REDDING — Carlos Zapata has a message for any government official who shows up at his Tehama County restaurant and tries to enforce California’s pandemic shutdown orders.
“I’ve made it very clear that if they come to shut us down, I’m going to call 100,000 people that’ll be there with guns, and what happens happens, you know?” Zapata said Tuesday. “I’m hoping that they’re not stupid enough to want that kind of a fight over a restaurant being open, but if they want it, we’ll definitely give it to them.”
It’s not the first time the Red Bluff restaurant owner and U.S. Marine combat veteran has made those kinds of threats. A few weeks ago, he told the Shasta County Board of Supervisors to expect trouble if they enforce Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 restrictions on local businesses.
“Right now, we’re being peaceful,” he said in a short speech that has since made Zapata a celebrity among far-right groups. “But it’s not going to be peaceful much longer.”
Just about anywhere else in California, that sort of talk would have been widely condemned. But here, in what’s arguably the capital of the State of Jefferson — a decades-old movement to break off conservative northern counties from Democrat-controlled California — many have shrugged Zapata off as commonplace.
In Jefferson, the sweeping pandemic edicts out of Sacramento are the latest in a long line of grievances about California’s liberal policies, from new gas taxes, to minimum wage hikes, to environmental restrictions, to gun control.
Indeed, the rebellious sentiment behind Zapata’s threats briefly carried its way to Shasta County’s elected leaders who considered this week rebelling against California on their own.
Despite having one of the highest per-capita rates of COVID-19 infections in the state, the Shasta County Board of Supervisors spent the last several weeks hearing calls to ignore state public health orders that would force restaurants, gyms and other small businesses to stop serving customers indoors.
At board meetings, business owners spoke at times through tears at the prospect of closing their shops permanently if the shutdowns continued. Dozens of others also brought up every manner of internet-driven conspiracy theory about the pandemic — vaccines are a health hazard, masks are a form of government control, the pandemic is a hoax to sway the election against Donald Trump, who won State of Jefferson counties by margins of up to 72% in 2016.
At one point, an anti-mask activist in a Grim Reaper mask stood at the microphone and tried to set a face mask on fire. A man announced he was placing the entire board under citizen’s arrest. Activists read out the county health officer’s home address, prompting police to step up patrols in her neighborhood.
As the country approaches a contentious election and the coronavirus shutdowns continue to hamstring the economy, the State of Jefferson may seem primed to explode.
But how much of this revolutionary talk needs to be taken seriously? How much is over-hyped by outsiders? And how much of it just comes with the territory? This is a place that has long resented its stepchild status in California’s strongly Democratic household — a place where grousing about Big Government is as fundamental as buying a new gun or putting a campaign sign for a local Republican on your lawn?
On Thursday, more moderate voices broke through the chaos. The Shasta County board heard from dozens of members of the community, including at least three physicians, urging the county to follow the state’s rules.
“I understand that these people for some reason call themselves ‘The silent majority’ even though they come in there and scream at you guys every week. They want everything to just be open,” one man told the board in a recorded message. “Don’t let the Carlos Zapatas of the world intimidate you from making the right decision. Because that’s all they’re trying to do.”
Ultimately, the supervisors decided to back away from a full-blown revolt from the state, after members said top state health officials were willing to consider easing the restrictions that went into effect on Friday.
For an afternoon at least, the conspiracy theories and calls for rebellion in the State of Jefferson were muted. But with the pandemic still surging, and the possibility of a new Democratic president, the same potent mixture of resentment and alienation from the rest of California remains.
The local militia gains support
For Woody Clendenen, defiance has been good for business. Clendenen owns a barbershop in the small Shasta County community of Cottonwood, which has enjoyed a steady stream of customers for months because he refused to stop cutting hair even when the state told him not to.
“People are starving for courage and leadership right now. And that’s why guys like Carlos, a lot of people are gravitating to them,” he said, referring to Zapata, the Red Bluff restaurateur warning of violence.
“That’s why I have people traveling from four hours away to get their hair cut. It was a four-hour wait to get in here for four months, people were waiting outside, 15, 20 people out there.”
It also helped draw in a particular type of clientele that Clendenen is the leader of the local company of the California State Militia. The group made its presence felt during the small, peaceful local protests that followed the George Floyd killing this spring.
Members stood guard outside buildings in Red Bluff and Redding in early June after seeing the reports of riots and looting in major cities across the country.
Unlike some other militia groups elsewhere in the country, they didn’t openly carry rifles, though Clendenen said many of his members have concealed weapons permits.
“I’m carrying right now. I mean, if I’m out of the shower, I’m carrying, so it was nothing out of the norm,” he said as he trimmed a man’s hair inside his small shop festooned with “Don’t Tread on Me,” “Make America Great Again,” gun-rights and State of Jefferson swag.
He said they were especially worried because someone had “a trailer load of bricks delivered,” a sign that people were going to riot and toss them through windows.
Similar tales popped up in rural towns across the country in the aftermath of rioting in major cities. Most turned out to be unfounded, fueled by social media hoaxes. Redding’s police chief said his officers heard about those bricks as well as reports of piles of rocks left in the city’s alleyways, but they were never able to confirm them.
Either way, Clendenen said the militia’s appearance was never intended to intimidate activists — they were just there to be a deterrent against violence.
“I said to one of the guys at the Black Lives Matter protest, ‘Hey, if law enforcement tried to make you stop having your protest, we would be on your side. You guys have the right to protest. As long as you just keep the protest (peaceful), we’re totally on your side.’ That’s the freedom of assembly, you know, one of the rights that we believe in.'”
Like Zapata, he said he’s ready to fight if the government tries to close his business. “You better be ready for a scrap if you’re going to do that,” he said.
But he said he’s not worried, because he has wide support in Cottonwood and good relationships with local law enforcement and community leaders.
Shasta County Supervisor Les Baugh, who has been among the most vocal Shasta County elected officials bristling at the state’s shutdown orders, is among Clendenen’s clients.
“I know some will say this is wrong and that somehow I’m killing someone by getting my haircut,” Baugh wrote on Facebook under a picture of Clendenen cutting his hair in early May when barber shops were supposed to be closed. “Here’s the way I see it … The Barber Shop is open. Woody, a free man, a barber, working, earning an honest living, supporting his family, is cutting hair. I needed a haircut. No one forced me to come through the door.”
Baugh, a local pastor, was the one who introduced the motion this week calling for Thursday’s emergency meeting to consider defying the state’s shutdown order.
‘She should be afraid’
Patrick Jones, a Redding gun store owner and former city councilman who’s running for the board of supervisors on an end-the-shutdowns platform, said he understands why some are threatening violence. The thought of losing their businesses because of a state mandate they don’t support is a prospect that would never sit well in Jefferson, he said.
“I mean, it destroys a person’s life and what they’ve built up,” Jones said sitting in his shop where gun and ammo sales have boomed since the pandemic began.
“All because the government said you’re not essential, but those guys are …. And in (Zapata’s) eyes, you know, he fought for freedom. And he might have to do it again, in a manner that he had not anticipated. And so there’s a lot of anger there. Will he act out on that? I don’t know. I doubt it. But that’s how he was feeling.”
Doni Chamberlain, a former newspaper columnist who now runs a local news website with a liberal bent, doesn’t think it’s all talk.
She has been following the tensions the last several months and has published articles critical of the militia’s appearance in the George Floyd protests, as well as the threats against local government officials over masks and shutdown orders.
She said she’s worried that at some point Zapata or one of the others saying they’ll shed blood might actually act on their “tough guy” talk. Equally concerning, she said, is someone being triggered by what they read or hear.
“I picture some guy in his mother’s basement, in a pair of grimy underwear under a lightbulb and is reading all this stuff and owns guns and thinks he’s going to help, you know?” Chamberlain said.
“The ones I’m concerned about are the guys in the corners who we don’t know who are lurkers and who are feeling impotent and helpless and angry and they want to do something to help and maybe they admire these guys.”
Chamberlain’s concerns aren’t abstract threats in Jefferson. There have been at least three mass shootings in north state counties in the last six years.
A woman in 2014 shot six people at a tribal office in Modoc County, killing four. Three years later, a gunman shot up a school and killed five people during a drive-by rampage in Tehama County. And earlier this year, an ex-employee shot up a Walmart distribution center near Red Bluff after he’d been fired for missing work, killing one and wounding several others.
Those shootings were apolitical. But right-wing extremists from Shasta County have resorted to violence at least once before.
In 1999, Benjamin and James Williams, white supremacist brothers from Shasta County, murdered a local gay couple and firebombed three synagogues and an abortion clinic in Sacramento.
Asked if he is worried about someone hearing his talk of armed insurrection shooting someone like the county health officer, Zapata said he’s “not afraid, but she should be afraid.”
“If I’m an appointed or elected official and I’m doing something bad enough that people are threatening to kill me, I might rethink my approach because something I’m doing is very unreasonable and it’s causing great harm,” Zapata said.
“I think every elected official and appointed official … should fear the people they serve in a very healthy manner, you know?”
Reopen movement breeds conspiracy
Conspiracy theories and fights over public health safety measures have long been a part of the public discourse in Jefferson, particularly Shasta County’s corner of it.
Vaccination rates at Shasta County schools have long been among the lowest in the state, in part because so many parents believe in the widely debunked conspiracy theory that vaccines are harmful. In the early 2000s, Shasta County anti-fluoride activists successfully passed a ballot measure to stop Redding from putting fluoride in the public drinking water system. Redding, population 91,000, remains one of the few cities of its size to not fluoridate its water.
More recently, activists have swarmed local boards demanding Shasta County do something about contrails — water vapor from jet engines — that they claim are part of a nefarious global “chemtrails” plot to rain toxins from the sky.
Not long after the lockdowns started, a Facebook page was born under the title “Reopen California.” The pitch was tailor-made for the Jefferson state of mind: “We are residents of California that stand for The Constitution and demand our officials Reopen California no later than April 29, 2020.”
COVID-19 became the new fear, but the messaging was out of the Tea Party movement of 2009: Less government and more freedom. Members used the page to organize protests across California demanding Gov. Newsom ease state-ordered shutdowns intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Facebook said it shut the page down in September for violating rules about “harm and misinformation.” Another page was born Sept. 24 called “Reopen California Reloaded.” With 1,200 members so far, the page doesn’t yet have the membership heft as the original “Reopen” page.
It traffics in many of the same lies and conspiracy theories as months ago. One this week touted a ludicrous conspiracy theory about Joe Biden hiring a hitman against his late-wife and daughter.
Less than two weeks after the page started, Shasta County found a home on it. A user posted a video recorded from the gallery of a Shasta County Board of Supervisors meeting. It was the man attempting to make a “citizen’s arrest” against the board of supervisors.
For his part, Redding Police Chief Bill Schueller said he’s not particularly worried about someone acting on the threats or of protests turning violent after the election.
But, he said, Zapata “concerns me.”
Schueller said his anger at local officials is misplaced. Law enforcement agencies, including his, aren’t enforcing health orders at local businesses so long as “people aren’t getting infected and they’re causing no harm or risk to the community.” Shasta County’s health officials also urged the state not to move the county into the most restrictive COVID-19 restrictions, but the Newsom administration initially declined.
He said authorities in Tehama County, where Zapata’s restaurant is located, aren’t itching for a fight with him either.
“I think there’s some concern there that the juice isn’t worth the squeeze in trying to shut him down because of the potential for violence,” he said.
Instead of threatening local officials, Schueller said, those frustrated need to call on state leaders in Sacramento to change their policies.
“I understand that they’re tired of this,” he said. “But they need to take their frustration at the state level and getting to where this is coming from, … because our local officials have little, little control.”
‘Doubled-crossed’ in ‘ocean of misinformation’
Since California’s founding, talk of breaking off parts of Oregon and California into their own state have popped from time to time. During the Gold Rush, a short-lived effort to create a State of Jefferson was introduced in Congress.
The movement died out until the following century, when it emerged as mostly a tongue-in-cheek effort for locals in Southern Oregon and Northern California to express displeasure with their states’ leadership.
In the 1940s, a group of local activists attempted to set up roadblocks on Highway 99 near the Oregon border to collect tolls from motorists. “This State has seceded from California and Oregon this Thursday, November 27, 1941,” read the group’s “The Proclamation of Independence” printed in a local newspaper. “Patriotic Jeffersonians intend to secede each Thursday until further notice.”
That’s when activists invented the Jefferson logo — a green flag with a yellow circle and two black X’s — now seen as car decals and as roadside banners in north state counties. (The flag’s double X’s stand for being “doubled-crossed.”)
But it was the Tea Party movement that swept through conservative regions during Barack Obama’s presidency that reignited the fight. Local Jefferson activists have since become a small but vocal faction in Republican-dominated local politics across far Northern California.
Lately, the Jefferson activists have turned instead to the courts, suing in the hopes of creating more local legislative seats to combat the Democrat supermajority in Sacramento.
“We are not known. We are not well understood. And we feel totally unrepresented. Particularly now that California is a one-party state,” said Janet Chandler, one of the Jefferson activists from Shasta County.
“We recognize that we don’t even have much state control at all. Nothing we do in the state of California is going to make any difference. We have no power.”
The rising tensions are somewhat predictable in the context of California being, essentially, a one-party state, said Michael Latner, professor of political science at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
“We don’t have a level of political competition in this state that gives voice to a lot of people,” Latner said. “And that I think that’s a legitimate problem with democracy in California, is that it’s not working for a lot of people.”
The belief that the government is not only ignoring peoples’ concerns, but is actively fighting against them, is a sentiment that has been growing amongst conservatives for years. The cries of COVID-19 tyranny coming out of the State of Jefferson are an outgrowth of that, said Lawrence Rosenthal, chair of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies and author of “Empire of Resentment: Populism’s Toxic Embrace of Nationalism.”
There has long been a notion that the liberal world — the Democratic Party, Hollywood, university professors — looked down on common, conservative Americans, and tried to impose their own beliefs upon them, Rosenthal said. Trump capitalized on the lingering resentment, and amplified the idea that there was a battle for liberty between “Blue America” and conservatives, Rosenthal said.
One thing that has really transformed this political climate is the “ocean of misinformation” people are living in, Latner said. In rural communities like northern California, falsehoods spread quickly and take hold in a social media echo chamber among a group of people that, otherwise, wouldn’t have connected.
“This stuff just festers,” Latner said. “And people are literally living on different planets and living in a different world than the rest of humanity.”
Misinformation may have played a major role in the protests and general resistance to pandemic health orders in Jefferson, but so did the fierce resistance to Big Government control over people’s daily lives.
“This country was founded on independence, and not having the government tell us what to do and say, to take away things,” said Carl Bott, a retired U.S. Marine Lt. Colonel who owns a radio station in Redding that features a talk show called “The Jefferson State of Mind.”
“So the idea of people not wearing masks, I think is in our DNA. However… a vast majority of us up here wear masks, because you know what? If this is going to help somebody, that’s the way we are.”
So far actual violence, nationally, has been rare from those rebelling against the pandemic restrictions. One notable exception was in Michigan, when a group of men associated with an armed far-right group was arrested after the FBI uncovered an alleged plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Even if some Californians feel the state government isn’t listening to them, it doesn’t give them a right to intimidate anyone, Latner said.
“The very idea that somehow, the Constitution legitimates rebellion against a democratically-elected government is absurd on its face,” he said. “Certainly, protest and demonstration are very much protected by the First Amendment, but there is no constitutional right to intimidate someone with a threat of violence.”
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