It’s a battle for freedom, if they silent me freedom will lose; and by keeping walking I’m more being myself than anything else!”

Gottalaff also puts it bluntly: “I’m passionate about what I write. My voice is more important than their infantile threats. If it was more serious I would have taken steps to increase my security around the house, but I wouldn’t stop typing. I have to express myself and nobody is going to stop that ever.”

In her years as an abortion provider, Gloria Feldt looked into the eyes of her patients and found all the reason she needed to keep going. “There wasn’t a day went by that someone didn’t say, ‘You saved my life.’ What is better than that?” Yes, it was hard, but “Along the way I realized that like with any terrorism if you let them change your life, then they have won. I just don’t think that is right. . . .” Reflecting back on it, she sees her work as part of something bigger: “I am part of a wave that cut our teeth on the civil rights movement. My work was and is an extension of that. Civil rights activists encountered exactly the same kind of hate, threats and violence. But you know you are doing something that advances social justice.”

Bonnie Weinstein muses about how she ended up in the complicated, harried life she lives—the intersection of who she is, who Mikey is, and the world’s need. “There was never really a point that I decided to go forward with it. I just choose not to ignore the elephant in my living room. It’s not my nature. It is his calling and I love him dearly and so we’re in this together. Mikey and I are not the kind of people . . . he’s not the kind of person who’s going to hold the yarn for me while I ball it up to knot my sweater. This just happened to find us.”

She hesitates, then sums it all up in a sentence. It feels like a life well lived.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington, and the founder of Wisdom Commons. She is the author of "Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light" and "Deas and Other Imaginings." Her articles can be found at valerietarico.com.

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