SEATTLE — The city was exploring a proposal to cut 50 percent of the police department’s budget to promote racial justice and alternatives to policing last month, but Debora Juarez, the first enrolled Native American on the Seattle City Council, was not yet willing to throw her support behind such a steep cut without a plan for how to carry it out.
That was when some of the activists who had been rallying for weeks in the streets downtown decided to take their protest to where it might be heard directly: outside Ms. Juarez’s home.
Over several days and nights, activists have appeared on her street in North Seattle, shining lights into her windows, shouting at her through a bullhorn and scrawling messages in the street: “Corporate bootlicker,” one of the messages said.
On a night when she had planned to have family members over to celebrate her birthday, Ms. Juarez said, she instead shut herself in a room and turned on a fan to try to drown out the noise.
Public protests this year have most often featured marches and rallies through public gathering places, sometimes escalating into broken shop windows, torched cars and clashes with the police. But as the nation navigates the triple turmoil of a pandemic, a ravaged economy and a civil rights movement, civic activism is at times becoming more direct, more personal, and for some of its targets, more frightening.
“It’s not a peaceful protest — it’s terror,” Ms. Juarez said.
Some of these demonstrations have led to thoughtful conversations between public officials and the protesters who arrived at their doors. But others insist that their front yards are inappropriate venues for boisterous public debate.
The chief health officer in Orange County, Calif., resigned in June amid an uproar over a government order requiring face masks to protect against the coronavirus. A lawyer opposed to the mask order revealed the health officer’s address at a public hearing, and a number of people gathered outside the health officer’s home.
In Meridian, Idaho, where a mother was arrested in April when she refused to leave a playground that had been closed because of the coronavirus, protesters showed up at the home of the police officer who had made the arrest. Among the demonstrators was Ammon Bundy, who had led an armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge in 2016.
And in Oakland, Calif., protesters targeted Mayor Libby Schaaf over her opposition to a proposal, similar to the one in Seattle, to reduce funding for the police.
Ms. Schaaf had just finished writing a memo late last month opposing an effort to further cut funding from the department when she heard muffled voices outside her house at about 2 a.m.
The next thing she knew, there were loud thumps on the outside walls of her home and fireworks crackling in her driveway. Frightened, she thought first of her 14-year-old son, who was asleep upstairs, and her 12-year-old daughter, who was away at a sleepover.
“I did what any mother would do — I ran upstairs to my children’s bedroom,” Ms. Schaaf said.
The next morning, she found graffiti all over her house and sidewalk, with phrases like “Wake Up Libby,” “Blood on your hands,” and “Black Ppl Use 2 Live Here.” The thumps she had heard had been paintballs and eggs bursting messily against the brick walls.
Oakland has long been a hub of protests and movements for justice, but Ms. Schaaf said the protest at her home was different.
“This felt like a threat that certainly had a violent tone,” Ms. Schaaf said. “And the intense damage to our property was significant.”
Tealshawn Turner, who has helped lead several of the rallies outside the homes of Seattle city officials, said that protesting where politicians live forces them to interact with their constituents, and to allow protesters to be included in conversations in a more direct way.
Mr. Turner denounced people who wanted to be destructive or demeaning, but he said that messages posted on sticky notes at a public official’s home were not threats.
“If sticky notes offend you and intimidate you and scare you, just imagine living as a Black person in America every single day,” Mr. Turner said.
Jeronda Majors, a middle school principal in Kentucky, was one of 87 protesters charged in July with “intimidating a participant in the legal process,” a felony, after refusing to leave the front lawn of the state attorney general’s home in Louisville. The protest was part of a campaign for criminal charges against the police officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor.
“It’s easy for people to hide behind their desks, or to say, ‘That doesn’t have anything to do with me,’ or ‘That’s just work,’” Ms. Majors said. “When you are actually in someone’s yard or on someone’s porch or by somebody’s fence, then it causes people to have to confront you.”
Prosecutors later dropped the charges against Ms. Majors and the other protesters.
The targeting of public officials at their homes has a long tradition in the history of American protest.
Dick Gregory, the comedian and civil rights activist, was arrested in Chicago in 1965 when he led protesters from City Hall to the home of Mayor Richard J. Daley — or, as Mr. Gregory put it, from the “snake pit” to the “snake’s house” — in a demonstration against school segregation.
In 1977, seven demonstrators were sentenced to 30 days in jail for creating a “nuisance” during a protest against nuclear weapons at the Georgia home of Gov. Jimmy Carter, who was about to be sworn in as president. And in 1989, white people jeered as the Rev. Al Sharpton led chanting protesters to the Brooklyn homes of several white men who had been released on bail after being charged with the killing of a Black teenager.
The issue has come up often enough that Virginia has a law that prohibits picketing at the residence of an individual or assembling “in a manner which disrupts or threatens to disrupt any individual’s right to tranquillity in his home.” The law, which defines such activity as a misdemeanor, recently surfaced for discussion after racial justice protests at the home of the city manager and mayor in Fredericksburg, Va.
People have sometimes doxxed police officers, council members and public health officials, posting the officials’ home addresses, personal cellphone numbers and the names of family members on the internet. After federal agents were sent to Portland, Ore., to crack down on protesters there, personal information about dozens of the officers was posted online, according to the Federal Protective Service.
Kat DeBurgh, executive director of the Health Officers Association of California, said the protests over coronavirus policies that have targeted public health officials at their homes could have the effect of driving away people who are committed to combating the virus at a time when they are needed most.
“It’s one thing to be against a policy, but I hope we can all agree that the health officers are not the enemy,” Ms. DeBurgh said.
In Meridian, Idaho, where protesters targeted the police officer who arrested the woman at the playground, Tracy Basterrechea, the deputy police chief, said such targeting is outside the bounds of legitimate protest.
“You can do it, but you shouldn’t,” he said. “It goes beyond the idea of peaceful protesting and into the realm of intimidating or bullying public officials.”
Two women were arrested after a protest in May at a Florida home belonging to Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer charged with murder in George Floyd’s death. The police said the women tossed paint onto the officer’s front door. Six other people were arrested during another protest outside Mr. Chauvin’s home in Minnesota. “A murderer lives here,” a protester had painted on the street.
Not all of the forays into residential neighborhoods have led to confrontation.
In Seattle earlier this month, Mr. Turner helped lead a crowd toward the home of Teresa Mosqueda, a member of the City Council, to push once again for cuts to the police budget. Along the way, neighbors watched from front porches and windows, and some children went outside in pajamas.
When the protesters arrived, Ms. Mosqueda joined them outside on the curb and talked with the crowd for more than an hour.
“You all are shaking up the status quo,” Ms. Mosqueda told them. “This is not business as usual. The whole country is demanding different, and I also didn’t get into office two years ago to continue the status quo.”
Things did not go as smoothly when Mr. Turner’s group went to the home of the Seattle police chief, Carmen Best. They were confronted by white neighbors, some carrying firearms, who blocked the streets and demanded that the protesters leave. Ms. Best, who is Black, said the appearance of the demonstrators in her neighborhood went “against every democratic principle that guides our nation.”
Mayor Jenny Durkan of Seattle said she found the intimidating messages and tactics used outside her home to be inconsistent with the principles of civil rights movements.
As a former lawyer and federal prosecutor, Ms. Durkan said she has faced threats connected to her work for many years. Her safety sensitivities were heightened when a federal prosecutor, Thomas Wales, was shot through the window of his Seattle home in 2001. The case has yet to be solved, but has been treated as an assassination.
Ms. Durkan said she has made extensive efforts to keep her home address out of public databases, including the state’s voter registration system. She does not order pizza delivered to her home, in order to keep her address from being recorded in commercial computer systems.
But protesters were able to find where she lives anyway, and wrote messages outside her home, including “Guillotine Jenny.” Ms. Durkan, the first openly lesbian mayor in the city’s history, also received messages containing crass sexual suggestions.
Ms. Durkan said she had no problem with people who want to criticize, like the hundreds who jeered at her when she spoke with protesters outside City Hall earlier this year. Facing public criticism is part of the job, she said. But she said the exposure of her home address, combined with threatening messages on the street and in her email inbox, has left her feeling unsafe.
“The discourse has broken down,” Ms. Durkan said. “We have to find a way back.”
In Oakland, Ms. Schaaf said that the graffiti, eggs and fireworks outside her home had no effect on her position on the police budget. The next day, she cast the deciding vote against more than $2 million in further cuts to the Oakland Police Department budget, which had already been slashed by more than $14 million.
Ms. Schaaf said it was important to know what happened in the days after the protesters arrived in her neighborhood: Her family, neighbors and supporters washed the graffiti off her home, brought her flowers and food, and even repainted her garage.
“I mean, who knew just how many of our neighbors owned power washers?” she said.
Mike Baker reported from Seattle and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs from New York.