He threatened to kill my children.
He posted photographs of my house and my Atlanta-based advertising agency. He promised to send a “double-tap” my way, a marksman’s jargon for pumping two shots in close succession to my head.
He even posted “November 5, 1973”—the date of my father’s murder.
I reported the ominous messages to Twitter and sent screenshots to MSNBC executives, where I worked as a political contributor at the time. Using his Twitter handle, several followers were able to track him across various white supremacist message boards. They found his real name and the IP address he was using from a church in suburban Dallas.
“That bitch will get what’s coming to her,” he continued tweeting.
The messages were as brazen as they were brutal in nature. I remember pleading for help, demanding that someone in law enforcement take the threats seriously.
Ultimately, it would take three days and the intervention of NBC corporate security before Twitter suspended the anonymous account. The real danger, I was told by an in-house detective, might come from someone inspired by those hideous messages to carry out the threat. I was walking a friend’s daughter to summer camp at a nearby park that morning and suddenly felt vulnerable.
The damage had been done. If someone wanted me to be afraid, they had accomplished that mission many times over.
Like many of us in the public square, MSNBC anchor Melissa Harris-Perry has endured her share of malicious threats online. Monday night in an Iowa hotel, the Wake Forest professor came face-to-face with the sum of our collective fears. As caucus-goers crammed into various polling locations around the Hawkeye State, Harris-Perry was watching the cable news coverage on a television in the lobby when she noticed a man standing oddly close to her.
There was an initial query about the subjects she taught, and then a more pointed question about how she got her job at MSNBC.
“What I want to know is how you got credentialed to be on MSNBC…”
“Well. It is not exactly a credential…” she said.
“But why you? Why would they pick you?”
His voice was angry then, she said, and he’s standing closer to her, so close that she can feel his breath.
“I just want you to know why I am doing this,” he told her. He then said something about “Nazi Germany” and “rise to power.”
Harris Perry was paralyzed in fear, as he continued telling her what he was going to do to her and why. Then she sprang from her seat, put a table between them and a friend came to her defense. The stranger was scared away by their yelling and sped away in his car.
“I don’t know if he was there to kill me,” she wrote on a university blog. “I know they [her students] were there to save me.” Her immediate fear was not just of dying, but being killed in front of her students.
Hotel security seemed hardly bothered by the incident, according to Harris-Perry, even after she explained the torrent of death threats she receives regularly.
I know what that feels like. I know what it feels like to be told that I am “making a big deal” out things. So much so, that I now only report the most egregious offenses and I no longer host public meet-ups among my social media followers. I assess and triage each and every message. In every instance, I have to bet on being right.
I can certainly deal with the mocking attitudes of those who do not agree with my politics or policy positions. That comes with the territory. However, every few days or so, someone creates a fake Twitter account in my name in an attempt to assail my public reputation with malicious and sometimes lurid posts. At last count, one anonymous user has created more than 50 accounts specifically dedicated to trolling me. The most virulent threats came during the George Zimmerman trial. The night of the verdict, I spent hours blocking thousands of intemperate and sometimes threatening strangers.
The social tools afforded by Twitter and other social networks aren’t enough. But even the most effective security features would not have prevented what happened to Harris-Perry.
The goal is to terrorize, to make it too uncomfortable for us to continue taking public stands on any number of issues. All too often, they target women. For me, it doesn’t matter if it happens to Harris-Perry, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, or a housewife in Minnesota. We have the right to feel safe—online, in a public space, or in our homes.