LACONIA — Despite frigid temperatures on Saturday morning, a downtown demonstration drew nearly 50 people calling for Dawn Johnson’s resignation, with many saying her apologies haven’t addressed the Jewish community she offended, or disavowed the content of the anti-Semitic material she linked from a neo-Nazi website.
In the last 12 days, the actions of Johnson, a newly-elected state representative and school board member from Ward 4, have sparked a firestorm of outrage, and resulted in the harassment of Johnson and her family.
Johnson has apologized for linking the The Daily Stormer, a site she said she had no prior knowledge of. But many area residents Saturday said they believe the hurt and damage it caused still shrouds the city and remains unresolved, and they questioned her underlying attitudes and fitness to serve.
“I’m out here to protest the use of bigotry and hate against anyone,” said Linda Terwilliger of Gilford, whose children attended Laconia schools. “I hope more people will demonstrate that we just can’t accept these types of actions in New Hampshire. She claimed innocence and ignorance. It was a non-apology really,” said Terwilliger, who said she has signed petitions urging Johnson to step down from her roles representing school children and her community at the state level. “I really don’t know what she was thinking. For myself, this isn’t political,” said Terwilliger, a Democrat. “It’s a moral and social issue. I don’t think there’s a place in our society for discrimination against any group.”
Doris Hampton, who drove from Canterbury, said, “We have learned that we can’t stand idly by to threats to anybody.” If Johnson was apologizing, Hampton said, “it wasn’t to the people she wronged. It wasn’t an apology from her heart.”
Lois Kessin of Gilford wore a button, “Silence is the voice of complicity,” and held a sign, “Dawn Johnson Resign,” along with at least 15 others. “I grew up in this city and we’ve had a low level of anti-Semitism forever,” said Kessin, who is Jewish. “It’s the memes, it’s the assumptions” about Jewish people. “I think her apologies, as anyone said, are ‘I’m sorry…but.’ That’s no way to apologize. She’s not taking responsibility. She’s appalling as a state representative, and her rant at the school board” last Tuesday indicates that. “I care deeply about this city. Until you move out, you don’t realize how small and prejudiced the community is.”
On Monday the National Association of Jewish Legislators issued a statement condemning Johnson’s anti-Semetic link, joining community leaders asking her to step down from her elected positions, and urging Republican leadership to take “strong disciplinary action” if she does not.
Ruth Larson of Alton said Johnson should “look back at the posts and understand how truly offense they were, and reach out to people who were most personally offended.” Instead, she “issued a meaningless so-called apology that never addressed the content and simply meant she didn’t intent to post on that. I’m Jewish, but that’s not why I find it offensive. I would find it offensive if she said something equally offensive about blacks, Muslims or anybody. People don’t read up on whose running for office.”
Frank Weeks of Gilmanton, a former school board member in Gilford who taught science in Alton, Farmington and Rochester said: “I think what she said was reprehensible, both the original post and the apology. She could have owned up and said she disagreed” with the belief system represented. “I don’t think she did that. She said she made a mistake going on that site. As a teacher, if I said any of these things I would have been fired.” Weeks held a sign: “RESIST: Lies, Racism, Sexism, Authoritarianism, Fascism, Kleptocracy, Oligarchy and Treason.”
Kay Anderson from Ward 3 in Laconia, also held a sign,“Dawn Johnson Resign.” “I just think somebody who’s on the school board and representing us in Concord needs to have better decision-making skills than Ms. Johnson has demonstrated,” Anderson said. “This is a huge black eye for Laconia. This isn’t the culture that represents” the city.
Anderson said she worries it will discourage families from moving here and enrolling their children in local schools. “I think she’s a terrible role model in a leadership position that you have to take very seriously. Everything you say and do reflects.”
Those in leadership roles “should know better than to go trolling on those websites and reprint what they see. She should disavow them as bad places to get information.”
Carlos Cardona of Laconia, the city’s Democrat party leader, said over 100 people expressed interest in joining Saturday’s protest from 10 to 11 a.m., which elicited mostly honks and waves from passing cars. Even though half were discouraged by the 12-degree temperature, “it was a good turnout. We don’t welcome hate in this community,” said Cardona, a member of the gay and Hispanic communities who has a kindergartener in the school system. “Our children deserve better,” he said. “Her non-apology is not accepted, and her resignation is the only thing that’s acceptable at this time.”
A community discussion on tolerance will be held virtually on Wednesday, Dec. 23, from 5 to 6:30 p.m.
Co-hosts are Mayor Andrew Hosmer, State Sen. Harold French and Adam Hirshan, publisher of The Laconia Daily Sun. The event will feature a wide-ranging panel discussion and the opportunity for the public to participate. The public is invited to participate. The Zoom link and additional information will be available on the web at laconianh.gov and laconiadailysun.com.
The Sunshine Project is underwritten by grants from the Endowment for Health, New Hampshire’s largest health foundation, and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. Roberta Baker can be reached by email at Roberta@laconiadailysun.com