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Extremists see opportunity as fury over Covid rules erupts in rural California

Residents of a California county are mounting an aggressive campaign to oust officials who have supported Covid safety measures and vaccines, the latest example of a growing extremism in local politics fueled by the pandemic.

A group in Nevada county, a rural expanse of about 100,000 people in the Sierra Nevada, is seeking to recall five county supervisors, saying that contact tracing efforts and the promotion of lockdowns and vaccines violate “religious freedoms and individual liberty”.

The effort comes on the heels of a successful recall campaign further north in Shasta county, where voters ousted Leonard Moty, a Republican supervisor and retired police chief. The Shasta county election, which followed nearly two years of threats and increasing hostility toward the longtime supervisor and his moderate colleagues, gave control of the board of supervisors to a group supported by local militia members.

Both campaigns shared extreme rhetoric and in some cases aggression driven by discontent over Covid restrictions and rooted in a deep distrust of institutions. This antagonism has only accelerated during the pandemic, even in largely Democratic states like California. Experts warn angst over Covid rules, inflamed by social media, has become a gateway to extremism.

Shasta county activists pitched their recall as a fight for “freedom” while the Nevada county recall campaign has accused supervisors of “promoting corruption” and enabling “crimes against humanity”.

Nevada county officials have said the recall attempt is a “desperate effort” by a vocal minority who are pushing false and misleading information.

“I did not enable ‘crimes against humanity’, I sought to protect citizens’ health in the face of a deadly virus,” Supervisor Dan Miller said in response to the filing.

Experts say extreme language is becoming increasingly common in local politics and public meetings, even those that have historically been staid and orderly affairs.

In northern California, small groups with extreme beliefs have tapped into existing discontent over Covid restrictions. Photograph: Elias Funez/AP

“We’ve seen an increase in threats against public officials and an increase in the climate of conflict,” said Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, Long Beach. “Whether it’s supervisors or school board officials, we are now seeing an in-your-face brazenness with regard to personal interactions, but it’s also spread culturally.”

In northern California, small groups with extreme beliefs have tapped into existing discontent over Covid restrictions, attracting residents who have long felt unheard or ignored by state officials, Levin said.

“This kind of activity in northern California is a symptom and manifestation of how widespread and dispersed extremism can be and why it has particularly gained traction in rural areas,” Levin said.

The last few years have been volatile, the Nevada county supervisor Sue Hoek said, with officials and staff subjected to personal threats amid growing anger over the pandemic. “We didn’t make Covid, but it’s our job to try to keep all of our community safe,” she said.

Calvin Clark, a proponent of the recall, says the effort is a grassroots movement in which about 200 residents are involved. “This is simply the citizens asking for accountability from their elected representatives,” he said.

The recall campaign in Nevada county has only just officially kicked off – organizers have 120 days to gather enough signatures to get the measure on the ballot – but the effort has already created tension. The county’s registrar of voters recently closed its office after maskless proponents of the recall “stormed” the office and pushed a worker, officials said. In December, the board of supervisors called for a recess amid a rowdy meeting in which recall supporters demanded the officials be removed from their posts.

Clark said officials had falsely painted the recall as extremist, and that he and others were simply trying to have their grievances addressed. Invoking a talking point of the far right, he compared government Covid policies to living in Nazi Germany. “As they said in Germany, ‘Just get on the train.’ We’re not doing that. We’re not going to Auschwitz,” he told the Guardian. “It’s not about vaccines,” he said. “It’s about the liberty to choose how you’re going to live and if you’re going to give your rights to five elected representatives.”

The Nevada county supervisors have had to call for recesses several times during the pandemic in order to de-escalate tense meetings, Hoek said. “It is one of our rights to speak up and have freedom of speech. I just wish sometimes we could do that a little more civilly,” she said. “I think we’re doing everything we can to keep things from escalating and let them be heard.”

sign advertising vaccines outside a CVS‘We didn’t make Covid, but it’s our job to try to keep all of our community safe,’ said one supervisor. Photograph: Mark Hertzberg/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

Disruptions and threats have been seen in public meetings across the country amid strife over pandemic health rules. A county commission in Oregon moved to virtual meetings last month due to anti-mask protesters. In Virginia, a parent was arrested after threatening to bring guns if officials didn’t make masks optional.

“Distrust in government has permeated the most local levels,” Colin Clarke, a terrorism expert, told the Guardian earlier this month. “I’m familiar with the indicators of extremism and radicalization. I see them in places I never expected to see them. If you had told me as a terrorism expert I’d be talking about school boards, I’d have said you’re crazy.”

Discord in rural politics has also been driven in part by pent-up anger from residents who feel they’re not getting a fair shake from the government, said Lisa Pruitt, an expert on rural law at University of California, Davis. That anger has trickled down from state leaders to local officials who people believe aren’t doing enough. The divisive state of American politics has only created more tension.

“I can’t help but believe that had we not been in such a fractured political moment, the pandemic might not have become so political and people might not have responded in such emotionally charged ways,” Pruitt said. But that phenomenon can be seen across the US, she added.

“I can’t see anything about this that seems unique to Nevada county,” Pruitt said. “We’re seeing uncivil behavior at public meetings and in public places. We’re seeing these really heated political clashes.”

Regardless of the outcome, the use of extreme rhetoric in politics is cause for concern, Levin said. “People [might] dismiss it as hypercharged rhetoric,” he said. “Calling someone a traitor, talking about crimes against humanity, is part of the way individuals turn the spotlight away from their use of violence-glorifying rhetoric. People labeling their political opponents as traitors and criminals – we’ve seen what the results are in lesser republics than ours.”

Despite the division in Nevada county, Hoek said she was proud of what officials had achieved amid the pandemic, from new housing to broadband projects, and is hopeful for the area’s future. “There are some challenges. Sometimes I go home and shake my head. But you know what, it doesn’t deter me from doing my job,” she said. “It’s worth it.”

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