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Washington residents threatened after naming open businesses, as protesters gather at Capitol to assail coronavirus closures

Joey Gibson, founder of the right-wing group Patriot Prayer, speaks during a rally against coronavirus restrictions Saturday, May 9, 2020, at the State Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (Amanda Snyder / AP)
By Joseph O’Sullivan and Jim Brunner Seattle Times

OLYMPIA – As demonstrators of Washington’s stay-home order to slow the new coronavirus converged Saturday on the Capitol campus to again protest the restrictions, opposition has taken a darker turn online.

Two Facebook pages during the past week posted names, emails and phone numbers of state residents who had complained to the state about businesses allegedly violating Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home order. Some of the complainants say the Facebook posts have generated threats of violence and harassment against them.

One group publicizing the names, the Washington Three Percenters, has promoted the stay-home protests, and one of its leaders spoke at Saturday’s demonstration.

On its Facebook page, the far-right group of self-described “God fearing Patriots,” had this message: “Want to snitch on your neighbor? Don’t expect to hide behind you (sic) computer screen.” With the message, the group provided a link to a spreadsheet containing the names and contact information of people who made reports to the state.

Gathering in defiance of the stay-home order and against the guidance of state and federal public health officials, Saturday’s rally drew roughly 1,500 people, according to the Washington State Patrol. That was fewer than the more than 2,000 who attended a similar protest last month.

The demonstration came as state health officials reported a total of 16,674 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 921 fatalities as of Saturday. Nationwide, more than 77,000 people have died of the virus, according to figures Saturday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Recently, Washington has seen a key measure – the transmission rate of COVID-19 – get slightly worse, according to numbers from the Bellevue-based Institute for Disease Modeling (IDM).

IDM data has shown that the projected infection rate – an estimate of how many people one person with the virus goes on to infect – has risen slightly. It has increased in Western Washington and within King County, as well as in Eastern Washington, according to the data.

The personal contact information posted online of people who had reported businesses potentially violating coronavirus restrictions – which has led to threats against some – was likely obtained through public-records requests to the state, according to Chelsea Hodgson, spokeswoman for the Washington Joint Information Center, which is helping coordinate the state’s pandemic response.

“Several individuals made public disclosure requests for the complaints that have been filed to date,” Hodgson wrote in an email. “This list was likely generated and shared by one of those individuals.”

Hodgson said the state has taken steps to make clear on the web form that complaints are subject to public release. “Individuals may also submit a complaint anonymously,” she added.

A woman on the list shared by the Washington Three Percenters said she quickly got threatening emails and phone messages. The woman, who lives in King County and asked not to be identified because of threats to her safety, had reported a business she said she believed was operating improperly despite Inslee’s stay-home order.

She sent the Seattle Times a voice message that she said was left on her phone. A man says, “You got 48 hours to get the (expletive) out of Washington, or I am coming for you, and your loved ones.” Another caller, a woman, left a voice message, telling her “I hope you choke on the (expletive) virus.”

The woman said she had been unaware her contact information would be disclosed. “Of course I would never have submitted a complaint with the state had I known my personal information would be given to people who would use it to attack me. I was just trying to be a good citizen,” she said in an email. She added that the FBI has contacted her about the threats.

Another person told of receiving “harassing text messages, spam text messages, harassing emails.” That person added, “I’m disappointed the state did not do a better job of protecting our privacy and for not making it clear that our private information will become public if we submit a report.”

Matt Marshall, a leader with the Washington Three Percenters, defended the Facebook post, saying the information was public record and had already been posted online when the group shared it.

Due to the stay-home order, “We have enough business owners that are going under, and they want their constitutional right to face their accuser,” Marshall said in an interview at Saturday’s rally.

Marshall said he didn’t condone threats, but if people are going to make allegations about businesses to the state, “they need to stand behind their word.”

Lindsay Schubiner of the Western States Center said “it’s not at all surprising” that people would find and contact residents named online.

“It’s definitely an intimidation tactic,” said Schubiner, program director at the Portland-based nonprofit that promotes racial, social and economic justice.

A Facebook group called Reopen Washington State, which promoted Saturday’s protest, also shared a list of complainants. Some members reacted with glee to the unmasking.

“Snitches belong in ditches,” one man wrote.

“Oh this got famous fast, and people getting death threats a bit harsh, but I’ll bet they don’t do it again!” another added.

Reopen Washington describes itself as state residents opposed to Inslee’s “unconstitutional actions in response to the mass hysteria of COVID-19.”

Asked about the messages directed at Washington residents, Brionna Aho, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, said it is potentially a violation of the law to threaten or harass people.

“The conduct of a person using the information in a public record against a person who is the subject of the record would have to be assessed on specific facts and under general civil or criminal laws governing threats or harassment,” Aho wrote in an email. “Depending on the facts, it would be a private civil matter or criminal matter subject to local law enforcement.”

While some Washingtonians have loudly objected to the restrictions on workplaces and social gatherings, polls have shown most residents approve of Inslee’s handling of the pandemic. An Elway Research poll of 405 voters conducted April 18-21 for the online news site Crosscut found 75% rating the governor’s performance positively.

At Saturday’s rally, Marshall, the Three Percenter leader, told the crowd about his new ballot initiative to implement term limits for state elected officials. Marshall has also announced a run against House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox of Yelm.

Rep. Matt Shea, a Spokane Valley lawmaker suspended last year from the GOP House caucus after a House-commissioned investigation found he planned and participated in domestic terrorism, led the crowd in a chant of “Freedom is the cure.”

Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, called for resistance to a state plan to trace contacts that an infected person has had to limit new potential outbreaks of COVID-19. Walsh said the approach was “one more slip down that slippery slope of servitude.”

Joey Gibson, leader of the right-wing group Patriot Prayer, called out police, saying they would have to make a choice whether to enforce stay-home laws. “If you are in law enforcement and you decide to break the Constitution … you are no longer law enforcement, you are a lawbreaker,” he said.