Jim Kenyon: Charlestown takes the bait of YouTube police provocateur

Valley News Columnist
Published: 11/7/2021 7:23:12 AM
Modified: 11/7/2021 7:23:11 AM

The town of Charlestown has become a YouTube sensation in recent weeks, but not in a good way.

Charlestown’s troubles began when a YouTuber named Marc Manchon, who lives south of Concord, showed up to film vehicles coming and going from Whelen Engineering, a large manufacturing plant in town. The company designs and manufactures warning lights and sirens for first-responder vehicles.

The 35-year-old Manchon fancies himself as a First Amendment crusader and government watchdog. He drives around New Hampshire with a video camera, hoping to catch cops and public employees acting in a less-than-professional manner. He also shoots footage of private companies like Whelen that he argues profit from doing business with law enforcement agencies at taxpayers’ expense.

For the last couple of years, he’s livestreamed the videos on his YouTube channel — Press NH Now — where some get 20,000 views or more from people across the country. (A recent installment in his now seven-part Charlestown series, posted Thursday, was viewed 28,000 times in the first day.)

Manchon is no Mike Wallace. But when he turns on his camera, he has a knack for getting under the skin of thin-skinned public officials and businesspeople.

“They make themselves look bad, not me,” Manchon said during an interview last week.

On Oct. 14, Manchon made his first trip to Charlestown, setting up his camera on public property outside Whelen’s gate. He hadn’t been there long before Charlestown Police Chief Patrick Connors pulled up in his unmarked SUV. Connors walked across the street to ask Manchon what he was up to.

When Manchon didn’t give him much of an answer, the chief continued to press. “I’m asking you what you have going on?”

“Go back in your car and just leave,” Manchon told the chief.

It’s all on YouTube.

Connors circled back in his cruiser, giving his interaction with Manchon too much of a you-better-be-out-of-my-town-by-sundown vibe for my taste.

Meanwhile, Whelen employee Jerry Maslan, wearing his company-issued ID badge, apparently saw a need to check on what was going on as well. (Maslan didn’t return my phone calls to his office last week, but I’m told he sometimes serves as a company spokesman.)

With the chief in the background, Maslan, who was wearing a COVID-19 mask, went face-to-face with Manchon.

“You’re going to make great content for me, buddy,” Manchon can be heard saying in the video.

When Maslan didn’t back away, Manchon threatened to get out his Chemical Mace. Claiming he was Whelen’s videographer, Maslan then pulled out his smartphone to film Manchon.

Whelen, which is headquartered in Chester, Conn., likes to keep a low profile. So much for that. If YouTube viewers didn’t know about Whelen before, they do now.

On Oct. 27, Manchon returned to Charlestown, with video camera in hand, to pick up public records at the police station that he’d requested. He hoped to learn from the police department’s daily log if someone at Whelen had called the cops during his initial visit.

Connors quickly lost his patience when his department was flooded with calls from Manchon’s livestream viewers on YouTube, who can follow his antics in real-time.

“They have a right to address their government,” Manchon told the chief.

Shortly thereafter, Connors informed Manchon that he was under arrest.

“Turn around and put your hands behind your back,” the chief ordered.

The misdemeanor charge — obstructing government administration — seemed dubious at best. After being handcuffed and placed in a holding cell for a while, Manchon said, he was released on $40 bail.

Due to the arrest, or maybe due to the online attention, Manchon wasn’t done with Charlestown.

Two days later, Manchon was back. This time, he visited the town offices on Main Street to collect more public records. Selectboard Chairman Jeffrey Lessels happened to be in the office.

The encounter didn’t end well. Manchon alleges Lessels shoved him out the door and took a piece of his video equipment, which Charlestown police later returned. He captured the altercation on video. State Police are investigating the incident. As of late last week, no arrests had been made.

Which brings me to Wednesday night’s Selectboard meeting in the basement of the town library.

Lessels, the self-appointed town hall bouncer, was a conspicuous no-show. (I left a message for him at the Selectboard office but didn’t hear back.)

The meeting attracted about 20 people, including a few nonresidents. I doubt many had come to hear the board’s discussion of a solar energy tax exemption for small businesses in town.

Board member Jeremy Wood, who was in charge in Lessel’s absence, announced at the outset that he was skipping the public comment portion of the meeting. He was determined to keep free speech at a minimum.

Manchon stayed outside, where I met up with him. Conditions of his bail prohibited him from entering town buildings, he told me.

A pair of YouTubers from out of town livestreamed the meeting in Manchon’s stead. One of them filmed with his smartphone camera from a seat near the Selectboard’s table.

With a 9 mm Glock strapped to his waist, he was hard to miss.

Thirty minutes into the meeting, a third person with a smartphone camera showed up. Wearing a hooded rain jacket, baseball cap and COVID mask, he plunked down in the front row, turning his camera on the gun-toting YouTuber.

The two jockeyed for position.

“He’s blocking my camera,” the armed YouTuber complained to the board.

“Any more outbursts and I’m going to shut this meeting down,” Wood declared. (To his credit, the YouTuber later apologized to the board for his role in the disruption.)

After the meeting, Manchon and his supporters mingled outside the library.

From a pickup stopped in the street, a woman jumped out.

“You don’t belong here,” she shouted at Manchon.

“I’m going to take this town down,” he responded.

Another young man on the sidewalk stepped in and challenged Manchon: “Turn off your camera and let’s go around back.”

The two groups jawed back and forth. But I got the feeling neither a fight nor a Mensa meeting was going to break out. I stood with a Charlestown resident who watched with curiosity as Manchon and his supporters railed against Charlestown’s “corrupt” public officials.

“What do they want in our Podunk town?” the resident asked me.

With apologies to Charlestown hometown hero Carlton Fisk, I wondered the same.

No doubt Manchon can be a bully and a grandstander. He makes his living on donations from YouTube followers, he told me. I imagine Charlestown, which has about 5,000 residents, is an opportunity for him to grow his audience.

While I wouldn’t call Manchon a journalist, he is bringing much-needed attention to New Hampshire’s public records law, which among other defects keeps taxpayer-funded investigations into alleged police wrongdoing largely off limits to the public.

New Hampshire’s police unions and police chiefs use their power to shield cops from public scrutiny and accountability. Although I don’t agree with Manchon’s tactics, he’s right to push for increased access to the inner workings of law enforcement.

Unwittingly or not, Charlestown has played into Manchon’s hands. From the moment he came into town, his YouTube channel has been one episode after another of Charlestown Men Behaving Badly.

The inability of Connors, the police chief; Lessels, the Selectboard chairman; and Maslan, the Whelen administrator, to keep their cool has unfortunately made life difficult for Charlestown’s rank-and-file employees. They’ve had to field hundreds of angry phone calls and voicemails from Manchon’s followers.

It didn’t have to turn out this way. Last December, Manchon showed up with his camera at Lebanon City Hall to exercise his “First Amendment right to film in public.”

When some city employees refused to give him their names, Manchon labeled them unprofessional to his YouTube audience.

Responding to a call about a “suspicious person” at City Hall, three Lebanon police officers entered the building.

“Is this your chance at YouTube stardom?” police Sgt. Amy Jerome asked Manchon.

Manchon wasn’t arrested, but he was ordered to leave the building. “I’ll be filing complaints against all of you,” Manchon told the three officers.

In early January, then-Chief Richard Mello informed Manchon that an internal investigation into his citizen complaint had found the officers acted “lawfully and appropriately.” (Cops investigating cops is a glaring weakness in New Hampshire’s handling of citizens’ complaints, but that’s a topic for another day.)

I asked Manchon what would have happened if people had ignored him during his first visit to Charlestown.

“I probably never would have come back,” he said.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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