Perhaps we should have seen it coming two years ago when Knox County voters opted to make Glenn Jacobs our county mayor. The (mostly former) TV wrestler had no previous government experience. His libertarian inclinations, revealed through blog posts, did not prepare him for the job of actually using government for public good, especially needed during a pandemic. Knox County has a charter and through that has a previously non-controversial Board of Health which by design is made up of a specific set of volunteer health professionals, plus a school representative and the county mayor.
Jacobs frequently has been a lone voice on that Board of Health for easing or eliminating COVID-19 precautions. He has been outvoted based on solid science about public health as weighed by the medical professionals. His juvenile response was to narrate a Facebook video that calls them names and mingles their motivations with conspiratorial nonsense.
Maybe it really was his wrestling alter-ego Kane, but Jacobs worked with radical right-wing state legislator Jason Zachary and Roger Cunningham, owner of The Bed Store mattress chain, to craft the “Freedom Forward” video that since has gone offline. The video opens with lots of patriotic symbols, mixed with guns and cannons, then it takes a bizarre turn:
“Today that foundation is once again under attack,” Jacobs intones, “not from some ominous enemy abroad, but from sinister forces within—unelected bureaucrats who cast down edicts which carry the force of law with no accountability and no recourse.” As these words hit, we see a Zoom chat screen of the Knox County Board of Health.
Then, believe it or not, the video gets even weirder. “So-called experts,” declares narrator Jacobs as we see Dr. Anthony Fauci (who has served six presidents by leading the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases). “Ordained by the media (shot of CNN’s John King), who weave a web of spin, misinformation, and deceit–as we are shown Dr. William Schaffner, Infectious Disease Specialist with Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Rioting scenes flicker on the screen as Jacobs continues, “Violent mobs who lust to rush to erect a socialist utopia on the ashes of the republic.”
Board of Health members took up Jacob’s screed at their next Zoom meeting. Dr. Maria Hurt, a nursing professor at the University of Tennessee, said the video added to fears, expressed by family and friends, for her safety. They worry about extremist opponents of masks and other health measures, some of whom (unmasked and boisterous) crowded the balcony of the Main Assembly Room for a recent County Commission workshop.
Dr. Patrick O’Brien, a colonel in the Air Force National Guard, veteran of tours in the Middle East and member of the Board of Health, did not like the aspersions cast on his patriotism. “My intention in that video was not to put anyone in harm’s way, not to threaten one, and I’m sorry if it came across like that,” stammered Jacobs. He insisted his goal was “to get people to talk, to speak out, to show up at meetings,” but that only drew focus to the companion outrage, what Jacobs and friends were planning for county commission. There they planned to object to the Board of Health’s local mask and bar closure mandates, and demand the county use only the weaker COVID-19 guidelines of Governor Bill Lee’s statewide Tennessee Pledge.
Knox County Commission Monday night passed a resolution, 8 to 3, expressing its desire to strip the Board of Health of its powers, but not actually doing so. The two newly elected Democratic Commissioners, Dasha Lundy and Courtney Durrett, voted against the resolution—as did Chairman Larsen Jay; he was concerned about resolution wording that the commission wished those who violate board of health orders not face law enforcement. Incredibly, one of the commissioners voting for weaker coronavirus protections was Richie Beeler; COVID-19 hit him hard last month and sent him to a local emergency room.
The commission meeting was in person, foreshadowing how things would go. The Commission also added a new Board of Health position and appointed Ani Roma, a middle school health teacher and co-owner, with her husband, of an off-road racing event company called Dirty Bird Events. Roughly two dozen people applied for the spot. She was one of only eight who stayed the seven hours (including more than three hours of public forum about the Board of Health) until commission got around to questioning and voting on the prospective added person.
So, the grappling in Knox County continues with many Knoxville residents aghast at the dangerous moves of the more suburban and rural commissioners. Mayor Jacobs, meanwhile, has donned a new wrestling persona, the COVID Cowboy. He doesn’t seem to realize that’s a villain who must be defeated.