When Christi Zeller first heard about protesters picketing San Juan Basin Public Health Director Liane Jollon’s house, she thought, “I know what that feels like.”
Zeller, executive director of the Energy Council, a regional trade organization representing the oil and gas industry struggled through a similarly difficult period of harassment in the mid-2010s.
While her situation wasn’t exactly like Jollon’s – her home wasn’t picketed, for example – she was regularly and personally threatened by people opposed to her professional positions.
It was annoying, unnerving and frightening at times.
On at least five occasions, when Zeller was testifying at governmental hearings, sheriff’s deputies or others had to escort her to her car because people in the audience had been heard making threatening remarks; sometimes, when she reached her car, it was surrounded by angry people.
“It feels dangerous to be a target,” she said. She began keeping a log of incidents and copies of threatening documents. She asked police to add patrols to her street.
People wrote nasty letters to the editor; one even wrote a mean poem about her. A local cartoonist published numerous unflattering caricatures. Angry people called her names and wrote vicious posts on social media. Individuals wrote to her board of directors, trying to get her fired. (Her board was unwaveringly supportive.)
Zeller understands that people have their disagreements with her organization’s policy positions. But she was just doing her job. It felt like she’d become the poster child for angry people looking for someone to blame.
Zeller hopes speaking out now won’t revive any of the animosity she experienced in the past. But she feels it’s important to note that this kind of harassment isn’t intrinsically Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative; people just get angry and want to put a face on the “enemy.”
For Zeller, even though the public harassment has died down, she remains ever alert to personal threats. And she realized she can never again be just “Christi Zeller, ordinary person”; instead, she will always be identified by her professional position.
She loves her job, but “whatever I do as an individual is always seen as (representing) the Energy Council,” she said. As a result, “I’ve lost my voice for anything else I care passionately about.”
Because of the threats and harassment of public health officials this year, a bill is making its way through the Colorado Assembly that would add public health workers to a statute that prevents “doxxing” by allowing them to remove their personal information from public databases. The law already similarly protects social service workers.
At least 20 public health directors across the state have left their jobs since the advent of COVID-19 because of public animosity, including threats and harassment similar to what Jollon has experienced.
“The first time the crowd showed up at my front door with signs, flags and bullhorns was extremely jarring,” Jollon testified at an Assembly hearing. “But it’s actually the steady creep as a result of doxxing, the constant worry about who else has my personal address and phone number, and what kind of ill intent they may harbor, that does the most damage.”
We support such statutory solutions as long as they do not unnecessarily curtail free speech. Protesting is appropriate to our democratic paradigm; threats of harm, inciting violence and intimidation are not. Whatever our politics, we must together oppose such behavior.
Zeller loves Durango; the community is a supportive one, caring and compassionate, particularly when the chips are down, she says. After a big blizzard, neighbors always show up to help each other out, she pointed out.
“Why can’t we treat each other like every day is a snow day?”