As crazy and right-wing as some of the politics of my home state can be, I am thankful that they are nothing like those of Shasta County, Calif.
Tucked in the northern part of the state not far from the Oregon state line, the county has long been a hotbed of militias and other anti-government types. To be a Democrat (or even a moderate Republican) there is to feel not only greatly outnumbered but also, at times, fearful for you life.
These tensions were exacerbated over Covid mask mandates:
When the pandemic hit and California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, enacted some of the strictest Covid rules in the US, issuing a stay-at-home order, school closures and a statewide mask requirement, Shasta leaders limited their measures to those mandated by the state. The county publicly told the governor it opposed the rules, and encouraged unhappy residents to contact state representatives.
Still, some residents were outraged that the county didn’t disregard the state’s orders entirely. They focused their anger on the board of supervisors, a group of five elected officials that oversees the county, including its departments, roughly 2,000 workers and nearly $600m budget.
Unhappy residents began showing up to board meetings in large numbers. In one meeting, Carlos Zapata, a local militia member and business owner, stood in the board chambers and told the supervisors there would be grave consequences.
“You better be happy that we’re good citizens, that we’re peaceful citizens. But it’s not gonna be peaceful much longer. This isn’t a threat. I’m not a criminal,” he said. “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 wanted to go back again, but I’m telling you what I will to save this country. If it has to be against our own citizens, it will happen. And there’s a million people like me, and you won’t stop us. Open the county.”
Another man attempted to use “citizen’s arrest” to detain the supervisors. Yet another resident told the supervisors to flee. “You have made bullets expensive, but luckily for you, ropes are reusable”, he threatened.
Law enforcement increased patrols outside the home of Karen Ramstrom, the county health officer, and began investigating what it deemed credible threats against some of the supervisors.
More progressive residents finally had enough and banded together recently to form Civil Shasta:
Civil Shasta is intended to bring citizens together, said Roxanna Zalesny, who started the group, and push back against what she believes is a vocal minority.
“I think with everything going on it’s easy to just sit back and hope it doesn’t happen. Hope isn’t a strategy. We have to try to do something,” she said. “I don’t think people really want blood in the streets. We all just want to live in peace.”
There are some signs the area’s far-right movement may be losing ground. In the election last month, a slate of ultra-conservative candidates running for roles ranging from the district attorney to the county superintendent of schools lost outright to moderate opponents or will head to runoff elections in November.
“This last election, in spite of the amount of money that was poured into it, they did not win,” Peterson said. “If people get together, and start talking, and forming a plan of action, change can take place. You can turn the tide. I think that can happen here. I know it can.”
But the election was marked by tension, including a crowd of rowdy observers who officials say tried to intimidate county staff. The defeated candidates have now requested a recount.
The extreme right isn’t going away. Their intentions are to take over the reigns of power wherever, whenever they can and use the power of a vocal minority to intimidate into silence anyone who opposes them.
Hope isn’t a strategy.