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Pandemic brings protests, and guns, to officials’ personal homes

Jake Zuckerman, Ohio Capital Journal

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Michelle Cotterman, president of anti-vaccine group Health Freedom Ohio, protested outside then-Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton's home in the spring. Photo by Katie Forbes.

First came protests outside the home of then-state health director Dr. Amy Acton.

There were guns, a police presence, anti-vaccine activists, a man in Proud Boys apparel on a motorcycle, and another man wielding an anti-Semitic sign, all cluttering the sidewalks outside Acton’s bucolic suburban home.

Since then, members of “Moms Against DeWine,” some of whom attended the Acton demonstrations, have formed these residential protests at the personal homes of Acton’s replacement, Stephanie McCloud; Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, as he controlled the fate of a bill to defang the Ohio Department of Health; and Gov. Mike DeWine, in defiance of a 10 p.m. curfew he issued to slow the spread of COVID-19.

On Tuesday morning, about 10 members of Moms Against DeWine (MAD) sign-waved and shouted into a megaphone from the sidewalk outside the personal home of Deborah Pryce — a former Republican congresswoman who now serves as chairwoman of the Ohio Liquor Control Commission.

They said they came to protest Pryce, who they characterized as an unelected appointee of “Dictator DeWine” meting out punishments to bars and restaurants accused by the Ohio Investigative Unit of violating social distancing orders.

Judi Phelps, a MAD organizer, carried a pistol holstered around her bright pink snow pants. At least one other demonstrator, Tracy Ann, said she was carrying a concealed weapon.

Two members of “Moms Against DeWine” protest outside the personal home of Ohio Liquor Control Commission Chairwoman Deborah Pryce on Jan. 26. Source: Jake Zuckerman

Two members of the Ohio State Highway Patrol observed the protest from their vehicles. An OSHP spokesman declined to explain why the officers were dispatched.

Pryce did not respond to requests for comment.

The protest Tuesday comes on the heels of a shooting into the home of a senior Ohio Department of Health official.

Just after 8 p.m. Saturday, police say an unknown person in a vehicle fired gunshots into the home of ODH Assistant Medical Director Dr. Mary Kate Francis in Upper Arlington, a wealthy Columbus suburb not known for gun violence.

Upper Arlington Police Department Officer Bryan McKean said Tuesday it’s too early in the investigation to tell if the shooting is related to Francis’ ODH role. He said Francis was not home at the time of the shooting and did not respond when asked whether anyone else was.

Francis, while unknown to most the public, served as ODH’s expert witness on the epidemiology of COVID-19 in quasi-judicial hearings before Pryce and the Liquor Commission. A spokesman with the attorney general’s office said she served in this role on four occasions between August and September.

McCloud, through an ODH spokeswoman, did not respond to an interview request.

The residential protests offer one of the more salient examples of an increasingly heated political climate and emboldened expressions of right-wing extremism.

At least one member of the Proud Boys, an all-male organization aligned with former President Donald Trump with a reputation for starting fistfights with liberal activists, appeared outside Acton’s house in May.

Several Proud Boys joined other demonstrators outside Obhof’s home in December.

On Jan. 6, as Trump supporters mounted an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol seeking to stop Congress from affirming the results of the U.S. election, several Proud Boys members engaged in fistfights and a brawl with Black Lives Matter activists outside the Ohio Statehouse.

Clashing protesters brawl for the second time Jan. 6 on the Ohio statehouse campus. A man in Proud Boys gear winds up a punch with his right fist clenched. Photo by Jake Zuckerman

Phelps, in an interview, said she didn’t invite the Proud Boys to the protests but referred to “every single Proud Boy that I have met” as “wonderful.” She said she came to Pryce’s home to voice opposition to unelected officials doling out punishments to already-struggling businesses related to what she called a “scamdemic.”

All the women in attendance said they plan to decline a COVID-19 vaccine; they refuse to wear masks in indoor public spaces; they agreed DeWine should be impeached for his pandemic response; and they believe the pandemic has been overhyped and that the death toll — 2.15 million globally in a year according to a count from Johns Hopkins University — is padded with people who died from other causes.

There is no evidence to suggest the COVID-19 death toll, tracked by different health organizations around the globe, is systematically inflated.

“I’d vote for a libtard Democrat before I’d vote for DeWine,” Phelps said, combining a disparaging comment for people with intellectual disabilities with “liberals.”

Tuesday’s protest was more subdued than the December demonstration outside Obhof’s. Then, the activists sought to pressure him into passing Senate Bill 311, which would strip pandemic response authority from ODH and give state lawmakers the right to vote down health orders without DeWine’s signature. Obhof was a co-sponsor on the bill.

The activists, Obhof said in a statement about the Tuesday protest, aren’t going to win anyone over by showing up at their personal homes.

“It was wrong for people to go to Dr. Acton’s home with anti-Semitic signs, and this seems to be a continuation of the same approach,” he said.

Amid a sea of pandemic-related frustration, isolation and misinformation, Acton took heavy fire from conservatives while serving as ODH director. When armed protests formed on the Capitol steps in April to protest stay-at-home orders, activists called her out by name. At least two protests formed outside her home on different days in May.

Outside the Statehouse protests, one demonstrator later identified as Matthew Paul Slatzer attracted widespread media attention after wielding a sign depicting a mouse with a Star of David on its torso and “the real plague” written above it.

Acton is Jewish.

Slatzer, a neo-Nazi with a lengthy criminal history, pleaded guilty to a federal weapons charge in September and was accused of separate violent offenses with anti-Semitic motivations.

A separate protester brought a different anti-Semitic sign to one of the protests outside Acton’s home that reads “Jewish Leaders John 7:1,” referencing a verse from the New Testament in which John describes Jesus seeking to avoid Jewish leaders who might kill him. The sign also highlights the letters “Jeh,” essentially an allusion to a female demon of lore.

Acton stepped down from heading ODH in June. DeWine announced a full-time replacement, Dr. Joan Duwve, in September. However, Duwve rescinded her acceptance hours after the announcement.

“I was informed that the former director’s family had faced harassment from the public,” Duwve said to The State newspaper. “While I have dedicated my life to improving public health, my first commitment is to my family. I am a public figure. My family is off limits.”

Acton declined an interview request.

“Dr. Acton isn’t ready to comment on this at the moment,” said a spokeswoman with The Columbus Foundation, where Acton now works. “She is still processing everything that has happened in the past several months.”

The MAD activists on Tuesday offered different reasons for protesting at personal homes in lieu of political spaces on neutral ground like the Statehouse: For one, the pandemic has closeted officials at home, limiting public access to decision makers. Secondly, home protests are simply more “effective,” according to Phelps.

She criticized the “weasel” who brought the anti-Semitic sign with him to a lockdown protest at the Capitol, alleging he essentially infiltrated the protest so media could paint the entire demonstration as xenophobic.

Phelps said she had her gun at Acton’s, just like she does at the Statehouse, the gas station or the grocery store, or anywhere she is lawfully able to. She dismissed the idea that guns scare onlookers.

“In my utopia, everyone, man and woman that’s lawfully able, should open carry,” she said. “Because it would change the attitudes of a whole lot of folks.”

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