‘It’s like a time of war’: Public meetings throughout the state marked by anger and harassment
Some of the signs carried by protesters outside of last week’s Executive Council meeting. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)
This story was updated Oct. 7, 2021 at 7:30 a.m. to add two events attended by members of extremist groups.
Yes, hate groups and right-wing extremists have made appearances in the increasingly angry fight in New Hampshire against vaccine mandates, mask policies, pandemic shutdowns, lessons on racism, unproven voter fraud, and even pronoun use. But the fight is being waged by your neighbors, not armed extremist groups in tactical gear.
Angry and frustrated teachers, parents, nurses, students, elected officials, and community members – many who’ve never been politically engaged before – are packing and often disrupting school and select board meetings across the state. And they are having an impact.
“To go and voice your opinion to your public officials, that is how our republic functions,” said Andrew Manuse, co-founder of RebuildNH, a group helping to organize many of the protests. “We’ve been clamoring for how many years that people are not showing up for elections and not showing up for public meetings? People who have never been involved before are getting involved. We would say that’s a good thing, and it is.”
Manuse encourages followers to do so civilly. Many do, like the hundreds who marched in Concord Saturday for “medical freedom.”
But many do not.
A long-serving Hollis selectman resigned last month after being heckled for wearing a mask to a meeting, even as he explained he did so to avoid passing COVID-19 to his 101-year-old mother-in-law and two medically compromised relatives. A state representative was sworn at and reported to House leadership after she took a picture of a protester who was recording video of her at a school board meeting.
Angry protesters shut down an Executive Council meeting last week where law enforcement escorted state employees to their cars. Some of the same angry protesters stopped the state Department of Health and Human Services from rewriting the vaccine registry’s rules they believed expanded the state’s reach. Gov. Chris Sununu canceled a “603 Tour” stop last month, citing a concern for attendees’ safety.
And while hate groups have made appearances – Proud Boys have attended Nashua’s school board meetings and armed members of the boogaloo movement were at a Concord rally against pandemic shutdowns – it is local residents leading the fight.
Lorrie Carey, a Merrimack Valley School Board member who has held local elected and volunteer positions for 30 years, said she listened in disbelief at an August meeting as parents swore and yelled at board members during a mask policy discussion. The board canceled a meeting the next month and called for police backup when attendees who declined to wear masks also declined to watch the meeting from the cafeteria, a designated mask-free zone.
“Our meetings have been the victim of politicalization,” Carey said. “We have to consider the behavior of those who will attend. You have to think about, how will I get in or out of the meeting? It’s like a time of war. I never thought I’d see that in the United States of America.”
New Hampshire is far from alone. Citing a spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against public school officials, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on Tuesday said he has directed the FBI to meet with local officials to coordinate a response.
Sununu last week downplayed the protest that shut down the Executive Council meeting as an outlier event, but said the state has talked with members of school boards and select boards about managing public discord at meetings. The New Hampshire School Boards Association also addressed those topics in training for school board members in September.
“We’ve been seeing the news about disruptions at school board meetings and certainly have received a number of inquiries,” said Executive Director Barrett Christina.
Save for a disorderly conduct arrest of an anti-mask protester at a Timberlane School Board meeting in May, public anger has been loud and emotional but not physical or criminal. Though, some school districts, including Merrimack Valley and Merrimack, now have a police officer at meetings.
Asked if he fears protests, including those involving RebuildNH followers, will become violent, Manuse said, “I don’t want that and we made it pretty clear that we support civil protest.” The group’s goal, he said, is restoring state sovereignty and limiting government overreach.
Asked again to consider the possibility of anger escalating into violence, Manuse said people “are going to get angrier the more pressure that is put on.”
Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said he believes contentious public comments at board meetings are slowing down, not escalating, as residents turn to another tool: petitions for special school district meetings. “I think as a result of COVID, there were pointed interactions between community and school boards,” Edelblut said. “And as a result of COVID, I think they might have been more widespread. I do think we’ve turned a corner.”
“I think you are going to see more anger the more people are pressured by losing their jobs over not taking the vaccine and having their kids be forced to wear masks,” Manuse said. “The people in government are going to attempt to use force against a population that is supposed to be free. I think, yes, you’re going to see some more angry people.”
Watch YouTube videos of September school and select board meetings and you’ll hear frustrated residents lined up at the microphone, telling elected officials they should be ashamed of themselves and voted out. A nurse from Londonderry grew frustrated in early September when her school board could not answer her questions about the school’s COVID-19 testing policy. Her frustration turned to anger when one board member told her testing was happening all over the country.
“I don’t care,” she said, adding, “You should all be fired” before taking her seat.
Rep. Rosemarie Rung, a Merrimack Democrat, attended her local school board meeting last month to encourage the adoption of a mask mandate given a recent increase in new infections. While there, she photographed a man who was recording video of her because, she said, she has been threatened in the past. Doing so upset many in the room and one man in particular who moved from his seat to one next to Rung, and by his own admission, gave her the middle finger.
In a complaint the man later filed to House leadership, he accused Rung of telling him he “should be in a mental hospital for walking around without a mask” and acting inappropriately by taking his photo. “A true leader stands above the muck, not stirs it,” he wrote in his complaint to House leadership.
In her response, Rung shared a text message she received during the meeting from another attendee who watched their interactions. “Please have someone walk you out,” it said.
“It was definitely a mob mentality,” Rung said. “To me, this is beyond the facts or the issues of the COVID-19 vaccine, and it’s beyond mask mandates. I think the (level of) organization … is just trying to disrupt democracy.”
Rep. Kat McGhee, a Democrat from Hollis, is worried the angry attacks are going to discourage people from seeking office. She pointed to the September resignation of an 18-year veteran of the Hollis select board who was heckled for wearing a mask at a meeting. McGhee said she thinks organizations from outside the state are fueling the discord and fear here with misinformation about COVID-19 and other contentious topics.
“Our local control relies on people of good will stepping up and volunteering in their communities, and that’s what’s under threat,” she said. “The majority of the public is blissfully unaware.”
Simone Boodey, a private school teacher from Barrington, counted herself among them until August, when concerns about schools’ mask-optional policies prompted her to found NH Educators for Safe Schools. Membership in her Facebook group grew slowly until she made the group private, and just over a month in, she has about 240 members.
“They have created this culture of intimidation,” she said of those protesting what she sees as sensible COVID-19 safety protocols. “People are not waking up very fast, and I was one of those people.”
Her goal is to start a positive conversation that promotes public education and public health. “If we don’t step forward soon, we are going to lose our state,” she said.
She knows she’s outnumbered as a “one-woman show” right now. She’s right.
RebuildNH, Manuse’s locally founded and run group has had no trouble finding supporters. Within hours last month, it persuaded more than 250 people to write letters to the Department of Health and Human Services objecting to the state’s proposed changes to the vaccine registry access and the opt-in and opt-out processes. (The department announced Monday it was abandoning those rule changes for now.) Even more people have signed on to a petition against the $27 million in federal funding, believing the contracts will cede the state’s constitutional authority to the federal government. The Attorney General’s Office is reviewing the contract language at Sununu’s request. Elected officials who’ve received emails from the group’s members describe them as personal notes, not form letters.
The group is working closely with Health Freedom New Hampshire, which keeps a public calendar of school board meetings across the state with notes about pertinent masking or other COVID-19 related agenda items. RebuildNH cross promotes those meetings, calling on all “patriots” to attend to “protect our children,” even if they don’t live in the district. Most posts are viewed 400 to 500 times and often generate 20 or more comments.
When Merrimack School Board member Jenna Hardy asked in a Facebook post for “reasonable” people to attend a September school board meeting to give the “loud minority a reality check,” RebuildNH issued an alert in its online chat room. “The ‘reasonable’ people are trying to organize against all you ‘loud, angry’ people who won’t stand for systemic abuse of children,” it said. “Time to SHOW UP and show Ms. Hardy how angry you really are.”
Hardy declined to comment prior to the meeting and did not attend, saying afterward that she had a prior commitment. RebuildNH, however, saw her absence as its victory: “Jenna [Hardy] did not show up. That action by itself yells out that she was wrong for posting.”
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