LACONIA — Critics and allies of Dawn Johnson, a school board member and newly elected state representative, are calling for a halt to the harassment, threats and social media thrashing that Johnson has received since she linked anti-Semitic material on The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, roughly a week ago.
Since Dec. 9, the incident has sparked a firestorm of outrage over the content of Johnson’s link, and widespread calls for her to resign from her elected roles at state and local levels. Vocal residents have questioned her lack of judgement and underlying attitudes that accessing the notoriously bigoted site may represent. Backlash has snowballed into threats and harassment from community members and from outside New Hampshire, and have even targeted Johnson’s employer.
Carol Clancy, who owns Myrna’s restaurant where Johnson worked part-time until recently, said “I’ve already been attacked. My business has been attacked” on social media. “I’ve been called a white supremacist, a hypocritical Christian and a Nazi. This thing is out of control.”
“I’ve dropped out of local forums and groups,” Clancy said. “The hate is just nonstop. I had to have police come to the restaurant to stop threatening phone calls from Vermont. From Friday on, it has been nonstop nasty attacks.”
“If you disagree with someone, you’re supposed to do it in a civil fashion. The harassment and threatening has to stop. It doesn’t do anybody any good,” said Marcia Hayward of Laconia, a Democrat who ran for state representative last month and helped organized a peaceful protest against Johnson last Monday.
Johnson said Thursday in a written statement that she linked an article on election tampering on The Daily Stormer, a site she was not familiar with, before realizing there was an anti-Jewish cartoon at the end of the article. At a school board meeting Tuesday that attracted 300 viewers on Zoom, Johnson said she would not resign from the board, but members stripped of her committee duties.
In her statement Thursday, Johnson said she has received threatening voicemails at home such as “We’re coming to get you,”and “harassing calls to my workplace. There are some scary people out there.” Her employer’s business also has been targeted on Facebook, and her boss has received harassing phone calls.
According to a Facebook post by Johnson’s husband, the family was bullied on Zoom during their teenage daughter’s high school art class. The teacher mentioned banging pots and pans outside their house, and one student talked about egging their house, which made the teacher laugh, according to Johnson’s husband, two family friends and her lawyer.
Johnson’s supporters are upset about what they say is a feeding frenzy of hate.
“I’m just so upset by what’s happening to her and her family,” said Meghan Hanson, who lives in Gilford. “All the good that Dawn has done over the years is being completely ignored.” Hanson said Johnson is a founding member of a charity called “The Give Back Divas,” which raises money through bingo events to support causes such as the Greater Lakes Region Children’s Auction and St. Vincent de Paul, and sports teams and student activities at Laconia schools.
“There’s not many charity organizations around Laconia that Dawn hasn’t helped in some way. Anyone who has been a recipient of her generous spirit is now turning around and bashing her,” Hanson said. “She’s not a racist, and she’s not this demon people are making her out to be. In this political climate, even an honest mistake, people are going to jump on the bandwagon and say, ‘Hey, I can speak out about this.’ My advice is do your research first. People’s lives are being totally upended over this. It’s becoming a hysterical attack on her.”
Vicious posts on the Facebook pages, Love Laconia and Laconia is Talking, have recently been taken down, according to Hanson and others.
Clancy said, “I wouldn’t harbor and defend a racist. She was judged and condemned, and I don’t have time to spend bickering back and forth with people. Nobody’s willing to hear her side of the story.”
“Have you ever hit the wrong button on the computer and said, ‘Oh, no, what have I done!’ That’s kind of what happened and she’s being crucified for it,” said Clancy, who described the community reaction to Johnson's post as “a political assassination. There’s a lot of political vindictiveness going on.”
“Whatever happened to a civil discourse allowing people to tell their side of the story? It’s a sign of the times,” Clancy said. “Maybe we can help society out by talking about this in a way that is civil and open.”
Stuart Needleman of Moultonborough, a member of Temple B'nai Israel in Laconia, said Johnson’s apologies, including her statement Friday in the Sun, still miss the mark. “She seems to apologize for attaching something that she didn’t really read” but not the message it conveyed, or the nature of its source. “It seems incredulous for someone who appears to be very active on social media to not be aware of these hate groups. She apologizes for making a mechanical mistake, but she hasn’t really condemned the hateful message or the group responsible for making the message,” he said.
“The message itself is the bad thing. The fact that she attached it is less bad. People make mistakes,” said Needleman said. “It sounds like she believes it’s a political thing. She’s still missing the content part of it.”
On Thursday, the Laconia Human Relations Committee issued a statement asking Johnson to resign from the school board and her position as state representative for Laconia Ward 4. “The postings of Dawn Johnson, a public representative, have encouraged prejudice, intolerance, harassment and discrimination which have caused hurt and harm in our community,” the committee’s statement read.
“What she was posting in this day and age she needs to take responsibility for,” said David Stamps, the committee’s chair, who said members felt her apology “came up short.” The message caused “an awful lot of pain and anguish in this community. Anytime you bring up Nazi propaganda, symbols or literature, it really hits home. She just took her finger out of the dike. I don’t think she comprehends how much is out there.”
Stamps said a sincere apology would be saying to the school board and city, "How can I fix this and repair the community? To me that would be a true apology because you make something positive happen.”
Hayward said a second peaceful protest against Johnson is planned for Saturday at 10 am, at the “Welcome Laconia” sign downtown. “These are proper ways to show disagreement. I wish others would join that thought process. Here we’re calling her out for her behavior. Harassing her and her family is wrong.”
In the wake of the relentless expressions of outrage,“I feel really badly for her children,” said Hayward. “Facebook – that medium has incited people. Social media – people are turning there for information and they just get really wound up without putting a check on their emotions and doing any self-reflection and thinking how they would feel if this were happening to them.”
“I do think Dawn deserved the outrage,” Hayward said. She’s “a public official and what she did doesn’t reflect this community. Giving any legitimacy to those values doesn’t help.” Johnson has a history of trafficking in conspiracy theories and spreading misinformation, Hayward said. “All she did was apologize for the source, not the content. If she had reached out to the Jewish community and been more sincere, that would have gone a long way” to tempering anger and hurt. “They may have let her say, ‘I’m really sorry’ and let her off the hook.”
“I do hope people stay away from Facebook for a while and calm down,” Hayward said. “Put yourself in Dawn’s shoes.”
Johnson wrote in a statement that ran in the Sun on Friday,“I am sorry. I have said that from the beginning – I do not know any other words to say. I regret sharing what I thought was a benign link on social media. After someone added a troubling meme to my post, I soon learned that the link I share was connected to an extremist organization and I quickly deleted it and apologized. I had no idea. I do not live in that world, have never lived in that world, and honestly had no idea that these groups even existed.”
Referencing the anti-Semitic meme, state Rep. Mike Bordes, R-Laconia, said, “I think the image itself is absolutely disgusting and stands for everything I’m against.” But the backlash of harassment and threats against Johnson is also “absolutely disgusting. Two wrongs don’t make a right.” He said the public’s greatest recourse eventually will be at the ballot box.
“People need to stop threatening Dawn. It’s nonsense. It’s just wrong,” said Hillary Seeger, chaplain of the Laconia VFW and Meredith American Legion. “She made a mistake and it was a really bad mistake,” said Seeger, a Republican who now lives in Grafton County. “When you hold public office, you have to be careful to avoid liking offensive material and tossing out headlines without reading the article.”
Seeger called The Daily Stormer’s content “hideous” and said the website is neither quick nor easy to find. Seeger said she doesn’t believe Johnson is anti-Semitic or hateful, and it’s possible that she may not have understood what she was doing.
Accusations of Nazism only incite more hateful name-calling. “We shouldn’t be calling anyone anything from that era.”
“She made a mistake and when it was pointed out to her, she took it down and apologized,” said Johnson’s attorney, Norman Silber, on Thursday. “She didn’t know that before you put a link in social media, prudence dictates that you vet the website you’re linking. If she did not disagree with the content, she wouldn’t have taken down the link. Taking it down and apologizing in itself constitutes her disavowing anything that vile site has to say about any group, Jews or otherwise,” said Silber, a Republican state representative from Gilford.
Silber said he has filed a complaint with the New Hampshire Department of Education against Rebecca Price, the art teacher, and Robert Bennett, Laconia High School Principal, for Price’s behavior in the classroom, which he said violates the conduct code that governs teachers. Laconia school Superintendent Steve Tucker said the district is looking into what happened in the classroom, but privacy laws prevent him from discussing it further.
For Karen Lukeman of Bristol, a member of Temple B’Nai Israel, concerns about Johnson’s fitness to serve the state and school district remain unresolved.
“She should have known better as an elected official and a school board member. She’s someone who can influence the education of our children, and our laws as well. I don’t think she has the understanding and education to do those in a good way,” Lukeman said.
She said she hopes Johnson will “get educated about the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and racism, and become someone who brings people together rather than divides them.”
“Her post is not the first (anti-Semitic meme) that any of us has seen,” Lukeman said. Her worry is that Johnson’s link could have the consequence of inciting others, and in doing so perpetuate malignant stereotypes. “If anyone ever came to our temple and looked at our prayer books, our prayer books are all about peace.”