A COVID-Fueled Recall Effort Wears Down Political Life In Deep Red California County

Redding, CA, Tuesday, May 11, 2021 - Nathan Pinkney, aka Nathan Blaze, second from right, pledge allegiance before a Shasta County Board of Supervisors meeting where he was targeted by pro-recall members who attempte... Redding, CA, Tuesday, May 11, 2021 - Nathan Pinkney, aka Nathan Blaze, second from right, pledge allegiance before a Shasta County Board of Supervisors meeting where he was targeted by pro-recall members who attempted to discredit him nearly a week after he suffered injuries in a physical altercation with Carlos Zapata, a leader of the recall movement. Jeremy Edwardson, director of Red, White and Blueprint, an documentary crew led by Zapata, stands far left. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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May 25, 2021 7:00 a.m.

The day before pro-Trump rioters overtook the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., two supervisors in deep red Shasta County, California opened their chamber doors to the public, in violation of the Board of Supervisors’ earlier vote to continue holding meetings virtually.

Once inside, some in the crowd began threatening the supervisors tuning in remotely.

“When Joe Biden’s long winter sets and the dark night comes in this country, do you think you’re going to get to see the dawn?” one in-person attendee, Timothy Fairfield, asked the supervisors. “No, you will not. Flee now while you can. Because the days of your tyranny are drawing to a close, and the legitimacy of this government is waning.”

“When the ballot box is gone,” Fairfield added, “there is only the cartridge box. You have made bullets expensive. But luckily for you, ropes are reusable.”

The two supervisors who opened the doors to in-person attendees were eventually censured by full board for their actions. But they also got what they wanted: In a 3-2 vote the following day, around the same time the military and law enforcement were establishing a perimeter around the Capitol, the supervisors decided to hold future meetings in-person.

That would not be the end of it. The tempers that flared in January have only grown in the months since. Now, the three supervisors who attended remotely are the subject of a recall campaign that is roiling Shasta County.

More than a year into the pandemic, and after months of political turmoil in this small Northern California county, that recall has come to signify much more than a dispute over public health policy. Rather, it’s the latest battleground in the American culture wars, a volatile mix of political absolutism and a willingness, by some, to try and make their neighbors feel afraid.

“It is highly charged here, it’s extremely tense,” local journalist Doni Chamberlain told TPM in an interview. “It’s almost the only thing people talk about when you go anywhere.”

‘A Piss Balloon’ And More Ominous Threats

Nathan Pinkney, a comic and something of a left-wing gadfly in Shasta County, says he noticed a change in town during the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd last year. “These militias were showing up carrying all these concealed weapons, standing across the street, staring at us while we were protesting, just trying to be intimidating,” Pinkney said. “We protested for about a month straight at city hall.”

“One person threw a piss balloon out at us,” he recalled. Others, he said, hurled the n-word.

In Pinkney’s telling, that divide hasn’t gone away; it’s metastasized, shifting from anger over racial justice demands into fury over California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) COVID-19 orders.

Murmurs about recalling the county supervisors who supported the public health orders started spreading in February, around when the two supervisors who opened the board’s chambers to in-person attendees, Les Baugh and Patrick Jones, were censured for their actions.

By March, RecallShasta.org was live. “We believe that lockdown measures, mask mandates, and oppressive regulations are an unconstitutional threat to our lives and livelihoods,” it asserted. “We believe our government representatives answer to us, not the other way around.”

Redding, CA, Tuesday, May 11, 2021 – Eli Kay, filmmaker with Red, White and Blueprint looks on at the Shasta County Board of Supervisors meeting where residents argue for and against impeaching board members. Red, White and Blueprint is producing a documentary featuring the pro-recall effort. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The recall push has picked up steam largely thanks to a local restaurateur and militia member named Carlos Zapata.

Zapata, who did not respond to TPM’s interview request, has followed a familiar path toward conservative semi-stardom: In August, long before the recall effort was underway, he went viral with a rant to a Board of Supervisors meeting.

“This is a warning for what’s coming,” he told the board. “It’s not going to be peaceful much longer.”

“I’ve been in combat,” Zapata added. “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!”

His rant spread far and wide. Two months later, in October, he was on the national stage, telling InfoWars’ Alex Jones that “nobody wants to make a call for violence earlier than need be. But I’ve said this over the last seven months that there has come times over the last seven months where we have been pushed to a point of violence. You don’t vote your way out of socialism.”

By March, Fox News published an article promoting his documentary series on the recall, “Red, White and Blueprint,” which casts the effort (aimed at three Republican supervisors) as a template for other towns seeking to do… something.

“We’re drawing a blueprint for the rest of the country to know what it’s like when you decide that constitutionality and freedom comes first,” Zapata pitched viewers in the series trailer.

‘There’s Consequences To That’

The online enthusiasm for potential violence has given way to a more ominous reality on the ground. Pinkney and other vocal liberals in the area, including Chamberlain, have faced months of online threats and harassment for speaking out against the recall effort. “I look forward to seeing Doni Chamberlain on Tuesday at the BOS meeting,” read one post from Zapata before a Board of Supervisors meeting. “It might get a bit awkward for her.”

Last month, Chamberlain noted an unusual situation on her website, A News Cafe: A group called Shasta Forward had been assembled to oppose the recall, she wrote, but no members were willing to be identified with it publicly, fearing “threats — or worse — by Red White & Blueprint followers.” Zapata responded on Instagram the same day.

“When Doni starts crying about all these people threatening her, well what do you expect when you go out and smear lies about people?” he said. “What do you think people are going to do? People are smart, and people get pissed. So when you go out and you say stupid shit, there’s consequences to that. You know who’s not scared? People who tell the fucking truth. People like me. So take that for what it’s worth, Ms. Doni Chamberlain.”

Finally, the pot boiled over earlier this month, when Zapata and two associates came to Pinkney’s workplace, a restaurant in downtown Redding.

By the end of the night, Pinkney had been punched in the face and then retrieved a handgun in self defense. A spokesperson for the local district attorney’s office told TPM they are reviewing the case, but that no charging decisions have been made.

Redding, CA, Tuesday, May 11, 2021 – Shasta County Board of Supervisors member Joe Chimenti conducts a meeting where residents argue for and against recalling him and other board members. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

‘Poking A Skunk’

The irony of the clenched fists in Shasta County, Chamberlain told TPM, is that those campaigning for recalls due to anger at COVID orders have already gotten much of what they profess to want: Law enforcement in the area has long taken a hands-off approach toward COVID rules. The board chambers are open.

The recall effort is currently regrouping after an embarrassing clerical error, but the threats and harassment continue, seemingly from a pretty small group of fervent believers.

“It’s gotta be, like, the same thousand people, you know?” Pinkney said, rattling over various local militia groups, the Recall Shasta effort and Red, White and Blueprint.

“I think the people that are really involved in this, really involved in this, is a very small percentage of both our county and our city residents,” agreed Carl Bott, owner of local talk radio station KCNR, referring to Shasta County and Redding.

But that small group is having an effect: The Los Angeles Times reported recently that one woman who spoke before the county Board of Supervisors this month was afraid to identify herself. “Do you really think that I could openly say my name and walk out of here without a target on my back?” she asked an inquiring supervisor.

Bott, who leans right, thinks reporters have blown tensions in town out of proportion. Still, he acknowledged, “there are threats.”

“Unfortunately, there are outliers that are writing horrible things, making phone calls, I’ve heard on both sides,” Bott said.

“Does that chill some people? I’m sure it does.”

Chamberlain said her son had taken to calling the recall effort “poking a skunk.”

“I don’t think it would necessarily kill us, but it makes life very uncomfortable,” she explained. “It’s hard to ignore.”

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