Demonstrations against the latest COVID-19 restrictions have taken place across Oregon and Washington, including at state Capitol buildings and governor’s mansions.
But the groups behind those protests are taking an increasingly adversarial stance, vowing to target both the government at large and individual employees whose job it is to enforce the restrictions.
“It’s unprecedented,” said Aaron Corvin, a spokesperson for the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “Targeting individual staff at their personal homes for protest activities may be legal, but that does not make it appropriate.”
On Nov. 29, a group of about 50 demonstrators showed up outside the Salem-area home of an OSHA workplace safety regulator to protest the state-enforced restrictions on how businesses operate during the pandemic.
The OSHA employee raised the ire of conservative activists after he levied a $90,000 fine against a Salem gym that remained open in defiance of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s two-week freeze. The citation was signed by the employee, allowing anti-restriction demonstrators to find his address through public records.
Among the protestors was Joey Gibson, the founder of Patriot Prayer, who has made his name as a provocateur and organizer of rallies that confront liberals in Portland.
“Who’s he to tell us when we can operate our business?” Gibson said, in a video taken outside the home of the OSHA inspector. “Why do we need business licenses anymore? Why do we have to ask permission from this government?”
OHSA said it will continue to do its work enforcing rules around COVID-19, but added they hope such events remain rare.
“We ensured the local police were aware and monitored the activity to be sure his property was not entered or damaged,” Corvin said.
Far-right figures like Gibson have found fertile ground in the frustrations some people feel with the latest round of COVID-19 restrictions. Gibson has even created a website to promote his protest events, after he — like some other groups and organizers prone to violence — was banned from social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. His site lists planned events through December, including a demonstration this weekend outside the home of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee in Bainbridge, Washington.
Gibson has also filed for a federal temporary restraining order against the Vancouver Police Department, saying he plans to hold a 20-person “prayer protest” this weekend in the city of Vancouver.
“Mr. Gibson has very good reason to believe arrest or prosecution will be imminent, and that he will be specifically targeted for arrest,” his attorney wrote in the court filing.
Though the order is directed at the city of Vancouver, attorneys for Inslee have sought to intervene in the case.
Bill Post, a Republican state legislator from Keizer, Oregon, tried to discourage conservatives from engaging in protests like the one that targeted the OSHA employee’s home.
“Are we now antifa? BLM Black Bloc? We now ‘dox’ a state worker?” Post wrote in a Facebook post to a Republican group. “I am ashamed of anyone involved in this.”
Groups that monitor extremists say the protests against lockdowns and COVID-19 restrictions are helping to keep fringe movements fueled in a year that has been ripe with political and social tensions.
“The social and economic disruptions of 2020 have been enormous and understandably created fear and anxiety,” said Lindsay Schubiner, program director at the nonprofit Western States Center. “Anti-government extremists have sought to capitalize on this sentiment, and exacerbate it, in order to broaden their influence.”