Last Friday, May 14th, the United States Department of Homeland Security issued an updated threat assessment bulletin regarding domestic terrorism. The update has important implications for Shasta County, where both online and in-person violent speech and threats against local government officials and other county residents have occurred over the past year.
According to the bulletin, sent out as part of the National Terrorism Advisory System(NTAS), America is currently facing evolving, complex and volatile domestic terrorism threats that will be heightened over the next few months of 2021. The bulletin is listed as active until August 13, 2021. The Department of Homeland Security asks the public to report suspicious activity and threats of violence, including online threats, to local law enforcement or an FBI Field Office.
Locally, violent speech or threats have occurred repeatedly both in public meetings and online over the past year. One such incident involved an online threat that appeared to advocate for the killing of a local journalist who has written extensively about “patriot” movement activists. Referring to that journalist, Jesse Lane wrote on Facebook, “I think it’s time we remove her from our way of living.” One commenter responded, “We are on board! Keep it private, keep us in the loop.”
Similarly, a video that was shared on social media features Lane saying, “We have a vaccine for tyrannical government and you don’t want us to (expletive) use it.” Commenters responded to the video with statements including: “yea it’s called a lead pill,” “freedom pellets” and “ya its called revolution we’ve done it once and we will do it again and we will win again this time though no survivors.”
Lane and fellow extremists, including Woody Clendenen and Carlos Zapata, both members of a local branch of group that calls itself the California State Militia, are also attempting to recall three members of the Shasta County Board of Supervisors. The recall effort is largely related to concerns about the Supervisors’ compliance with California state mandates regarding COVID-19. Recall proponents refer to COVID-19 restrictions as “tyrannical coercion.”
The ideology vocally espoused by some Shasta County activists closely matches the description of domestic extremists cited by Homeland Security in their updated threat assessment. According to the NTAS bulletin, violent domestic extremists are often motivated by false narratives, perceived grievances and a belief in conspiracy theories. Online, the bulletin says, domestic extremist individuals and groups have been calling for violence against elected officials, political representatives, government facilities, law enforcement, religious or commercial facilities, and individuals with different ideologies than themselves.
Rita James, who says she has lived in Shasta County for almost forty years, is a moderator for the public Facebook group, Thought You Should Know – Shasta County. She says she and others created the Facebook group to document intimidation and threats by local “patriot” activists both online and at local board meetings. The group is attempting to educate the public, she said, about the stated motivations and beliefs of activists who may seek further political influence, including a seat on the Shasta County Board of Supervisors. According to James, some of these activists are “threatening the community they claim to be protecting.”
But Shasta County Supervisor Patrick Jones, the only Board of Supervisors member to respond to Shasta Scout’s request for comment about the NTAS bulletin, said that the local speech he’s heard does not rise to the level of violent extremism. “I haven’t seen anything in the board room so far that would come close to domestic terrorism,” Jones said, remarking that speakers to the Shasta County Board of Supervisors have been “loud, rude and sometimes profane,” but are practicing constitutionally protected free speech.
Jones also said he understands why some locals are angry, referring to them as “business people fighting for their livelihoods” and stating, “I stand with those people.” Supervisor Jones was recently censured by the board, along with fellow Supervisor Les Baugh, after re-opening the Shasta County Board of Supervisors Chambers to the public in defiance of the board’s previous vote to close the chamber and conduct virtual meetings as a COVID-19 precaution. Censure was used by the board members as a symbolic gesture of displeasure but does not result in any more significant consequences.
“ . . . we’re building, we’re organizing and we’ll work with law enforcement or without law enforcement . . . but you won’t stop us when the time comes . . . this is a warning for what’s coming, it’s not going to be peaceful much longer . . . I’ve been in combat and I never want to go back again but I’m telling you what, I will fight to save this country and if it has to be against our own citizens it will happen, and there’s a million people like us and you won’t stop us . . .”
Asked to comment on whether this speech constituted a violent threat that could be construed as a threat of domestic terrorism, Supervisor Jones said no, explaining that to be considered terrorism, speech must truly intimidate others.
“I was there that day,” Jones said, “It was a pretty powerful speech as you know. . . there’s now twenty-five to thirty million hits on that video and a lot of people felt the same way. . . . (Zapata) said if you’re going to shut down my business I’ll fight you. I don’t think that’s an act of terrorism, it’s venting, frustration and anger at a local government that’s not listening. . . . what he’s saying is reaching a lot of people and they feel the same way.”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines terrorism as the “unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” But the FBI’s definition is narrower, referring to domestic terrorism as “violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial or environmental nature.”
The NTAS bulletin advised law enforcement agencies to be aware of and prepared to respond to the threat of domestic extremist violence and also recommended situational awareness of both online and physical activities that may be related to threats of violence.
The Shasta County Sheriff’s Department and Redding Police Department did not reply to requests for comment on whether or how they are responding to the NTAS threat assessment bulletin. But a spokesperson from the Clerk of the Board’s office of the Shasta County Board of Supervisors said the due to safety concerns the department recently requested sheriff’s deputies begin attending the Board of Supervisors meetings.
Posters placed on the chamber walls by local activists at the last Board meeting were not removed by these Sheriff’s deputies, despite the personal nature of some of the posters which included records of traffic citations and pictures from social media accounts of a man allegedly recently assaulted by militia member and activist Zapata.
Local self-described “militia” members have repeatedly stated that they have open communication and collaboration with law enforcement. Last June, in Redding, a courthouse protest against police brutality attracted a number of paramilitary attendees, including local “militia” members, some dressed in camouflage and carrying weapons. Paramilitary activists at that event said they were told by local law enforcement to push protesters towards a line of police in riot gear, a crowd control measure known as “kettling” which is often associated with repressive police tactics.
Local law enforcement has previously either denied such collaboration or failed to respond to requests for comment. But credible reporting by the Lost Coast Outpost last year indicates that the Redding office of the California Highway Patrol shared unsubstantiated social media posts regarding the alleged movements of “antifa” with another regional office.
Shasta Scout spoke with the reporter for the Lost Coast Outpost story, Ryan Burns, who said the California Public Records Request filed by his news outlet regarding the CPH’s sharing of antifa-related social media posts was rejected by CHP officials. “I called to protest that ruling and spoke with an officer Michael Pizzi, who explained that what they had was a screenshot of an Instagram post, which was not releasable per California government code section 6254. It’s considered “intelligence information,” Burns said.
Homeland Security operates the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships or CP3, which is designed to support communities across the United States working to prevent individuals from radicalizing to violence or provide interventions when individuals have already radicalized to violence. CP3 defines violent radicalization as “the process wherein an individual comes to believe, for a variety of reasons, that the threat or use of unlawful violence is necessary – or even justified – to accomplish that goal.”
CP3 works with local community partners to develop local prevention frameworks. These include building public awareness of threats of violence, developing community engagement around strong and united community responses to threats of violence, threat assessment and management of individuals that begin radicalizing to violence, and support services that address risk factors. Multiple local officials did not respond to requests for comment on whether Shasta County could benefit from these prevention frameworks.
5.25.21 – 10:52: This post has been updated. References to local groups that self-describe as “militia’s” have been edited to better reflect that these groups are not sanctioned by the State of California.