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Threats proliferate on social media following N.M. gun ban

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Threats proliferate on social media following N.M. gun ban

Sep 19, 2023 | 7:05 am ET
By Andrew Beale Austin Fisher
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Threats proliferate on social media following N.M. gun ban
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A protester flies the Gadsden flag on Sept. 9 in Albuquerque's Old Town neighborhood, in defiance of a state public health order prohibiting possession of firearms in most public spaces. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)

A Source New Mexico review of posts on social media by elected officials and other users following the public health order issued in New Mexico on Sept. 8 shows numerous calls for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to be hanged or killed by other means, and for the publication of private information about Lujan Grisham, her family and staff.

Threats were made in various forums, including the comments section of a website owned by a state representative, and during a rally attended by several state Republican party officials. 

New Mexico State Police say they are aware of threats against Lujan Grisham and her family in the wake of a public health order that temporarily banned carrying firearms in New Mexico’s most populous county, but have not made any arrests.

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“Any credible threats of violence against a public official are investigated, no matter the source,” said Department of Public Safety Secretary Jason Bowie. “Individuals engaging in this form of threats or intimidation will be held accountable.”

Open threats at gun rally

At a rally defying the order in Albuquerque’s Old Town Neighborhood on Sept. 9, a few in the back of the crowd called for killing Lujan Grisham. A woman repeatedly said, “hang that b****.”

One attendee told a reporter unprompted that he’s “to the right of Attila The Hun,” and he thinks we need to bring back public hangings.

Lujan Grisham has repeatedly pointed to the death of an 11-year-old Albuquerque boy in a road rage incident as an example of the kind of gun violence her order seeks to prevent. A preacher who spoke to the crowd from the Old Town gazebo wondered aloud whether the 11-year-old’s death was a “false flag” to give pretext for the governor’s emergency order.

Among the rally’s attendees were Rep. Stefani Lord, a Republican member of the state House of Representatives from Sandia Park, Sandoval County Commissioner Jay Block, state Senate candidate Nicole Tobiassen, and U.S. Senate candidates Eric Knight and Ben Luna.

In a social media post on Sept. 11, Block compared Lujan Grisham’s gun order to the al Qaeda terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center.

“Never forget the Islamic extremists who attacked and killed thousands of innocent Americans in Shanksville, PA, the Pentagon, and the World Trade Center 22 years ago. Today, extremists come in all forms to either kill you or take away your rights,” he wrote. “One extremist a few days ago attacked our constitutional rights. Always stand guard, never forget, and always fight for your God-given rights and your beautiful country.”

The post included pictures of the World Trade Center towers exploding in the terrorist attack next to a picture of Lujan Grisham’s face.

In an interview, Block said he did not intend the post as a comparison between the governor and al Qaeda. 

“I’m talking about extremism on many sides,” he said. “What she did was extreme.” 

Asked if he thinks the post was potentially offensive to families who lost loved ones on 9/11, Block said none have contacted him to complain.

“You could even say how offensive it is that we have 6,000 more abortions in the state of New Mexico, because the governor is funding them,” he said. “I find it offensive that the southern border is open and the governor took away the National Guard.”

Asked on Friday about the heightened rhetoric, Lujan Grisham said it is not surprising but “incredibly disgusting.”

She said any time she talks about gun violence or background checks, there is “a significant uptick” in threats against her.

“I’ve been compared to Hitler, to al Qaeda, to ISIS, you name it. It’s a slurry of slurs,” Lujan Grisham said. “This is not the kind of discourse I recognize in my state or my community.”

State representative’s website hosts threats

The Piñon Post, a website run by Rep. John Block (R-Alamogordo), has published more than a dozen stories about the executive order, calling it “an illegal order” and condemning “gun-grabbing Gov. MLG.” 

Block, an unindicted participant in the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection, has called for Lujan Grisham’s impeachment, and called her a “tyrant” in a social-media post. In another post, he encouraged followers to defy the executive order. He also retweeted a post by Senate candidate Eric Knight comparing the gun ban to the circumstances that led to the American Revolution in 1776. 

In the Piñon Post’s comments section, Block’s readers demanded blood. 

One commenter opined that “(Lujan) Grisham needs to be taken out back and beaten senseless,” and another wrote “let her swing whilst her feet kick!!!” A commenter compared Lujan Grisham to a rodent and wrote “too bad DeCon [rat poison] won’t work on a rat of that size” and another wrote “Don’t worry, I have a shotgun to back up the Constitution.”

In response to questions from Source NM about the threats hosted on his site, Block said he removed the comments flagged for him by this publication.

“I get countless comments daily, and I don’t have time to read each and every one missed by the spam or expletive filters,” he said in an email. “I never have, and I never will condone violence against anyone. I totally disavow any and all calls for violence in any form on any platform.”

Block said he had also received death threats, along with Rep. Lord and state Sen. Joseph Cervantes (D-Doña Ana). He provided a screenshot of a message he said was sent to the three politicians, which did not contain a death threat.

“God knows how to stop gun violence… Have every gun owner shoot themselves in their head with their own gun,” the message read. 

Some comments threatening violence remained on Block’s site as of Friday evening, including one commentator who seemed to threaten a repeat of the Jan. 6 riot (“It just means we are one step closer to having fun storming the castle, as they said in the Princess Bride”) and another wishing death on the governor (“someone please make her ‘null and void’”).

Block and Lord penned an op-ed calling for the governor’s impeachment that ran on Fox News’ website on Sept. 16. When Lord posted a link to the article on social media, several commentators advocated violence against the governor in the replies to her post. 

“You need to bring the military or the constitution doesn’t mean crap… have the military drag her out TODAY!” wrote one. “Impeachment since tar and feathering has fallen from favor” wrote another.

Clements chat filled with threats

Former New Mexico State University  professor David Clements, the state’s most prominent election denier, posted numerous times on social media about the governor’s gun order, claiming she “endangered every law enforcement officer in the city” and writing “Come and get ‘em. And see what happens” in reference to his guns.

The violent ideation was even more explicit in a chatroom he maintains on the social-messaging app Telegram. In the days following the order, Clements’ followers made numerous explicit threats of violence against the governor.

One of Clements’ followers wrote Lujan Grisham “needs to be put out force ably (sic)” while another called for tarring and feathering the governor. A man claiming to be “a police officer of rank” in Arizona encouraged Clements’ followers to make a citizens’ arrest, while another wrote “her untimely death should be soon.”

Clements has openly encouraged political violence, once telling a crowd assembled at Gospel Light Baptist Church in Rio Rancho that voting is useless and politicians should be “tried for treason and have the remedy of firing squads.”

“That’s what we need, and we need to focus on that,” he said.

The two people behind the election denial movement in New Mexico

Last year, acting on advice from Clements and his wife Erin, the Otero County Commission refused to certify the results of New Mexico’s primary election. Jay Block of the Sandoval County Commission also followed the Clements’ advice and refused to certify election results; he was outvoted by a majority of that commission.

New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver and some of her staff were deluged with death threats when her office moved to force Otero County to certify the results.

Toulouse Oliver said Friday threats of physical violence and acts of intimidation have become more and more common toward elected officials “in our polarized political environment.”

“We need to turn the temperature down for the sake of all Americans,” she said. “There is no place for threats and violence in our democratic republic and I strongly condemn these threats being made against the Governor, her family, and her staff.”

In response to questions from Source NM, Clements called Lujan Grisham “a domestic terrorist” and a “power hungry tyrant.” In an email, he said he suspects the threats in his chat were planted by Source NM as “fodder for the article” (they were not), even while advocating armed resistance to the order, writing in the email “The 2nd Amendment was created for this very purpose.”

Clements’ assertions about Source NM are wrong.

‘It’s been a pattern for years’

Media Matters For America, a liberal watchdog organization, identified examples of comments from users of the r/conspiracy subreddit calling for militias in New Mexico to be mobilized and for the governor to be hanged for treason.

A user on Sept. 9 called the governor a “tyrant,” asking, “Can we…. you know,? Short drop and quick stop.” The phrase appears to be a reference to hanging. Another user on the same day called for the governor to be “publicly hung for treason.”

Reddit prohibits content that “encourages,” “incites,” or “calls for violence,” and the site has previously punished subreddits for violating that policy.

Reddit administrators removed the violating content and users, a spokesperson for Reddit said. But as of Monday, they left the subreddit as a whole intact.

The r/conspiracy subreddit is one of the bigger conspiracy forums on the internet,  according to Alex Kaplan, a senior researcher with MMFA who first reported on the threats against the governor.

Kaplan has seen other types of hate speech proliferate on the forum, including antisemitism, homophobia, and transphobia, along with anti-vaccine misinformation, and false flag conspiracy theories.

Then-governor of Oregon Kate Brown in 2019 received similar threats on the r/The_Donald subreddit, which Reddit quarantined from the rest of its website after Kaplan wrote about the violent rhetoric. A year later, Reddit banned r/The_Donald.

“Reddit has so far not taken that same response here,” Kaplan said. “It’s not even just that there were a couple comments. It is a pattern. And it’s been a pattern for years.”

Musk calls for governor’s arrest

Elon Musk wrote on the social media platform he owns that the governor’s actions are “next-level illegal,” and asked, “How soon can this person be removed from office?”

Several hours later, far-right conspiracy theorist Tim Pool posted a video of Lujan Grisham and wrote “Police should arrest her immediately.” Musk responded “Yes.”

The leader of a social media company engaging in that kind of heated language can have downstream effects that might encourage violence, Kaplan said.

He said Musk’s “general attitude towards certain content, certain people has probably emboldened some of the far right on (his site) and elsewhere.”

After Musk’s posts, a prominent conspiracy theorist on the website tagged Musk in a threat to doxx Lujan Grisham, her family, and a spokesperson if any New Mexico State Police officer enforced the order.

The account has been suspended for making violent threats in the past and was boosted by a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Arizona.

Governor says Trump encouraged fear tactics

Lujan Grisham said she has long disagreed with elected officials in both parties, but it’s primarily Republicans who “make those kinds of hateful, directed, spiteful, intentional (statements) — knowing that that intimidation factor could result in my direct harm.”

She said she and her colleagues have been targeted by similar rhetoric since 2016, when she was a representative in Congress, and it reached a fever pitch in 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said former president Donald Trump “invited that kind of intimidation and fear tactics to prevent elected leaders and policymakers from doing their job.”

Lujan Grisham said many Republicans in New Mexico and nationwide “offer no solutions to addressing public safety in our state, but would rather increase tensions by those reckless statements.”

Shaun Griswold and Patrick Lohmann contributed reporting.

Update Sept. 21, 2023 at 12:20 p.m.:

This story has been updated to clarify Reddit’s actions against the r/The_Donald subreddit.