Regardless of how you feel about politics, threatening to kill an elected official is a serious crime. A Florida nurse was arrested over the weekend after sending threatening messages regarding Vice-President Kamala Harris. With the pandemic, misinformation, and tense political rhetoric, it’s just another sign of how polarized our county has become.
A Criminal Probe
It started when nurse Niviane Petit Phelps, 39, started speaking out against the Vice-President in a series of video messages that she allegedly sent to her husband, who is currently in prison. The videos show Phelps speaking directly to the camera making a slew of unvalidated claims. Phelps allegedly used a computer application that lets family members communicate with inmates to send the messages.
“Kamala Harris you are going to die. Your days are numbered already. Someone paid me $53,000 just to f— you up and I’m gonna take the, I’m gonna do the job, okay,” Phelps allegedly said.
She also allegedly spoke about going to purchase a gun. “I’m going to the gun range, just for your ass, until you f—in leave the chair,” Phelps said in another clip.
That led to a criminal complaint. Special agent David Ballenger said he was told about the alleged threats in early March, and a Secret Service agent is currently working on the case.
Phelps, who was arrested on Saturday, is now being charged with threatening a public official, which is considered a felony and punishable by up to five years in prison.
The authorities say Phelps could be seen smiling in the video holding a pistol next to a target with bullet holes. When interviewing Phelps, she said she was angry about Joe Biden and Kamala Harris getting elected, but that she was “over it” now.
However, her mother Heroeia Petit says the charges should be dropped because she believes her daughter is “sick” and “doesn’t even know what she’s doing.”
“Don’t punish her…’cause she listened to what people tell her,” Petit said. “She’s desperate. She don’t got nothing to do. Her husband’s been in jail 10 years, two children. The house, she lost everything.”
Records show Phelps has worked at Jackson Health in Miami, FL since 2001. The facility said she has been suspended without pay until they can finalize her termination.
The Rise of Politically Motivated Threats
Since the COVID-19 pandemic first began, the number of threats directed at public health officials has been climbing steadily across the country. Mask mandates, business closures, and misinformation regarding last year’s presidential election and the spread of COVID-19 have riled up constituents on both sides of the aisle.
Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says, “We are facing a pretty unusual uptick in violence and threats and intimidation against public officials across the range, from the really hyper-local people who are either running for their state assemblies or public health officials, who are working on basic public health in the COVID pandemic, all the way to AOC and members of Congress and so on,” referring to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
It’s difficult to track the exact number of threats made against public officials but reports from Capitol Hill law enforcement show that threats against members of Congress have been accelerating since 2018.
Kleinfeld says the unpredictability of the current health crisis has taken things to a whole new level, even when compared to previous moments of unrest
“We’re at a moment of polarization right now that’s much higher than the last moment of militia activity,” she said. “The level of polarization [is] quite a bit higher even than the 1970s, when we had a lot of political violence in this country, mostly from the left then. Now it’s mostly from the right.”
However, the trend isn’t affecting just Democrats. Gabriel Sterling, a Republican election official from Georgia, recently told NPR, “It’s been like playing a game of whack-a-mole. With every new conspiracy theory [that] gets put up, we had to whack down. And we saw kind of a rising level of, you know, language of violence around things and even death threats against my boss, Secretary Brad Raffensperger, sexualized threats to his wife on her personal cellphone and threats against me.”
Kleinfeld adds that these kinds of trends can be difficult to break. “And because it’s not new, it’s actually more worrying because what we know about political violence is that countries that have had it in the past are more likely to have it in the future,” she said.
It’s a trend that’s affecting public health officials and disease experts as well. Studies show that at least 181 health officials have either resigned or been fired since the start of the pandemic.