OPINION: The gathering storm of threats against Georgia’s political leaders

Gabriel Sterling talks with the press at the State Capitol Monday, January 4, 2021.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Gabriel Sterling talks with the press at the State Capitol Monday, January 4, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

“Someone’s going to hurt, someone’s going to get shot, someone’s going to get killed.”

That’s what top Secretary of State official Gabriel Sterling said in 2020 during a hastily called press conference at the state Capitol as death threats, accusations and violent innuendo swirled around Georgia during the 2020 presidential recount.

A young contractor for the company supplying Georgia’s voting machines had been publicly threatened that day. A photo of the young man with a noose around his neck was circulating on the internet, along with accusations of treason. Others were being threatened and intimidated. The madness had to stop, Sterling warned.

Three years later, with the start of another presidential election weeks away, Sterling himself was at the center of a chaotic scene as police swarmed his house Wednesday night. The state official had been “swatted,” with an anonymous caller phoning in a false report to 911 that someone had been shot during a “drug deal gone bad” at the Sterling home.

Earlier in the day, Sterling had posted a note to social media that a bomb threat had been sent to the state Capitol and delayed its public opening. After law enforcement swept the building, they determined the threat was a hoax. But Georgia’s was just one of a half dozen similar bomb threats to other state capitols across the country.

“Everyone is OK, but this is wrong,” Sterling wrote Wednesday night.

It’s not just wrong. The swatting and threats are spreading and dangerous. Local officials and national names are on the receiving end of the efforts. Both Democrats and Republicans. U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and Lt. Gov. Burt Jones were recently swatted. U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has been swatted eight times, including on Christmas Day this year. She said her daughters’ homes were both swatted days later.

The calls not only mean police arrive armed and expecting to find a bloody crime scene, but also that they’re not able to respond to real emergencies throughout their communities.

Along with the hoaxes are physical acts of intimidation. In the early morning hours before Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens was scheduled to speak at Manuel’s Tavern Wednesday night, vandals sprayed graffiti on the famous Coke mural on the wall outside. Elsewhere they scrawled “Andre” on a window.


Credit: Special to the AJC

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Credit: Special to the AJC

Manuel Maloof’s watering hole has been a legendary haunt for Georgia politicos for decades, but especially Democrats. Barack Obama threw darts in the back room in 2015. Jimmy Carter launched his 1970 gubernatorial bid there.

But this week, as Dickens spoke to a meeting of the Young Democrats inside, far-left protestors against the city’s police and fire training center yelled from the outside with signs calling the mayor “an environmental racist.” Last month at Manuel’s, pro-Palestinian protestors stormed into the bar with banners chanting, “From the River to the sea,” to disrupt the Fulton County Democratic Party holiday.

“Something has changed,” Brian Maloof, who owns Manuel’s now, told the AJC. “It seems like there’s now a mentality that if I disagree with you, I must destroy you,” he said. “It’s such a shame.”

And that’s really the problem, the mindset to destroy instead of disagree, if people even know what they’re fighting about.

It doesn’t make sense that swatters would attack both Kay Kilpatrick, a suburban Republican state senator, and Kim Jackson, a liberal Democratic state senator, at the same time. It doesn’t make sense that Andre Dickens, who is Black, is somehow an environmental racist, nor that the training center meant to train police on de-escalation tactics is being so violently opposed that arsonists recently torched millions of dollars of equipment of a construction firm working at the center.

It doesn’t make sense that bomb threats this week targeted liberal states and conservative ones, and those that were in session, like Mississippi, and those that were not, like Georgia.

But making sense isn’t the goal of the people or groups behind the rising tide of violent threats against leaders across the country. Chaos and intimidation are the point.

The threats in 2020, then from Trump supporters, didn’t work in the end. Georgia continued its process of counts and recounts. Courts across the state listened to, and then ruled against, the many lawsuits brought by the Trump campaign to reverse President Joe Biden’s win here.

Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both targeted by death threats, certified the election results. Vice President Mike Pence, hunted by Trump supporters exactly three years ago during the attack on the Capitol on January 6th, refused to send the results for Biden back to the states. The system held up against the violence, but just barely.

The threats are starting again now, but much sooner. The targets are still public officials, but more of them, and private citizens, too. The issues are not just the last election, but also the next election, the training center and the war in Gaza, issues that are local, national and international. It’s about everything and nothing at all.

If anything feels better this time around, it’s that we at least know to be aware of what’s happening and why. If leaders can be intimidated they won’t speak out. If voters can be discouraged, fewer will bother casting a ballot. If chaos and distrust rule the day, then anything goes.

We can’t let that happen.