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Libertarian activists driving NH coronavirus protests

Coronavirus-related disinformation has steadily escalated in New Hampshire: at the Statehouse, in debates over school policy and in public protests. Some of it has taken the form of individual protests, with citizens showing up with homemade signs on street corners and the Statehouse lawn.

But plenty of the activity is driven by anti-government groups with long-standing ties to conservative politics in the state. With coordinated social media, fundraising efforts, candidate endorsements and advertising, and activist training, the effort resembles, in some ways, a burgeoning political campaign.

“COVID-fascism is our motivation, stopping that from happening,” said Andrew Manuse, a former Republican lawmaker who’s long been active in libertarian-leaning activism in the state and is behind several of the groups organizing protests.

“I think we have a lot of work to do,” he added. “I’m not sure we’re planning to go away anytime soon.”

The public faces of this protest presents a mix: There are fervent citizens for whom the pandemic has been a personal awakening and those with no apparent ties to traditional political organizing. There are people with years of experience in anti-government protests: those who frequented tea party rallies of a decade ago, pro-Trump events in recent years, or even run-of-the-mill partisan Republican events.

But this movement is more than a few activated people. There are also several organizations working to build broader support behind these efforts. Groups with names like Absolute Defiance, the Government Integrity Project, Rise Up NH appear loosely connected on social media via Facebook, listserv emails, or on right-leaning platforms like Telegram. They share information about upcoming protests, give updates on local COVID developments and post news stories — much of it fueled by conspiracy theory or disinformation — about what they call the risks of vaccination.

All available evidence shows vaccination from COVID-19 is safe and represents the best way to prevent death or serious illness related to the disease. Wearing face masks is also one of the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

RebuildNH is perhaps the most conspicuous of these organizations. Since the start of the pandemic, it has fought COVID-mitigation measures imposed by Gov. Chris Sununu. Originally launched as ReOpen New Hampshire, the group now has more far-reaching goals, including limiting the power of governors to issue executive orders and rejecting federal efforts to share in the pandemic response.

Though the group itself is relatively new, it was founded by three people who’ve been active in New Hampshire conservative politics for some time: Andrew Manuse, J.R. Hoell and Carolyn McKinney. Manuse and Hoell are two former House members with ties to libertarian politics. McKinney is the former leader of the N.H. Liberty Caucus.

Rebuild NH’s current executive director is state lawmaker Melissa Blasek. She, like many people looking to lead this movement, presents the current moment in stark terms:

“People are really, really scared,” she said in a video posted to the Rebuild NH website about proposed vaccine mandates. “If this can be done, there’s no limit to the authoritarianism.”

Rebuild NH’s foothold in elective politics is reflected in how they operate. It was formed as a political action committee that endorsed and bought Facebook ads for state candidates in the 2020 elections.

The group has also spun off two other enterprises: The Liberty Defense Fund of New Hampshire, a corporate entity raising money for lawsuits around pandemic and vaccination policies. The group also founded N.H. Health Care Workers for Freedom, to organize health care workers in fighting employer vaccine mandates.

In October, Rebuild NH will facilitate a training for activists from the the Foundation for Applied Conservative Leadership, a Virginia- based nonprofit run by a political consultant who has worked for Ron and Rand Paul. The training, which will cost $40 to attend, will purportedly show activists how to navigate elected officials and be “FEARED and RESPECTED.”

Fear and respect is one goal, but it’s hard to discern the direct impact of this activity on the state’s COVID response. Still, there already appear to be overlaps between the activism and the policy-making.

Just days after a large September anti-vaccine protest at the Statehouse, where protesters heckled Republican lawmakers, a legislative committee turned down $27 million in federal money meant to boost the state’s vaccination efforts.

The Republican chairman of that committee, Rep. Kenneth Weyler, said he simply did not believe what state health officials were saying about COVID infections and cited disinformation about the efficacy of vaccines.

“There’s no one in government you can trust,” said Weyler, one of the top-ranking lawmakers in the state House.

Last week, one of the loudest New Hampshire anti-vaccine activists, a nurse named Terese Grinnell, had a phone call with Sununu’s chief of staff, Jayne Millerick. Both sides said it wasn’t a “negotiation,” but Grinnell did present the governor’s office with a list of policy goals — most of them straight from what anti-vaccine protesters have been demanding.

Grinnell said she told Millerick: “Either [Sununu] steps up and he does his job, or he’s going to have a whole other pandemic on his hands, because there is so much civil unrest and righteous anger right now.”

A spokesman for Sununu said the meeting with Grinnell was a “routine conversation” with a constituent.

The pressure extends beyond the governor’s office. Some bills proposed by Republican lawmakers for the 2022 session push for policies which would undercut government control over medical decisions around the coronavirus. There are bills to limit the powers of government during a pandemic, to blunt vaccine mandates, to revisit the notion of the state’s vaccine registry and to bar employers from considering vaccination status in hiring decisions, among others.

In many ways, New Hampshire is fertile ground for these types of ideas. The Granite State has a history of government mistrust from its founding: The right of revolt is in the state constitution. There is also vaccine hesitancy here that predates COVID, and a predisposition towards medical privacy: New Hampshire was the last state to have a vaccine registry, for instance. It also has a citizen legislature, and that’s always been a permeable membrane for citizen activists. With that comes a history of grassroots conservative/libertarian activism — around gun rights and limited government — reinvigorated in recent years by the Free State Project.

Recent polling from the University of New Hampshire suggests while vaccination rates for COVID are generally pretty high in the state, distrust of pharmaceutical companies has risen since June.

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At Wheelock, 'Come Together, Drum Together' boosts school unity
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Braxton Gardner learned a lot last week at Wheelock Elementary School.

For instance, the 4th-grader learned to use his palm to strike the edge of a hand drum and his fingers to play the center of the instrument. Braxton also discovered plenty of new things about the west African nation of Ghana.

“We got to experience a different culture,” Braxton, who lives in Keene, said. “I didn’t know it was on the edge of an ocean.”

These lessons were part of the school’s artist-in-residence program, led by Theo Martey, a Manchester resident who was born and raised in Ghana and directs the Akwaaba Ensemble, a group of traditional African drummers and dancers. The weeklong program, with the theme of “Come Together, Drum Together,” began with an outdoor performance by the ensemble Monday morning, the first in-person, all-school assembly for Wheelock in more than a year.

“It was really cool, because there were people from Ghana,” 2nd-grader Abigail Trubiano of Surry said. “… It was also fun because I got to see my sister in kindergarten.”

The assembly set the perfect tone for the week, said art teacher Kristin Froling, who organized the residency with music teacher Caitlin Dubois and Principal Patty Yoerger.

“We wanted something that would address the social-emotional needs of our students,” Froling said of the residency. “And being remote or hybrid, and such a mixed-up experience for our students over the past year and a half, we wanted something that would be unifying, where we’re all together doing the same thing. And drumming is just a perfect expression of that.”

Wheelock, which funded the program through a grant from the N.H. State Council on the Arts and the school’s parent teacher association, also wanted an artist residency that would comply with COVID-19 safety measures, Froling said.

“And so we kind of custom-picked this residency knowing that you could space drums out 6 feet apart and not touch each other and still have this experience of being in community together,” she said.

Wheelock has hosted several artists over the year, Froling said, but last week was Martey’s first visit to the school. Typically, she said, residencies happen in the spring, marking the culmination of the school year.

“And we really felt like it was a good idea to bring it in right at the beginning to kind of set the stage and help gel our community,” Froling said. “Everyone felt so distant and far apart when we were remote and everything. We wanted to kind of bring ourselves back together as a school community.”

Yoerger, the principal, said the residency accomplished that goal.

“From day one of the residency, seeing the entire school community sitting engaging in the joy of rhythm and drumming, [until] the culminating assembly featuring all classes showcasing what they learned, the residency brought us together as a school community,” she said in an email. “Students learned new skills, had fun, and enjoyed being together.”

Throughout the week, Wheelock’s roughly 200 students from kindergarten through 5th grade got 30 to 40 minutes with Martey each day. He taught them drum rhythms and let them try out different traditional African percussion instruments, which 2nd-grader Colter Crosby of Surry said was a highlight.

Martey, who has been doing school residencies throughout New England for the past 20 years, also interspersed his music lessons with time for students to ask him about life in Ghana.

“Learning about different cultures, it’s something that sticks with the kids for a very long time. It’s very important to learn about other cultures so they’re aware of what their world is all about, not just being in New Hampshire,” he said. “... And togetherness is always what we believe in doing African music or sharing African culture. So the same idea, too, to take it to schools and connect students so they can be more open and learn about different cultures.”

The residency concluded Friday afternoon, with each class performing a song they worked with Martey to learn over the course of the week. The weather didn’t cooperate, so instead of another outdoor, all-school assembly, individual classes gathered in the cafeteria, where they played their songs in front of a camera that broadcast their performance to the rest of the school.

And though this final concert couldn’t bring the whole school together physically, Froling said the residency, as a whole, did succeed in uniting the entire Wheelock community.

“They were excited every day to come in, and everybody, even from the little kindergarteners all the way through the 5th-graders were coming in and telling their teachers they couldn’t wait to do drumming,” she said. “... So it was very wonderful to see that there was so much enthusiasm.”

Amazon's newest products expand its surveillance inside the home

Amazon failed to make a viable smartphone, so it can’t compete with Google and Apple on their own turf. Instead, the company wants to dominate the home and is throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks, literally.

On Tuesday, Amazon unveiled a 15-inch wall-mounted version of its Echo Show screen that watches and listens to your home, as well as a robot with friendly eyes that rolls around to watch and listen. A flying indoor drone for watching and listening to your home that it previewed last year will soon go on sale. And the company showed a number of other new products and services that all monitor you in some way to figure out what you want, when you want it and maybe if it’s something Amazon can sell you for it.

At the company’s annual fall press event — held virtually for the second year in a row because of the coronavirus pandemic — executives stressed its commitment to privacy, pointing out that consumers can opt-in to some features.

“As I’ve said, privacy is foundational to everything we do, from adding new ways to ask Alexa about your privacy settings to providing more granular information about your household’s voice history,” said David Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president of Devices and Services. “We continue to give customers greater transparency over control of their data. Overall, we think privacy is a huge opportunity for invention.”

The event is something the company does every fall as a way to hype up new products ahead of the holidays and test the waters for its more out-there ideas. It’s also an opportunity to slowly increase customers’ tolerance for what’s normal. Every year, Amazon releases products that push increasingly invasive technology into people’s homes.

What started seven years ago with a microphone in a speaker has turned into a flying indoor surveillance drone and an autonomous robot with a telescoping camera in its “face.” The company framed the latest releases as technology to help with the burden of everyday life, solving problems like too much screen time, keeping track of an aging relative far away or leaving your fridge open.

At the heart of almost all its new products is some form of surveillance. Some of it is traditional, in the form of Ring cameras and security services meant to protect a home or family from crime or other danger.

To that end, the company revealed two new home security devices. The $249.99 Ring Alarm Pro is a home security system and Wi-Fi router that connects to smart locks, motion detectors and other security components. The company also released another video doorbell, this time under its Blink brand.

Amazon’s other Ring offerings pushed the idea that real security requires even more angles. Ring’s tiny flying drone — a kooky home security gadget first shown last year — will finally be able to offer interior airborne views later this year, though would-be beta testers will need an invitation to purchase one. All these cameras create a new problem: too many feeds to watch and not enough time. Now users can pay $99 a month to have a third-party security company watch their home security video feeds for them.

The other side of Amazon’s surveillance ecosystem is meant to be helpful, heartwarming and even cuddly.

Astro is a robot that roams your home to keep an eye on things and maybe play with the kids. It’s essentially a Ring camera and Echo Show screen built into a robot. The camera on top can rise on a periscope for better views of far-off corners of your home. It’s the most experimental hardware of the bunch and will cost $1,000 for early adopters when it ships as early as this year, but eventually go for $1,449. To ease concerns customers might have about a wandering security camera on wheels, Amazon included privacy features like the ability to make certain rooms off limits.

It’s one of many products Amazon pitched as helpful for families. The company wants to use AI to automate daily tasks and chores, perhaps even eventually purchases. The Echo Show 15-inch smart screen goes on a wall to organize your family, something Amazon said was difficult to do before. It’s essentially a giant smartphone home screen but with two notable features that might make some feel uneasy: a camera that can detect who is walking by and customize the screen, and microphones that can listen for specific household noises like an open fridge beeping.

There’s was also the Amazon Glow, a bulky smart screen on a stand with a built-in projector to let kids make video calls, but avoid other less desirable types of screen time. Amazon rolled out a partnership with Disney, a streaming competitor, to introduce a new voice assistant made up of Disney characters and summoned with the command “Hey Disney.”

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

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Proposed 59-unit development in Rindge nearing final approval
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RINDGE — Town zoning officials on Tuesday approved revised plans for 59 new homes on Route 119, likely ending a threat by the developer to take that project in front of a state panel on property-related disputes.

In a meeting at Rindge Town Hall, the zoning board of adjustment voted unanimously to grant a special exception for the Navian Development Co. proposal, which that company needs to build roads across wetland areas on the 110-acre vacant lot across from Foster Terrace.

That decision reversed a previous ruling by the zoning board in June, when it blocked Navian’s proposal, saying it would violate a town ordinance that prohibits drainage swales within 50 feet of wetlands. Board members agreed Tuesday, however, that the company had revised its plans to comply with that requirement.

“I do think they’ve done a very good job of mitigating these issues,” Chairman George Carmichael said at the meeting.

The ruling is also likely to keep the Navian project from going before the state’s new Housing Appeals Board.

Navian, which shares an address in Rindge with the construction firm Boss Contractors Inc., had asked that board in August to review the zoning board’s earlier decision, according to Housing Appeals Board Clerk Elizabeth Menard.

Created earlier this year, the three-member appeals board is charged with adjudicating disputes over local planning and zoning board decisions, municipal land-use regulations, and property-related permits and fees, among other housing issues. The board is intended to resolve those cases more quickly than a superior court; appellants can bring their claim to either body, but not to both.

The state board’s decisions can be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

In its appeal, Navian claimed that a zoning board member was personally biased against the project and that the board’s decision to deny a special exception was “unreasonable and unlawful.”

Navian attorney John Ratigan told The Sentinel earlier this month, however, that the developer had revised its application for a special exception and requested to pause the Housing Appeals Board case. That case would be dismissed if the new plans were approved, he said at the time.

Navian first introduced the development proposal in July 2020, when it called for creating a combined 66 units at the Route 119 site, including 26 single-family homes and 40 multifamily units. The company later revised its plans to comprise 59 units, eight of which would be considered workforce housing.

The revised proposal still needs consent from Rindge’s planning board before construction can begin, according to Carmichael, but that panel had approved the previous plans.

Also on Tuesday, the zoning board agreed to table an objection from the town’s conservation commission over a proposed 20-home development on Route 119.

The conservation commission had challenged that project, which would comprise single-family homes on a vacant lot behind Carol’s Ice Cream, claiming that local officials had failed to keep the developers from possibly encroaching on wetlands at the site. But commission Chairman David Drouin told the zoning board Tuesday that the developers — Shawn and Rodney Seppala, who own the Rindge interior design company Triumph Interiors — had presented new plans to that panel that would adhere “much more closely” to Rindge’s wetland-conservation rules.

Zoning board members accepted Drouin’s suggestion to table the appeal while the Seppalas submit those revised plans to town planning officials.