The Nashua Board of Education had barely begun its meeting on Oct. 5 when the disruptions began. One man challenged a requirement that all attendees wear masks. They cause pneumonia and bacterial infections, he said.
Soon afterward, a woman in the audience was asked to leave when she railed against the policy, which also requires that all Nashua students wear masks in school. Two police officers, stationed just outside the room, watched warily as the woman shouted at board president Heather Raymond.
“You’re a child killer and a child abuser!” the woman said loudly as she exited. Raymond adjourned the meeting after only five minutes, according to a video of the session.
The ruckus in Nashua, where members of the far-right Proud Boys and neo-Nazis have attended previous meetings, is not an isolated occurrence. The business of local and state government in New Hampshire is under increasing strain as antigovernment activists — including foes of COVID-19 vaccinations, mask mandates, and even federal grants to fight the virus — have turned traditionally quiet meetings into ugly shouting matches.
Such behavior still stands out in long-staid New England, even if it’s increasingly common in other parts of the country.
“It’s really awful, frankly,” said Raymond, who also asked fellow board member Paula Johnson to leave the Oct. 5 meeting because she refused to wear a mask.
Another board member, Gloria Timmons, said she has received alarming threats via social media after she supported the masking policy. One, from Aug. 21, warned: “No communist or socialist should be allowed ANY place in ANY government, but should be hunted down and exterminated along with their followers, just to be sure.”
Timmons, who is Black, is a disabled Army veteran and former president of the Greater Nashua branch of the NAACP.
Elsewhere, State Police arrested nine people Wednesday at a meeting of the state’s Executive Council in Concord. The protesters had urged the council, which shares authority with the governor to administer state affairs, to reject $27 million in federal money to support the state’s vaccination effort. The Republican-dominated board complied with a 4-1 vote along party lines.
On Sept. 29, an earlier protest over the issue prompted the Executive Council to adjourn because of safety concerns for state employees. Some protesters yelled at the councilors, “We know where you live.”
In Merrimack, a September meeting to reconsider the mask mandate in the schools was disrupted by protesters, one of whom targeted state Representative Rosemarie Rung, a local Democrat, with insults and obscene gestures, she said. In February, Rung found a headless chicken in her yard.
On Oct. 2, about 1,200 people shut down traffic outside the State House with an impromptu march for “medical freedom.” And in Hollis, a longtime Republican selectman resigned last month after being heckled for wearing a mask to a meeting.
That selectman, Peter Band, explained that he wore his mask because of concerns for people such as his 101-year-old mother-in-law and two medically vulnerable relatives. Band later switched his party affiliation to Democrat.
Raymond said the Nashua school board now typically posts two police officers at its meetings.
“This is my fourth year on the board, and this is the first time we’ve needed to do this. It’s not good for our community,” Raymond said. “The Proud Boys started showing up at our meetings in June, and then in July we had the NSC-131 group come. They’re neo-Nazis and came in full regalia with swastikas on their arms.”
Although those groups no longer show up, their unnerving effect has lingered.
“We’ve allowed people to share their thoughts even if they were yelling, but it’s gotten to the point where people aren’t waiting for the comment period. They’re shouting during the meeting and interrupting what we need to do,” Raymond said.
To opponents of vaccination and mask mandates, the swelling anger at public meetings is a natural progression from long-simmering alarm at the reach of government.
“Thousands of New Hampshire citizens are angry and hurt because they are losing their jobs for no apparent reason, or they’re having their children put in masks that have been proven not to work,” said Andrew Manuse, founder of RebuildNH, an activist group that opposes any COVID-related mandates or restrictions.
“These are people who aren’t used to engaging in public meetings. They are people who just want to go about their daily lives,” Manuse added. “They’re not used to being oppressed by their country.”
Manuse said his group, which helped organize the Concord march, does not endorse disruptions that interfere with public business.
“RebuildNH wants to be a vehicle for these people to express themselves,” Manuse said. “To disrupt meetings and close them down, I don’t feel that’s effective activism. I don’t think it’s a successful strategy.”
Manuse said he hopes the anger does not lead to violence, but he added that unrest is likely to grow.
“The civil methods are not working, and they’re resorting to these other methods,” Manuse said. “I think you’re going to see more of it, unless some of these boards start listening to more of these parents.”
Manuse, a financial consultant from Derry, cited Nazi war crimes as an example of the dangers of “medical tyranny.” He also forwarded to the Globe a sermon by an online ministry that, over the course of 90 minutes, moved from the “mark of the beast” in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation, to Nazi regimentation, to questions of satanic connections with the COVID-19 vaccine.
“What you’re seeing with the vaccine mandates and the mask mandates certainly are concerning when you look at the patterns of history that have led to tyrannical regimes,” Manuse said.
What some New Hampshire legislators see is a deliberate, organized assault on democracy.
“I think it’s an effort to intimidate and an effort by some people who don’t believe in government to undermine government,” said state Representative Renny Cushing, a Democrat from Hampton who is House minority leader.
“We have people who hate government but want to have control over it,” Cushing said. “We’re in very dangerous times, and it’s building upon the big lie that our elections aren’t fair.”
Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said that the state has long had a libertarian streak, and that its COVID mandates appear to have given fresh voice and energy to that wing. Free speech isn’t always polite, he said.
“Our system of government is supposed to allow citizens to have voice — even loud voice, even impolite, even raucous. We should err on the side of allowing that,” Scala said.
However, he said, governmental bodies should prepare when conflict is possible to ensure that the people’s business can proceed.
Cinde Warmington, a Democrat on the Executive Council who voted to accept the federal COVID funds, said she will not be deterred by belligerent protesters.
“I was very upset that the business of state government was disrupted by these people,” Warmington said. “I stood ready to do the work of our government, and I will not be intimidated by these right-wing extremists.
“Sometimes,” she added, “it just takes courage to govern.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.