On Tuesday evening, as the Los Alamitos, California, Unified School District board convened for a virtual meeting about sensitivity training for teachers, a crowd of protesters gathered outside their vacant offices.
“This is part of a large indoctrination mess that you see going on from the progressive left, from decrepit, corrupt government entities wanting to destroy the family and push the culture of death,” one of the demonstrators, self-described anti-LGBT activist Arthur Schaper, said on a livestream.
Another demonstrator, Jesse Suave, was wearing a shirt that read “fuck antifa” and “death to antifa, free helo rides,” in reference to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s penchant for throwing leftist foes to their death from aircraft.
“That’s what I feel about Marxist communists,” Suave, a frequent attendee of right-wing demonstrations, told a livestreamer. “A good communist is a dead communist.”
Others raged against anti-COVID measures and carried Gadsden flags. On a nearby microphone, speaker after speaker slammed the school board, or the program on which it was voting, as “Marxist.”
None of what the enraged protesters were saying was even close to true.
Rather than embracing far-left political ideology, the southern California school district was simply voting on whether to approve a modest program of social-justice guidance for teachers. But a series of online rumors alleged that the school was implementing “critical race theory,” an up-and-coming bogeyman on the right. The result: escalating rhetoric around public school board meetings that eventually got so bad that police advised the district to close its meeting to the public on Tuesday, while demonstrators outside.
Though the in-person meeting was canceled, at least two supporters of the sensitivity training arrived in support of the new training. One of them, a woman who’d grown up nearby, told The Daily Beast that she and her girlfriend were verbally assailed almost immediately.
“The first thing I heard from anyone was, ‘That’s a real idiotic sign you’ve got there,’” the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisal, told The Daily Beast. “A woman said I was committing suicide. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘You’re committing cultural suicide. You’re killing the white race.’”
The local counter-protester added that one man yelled that she and her girlfriend were “contributing to white genocide.” A livestream of the event focused on the two women briefly, but showed a crowd surrounding them against the building while one person made anti-transgender comments and comments about race.
During the actual meeting, the board voted 5-0 to approve the new social-justice standards, which the district previously described as “a supplemental resource for teachers and administrators.” The guidance, which is available online, offers age-appropriate techniques for helping children navigate differences and treat others respectfully. This is decidedly mainstream stuff: Scenarios for kindergarten teachers describe helping children feel comfortable discussing church camping trips, or having two mothers. Examples for high schooler teachers describe healthy outcomes for students who are combating bullying, or who are seeking LGBT resources.
Uncontroversial as the program’s text might seem on its face, the vote arrived amid a national conversation about teaching race in schools—particularly “critical race theory,” a title opponents slapped, falsely, on the Los Alamitos program. The theory’s critics often misunderstand its teachings—critical race theory is an academic framework that examines racial inequality as enforced by the legal system. College students might study the movement’s key theorists, but grade schoolers are likely busy doing other things, like learning how to read.
Nevertheless, the theory is an obsession on the right, and has prompted panic in school boards across the country. In Texas, lawmakers are advancing a bill that would ban critical race theory in the classroom, against objections from educators who say politicians are trying to prevent discussion about race in history or current affairs. A similar piece of legislation passed into law in Oklahoma last week, to similar objections from teachers. Although the law does not explicitly name “critical race theory,” supporters championed it as a blow against the theory. In a Dallas suburb, two new school board candidates won election on their explicit opposition to the theory. (The issue came to the fore when the district advanced a “Cultural Competency Action Plan” after students were filmed chanting the n-word.)
The Los Alamitos school district was already primed for a similar standoff: In April, the district voted to launch an Ethnic Studies elective. That vote drew its own impassioned crowds, the Orange County Register previously reported.
At an independent meeting convened to discuss the elective late last month, an assortment of fringe voices spoke, including prominent opponents to face masks, and Schaper, the anti-LGBT activist. At the meeting, Schaper urged listeners to badger school board members at their homes, businesses, and churches, a trademark of right-wing protest tactics in the pandemic era.
“Make their lives miserable,” Schaper said to applause, according to the Register. “They are fair game.”
Schaper is a leader of an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as an anti-LGBT hate group that also dabbles in anti-immigrant activism, A fixture of local meetings, and a failed political candidate in his own right, he did not return The Daily Beast’s request for comment. At the Tuesday night protest, he bragged that his organization had successfully ended sexual-education programs elsewhere in California. Suave, the man who wore the “fuck antifa” shirt, also did not return a request for comment.
The district’s students and teachers, meanwhile, were less than pleased about the confrontational atmosphere. During a recent meeting, a student who supported the ethnic studies elective testified that she was frustrated by standoff over the class. “I should not have to sit up here and argue with a bunch of adults who should know what they’re doing,” she said at a meeting. “I’m sick of the disrespect.”
One middle schooler told the Register that people had booed children at the board meetings when they spoke in favor of the elective.
“It can be scary when they make comments toward children,” the 13-year-old said. “They boo us and aren’t respectful about [our] opinions.” The girl’s mother added that an opponent of the elective had swatted a child on the shoulder after she spoke at a recent meeting.
At another April meeting, according to CBS LA, a teacher testified that out-of-towners were traveling to the district and yelling at or grabbing children who spoke in favor of the new social-justice standards.
And as the board met to vote on Tuesday, the demonstrators threatened further action, should the district dare to advise teachers on how to treat young people.
“We will pull our children out,” one speaker announced into the microphone. “I may not have children anymore in the K-12, but you want activists? Believe me, you’re going to get activists.”
The group appeared to anticipate that other people without children would crash their demonstration. In fact, the woman who counter-protested told The Daily Beast that one rally attendee accused her of being a paid agitator, a trope of right-wing paranoia.
“The same woman who told me I was committing cultural suicide asked me where I grew up,” she said. “When I told her I grew up literally across the street, she didn’t believe me and she started saying I’d been paid to be there.”