For weeks now, nightmares have been jolting Olga Perez Stable Cox awake several hours before sunrise. Sometimes she’s able to fall back asleep, but more often she finds herself lying in the dark, body tossing and thoughts racing, until she’s reduced to tears.
The morning offers fleeting distractions but no permanent relief — a cup of coffee, some Christmas decorating, maybe a phone call from concerned friends.
But the blinds in her home will remain closed, her door will remain locked and the formerly outgoing professor — a woman who has always thrived by connecting with others — will spend another day isolated by fear, weeping, too scared to walk outside.
For as long as she has taught, Cox, a professor at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif., has prided herself on speaking freely. Then a clip of her calling Donald Trump’s election “an act of terrorism” went viral earlier this month, unleashing a wave of violent threats that forced her to end her semester early and flee her home in suburban Orange County.
Now she’s back home, but her life hasn’t returned to normal.
“Now, at 66, I’m paranoid,” Cox said. “It doesn’t feel good at all to be looking over my shoulder and wondering when an unfamiliar car pulls up across the street whether they’re going to take a picture of me or something worse — but that’s my life now. I feel like I’ve been attacked by a mob of people all across the country,” she added. “If they’re telling me over and over again that they want to shoot me in the face, how am I supposed to know if they’re going to do it or not?”
The mob Cox refers to doesn’t wield pitchforks and torches but hate-filled tweets, violent emails and threatening Facebook messages and phone calls. They are a virtual force with limited numbers but a seemingly unlimited supply of hate that has proved just as frightening for the longtime academic.
The video that sparked the hate shows Cox standing in front of her students calling the president-elect a “white supremacist” and arguing that the country has “been assaulted.”
Cox, a psychology professor who teaches a class on human sexuality, referred to Vice President-elect Mike Pence as “one of the most anti-gay humans in the country.” She also told her students that the nation is as divided now as it was “in Civil War times.”
She noted that she was “relieved that we live in California.”
Cox’s comments were recorded by a conservative student in her class who found her statements offensive and decided to share the video with the Orange Coast College Republicans, according to Joshua Recalde-Martinez, a political science major and president of the campus Republican group.
The video went viral, and within days, the beloved professor — who is largely unknown beyond the campus where she has taught for more than two decades — was under fierce attack. Her inbox and voice mail were filled with hundreds of threatening messages that referred to her as “libtard,” “Marxist,” “nutcase,” “vile leftist filth” and a “satanic cult member.”
“Keep your anti-white, man-hating, traditional-values-bashing, islamophile radical views to yourself!” an emailer named Xavier Israel Matamoros wrote. “You are an intolerant Marxist terrorist who causes division by bringing up your one-sided radical viewpoints and intimidating and shaming your non-conforming students. You are a sick, demented, evil b****!”
“You professors teach that Whites are immoral and contemptible if they don’t support White Genocide,” a woman named Jennifer wrote. “Anti-racist is a code word for anti-White.”
“Go out in the middle of the football field, pull out a handgun, put it to your temple and shoot yourself,” Jim Ernst wrote. “Or better yet, douse yourself in gasoline and set yourself on fire.”
As the threats worsened, she realized she was terrified of being left completely alone, consumed by the idea that around the next corner an unhinged person with a gun or a knife was waiting for her. Campus security began dropping by her classroom, and students started escorting Cox to class and sitting with her during office hours, a period when she would normally be by herself.
“Every time I walked towards my office I was afraid it might have been broken into,” Cox said. “I feared that my home would be vandalized coming home from work each day. No matter what your rational side tells you, it’s still really frightening.”
The harassment crested when Cox received an email from a man named Tim White that showed her home address, phone number and salary and threatened to spread the information “everywhere.” The email referred to Cox as a “libtard, Marxist, hatemonger, nutcase.” It was then, Cox said, that she could no longer stand to be in her home and decided to flee.
The professor turned her final week of class this semester over to a substitute, but Cox said her ordeal continued after the controversial video appeared on the O’Reilly Factor. The host referred to her statements as “gibberish” and “slander” and labeled the professor part of “the totalitarian left.”
“That woman needs a psychologist,” he said.
Cox said she has appealed to Costa Mesa Police and the FBI seeking help, but was told by both agencies that until her property is vandalized or she is physically attacked, there’s nothing law enforcement can do to help.
In a statement sent to The Washington Post, Costa Mesa police wrote that they “take the type of threats that Ms. Cox received seriously and we are currently investigating this case.”
An FBI spokesman wrote to The Post that the agency does not comment on information from individuals who claim to be victims of crime.
“Any member of the public who feels they are being threatened may report it to the FBI, where we will attempt to determine veracity and whether an allegation falls within our purview,” the statement said. “If they feel their life is in immediate danger, they need to call 911.”
The Orange Coast College Republicans have filed a formal complaint with the school and hired an attorney, said Shawn Steel, a former chairman of the California Republican Party.
Steel told the Orange County Register that Cox is using her power as a grade-determining instructor to “basically scare and shame students.”
“It’s alarming,” he said. “It’s scaremongering. It’s irrational. It’s a rant. And it doesn’t belong in the classroom.”
Recalde-Martinez, the president of the campus Republican group, said OCC President Dennis Harkins never responded to the complaint, which demands that OCC “immediately take steps to correct Ms. Cox’s behavior and to ensure such incidents are avoided in the future.”
Recalde-Martinez said he has also received threats in the wake of the video’s release and that his group “doesn’t endorse bullying.”
“I don’t feel personally responsible for her situation,” he said. “I do condemn the individual who emailed photos of her house and published those. I think that’s unacceptable, and it’s not something I endorse at all.”
“We don’t see those individuals as representative of what we’re trying to achieve, but we still would like accountability from the college.”
On the Orange Coast College campus, professor Olga Cox’s class on human sexuality has a reputation for being a uniquely open forum, one that functioned, at times, like a communal therapy session for hundreds of students at a time. Cox said she spends the first 20 minutes of each class answering questions submitted anonymously by students. The questions usually involve sexuality and relationships, but in the days after Trump’s election, students began submitting political questions.
Cox said many of her students — especially those who were Muslim, gay or had undocumented relatives — had begun telling her they were scared. Cox, who is gay, told her students she felt the same way.
“I had an international Muslim student who told me he was afraid to leave his apartment,” she said. “I cried with him and I felt so bad because he was so alone and so scared.”
When Cox stood in front of class to answer questions that day, she said her rhetoric was not meant to inflame, but to help reassure her students “that OCC was safe.”
“I read a message from the school president and put together a handout for coping with pain,” she said. “As a therapist, these are things I share with people who are depressed. I basically said, ‘Deal with your feelings and do something positive,’ and I was helping them cope with their fears — that was the intent.”
Cox said that if she could go back, she wouldn’t change her language. She said she believes the controversy surrounding her statements has more to do with her being intentionally targeted than the substance of her words.
Her name has been added to a controversial website called “Professor Watchlist,” which lists the names of about 200 academics across the country accused by a conservative group of advancing “leftist propaganda” and discriminating “against conservative students.”
“This is a very carefully planned plot to attack college professors that they don’t like and disagree with,” she said. “This is being done all around the country. It’s not my fault, and I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Rob Schneiderman, president of the Coast Federation of Educators/American Federation of Teachers Local 1911 that represents Cox, agrees that the problem is not what Cox said, but the fact that she was recorded, a violation of the student code of conduct that was expressly stated in the professor’s syllabus. Schneiderman said the short, edited clip fails to provide viewers with any context for Cox’s statements and could warrant punishment.
“She’s known as an open teacher,” he said. “There’s a petition going around on campus to nominate her for teacher of the year. She’s very well respected on campus, and this was an absolute violation.”
Schneiderman said the union plans to work with school officials to strengthen its free speech policies to keep students and professors safe from “Gestapo tactics.” Many professors on campus, he said, have vowed to resist any attempts by the campus Republicans to dictate classroom discourse.
“Students talk about sexual assault in Olga’s class,” he said. “There are students who have come out in the class. The thought of that going public is really scary.”
He added that OCC has a large international student body, with students from countries where it may not be culturally acceptable to be seen in a human sexuality class. Publicizing the wrong student, he said, could have “serious consequences.”
As much as leaving her home frightens her, Cox said she plans to return to teaching at the end of January. Before then, she plans to marry her longtime partner and continue her healing process one day at a time.
She remains in the throes of a difficult struggle, she said, but that doesn’t mean she’ll quit her job. To quit, she said, would be a victory for the harassers. To find strength, the professor thinks about the beginning of her family’s American story.
“My parents left Cuba so we would not have this kind of harassment and so we would have access to free education,” she said. “They made sacrifices to bring us here, and I’m proud to be an American.”
“It’s just hard to believe that this is happening to me,” she added, “and if this is what America is turning into, we all need to be afraid.”
This post has been updated.