On Jan. 6, failed Albany congressional candidate Jo Rae Perkins stood on the steps of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., as police clashed with insurrectionists illegally barreling into the building, where they would loot congressional offices and storm the Senate floor while elected representatives barricaded themselves behind locked doors.
She said she saw flash-bangs going off and rubber bullets flying and was close enough to smell the pepper spray in the air.
But Perkins didn’t go inside.
And that, some local officials said, is the defining line between her right to protest and the consequences that would befall her if they believed she had actively taken part in the attempted coup against the United States government.
“Was she in fact part of the reaching and storming of the Capitol, or in close proximity thereof?” asked Albany City Councilor Ray Kopczynski who holds the authority to remove Perkins from the only government position she holds — as a member of the city’s Human Relations Commission.
“There’s a huge difference in my mind,” he added.
Perkins admits to passing police barricades to reach the Capitol steps, but the fact that she didn’t step over the threshold of the building has become a physical line for some that separates her from the insurrection. It also raises the question of where the less tangible line is between individual freedom and culpability and what responsibility local communities have to hold those with extreme views accountable before they reach the steps.
Perkins, who failed in her bid to replace Sen. Jeff Merkley in November, has made no secret of her views — some of which are in stark contrast to the purpose of the Albany Human Relations Commission.
She’s gone on the record claiming the practice of denying Black families mortgages in certain areas of town, known as redlining, is not responsible for the generational wealth gap between Black and white families. Instead, she attributes it to a government effort to remove Black fathers from households as a condition of welfare payments. She has stated that Planned Parenthood was created to “get rid of the Black population” and that LGBTQ+ individuals are making a lifestyle choice.
And she has repeatedly spread unfounded conspiracy theories on her social media accounts. Leading up to Jan. 6, she reiterated false claims that the presidential election was not settled and perpetuated conspiracy theories surrounding the vote count.
Of the insurrection itself, she stated in a video posted to her social media, “This is the American revolution,” and since Jan. 6 she has posted additional conspiracy theories.
“President Trump authorized 20,000 troops to be on the ground in DC. They are also authorized to shoot to kill,” she wrote on Thursday. “This is earth shattering. Popcorn ready?”
The majority of her comments come via her social media accounts, where she routinely hosts recorded conversations that mostly rely on unsubstantiated information — all of which is protected speech, according to Christopher McKnight Nichols, a professor at Oregon State University with an expertise in U.S. political history.
“As a citizen, she has every right to freely assemble and to express speech that many would deem hateful as well as to march (peacefully) with people whose views other citizens might find abhorrent. That is the essence of the First Amendment protections of the right to freedom of speech and assembly," Nichols said.
But, Nichols added, there's a line between free speech and actions that are not protected by the Constitution.
“At the point at which she may have participated in an unlawful assembly, as ruled by the Capitol Police, remained or moved into the Capitol, obviously those are crimes best dealt with by law enforcement,” he said. “More than that, the simple exercise of speech can have consequences, even if it is entirely permitted and protected. ...
“As such, her freely expressed speech and actions thus strike me as potentially sufficient cause and grounds to be asked to resign or even be fired from a position of public trust or public office,” Nichols said. “This would need to be determined by what the position and dismissal processes entail, of course.”
That process, for the city of Albany, is complicated.
Perkins can only be removed from the Human Relations Commission by the councilor from her ward, Kopczynski, or on a motion from the City Council. Kopczynski has stated that while he disagrees with Perkins, he will not remove her from the HRC.
“She’s done nothing that would debase herself or the commission,” he said. “People have been saying I need to remove her and I'm saying, based on what? Her opinion or something she has done? She has been voicing her opinion as hard as it is for people, myself included.”
Diversity of thought
“There’s no easy answer to what is the responsibility of the city,” said Albany City Manager Peter Troedsson in regard to how local government should react and whether it has a mandate to address Perkins’ local involvement.
Established in 2007, the Human Relations Commission is dedicated to strengthening connections within Albany’s diverse community and recommending programs, ordinances and initiatives to the City Council.
Perkins was appointed to her seat on the panel by former City Councilor Bill Coburn.
In August, Troedsson defended Perkins' appointment to the commission under the banner of "diversity of thought" — the idea that differing opinions hold equal footing with other forms of diversity, a concept that has drawn criticism.
“It’s dangerous to say that diversity of thought is a harmless concept that doesn’t have any consequences,” said Adam Schwartz, a professor at Oregon State University specializing in language, culture and society. “To say we all have different opinions and ideas is the same as racial or gender or religious diversity is dangerous. It discounts the larger systems of privilege and oppression, which is why this is so dangerous.”
Since the insurrection at the Capitol, Troedsson has said that the right to free speech is not absolute — you can’t yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater, for example.
But on the concept of diversity of thought, he has remained steadfast.
“I still believe diversity of thought is very important," he said. Some people's opinions might seem offensive, "but does that give you or me the right to shut down that thought? I may want to, but philosophically I don’t think that’s right.”
And that philosophical line extends to the question of exactly where the insurrection started.
“I think it’s more than a line, I think it’s a two-way arrow,” Schwartz said in regard to whether a straight line can be drawn between extremist views expressed locally and the insurrection in Washington, D.C.
“Here you have an example of someone going back and forth between an experience she claims she had in D.C. that she can use to justify her qualifications to be in service to a community in Albany,” he said. “That justification then seems to support her reason to ‘fight the good fight’ in D.C. It’s a back-and-forth that I find dangerous.
"She’s a public figure in the community, and by virtue of her appointed position, she is doing work on a committee in the interest of a broader community. To use that as a platform for her advancement and behaviors in D.C., that puts everyone on the hook back in Albany.”
Alex Johnson II has been mayor of Albany for less than a month but has already fielded hundreds of emails and calls about local officials’ behavior in relation to both the insurrection and COVID-19 restrictions, behavior often tied to ideologies like that of the fringe group QAnon.
It’s a trend that's been seen nationally. Marjorie Taylor Green, a QAnon supporter, won a House seat in Georgia in November after supporting conspiracy theories including false claims about Hollywood and pedophiles, the Charlottesville riots and COVID-19. Some of those same ideals have been espoused by local officials, putting a spotlight on local communities and governments.
“I’m supremely disappointed that Ms. Perkins believes her actions were without consequence,” Johnson said. “Freedom of speech is a right, but when she overstepped those fences she went from peaceful protester to insurrectionist. So the mob went, (and) so did she. Where’s the line? Is she outside the fence or inside the fence where she can see the flash-bangs and can taste the pepper spray? Who defines where that line is? Stepping over the fence was the line that day.”
Johnson’s hands, though, are tied.
Kopczynski can remove and replace Perkins, or another councilor can make a motion to remove her. As mayor, Johnson cannot weigh in with his own motion.
“I swore an oath when I signed up to serve this country (in the military) to defend its constitution from enemies both foreign and domestic,” Johnson said. “If what we saw last Wednesday was domestic terrorism, then her stepping over those lines puts her there with that group of people.”
If a motion to remove Perkins from the HRC were to come before the council, Johnson can only vote if there is a tie.
“I can’t tell you right now what I’d do, but based on my previous comments, they speak for themselves,” he said.
But the matter does not have to come to a vote. Kopcynski can remove Perkins at any time.
But that's something that, to date, he has been unwilling to do.
“It did not cross the line from being a peaceful representation from her standpoint, which I do disagree with, but I think it’s a constitutional right for her to have her opinion,” he said. “Where does it cross the line? How far away do you have to be for it to be constitutionally protected?”
On the scene
“I was on the Capitol steps. I was right there,” Perkins said in an interview on Thursday. She noted that she stepped over fencing that was lying on the ground that appeared stepped on and bent.
She went on to note that she was in D.C. as a private citizen, a congressional candidate and a member of the media and, as such, she made it close enough to film people going through the doors of the Capitol.
Perkins said she did not take part in any violence and removed herself from situations she deemed dangerous but that she was close enough to see the flash-bangs, see rubber bullets and taste the pepper spray in the air.
The Capitol Police declared the protest an unlawful gathering, and the fact that she crossed a police barrier calls into question the legality of Perkins’ actions. But the lack of conversation around her behavior at the local government level is frustrating to some.
Nancy Greenman served on the Human Relations Commission from 2009 to 2013. She remembers when the board attempted to add the words “diversity, inclusion and equity” to its mission statement — an effort that involved a lengthy and heated discussion with the City Council.
She also spoke before the council this summer after some of Perkins’ opinions were published and several members of the HRC resigned in response. The council opted to “pause” the commission rather than appoint replacements. With three new city councilors taking their seats in January, Johnson has promised to rebuild the HRC.
Reflecting on the latest information surrounding the HRC and the City Council’s inaction, Greenman said she sees a problem.
“My experience on the HRC is, because there is not an understanding of equity, there’s a propensity to doubt the lived experiences of people of color and marginalized groups while accepting the lived experiences of white people and majority cultures,” she said.
OSU's Schwartz said it’s indicative of a larger issue.
“Perkins needs to be accountable as a human being in society, but it’s a symptom of a larger problem,” he said. “At some point, a committee was assembled and folks were appointed. There is a defense of this idea of diversity of thought, and in so many ways it’s a question for those who made those decisions to reflect. At what point do you look at your own identity and say, ‘What is it about the ways that I benefit from power that doesn’t allow me to see that this is a problem, damaging or violent to my own community?' This is the calculus of reckoning that has to happen every day.”
Troedsson said two wrongs do not make a right and that the decision to remove Perkins, or any public official, follows a process usually left to the City Council.
“We need to look into the future and make things better,” he said.
For Perkins, the future means another run at the Senate in 2022.
She’s received calls and cards from people who support her trip to D.C. and said she was not concerned about local consequences because she was not at the Capitol to “cause mayhem.”
Perkins did say she thought it possible that the City Council would denounce the violence in D.C. — a step the body hasn’t taken — but that she thought a double standard existed between what happened at the Capitol and protests held last summer for racial equity.
In terms of her planned Senate run in 2022, she doesn't think her presence in D.C. will hurt her chances at winning a seat. If anything, she believes it might help.
“I think it will be positive," she said. "I really do.”