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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Lawmakers confront a rise in threats and intimidation, and fear worse

A protester holds a sign criticizing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, in Buffalo, N.Y., on Oct. 23, 2021. Ocasio-Cortez is among the most threatened members of the House, but the onus is on the young aides who answer the phone in her office to determine what constitutes a threat.

By Stephanie Lai, Luke Broadwater and Carl Hulse

In Bangor, Maine, an unknown visitor smashed a storm window at Sen. Susan Collins’ home.

In Seattle, a man who had sent an angry email to Rep. Pramila Jayapal repeatedly showed up outside the lawmaker’s house, armed with a semi-automatic handgun and shouting threats and profanities.

In the New York City borough of Queens, a man who had traveled across the country waited in a cafe across the street from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s office to confront her, part of a near-constant stream of threats and harassment that has prompted the congresswoman to switch her sleeping location at times and seek protection from a 24-hour security detail.

Members of Congress in both parties are experiencing a surge in threats and confrontations as a rise in violent political speech has increasingly crossed over into the realm of in-person intimidation and physical altercation. In the months since the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, which brought lawmakers and the vice president within feet of rioters threatening their lives, Republicans and Democrats have faced stalking, armed visits to their homes, vandalism and assaults.

It is part of a chilling trend that many fear is only intensifying as lawmakers scatter to campaign and meet with voters around the country before next month’s midterm congressional elections.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if a senator or House member were killed,” Collins, a Republican serving her fifth term, said in an interview. “What started with abusive phone calls is now translating into active threats of violence and real violence.”

In the five years after President Donald Trump was elected in 2016 following a campaign featuring a remarkable level of violent language, the number of recorded threats against members of Congress increased more than tenfold, to 9,625 in 2021, according to figures from the Capitol Police, the federal law enforcement department that protects Congress. In the first quarter of this year, the latest period for which figures were available, the force opened 1,820 cases. If recent history is any guide, the pace is likely to surge in the coming weeks as the election approaches.

Despite the torrent of threats, few cases result in arrest. Tim Barber, a spokesperson for the Capitol Police, said officers have made “several dozen” arrests — but fewer than 100 — in response to threats against members of Congress over the past three years, adding that the majority come from people with mental illness who are not believed to pose an immediate danger.

“The goal is to de-escalate this behavior,” said Barber. “Most of the time, getting mental health treatment may be more successful than jail in order to keep everyone safe. When we don’t believe that is plausible, or the threat is serious and imminent, we make an arrest.”

In a review by The New York Times this year of threats that resulted in indictments, more than one-third were made by Republican or pro-Trump individuals against Democrats or Republicans deemed insufficiently loyal to the former president, and nearly one-fourth were by Democrats targeting Republicans. In other cases, the party affiliation could not be determined.

Security concerns have grown so pressing that many members of Congress are dipping into their own official or campaign accounts to protect themselves. They have spent a total of more than $6 million on security since the start of last year, according to a Times analysis of campaign finance and congressional data.

The data suggest that the threats are particularly acute against lawmakers of color — Hispanic, Black, Asian American and Pacific Islander and Native American — who outspent their white colleagues on security by an average of more than $17,500. Democrats spent about $9,000 more than Republicans did. And members of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 assault spent over $5,000 more than the average amount spent by members of Congress as a whole.

Security on the grounds of the Capitol, which has long been fortified by barricades, metal detectors and checkpoints guarded by a phalanx of police officers, has only increased in the wake of the Jan. 6 assault. But although the House and Senate leaders have their own security details, including plainclothes officers and armored vehicles, it can be more difficult for rank-and-file lawmakers to obtain such protection, even when they are facing serious threats.

Many members of Congress say the process of getting extra support from the Capitol Police has been opaque and inconsistent.

It took 2 1/2 years for Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who is among the most threatened members of the House, to receive additional security from the Capitol Police, she said in an interview. The decision was made after the department flagged a tweet that it found to be threatening toward her.

“When I saw what it was, I was like, ‘I’ve gotten so much worse,’” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Why now?”

The Capitol Police has struggled to adjust to the rise in threats, rushing in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 assault to ramp up its response amid severe strains on the department. Capitol Police Chief J. Thomas Manger testified in January that his force needed to double the number of agents who work threat cases against lawmakers.

A police spokesperson said the department had met that goal.

The department has since opened two field offices in Florida and California, which have the most threats against members of Congress. It also has hired a new intelligence director tasked with improving data collection and sharing. And it now provides security assessments on members’ homes and district offices.

Still, the potential for violence has continued to mount.

“We sign up for a lot of things when we sign up for this job,” Jayapal, D-Wash., said in an interview. “But having someone show up to your door with a gun, scaring your neighbors, scaring your staff and clearly trying to intimidate me — it’s hard to describe.”

Jayapal, who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, had grown accustomed to verbal harassment. But starting in April, she began receiving visits from a man in a car who would yell obscenities in the direction of her house.

Brett Forsell, 49, had sent Jayapal a “nasty” but “well thought-out” email back in January, which made clear that he disagreed with her, she said, but gave little indication that he intended to confront or harm her. Then about 11 p.m. one day in July — the third time he had come to her neighborhood — Forsell returned, revving his car engine, making U-turns in her street and parking near her driveway.

Jayapal’s husband, who took video of the encounter, reported hearing two male voices shouting obscenities and suggesting that they would stop harassing the neighborhood if the representative killed herself.

Forsell was arrested, and police reports said he planned to obtain a semi-automatic assault rifle and continue to return to Jayapal’s residence until she “goes back to India.” He pleaded not guilty in August and was ordered to pay $150,000 bail and submit to GPS monitoring to ensure he stayed away from Jayapal.

After the incident, she said it was a struggle to get the Capitol Police to grant her additional protection.

“It took an enormous amount of pressure for me to feel like I was getting attention from Capitol Police,” Jayapal said.

In the case of Collins, the incident at her home was a notable escalation after years of verbal threats. In 2018, after she announced she would support the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, she received a message that included footage of a since-deleted video of a beheading.

“We will c-t off your l-mbs and sl-ce off yo-r faces. We will t-ar out your tongues and dism-mber your org-as and sl-t your thro-ts while you watch,” the letter read.

It contained her personal phone numbers and addresses, as well as those of her staff and their relatives.

Three people are currently in jail and another few are awaiting some kind of action as a result of threats against her, Collins said.

The window-smashing incident was of particular concern, she said, because it occurred on a secluded side of her house, suggesting that the area had been “studied and chosen.”

“There’s been a sea change in that we now see this constant escalation and erosion of any boundaries of what is acceptable behavior, and it has crossed over into actual violence,” Collins said.

In July, the House sergeant-at-arms, the chamber’s top law enforcement official, announced it would provide an additional $10,000 for members to harden their homes against security breaches.

Still, some lawmakers say they continued to feel unsafe.

“It just feels like money was thrown at the situation,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “I just don’t know how seriously people are going to take this unless someone gets hurt.”

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