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.”
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.”