What Happens When Conservative School Boards Seize Power At Districts Around The Country

By Jason Pohl,

Ryan Sabalow, and

Lydia Gerike

They have swarmed board meetings spewing conspiracy theories and violent rhetoric. Why extremism experts are worried.

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Extremism in California: A McClatchy Investigation

For much of the past two years in California, extremists have swarmed protests and local board meetings with a toxic mix of conspiracy theories and violent rhetoric.

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REDDING

Three of Shasta County’s elected supervisors have the sort of conservative credentials that would normally guarantee a long political career in this Republican stronghold, where cowboys still drive cattle through the smaller towns and Blue Lives Matter flags are stickered across the back of pickups.

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Supervisor Mary Rickert co-owns a beef operation. Leonard Moty is a former beat cop who became chief of police in Redding. Joe Chimenti is a former cop himself who headed the pro-development building trade council.

But for an increasing number of their constituents, that’s not enough.

For much of the past two years, vocal extremists have swarmed their board meetings spewing a toxic mix of conspiracy theories and violent rhetoric under the pretext of a rebellion against Gov. Gavin Newsom’s pandemic edicts — rules that officials in Shasta County were mostly ignoring anyway — and a variety of other complaints.

At one point, a man in a Grim Reaper costume stood before the Shasta County board and tried to set a surgical mask on fire. Another man announced he was placing board members under citizen’s arrest. Rickert received an email that she took as a threat. “Going. Going. Gone or Dead Woman Walking,” read its subject line.

“My job has really interfered with the time I could devote to removing you and your twisted garbage leadership on the BOS,” the writer said. “You are a disgrace and soon you’ll be just a bad memory.”

Then came Carlos Zapata, a local restaurant owner and militia member with ties to the Proud Boys, an organization the FBI calls an extremist group linked to white nationalism. Zapata warned the board at a public meeting that the people showing up at county meetings “are not going to be peaceful much longer.”

Zapata and his fellow activists created a local political movement called the “Red, White and Blueprint.” Supporters began collecting signatures to recall the three supervisors on the five-member board. The movement threw the county’s political scene into turmoil for months, although the activists eventually only received enough signatures to have a recall election in February against Moty, the former police chief.

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Gadflies and conspiracy theorists at town meetings are a staple of democracy, and local policy debates regularly get heated. But this recall effort, Moty said, is something else entirely. It’s filled with “threats and coercion and intimidation and lies,” he said.

“It’s shocking to me to see my community do something like this,” Moty said.

From Modesto to Placerville, Sacramento to Oroville to Redding, the dangerous, conspiracy theory-driven spirit behind the deadly Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riots has spread across California as far-right extremists and anti-government activists mobilize to disrupt the work of local elected officials.

Local government and school board meetings have turned into tedious and contentious slogs filled with hours of public comment as extremists shout and ramble on, spewing misinformation and sometimes threatening public officials.

This disruption is more than just a distraction that slows work on routine business, according to government watchdogs and academics who study domestic extremism. They warn that these increasingly hostile activists pose a serious threat to seize local political power. At the same time, some activists might resort to violence in what they consider a war for the very soul of America if they think they have the backing of a credible movement behind them.

That hasn’t happened yet in California, but local activists have seized on vaccine and mask mandates, business restrictions and animus for Newsom to align once-disparate groups under the umbrella of fighting for “freedom.” While the attempt to recall the governor failed, it further motivated activists to descend on these city and county councils and, increasingly, school boards.

In Rocklin, law enforcement now attends school board meetings, which have become increasingly contentious and riddled with misinformation and conspiracies.

“You’re gonna need a lot more police than that,” Matthew Cropley, a parent, said at one of the meetings. He claimed that separating unmasked and masked students is a form of modern segregation comparable to slavery, Native American genocide and Japanese internment camps.

Central to many of these efforts: Christian church leaders, including many who have boasted about defying public health orders and made a show of doling out exemptions for people who won’t take the vaccine. In some cases, churches have spearheaded conferences riddled with prominent conspiratorial figures. Some say they are organizing to “take back” the power.

California is home to more than 400 city councils, 58 boards of supervisors and hundreds of school boards — all of them holding public meetings that a few years ago were mostly ignored. Though discussions would sometimes get intense, the Shasta County Board of Supervisors once largely concerned itself with union contracts, doling out grants and approving development and road projects.

Some of that targeted outrage is finding a receptive audience among elected officials.

In a rebuke to California’s pandemic rules, the Oroville City Council on Nov. 2 voted to call itself a “constitutional republic,” parroting right-wing anti-government outrage from the past year. The largely symbolic resolution says that “overreaching” state or federal executive orders “will not be enforced by the City of Oroville against its citizens.”

In Sacramento, Sue Frost, who chairs the County Board of Supervisors, has said she wants a county grand jury to investigate the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over how it counts coronavirus deaths. She has also promoted unproven and potentially dangerous treatments for COVID-19 and, last year helped organize a conference alongside sheriffs and lobbyists to decry the state’s pandemic response.

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Anti-vaccine mandate protesters and supporters of the California recall election rally outside the front doors of the Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters in September after the county board of education voted Thursday to require students 12 and older to be vaccinated against the coronavirus to attend in-person classes. Damian Dovarganes AP

In a country with a long tradition of impassioned political discourse, is 2021 really different from any other period of political turmoil? Many who study political movements say the country is on the edge of something that could explode into more violence and suppress public participation.

Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, said the conspiratorial, inexperienced and anti-democracy activists might end up filling the void after worn-out or terrified public officials step away. Levin said that is a threat to democracy and creates a real threat of violence.

“They merely have to target traditionally sleepy local governance events,” Levin said. “And that is a problem. Someone is going to get seriously injured or worse.”

The Department of Homeland Security warned last year, prior to the U.S. Capitol riots on Jan. 6, that violent white supremacists were the “most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland.” California anti-terrorism officials also are worried.

Tom Osborne, who oversees day-to-day homeland security operations for California’s Office of Emergency Services, warned that loosely organized or individual extremists might mobilize to target local elected officials. Misinformation and conspiratorial thinking — especially about election results — might lead some to believe violence was necessary, he told lawmakers at a legislative hearing in May.

Law enforcement agencies across California, he said, have noticed a “stark acceleration of domestic violent extremism, radicalization, calls for mobilization, attack plotting and attempts.”

Osborne’s remarks came two months before a federal grand jury in San Francisco indicted two far-right activists, one of whom was a member of the “Three Percenters” militia group, for allegedly plotting to blow up the headquarters of the California Democratic Party in Sacramento.

The FBI said in its affidavit the men were motivated by the bogus conspiracy theory that Donald Trump “actually won the presidential election” and that “they should ‘go to war’ to ensure he remained in power.”

“I want to blow up a democrat building bad,” one of the men, Ian Benjamin Rogers, wrote in a text, according to the affidavit. “The democrats need to pay.”

Another recall attempt, among many

The town of Placerville in El Dorado County near Sacramento is known as Old Hangtown, a reference to the extrajudicial killings that were once carried out in the town square.

That heritage, viewed as a symbol of a racist past, proved to be a flashpoint earlier this year when the Placerville City Council voted to erase a noose from the city’s official logo. Combined with their rage over pandemic restrictions, the stage was set for conspiratorial-minded critics to mobilize.

“They’re coming after every business, every noose that’s around this town — they’re coming after everything,” Placerville resident Mandi Rodriguez said at a council meeting in April. “This virus, critical racism woke-ism, is going to destroy our country.”

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Placerville resident and organizer Mandi Rodriguez leads protesters during a rally against vaccine mandates at El Dorado County Courthouse in Placerville on Monday, Oct. 18, 2021. Paul Kitagaki Jr. [email protected]

After the vote, Rodriguez, who ran unsuccessfully for Placerville City Council in 2020, organized an effort to recall four of the five members on the council. She also wrote that the county’s “human rights commission needs to be disbanded, it is clearly a one-sided commission that caters to progressive ideology and their hate for anyone else who does not share their opinions.”

She found support in part through a Facebook page rife with misinformation and conspiracy theories about COVID-19. In September, the group, called “El Dorado County Freedom Fighters,” shared a post proclaiming 9/11 was an inside job. More recently, it has encouraged supporters to take part in “No Mandates Monday,” where students and “medical freedom believers” protest outside Ponderosa High School in Shingle Springs.

Others in El Dorado County who are immersed in conspiratorial thinking or affiliated with extremist groups have quietly entered public-service posts.

In December 2020, Placerville garnered international attention after members of the Proud Boys showed up at a Toys for Tots fundraiser and posed with a man dressed as Santa. That man, Chris Cockrell, joined them in making hand gestures supportive of the white supremacist ideology.

Residents were outraged, and one man compiled a 54-page dossier purporting to show Cockrell’s social media connections to the group. Cockrell, who served in the U.S. Army, said in a meeting that the public firestorm was meant to “defame” him and that his alleged connection to the group could not be proved.

“I’m a great fit for El Dorado County,” he said at a meeting. “I welcome everybody to be in my circle of my family, my business, and my passion.”

He has not publicly denounced the Proud Boys, and was ultimately appointed by the board of supervisors to the county’s Veterans Affairs Commission. Cockrell declined to comment for this story.

And Keeley Link, an anti-vaccine advocate and member of the Freedom Angels, an anti-vaccine group that has increasingly espoused anti-government ideas, has for more than a year spun elaborate conspiracy theories during board meetings and rallies. She said the vaccines were a ploy to enrich drug companies and doctors. She has criticized county officials in public meetings and sent them scores of emails in recent months.

“As a community, we declare the end to the pandemic and will be peacefully not complying with the unwarranted and unjust restrictions,” Link wrote in a Jan. 5 email to the Board of Supervisors.

In April, Link was appointed by the board of supervisors to the county’s Commission on Aging, an advisory group that makes policy recommendations on behalf of older residents in the county. Link did not return The Bee’s requests for comment.

Ultimately, the recall effort spearheaded by Rodriguez collected only about 600 signatures, far short of the required 1,671 to qualify for the ballot. “We are encouraged by the new interest and involvement in local politics that this process has produced,” the recall group wrote in a statement.

Rodriguez blamed the Caldor Fire that chewed through much of the county at the peak of signature collection efforts. But she’s not ready to give up. Asked if she’d take another run for city council, Rodriguez demurred but didn’t discount it. If anything, Rodriguez said, she’d be more interested in a spot on the board of supervisors.

“I’ll be honing my skills until then,” she said. “That’s not the end of Mandi Rodriguez.”

A couple weeks later, Rodriguez shouted into a bullhorn as hundreds of people lined the downtown Placerville streets to decry vaccine mandates. “Unmasked, unmuzzled, unvaccinated, unafraid,” read one sign. “No manditory (sic) jab” said another.

Approximately a dozen people, mostly young men, wearing sweatshirts for the “Hangtown Proud Boys” roamed the crowd. A group of them taped a white sheet over a city welcome sign on Main Street: “THIS IS THE GOVERNMENT THE FOUNDERS WARNED US ABOUT.”

More extreme than the Tea Party

What makes this moment particularly dangerous, experts who study political violence and anti-democracy movements say, is that right-wing activists are using misinformation — about public health, school curriculums and elections — to gain traction.

This is not just routine conservative organizing, said Lindsay Schubiner, a program director at the Western States Center, an Oregon-based nonprofit that promotes equity and counters white nationalism. It’s a confluence of “bigoted and anti-democracy groups” working to undermine basic institutions.

“There are a lot of people who are involved in these movements or participate in these tactics who aren’t necessarily card-carrying members of any group but are still being influenced by these broader anti-democracy movements,” Schubiner said.

Health officials across the country, including at least seven in California, have left the public sector in droves, after suffering through an escalating barrage of threats, personal attacks and new laws that limit their ability to implement public health policies.

In some cases, lawmakers have professed conspiracy theories and even been dues-paying members of the Oath Keepers, a militia group that carried out violence at the Jan. 6 insurrection. At least one California sheriff, Riverside County’s Chad Bianco, was among Oath Keepers’ rolls. U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, the Republican congressman from Redding who refused to vote to certify the results of the presidential election, appeared with Zapata and the head of the local militia as well as others associated with the Red, White and Blueprint on its podcast last month.

On the podcast, LaMalfa talked about the challenges of seceding from liberal California and forming a new conservative state and the need to rebel against vaccine mandates. Like his hosts have been doing for months, he described vaccines as having a “questionable” safety and effectiveness record, despite the vast majority of public health officials and physicians saying they are safe.

“Is a vaccine supposed to be 100% foolproof?” said LaMalfa, whose district includes hospitals flooded with mostly unvaccinated patients. “Nobody will even tell us or stand behind it.”

In Modesto, members of the Proud Boys and local militia groups showed up at a June city council meeting and argued against a new police oversight initiative, the Forward Together Work Group, claiming it infringed on police officers’ rights. They said it was composed of only far-left and Antifa members. (In fact, it has representation from the local business community, a Latino empowerment organization, and even law enforcement.)

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Proud Boy member Sean Adam K, right, responds to a public comment during the Modesto City Council meeting in June. Members of the far-right extremist group denounced the city’s efforts to look at potential reforms of its police department. Andy Alfaro [email protected]

Still, Proud Boys and other right-wing speakers at the June meeting said that their applications to join the committee had been ignored and the council was refusing to represent residents with “Constitutionalist” views. When people in the audience attempted to call out their extreme beliefs, Proud Boys in the audience flashed the three-fingered “OK” symbol that has come to represent the group’s trademark.

“I am a proud western chauvinist, and I refuse to apologize for creating the modern world,” one man with a Proud Boys shirt shouted into a microphone.

Attendees then began arguing with each other and shouting at the council. Three police officers stood up and gestured toward the crowd to calm down. Ultimately, the mayor briefly halted the meeting until things calmed down.

The Proud Boys later showed up in August at a “straight pride” rally in front of Modesto’s Planned Parenthood. They brawled with counter-protesters, who had been demonstrating at a “no hate in the valley” event several blocks away. Someone deployed bear spray and police used a flash-bang grenade to break up the brawl.

Two people were arrested, including Jeffrey Erik Perrine, who was formally expelled in February from his elected seat on the Sacramento County Republican Party Central Committee after his affiliation with the Proud Boys was reported by The Bee.

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Modesto police disperse crowds from a “straight pride” rally where Proud Boys brawled with counter-protesters in August. Two people were arrested, including a man elected to the Sacramento County Republican Party Central Committee in March. Lydia Gerike [email protected]

Then, at a “patriot rally” on Oct. 30, the Republican Party of Stanislaus County was present alongside the Proud Boys and uniformed militia members at a regional park as children played soccer not far away.

Samuel Bosshardt, the party’s District 5 caucus chair, told the crowd of about 50 that COVID-related mandates encroached on individual freedom. Asked if the party knew Proud Boys and other extremist groups would be at the rally, Bosshardt said, “Everyone’s free to be here.”

“This is not a disagreement about policy, although it may appear to be,” said Levin, the San Bernardino hate-group researcher. “It involves people who are either violent, bigoted, conspiracists or others using aggressive tactics and harassment to degrade public policy at its most fundamental level.

“Reasonable people can disagree on policies. But those who bring false science, conspiracism or bigotry to the table are a threat to a civilized democracy,” Levin said.

Even if no violence erupts, the sort of local extremist activism underway could have political repercussions — and not just in conservative California enclaves.

Christopher Towler, a Sacramento State assistant professor who has studied far-right extremist movements, said the country is experiencing something similar to the Tea Party movement that came after Barack Obama was elected in 2008. After that, a wave of right-wing activists on the local level backed like-minded candidates and helped the Republican Party take control of Congress.

Towler said that far-right activists are gearing up for a political and ideological battle for the ages, and they’ve got their sights set on seizing power from local elected officials.

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A large crowd attends a Keep Your Kids Home From School rally to protest mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for schoolchildren at the state Capitol in October. Hector Amezcua [email protected]

“It’s crazy, but it’s a real fear,” he said. “We’ve seen it happen just a decade ago.”

The upheaval at local governments reflects a growing sentiment among Republicans most of whom believe, without evidence, that the election was stolen from Trump. A recent poll also found that about one in three Republicans believe violence might be justified “to save our country.”

That threat is real for Shawn Schwaller, a Chico State lecturer who has studied far-right extremist movements and who closely follows the extremist uprising in Shasta County.

“We’re very worried about the threat of violence — not necessarily by big talkers, like Carlos Zapata,” Schwaller said, referring to the local militia member in Redding. “I worry it could inspire like a no-name person, you know, to rise up and just kind of go postal and could do something really bad.”

Far-right violence coming from Shasta County is not an abstract notion. In 1999, Benjamin and James Williams, white supremacist brothers from Shasta County, murdered a local gay couple and firebombed three synagogues and an abortion clinic in Sacramento.

‘If it’s not local, nobody really cares’

On Sept. 25, about 100 people — primarily women — perused a dozen booths that lined the West Steps of the Capitol. They were there on a Saturday for a recruitment event organized by the Freedom Angels. Its sister group, led by the same women, calls itself the Mamalitia.

Throughout the pandemic, both have increasingly coordinated with members of the Proud Boys at rallies, often commingling at protests. Denise Aguilar, a leader of the two groups, has thanked them in the past for providing “protection” at the events, specifically against anti-fascist agitators.

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Denise Aguilar, right, joins others in a march through the Capitol to protest the state Legislature’s passage of a measure to crack down on doctors who sell fraudulent medical exemptions for vaccinations, in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019. Lawmakers sent the bill to Newsom on Wednesday but he said he wants last-minute changes. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli) Rich Pedroncelli AP file

Meanwhile, Courtney Ortega, 29, of Yuba City, helmed the booth at the September rally for the Freedom Coalition, a church-created group in Northern California that according to an archived page “advocates for individual liberties and against totalitarianism policy and over-reaching health bureaucracy.”

She said she was there that Saturday to rally conservatives to “take over” local governments that have been overrun by liberals.

“We promote local lobbying to local county government, city government, also school boards,” Ortega said as “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield and Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” boomed on the speakers. She said chapters in Placer and Sacramento counties have expanded into hundreds of members.

On the Freedom Coalition’s table was a smattering of anti-vaccine pamphlets and placards. A stack of yellow signs that she handed out to adults and children read: “Say no to mandatory vaccines.” A yard sign cited statutes about trespassing, intended, she said, to dissuade public health officials and law enforcement from coming to someone’s door. A 12-page newspaper printed out of Nevada County falsely said that the COVID-19 vaccine was an experimental cocktail of aborted monkey and fetus tissue that could lead to infertility.

Ortega, who graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in political science, is now secretary at the Church of Glad Tidings in Yuba City. “She followed the Lord’s call to Yuba City,” according to an online biography, “where she has re-entered the political arena using her experience leading groups of lobbyists, writing policy, and working with lawmakers to create God-centered and inspired change in her local community.”

In the months since, Ortega has routinely announced pandemic-related action at board of supervisors meetings on her Facebook page. She’s encouraged in-person demonstrations running the gamut from county boards of supervisors to local school boards. Her Freedom Coalition advertises ways to get religious exemptions for vaccines and traffics lies about the “death shot” to drive people to local board meetings.

“I would like to see this type of local activism just take over certain areas of the state where there is more gridlock,” she said. She pointed to the Bay Area in particular, where there’s more “ostracization for people who have opposing views to the general narrative.”

Conservatives there, she said, are “discriminated against.”

“When it comes to advocacy, if it’s not local, nobody really cares.”

Bible verses, forgotten neighbors

In Redding, politics turned ugly when Zapata, the militia member involved in the recall effort against the three supervisors, confronted Nathan Pinkney, a local Black Lives Matter activist who had been making fun of Zapata online.

After a scuffle at a restaurant where Pinkney worked, prosecutors charged Zapata with misdemeanor counts of battery and disturbing the peace by fighting.

The courtroom hearings and trial quickly took on the same tone as the local supervisors meetings that Zapata’s political faction had been disrupting for months. Members of the local militia showed up at the courthouse — and so did the Proud Boys.

During his arraignment, they escorted Zapata out of the courtroom “like they were his bodyguards,” said Doni Chamberlain, a local journalist who runs a news website in Shasta County with a liberal bent and who closely followed Zapata’s trial.

After hearing weeks of testimony and evidence (as well as taking several days off due to one of the jurors testing positive for COVID-19), the jury found Zapata guilty Oct. 6 on a count of disturbing the peace but acquitted him of a battery charge.

The conviction didn’t tone down Zapata’s rebellious talk. On Nov. 1, Zapata appeared on the Red, White and Blueprint’s “Patriot State of Mind” podcast where he talked about taking the rebellion to local school boards over vaccine mandates for children.

“We’re seeing kids that are starting to get sick starting to die from this thing,” Zapata said, two days after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine safe for children as young as 5. “And they’re hiding it … I’m not going to stand by and let you do this to our kids. No way because they don’t have a choice.”

Despite her opponents not gathering enough signatures to recall her for the time being, Supervisor Rickert, the cattle rancher, remains exhausted by the hours-long public comments periods at each meeting where activists often cite Bible verses and use their children as props.

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Shasta County Supervisor Mary Rickert listens to public comment in Redding in 2020. Xavier Mascareñas [email protected]

Rickert said members of the group were so obsessed with individual rights that they forgot that their choices had serious repercussions on their neighbors during a pandemic. This fall, Shasta County had some of the highest COVID-19 case rates in the state. The hospitals were so swamped with unvaccinated patients at one point that Redding’s two main medical centers had to call in California National Guard medics to help overwhelmed medical staff.

“As a society, there’s a certain amount of respecting the rights of others that has to come into play,” she said. “And that’s what I think was really lost on this recall group.”

What concerns Moty, the former police chief, is that no thoughtful, civic-minded people will want to become public servants if they’re under constant personal attack from the extremist fringe.

“People can just sit there and tell lies and stuff and come to board meetings and try to intimidate you and don’t have respect for the process,” Moty said. “I just wonder about who is going to run, and I worry that no good people will.”

Sacramento Bee reporter Hannah Wiley contributed to this report.

This story was originally published November 14, 2021 5:00 AM.

Source : https://www.sacbee.com/news/california/article255292696.html

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