Some people who are good in a crisis need a crisis to be good. They’re better wired for hot zones than for ordinary life and so they do whatever they can to turn ordinary life into a hot zone. Matt Pontes is not like that. He’s big and easygoing and has the air of a man who really doesn’t want any trouble. Still, trouble has had a way of finding him. He spent the first part of his career fighting wildfires for the U.S. Forest Service but, after six knee surgeries, moved on to emergency response for various California counties. “He could handle himself in a bar fight and he could handle himself in the Oval Office,” said a colleague who watched Pontes run the responses to fires, floods and mudslides for Santa Barbara County. “He’s a thick-sock guy in a thin-sock world.”

Pontes is now the county executive officer of Shasta County in Northern California and goes to work in thin socks, but another crisis has found him. “You cannot get closer to total disobedience of any kind of law,” he said, referring to the local response to Covid-19 strictures. “What’s happening up here is full-on anarchy.” Then he listed for me a few of the things that had happened recently: The county sheriff had announced that he wouldn’t enforce the state’s pandemic restrictions on social gatherings and businesses. People who had never before attended county board meetings were accusing local officials of treason. The county’s health officer, who had the unhappy job of imposing the state’s Covid rules on the citizens of Shasta County, was now receiving so many threats that Pontes had brought in a new threat-assessment team; he’d also ordered the bushes cut back away from her house, installed a security system and floodlights, and ordered police patrols of her neighborhood. “She still doesn’t feel safe out there,” he said. “At all.”

In just the past few months, a bunch of county health officers across California have been run from office. But what was happening in Shasta County felt to Pontes like a new stage of the crisis in governance. He thought it was “80-20” in favor that, at any moment, a citizen army would form, invade the public buildings, and perform citizens’ arrests of the five members of the county’s Board of Supervisors and any other government officials they could get their hands on. “Before Covid I felt I could talk my way out of just about anything,” he said. “But I had to ask the sheriff, ‘What are you going to do if they arrest us?’ He reassured me that he’s not going to take me anywhere.”

The Board of Supervisors in every California county has met every Tuesday morning since 1870, but over the past six months all but a handful have replaced live meetings with virtual ones. A few still meet in person, however, and a couple even allow citizens to enter and voice their concerns. Shasta County is one of these. Last week I drove up, found a seat in the mostly empty chamber, and watched.

The five supervisors sat, masked and socially distanced, on a dais at the far end of the chamber. The airing of grievances started right after the Pledge of Allegiance. The speakers were ushered from an outdoor plaza into the hearing room where, just inside the front door, a microphone waited for them. Each was allowed three minutes. Every three minutes a buzzer sounded, the mike went dead and two well-armed bailiffs escorted the speaker back out to the plaza — and generally to a roar of approval from the crowd.

The first speaker, a neatly dressed middle-aged woman, began by saying, ominously, that “I am exactly who you think I am” before lighting into the supervisors for both the restrictions they were imposing on citizens to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and their inattention to the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. Most of the 40 or so speakers that followed also turned up with outrage at the new constraints on their liberties, along with some other very specific complaint: the county’s failure to secede from the state of California; the health officer’s order requiring nurses to receive flu shots; the supervisors’ inattention to the Bible; and so on. The whole show ended after two hours, with a speaker who did not speak. He entered wearing a Grim Reaper Halloween mask. He carried a metal folding chair, a stool and a big silver ice bucket that said CORONA in big black letters down the side. He sat down, placed the bucket on the stool, then reached into it with a pair of barbecue tongs and grabbed a surgical mask. One hand raised the mask high in the air; the other waved a butane lighter, with which he tried, without success, to light the mask on fire.

It took the board chairman a full 15 seconds to figure out what was happening. “I think we need some help with this, deputies!” she finally called out. 

“Trust me, I had a lot more planned,” said the Grim Reaper, after the deputies deposited him back onto the plaza, to the cheers of the crowd.

If you didn’t know what you were looking at, you could have dismissed the whole event as just what happens when you let the general public speak into a microphone — but then, if you had never heard of the Mona Lisa, you’d probably walk right past it without giving it a second thought. Matt Pontes watched the speeches from the side of the room and found several things worth noting. The first was that they’d been delivered in the first place. “Before this it was silent here,” he said. “They didn’t even have a bailiff. Being a supervisor was a good gig. They didn’t get any feedback at all.” He also noticed that, as he put it, “government sucks at communication. These people are coming here to have a conversation. And it’s a one-way conversation. And that is making them even angrier.” A third observation was that people who previously hadn’t agreed with one another about anything had now found common cause. “They all believe — and they will put their hand on a Bible and say it — that there is no such thing as Covid. The anti-vaxxers didn’t have a close friend in their fight against the state government until Covid. Now they do.”

There was one other thing Pontes had noticed: The inconveniences caused by the state’s restrictions had attracted a new sort of person to the political process. Elissa McEuen was a case in point. She’d moved up to Shasta a few years ago from San Francisco, where she’d worked in private equity. She was a stay-at-home mom with little kids who, six months ago, couldn’t have told you where the Board of Supervisors met, much less what they did.

Now she showed up to every meeting, and spoke every time, with eloquence. Almost single-handedly she had organized a bunch of vaguely lunatic groups — the anti-vaxxers, the Second Amendment people, the chemtrail crowd — into a unified fighting force. “She’s taken it to another level,” Pontes said. “If you remove her, all of a sudden a lot of those people say, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t believe what you believe.” 

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