In what might be the most significant act of attempted voter and political intimidation in New Mexico this election season, several prominent New Mexico Democrats were threatened and harassed on Wednesday night by individuals who invaded a Zoom meeting, used hate speech and held up handmade signs containing the “n” word, swastikas and “Trump 2020,” according to at least 10 sources who witnessed the event. At least one of the perpetrators exposed his genitals and began masturbating.

The incident occurred at a regularly scheduled meeting of the Grant County Democratic Party, which was open to the public. At approximately 7:35 p.m., just after Congresswoman Xochitl Torres Small finished speaking to the group of about 85 people, several new attendees appeared, accompanied by loud music with racist lyrics. The intruders didn’t show their faces, but several held up signs with profanities, racial slurs, at least one swastika, and President Trump’s name. 

Several high-profile Democratic party officials and candidates — national and local — were in attendance, including a district court judge. The perpetrators, who did not proclaim allegiance to any particular group, singled out or threatened several people at the meeting, including an advocate who is transgender.

According to at least two attendees, Torres Small, who is up for re-election in a hotly contested U.S. House race against Republican candidate Yvette Herrell, was the first to be threatened.

“Right after [Xochitl] was done talking, they said they knew where she was staying in Silver City — which motel she was staying in — and that they knew her schedule for the next day,” said Frances Gonzales, vice chair of the Grant County Democratic Party (GCDP), who witnessed the incident. Gonzales said the meeting intruders then told Torres Small, “You’re next.” 

There had been no public disclosures about where Torres Small was staying, Gonzales added. “We hadn’t told anybody. I didn’t even know she was in town until the afternoon of the event.”

Through a spokesperson, Torres Small told Searchlight New Mexico that she left the Zoom call moments after the alleged harassment began. “The hateful and violent speech directed at New Mexicans engaging with their democracy has no place in our state. It was disgusting and I condemn it without reservation,” she wrote in an emailed statement.

At least two people called police about the incident; the Silver City police department acknowledged receiving one complaint and provided the police report. 

Bayard police also received a report but have not yet provided it to Searchlight, citing possible jurisdictional issues. A spokesperson for the FBI acknowledged via text message that the agency is “aware of the situation” but did not say whether an active investigation is underway.

Political observers said the incident was the most extreme example of intimidation in the state to date — and comes against a backdrop of rising violence and hate crimes nationwide in the run-up to the presidential election. “It shows that our democracy has reached a crisis level,” said Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, a nonprofit watchdog group that monitors voter intimidation. “I am concerned with how deeply and incredibly polarized this election has been, to the point that we’re seeing an upsurge in white supremacists and racist groups trying to intimidate and threaten people.”

The event’s host, GCDP chair Matt Runnels, said he attempted to shut down the meeting but was unable to do so due to technical issues. “I realized my screen had an opaque appearance and I couldn’t unmute myself,” he said, adding that he suspects his account was hacked. Runnels said he phoned Gonzales, his vice chair, telling her to take over the meeting and urge attendees to log out, in case the intruders started hacking their computers. 

Susan Golightly, a transgender woman on the Grant County Democrats executive committee, said she was also singled out for abuse. According to at least four other people in the meeting, the intruders said that “Susan should kill herself.” Golightly said she was so upset about the insults directed at others in attendance that she didn’t even notice the words being levied at her. 

Patrick Cohn, the Democratic candidate for Grant County Treasurer, began the Zoom meeting at 7 p.m. seated beside his wife and children. “My family likes being part of the process,” Cohn told Searchlight. “But then it happened, and my kids were like ‘Dad, what’s going on?’ I had to tell my wife to take them and go into the other room.” Cohn said the intruders also directed racist slurs at him.

According to Linda Pafford, fundraising committee chair for the GCDP, two of the intruders assumed the Zoom name “Linda P,” the name Pafford often goes by on social media. They then began writing “Linda P. hates n—–s” in the chat. 

The Zoom chat was overloaded with the racial epithet, which constantly rolled down the chat, Pafford stressed. “It was like 50 or 60 repeated n-words.”

When meeting attendees tried to use the group chat to tell others to log off, the missives were immediately replaced by a barrage of racist language.

Silver City Town Councilor Guadalupe Cano said the intruders also called her out by name, and in a manner that suggested they were either locals familiar with her or people who had researched her personal information. Her computer’s camera, she explained, captured only her forehead — not her entire face or body — and yet they made disparaging comments about her weight. “You wouldn’t know I was overweight”  by looking at your screen, she said. 

Another attendee, Jim Foy, the Sixth Judicial District Judge in Division III for Grant, Luna and Hidalgo counties, told Searchlight that he believes the attack came from a group who knew what they were doing and perhaps had done it before. “This shocked me,” Foy said. “I can’t believe that our system has gotten to this point. I hope this was just a bunch of stupid, misguided kids, but I don’t know.

Also at the meeting was Democratic State Central Committee member and precinct chair Glenn Griffin. Griffin, who called Silver City police later that evening, said he heard the intruders mention his name, but added that he couldn’t make out everything they said due to the loud music.

Alleged intimidation beyond Zoom

Bayard resident Gonzales, the GCDP vice chair, put in a call to police while the meeting was still underway. She said dispatchers were initially dismissive, telling her that it wasn’t an in-person gathering and therefore not a legitimate threat. “I had to explain to the dispatcher how important it was, that there were congresspeople and a district judge” in attendance, Gonzales said. 

Her account was refuted by Bayard Police Chief Lee Alirez. “Everyone here knows Frances, we’re very familiar with her, nobody dismissed her call,” he said. It’s unfortunate that that’s her perspective.”

What both sides apparently agree upon is that when an officer from the Bayard Police Department arrived at Gonzales’ home around 7:45 p.m., the intruders were still on the Zoom call. It was around this time, Gonzales said, that one of the intruders allegedly exposed his buttocks, then his genitals, and began masturbating on camera. In a video taken by Gonzales and reviewed by Searchlight, the perpetrator’s face is not visible, but he clearly is a white male. 

Gonzales said that when the officer arrived, the Zoom intruders also began yelling racial slurs at her and the officer, who is also Hispanic. The responding officer could not be reached for comment. 

Chief Alirez said Gonzales’ report, and any other complaints to his department, will be handled by the appropriate authorities.

“I don’t have any idea who did it, who was behind it,” Alirez told Searchlight. “We don’t have that kind of radicalism in our area that we know of. People may have different political opinions, but people are generally very respectful of one another, so this is very alarming. This isn’t normal for Grant County.”

Anissa Tinnin, executive director of the Republican Party of New Mexico, declined to comment about the incident, saying she hadn’t heard about it.

Gonzales, for her part, says there are threats in the community that go beyond Zoom. A few days before the Zoom meeting, she said she was followed by a large SUV with a Trump flag and Texas plates. The next evening, she said, she stepped outside to walk her dogs and saw the same SUV, with at least two male passengers, idling outside her house.

Gonzales said the driver started to exit the vehicle, threatening to “burn down your f-ing house,” shoot her, and kill her dogs if Trump loses.

At that point, she said, “I let my dogs run after them and they drove off.”

Mike Kessler is senior editor of investigations and projects at the Los Angeles NPR affiliate KPCC and its website, Host of the recently released podcast, The Running Man, from ESPN Investigates,...

Dillon Bergin is a former staff reporter. He has written about immigration and migration, climate change and food for the New Republic and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He was a Fulbright Germany Journalism...