Commentary

Bookman: Threats against nurses, school boards rage on as mainstream GOP stands by

September 2, 2021 1:00 am

Columnist Jay Bookman writes that when Georgia Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey reported threats against nurses working to deliver vaccines during remarks at a Capitol press conference this week, the governor failed to rise to the moment. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

In a press conference at the state Capitol this week, Georgia’s public health commissioner condemned a campaign of bullying, intimidation and threats directed at health care workers attempting to improve the state’s abysmal vaccination record against COVID- 19.

“Many of our line workers are receiving threats, are receiving hostile emails, harassing emails,” Dr. Kathleen Toomey said. “That’s something that has happened to me early on. Maybe it comes with the territory of someone in my position, but it shouldn’t be happening to those nurses who are working in the field to try to keep this state safe.”

According to Toomey, the harassment has become so threatening that one mobile vaccination effort in north Georgia had to be shut down entirely. “Aside from feeling threatened themselves, staff realized no one would want to come to that location for a vaccination under those circumstances, so they packed up and left,” Toomey’s spokeswoman, Nancy Nydam, later explained.

Think about that: These people are not only refusing to get vaccinated themselves — and by doing so facilitating the spread of this deadly virus — they are using harassment and intimidation to try to prevent other people from getting life-saving vaccination. That’s outrageous. Yet later in that same press conference, when Gov. Brian Kemp had the chance to strongly condemn such behavior and promise that it would not be tolerated, that it would be investigated aggressively by law enforcement and prosecuted, he did not meet the moment, issuing only a mild call for “unity.”

Gov. Brian Kemp and First Lady Marty appeared stressed as they left a COVID-19 Capitol press conference update this week. The news included threats against nurses trying to deliver free shots. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

A few months earlier, at the very spot in the Capitol where Toomey and Kemp stood, Gabe Sterling of the Georgia secretary of state’s office had been far more courageous. State and local elections workers were being threatened, harassed and intimidated by people who bought into false claims by Donald Trump that the election had been stolen from him, Sterling said, and it was up to leaders to intervene.

“You need to step up and say this … stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence,” Sterling said, addressing Trump directly. “Someone’s going to get hurt, someone’s going to get shot, someone’s going to get killed, and it’s not right.”

As we know, Trump did not condemn the violence, and people did get killed.

We’re also seeing similar threats of violence directed at school boards around the country, both over mask mandates and the manufactured controversy over “critical race theory.” Again, the idea seems to be that what cannot be won at the ballot box or through debate can and should be won through physical intimidation, even violence. In Pennsylvania, to cite just one of many examples, a GOP candidate for county executive bragged at a state Capitol rally Sunday that he would confront the local school board over its mask mandate not with facts or data, but with “20 strong men.”

“I’m going to speak to the school board, and I’m going to give them an option: They can leave or they can be removed,” Steve Lynch said.

Not surprisingly, Lynch is a Trump supporter who attended the January 6 rally that ended in an assault on our nation’s Capitol. Instead of an act of shame, that attempted coup is increasingly being described by Republicans such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia as an heroic act of patriotism, with the attackers cast as champions of freedom.

In North Carolina over the weekend, U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn told a campaign rally that if he knew where those arrested in the coup attempt were being imprisoned, he might try to “bust them out.” He also told the crowd that the 2020 elections had been stolen from Republicans, and “if our election systems continue to be rigged and continue to be stolen, then it’s going to lead to one place — and it’s bloodshed.”

These are people who have been told for decades that they have an inherent right to rule this country, that if they are losing election after election it is only because those elections are rigged against them, and that they have not just the right but the obligation to turn to violence to correct that injustice.

You could argue that this is only the lunatic fringe of the GOP, but we have seen too many times how yesterday’s GOP lunatic fringe becomes tomorrow’s GOP mainstream. And the people who might be able to rein it all back in remain in ominous silence.

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Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman

Jay Bookman covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, earning numerous national, regional and state journalism awards. He has been awarded the National Headliner Award and the Walker Stone Award for outstanding editorial writing, and is the only two-time winner of the Pulliam Fellowship granted by the Society of Professional Journalists. He is also the author of "Caught in the Current," published by St. Martin's Press.

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