The Pacific Northwest’s gang of Proud Boys was very active over the past weekend. In addition to ginning up violence at an anti-masking rally in Olympia, Washington, on Saturday, the same group of right-wing thugs forced the lockdown of three schools in Vancouver, two hours south, the day before, when one of them forced his way into a high school as part of an anti-vaccination protest.
This is not the first time that the proto-fascist street brawlers have inserted themselves into local school board controversies, nor will it be the last. That’s because the nation’s local school boards have become the primary target of a nationwide far-right campaign to overwhelm such political entities with anti-vaccination/masking agitation, along with attacks over “critical race theory,” and those explicit takeover strategies happen to mesh neatly with the Proud Boys’ emerging tactic of attaching themselves to local right-wing political events.
Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council—an anti-LGBTQ hate group—recently laid the strategy out for his followers in a fundraising letter, as Right Wing Watch reports, claiming that the school-board takeovers reflect a grassroots campaign:
In many of America’s 13,800 school districts, grassroots efforts are beginning to nominate conservative, pro-family, pro-American candidates to run against left-wing incumbents. Some have launched recall campaigns to unseat school board members before the next election—before they can do any more to influence our impressionable children.
We need to grow these small and sometimes disorganized efforts into an army of activists ready to do battle on behalf of the family and America.
Most of the original organizing for the takeovers revolved around the faux right-wing controversy regarding “Critical Race Theory.” Most of these, as Right Wing Watch reports, are closely affiliated with evangelical Christian organizations, particularly those from the Dominionist wing of the far right—who have in fact been forming alliances with the Proud Boys on other fronts as well. Their strategy includes video training sessions:
The Leadership Institute, which has trained generations of right-wing activists, is promoting a 20-hour online course to train conservatives how to run for their local school boards in order to “stop the teaching of Critical Race Theory before it destroys the fabric of our nation.” Critical race theory is an academic analytical framework for exploring the existence and impact of systemic racism. Over the past year, the term has been aggressively deployed as a right-wing culture-war weapon that is being used to smear educators and social justice activists. Campaigns against efforts to examine racism in school settings are often combined with attacks on other initiatives to promote inclusion, such as anti-discrimination policies based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Similar organizations, such as Citizens Renewing America, have cropped up in other locales, offering toolkits for training activists in combating critical race theory. They describe CRT as “identity politics” intended to destroy any “oppressive” institution—from traditional marriage to free markets to Christianity—while labeling “straight white people” the primary oppressors.
Citizens Renewing America is the brainchild a former Trump administration official named Russ Vought, who as director of the Office of Management and Budget worked to implement the president’s executive order banning funding for diversity training.
“The days of taxpayer-funded indoctrination trainings that sow division and racism are over,” Vought tweeted in September 2020.
Vought’s nonprofit has become the behind-the-scenes leader in the battle over CRT being fought in churches and school boards around the country. Observers worry that this recent spate of school board interruptions by a few zealots will change the discussion about race and racial justice—any mention of either will now become labeled as CRT, and any policies for addressing racial inequities will be rejected because of that label.
NBC News found least 165 local and national organizations whose purpose is disrupting curricula involving race and gender. Moreover, it found that the fight over CRT was soon joined by similar right-wing forces organizing against COVID-19 health restrictions in schools, particularly mask and vaccine mandates: “Reinforced by conservative think tanks, law firms and activist parents, these groups have found allies in families frustrated over COVID-19 restrictions in schools and have weaponized the right’s opposition to critical race theory, turning it into a political rallying point,” NBC reported.
While the campaigns often vary according to local conditions, they appear to operate from an identical blueprint, sharing disruption, publicity, and mobilization strategies. The recipe is simple: swarm school board meetings, inundate districts with time-consuming public records requests, and file lawsuits and federal complaints alleging discrimination against white students or students declining to wear masks or take the vaccine.
The primary strategy now involves targeting as many school board members as they can for removal. So far, activists and parents have launched 50 recall efforts this year aimed at unseating 126 school board members, according to Ballotpedia, surpassing the record for a single year. Most of these recalls started as objections to COVID-19 restrictions, but others include concerns about CRT.
Prominent GOP political figures are rushing in to support the parent activists, believing these local battles will generate enthusiasm among conservative voters in 2022 and beyond. Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon observed on his podcast: “The path to save the nation is very simple—it’s going to go through the school boards.”
The strategy closely resembles the 2009-11 tea party organizing—generating right-wing controversy over mainstream liberal issues, which then manifests as volatile localized and even nationalized protests. The current campaign’s organizers even acknowledge the connection.
“It seems very Tea Party-ish to me,” Dan Lennington, a lawyer with a Wisconsin organization offering free legal advice to parent groups pursuing or considering school board recalls, told the Associated Press. “These are ingredients for having an impact on future elections.”
Like the tea party, the school-board takeover groups are a form of “astroturf” organizing—activism made to look like grassroots efforts that in reality are manufactured by well-moneyed interests.
“Outsiders are tapping into some genuine concerns, but the framing of the issues are largely regularized by national groups,” Jeffrey Henig, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, told the AP.
The shift to pandemic-related politics has particularly opened the door for the Proud Boys and similar far-right groups to attach themselves to local protests. As Cynthia Miller-Idriss observed at MSNBC, the tone of the resulting confrontations has grown increasingly menacing, as protests against vaccine and mask mandates have featured parents “heckling and threatening masked people, accusing educators of child abuse, and calling on schools to ‘unmask the children.’”
In northern California, a teacher was hospitalized after being assaulted by a parent in a dispute over mask requirements. In Texas, a series of altercations between parents and teachers (such as one in which a teacher’s face mask was torn off by a parent) resulted in a superintendent writing a letter to parents asking everyone to “be kind” and stop fighting “mask wars in our schools.” A Colorado district stationed sheriff’s deputies outside schools on the opening day of classes after protests threatened to disrupt student learning.
The same dynamic was at work last Friday in Vancouver, when a group of local Proud Boys showed up to support an anti-masking protest outside Skyview High School. They had been encouraged to protest on social media by the local far-right group Patriot Prayer, which had falsely claimed that a Skyview student faced arrest for her refusal to wear a mask.
A Twitter video showed a group of people, several of them wearing black-and-yellow Proud Boys shirts, outside the school chanting “U-S-A.” Another video showed a Proud Boy leading the group in prayer over the young female student around whom the protest revolved.
School authorities placed Skyview—as well as an adjacent middle school and elementary school—on lockdown when several Proud Boys attempted to escort the student into the high school. That student’s mother says her daughter has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, and the mask can trigger panic attacks, leading her to request an exemption from the school’s mask mandate, she told Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB).
The lockdown disrupted everything inside the school. OPB reported that one student described teachers and faculty guarding the doors inside the building while security guards discussed matters with the Proud Boys.
“All the learning gets disrupted. We have to sit down quietly, not make noise, and we were hunkered down in our classrooms for around an hour to an hour-and-a-half,” a student named Lucas told OPB. Comparing the lockdown to school shooter drills, he mentioned that some students were harassed by the anti-mask demonstrators outside.
“They’ve gotten pretty wild out here recently. It’s kind of crazy,” Lucas said.
On Wednesday, a Clark County judge issued a ban on protests outside any schools in the district, after school authorities petitioned the court for one.
"They've been piggybacking on other people's events," Jared Holt, a fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, told USA Today. "They go where they believe the culture war is being fought, because they see themselves as potentially violent enforcers in a broader culture war."
“K-12 educators have faced plenty of challenges, particularly in the last year,” dark-money expert Maurice Cunningham told The Daily Beast. “This is a new kind of method of intimidation and attack. These superintendents, school boards, principals, and teachers need to understand this and be ready to come back at these groups.”