Angry with COVID-19 restrictions, such as the closure of gyms, people from several states met in Ohio in June 2020 to consider ways to overthrow government “tyrants,” prosecutors say. Within a week they had chosen Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer as their target.
The plan, as outlined in a federal court indictment, was to abduct Whitmer at her family’s vacation home in northern Michigan and take her to Wisconsin for a “trial”. For months, they conducted exercises and monitored Whitmer’s home in preparation for what the group’s leader called “snatch and seize.”
“Just take the bitch,” Adam Fox was quoted as saying by a confidential informant working with the FBI, prosecutors said. “Because at the moment we’re doing it, dude – it’s over.”
Although it was interrupted by authorities, the plot, for which four people will face each other in the Michigan courtroom starting Tuesday, represented an increasing level of anger and violence in U.S. politics. Violence is disproportionately targeted at elected female officials, and especially colored women.
Although criticism of government officials is healthy and expected in a democracy, researchers say women are much more likely to face threats and violence than their male counterparts. As more women are elected, hostility grows, ranging from death threats to gunmen gathered at homes, or attacks on social networks that go beyond political positions and include insults to gender or race and insults to intelligence or appearance.
This could have long-term consequences, pushing women to leave public office or deterring them from running in elections, potentially reducing women’s progress in diversifying who represents the country in city halls, school councils, state houses and other offices.
Whitmer seems to have been among the women lawmakers who are partly because of gender. The men who, according to prosecutors, were involved in the conspiracy came from different states, and she was not the only U.S. governor to impose restrictions related to the pandemic.
Transcripts of recorded conversations, hours of which prosecutors are expected to present in court, the use of gender insults and men discussing things like Whitmer’s “capture” indicate that their anger goes beyond her policy, a Rutgers University professor said. Mona Lena Crook, author of The 2020 Book on Global Violence Against Women in Politics.
“It’s like Who does she think she’s trying to tell us what to do?” Crook said. “There’s a feeling that they’re trying to delegitimize her because they don’t feel she’s entitled, that she’s allowed to be there because she’s a woman … I think they take it very personally.”
Several studies have shown inconsistencies in how men and women are treated. Researchers at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue measured the online abuse of candidates in Congress in the 2020 elections, including direct or indirect threats, and the promotion of violence or humiliation based on identity such as race or gender. They found that women Democrats received 10 times more offensive comments on Facebook than their male peers, while Republicans received twice as many as their male counterparts.
The study found that women lawmakers, who are also ethnic minorities, are particularly prone to violence. Among those most affected were Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Alexandria Acacio Cortes of New York, who during a speech in the House of Representatives in 2020 following a verbal attack by a Republican MP called for a culture of “acceptance of violence and violence in relation to women ”.
Republican women are also targets. The study found that within two weeks, nearly one-third of tweets sent to Sen. Susan Collins of Maine were offensive. With the exception of then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who received a higher-than-usual percentage of offensive tweets, between 5% and 10% of tweets addressed to men surveyed were offensive.
A survey of state and local mayors in communities with more than 30,000 residents found that 79% of mayors reported being victims of harassment, threats, or other psychological violence, and 13% reported cases of physical violence. Gender was the greatest predictor of whether mayors would be victims: female mayors were more than twice as likely as men to be subjected to psychological violence, and nearly three times more likely to be physically abused.
Illinois Sen. Deb Conroy has experienced such abuse on her own. A Democrat from the suburbs of Chicago received death threats after last month a conservative blog misrepresented a bill she sponsored, inaccurately stating that it could lead to the quarantine of people who test positive for COVID-19.
Conroy started receiving voicemail from people who called her gender insults and said things like “go back to the kitchen” and “you get what you deserve”. A Facebook commentator said she hopes she sleeps with a gun under her pillow so she is ready for what will happen.
Conroy, who was forced to close her office, work with authorities to remove her address from the Internet and cancel public events, said the fervor in politics “changed exponentially” when Donald Trump became president.
“Suddenly it was okay to say the most hateful things you usually keep to yourself,” she said.
Kuparos also intensified during the pandemic, and because some Trump supporters believed the lie, he won the 2020 election.
Amanda Hunter, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, is tracking much of the change due to the rise of social media. Many years ago, if someone wanted to verbally attack a legislator, he had to track his address and possibly send a letter. Today, it is relatively easy to connect with someone via Twitter, Facebook, email or other methods – often at their home or phone.
This has created another structural barrier to running in elections, especially at lower levels of government, where vacancies do not provide security or budget details, Hunter said. The Barbara Lee Family Foundation is working to increase the representation of women in politics.
“Now this is another decision that women need to consider when deciding whether to run for office or not if they want to combat the weighting of potential security threats to them or perhaps even to their families,” she said.
Lawmakers and advocacy groups have called on social media companies to do more to combat online abuse. They also say they have the power to draw attention to attacks – something some women once worried about that made them look weak – and provoke attackers.
For Whitmer, the abuses continued even after federal charges were brought against six people involved in the kidnapping conspiracy in October 2020.
After one of the men pleaded guilty last year, she told a judge in a statement about the attack on the victim that she saw herself hanged in the image during the protest and heavily armed men near her home. At one of the protests there was a sign calling for “burn the witch”.
“Things will never be the same,” she wrote.
Burnett reported from Chicago.