Armenian parents and their supporters protest a Pride assembly at Saticoy Elementary School in North Hollywood on Friday, June 2, 2023. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)
On an overcast Friday morning in North Hollywood, scores of protesters gathered outside Saticoy Elementary School to protest a Pride Assembly, which would include a reading of The Great Big Book of Families, a kids book that celebrates different types of families—including ones with gay parents. This was grooming, said the protesters, many of whom were parents wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Leave Our Kids Alone.” The June 2 protest quickly turned violent. Videos show parents and their right-wing supporters brawling with pro-LGBTQ counterprotesters, beating them, and kicking them.
It was hardly an isolated incident in the LA-area. Fights also broke out at two more protests in June, both outside Glendale School Board meetings. Like the earlier protest at Saticoy Elementary, many in the crowd were from the Armenian community. Videos of those brawls were shared widely across right-wing media circles, as influencers praised “Brave Armenian Dads” for “standing up to “trantifa.”
In the last year, culture warriors and extremists, bolstered by mainstream GOP policy and rhetoric, have gone all in on false narratives that claim educators are “grooming” kids by teaching them about Pride and the LGBTQ community. Christian nationalists, neo-Nazis, Proud Boys, and other extremists have menaced school board meetings, called in bomb threats to Drag Queen Story Hours, and faced off with counter-protesters across the country—all with the goal of making the LGBTQ community and their allies feel less safe. Though disturbing, those protests have seldom escalated into the kinds of brawls that transpired in the LA area last month. In southern California, the conditions are especially ripe for political violence. The far-right has deep roots there, dating back to at least the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan had a strong presence in the region and one member even secured a spot on LA’s city council.
California’s reputation as a bastion of liberal politics and progressive culture has often made it a target by right-wing pundits, and growing polarization in the region has left the conservative minority increasingly isolated and bound together in their echo chamber of shared grievances. That echo chamber became turbocharged in 2020, when COVID-19 hit the U.S., galvanizing the far-right to take advantage of the intensified divisions and recruit more people to their cause. Hate crimes targeting the trans community were higher in LA than any other major city last year, an increase of nearly 70% compared to 2021, according to data collected by Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. Local activists and journalists say the far-right is becoming increasingly emboldened in southern California, as thought-leaders of the movement reach and radicalize new recruits, including parents. “The parents were so violent,” said Kelly Stuart, a local photographer who's been documenting the far-right around LA for the last few years, about the protest outside Saticoy Elementary. She followed and photographed some of the protesters that day as they marched around the perimeter of the school—out of sight from local law enforcement. “They told me, ‘there’s no cops here now, we could just smash your head in,’” recalled Stuart, who is 62.
Some of the protesters seemed to have legitimate ties to the school community. But there were plenty of others who Stuart recognized as key players in LA’s rolling culture war, individuals who’ve been front and center to some of its most violent moments since 2020, including harassing cancer patients for wearing masks, brawling with leftists, stabbings, attacks on press, and bludgeonings. Many of those familiar faces have fashioned themselves as local celebrity generals in the LA far-right protest scene, leading the charge on grievances on a whole grab bag of issues, including COVID-19 lockdowns, masks, vaccines, the 2020 election, “critical race theory,” trans rights, abortion, and lately, LGBTQ-inclusive school curriculums.Tony Moon, who goes by “Rooftop Korean”, was spotted in Glendale wearing an earpiece. He’s been a mainstay of far-right protests in LA for the last few years, and was filmed in 2021 swinging a titanium water bottle at a journalist's head during a protest. Shiva Bagheria, a dance instructor who led a series of Beverly Hills Freedom Rallies against COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 and seen with a megaphone shouting outside a school that mask mandates were akin to raping children, was also in Glendale verbally sparring with counterprotesters. (Neither Moon nor Bagheri responded to VICE News’ request for comment).
Several men with documented ties to the Proud Boys were also present at those protests.
“It feels like a lot of the violence is from outside agitators coming in,” said Mary, who has three kids in the Glendale school system. She asked that we withhold her full name, due to concerns about being doxxed by the right. So far, she wasn’t aware of other Glendale parents being doxxed, but she said there were a few incidents where pro-LGBTQ parents felt like they were being “surveilled.” “They felt unsafe, or like they were being followed to their cars,” she said. And although she attributes much of the recent violence to outsiders, she’s also noticed other parents—including ones she may have once considered friends—in the mix. “I’ve gotten to know a few of the parents that I see now, on the opposite side, and having my kids know their kids— it’s weird to see it all play out,” she said.
But the question is why Saticoy Elementary and the Glendale School District suddenly became such a focal point for a fight that’s been roiling school boards across the country for over a year. A year ago, similar conversations at the schools about recognizing Pride Month did not result in angry protests and brawls, The Guardian reported. The answer, in part, may come down to one man, Jordan Henry, who has cast himself as a lieutenant in the war against “cultural Marxism”—which is often used interchangeably with “wokeness,” and describes an assortment of right-wing conspiracies surrounding diversity and progressive education.
If you have any information about the far-right organizing in southern California or in your community, feel free to reach out via email at email@example.com or wire @tesstess Henry’s critics say he’s played an outsized role in radicalizing and organizing Glendale parents into the culture war, exposing them to key influencers in that space, like Libs of TikTok and Matt Walsh, and joining them with local extremists. Henry did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment. In 2021, Henry started building an army to fight against “Critical Race Theory”—which, broadly speaking, aims to teach about America’s history of racism— in the school district’s curriculum while mounting a bid for a spot on the city council (which he ultimately lost). During Henry’s campaign, he tapped into a pocket of hardcore Armenian nationalists in the Glendale area, even translating his materials into Armenian at times and appearing on “#WiseNuts,” an Armenian American “manosphere” podcast. He also helped repurpose a Facebook group that was originally created by Glendale parents in 2020 to protest distance learning and mask requirements to stoke anger over CRT, said Mary. Like elsewhere in the country, anti-CRT activism didn’t really stick the way that the right had hoped. It was a little too nebulous and theoretical for it to really take hold. So earlier this year, Henry pivoted to “grooming” conspiracies, which, as has been the case nationwide, resonated on a deeper, more emotional level with some parents.
“His message of ‘they're grooming your children, they’re keeping secrets from you as a parent, they’re trying to control your kids, and destroy the nuclear family,’ was rhetoric that really caught on,” said Angie Givant, who is part of a network of concerned parents in Glendale fighting against these conspiracies. Meanwhile, Henry’s announced that he’s running for Glendale’s School Board next year. And the protests that Henry’s helped organize in recent months have provided soap boxes to local right-wing culture warriors who crave opportunities to speak on the microphone and seek out conflict with ideological opponents, said Givant.Meanwhile, this spring, the cadre of culture war activists who’ve been seeking out confrontations in southern California since 2020 started coalescing around anti-grooming narratives—and showing up to school board meetings on the outskirts of LA. “I think they’re getting more radical. They’re finding a sense of identity and purpose, being in a group, feeling right, unified. It’s almost like mob violence, when they’re all chanting together. It’s like they’re getting high off it,” said Stuart. “When I leave the rallies, I’m so exhausted from the energy. It’s not personal, it’s just the energy of the crowd is so full of hate.”
The modern extremist movement in southern California is built on the region's long history of far-right activism, from the KKK in the early 20th century to racist skinheads in the latter decades. In 2017, the militant far-right group Rise Above Movement took off in southern California, with the expressed goal of “defending” western civilization from Muslims, Jews, immigrants and liberals, and turned a Trump rally into a violent riot. Their members were also later charged for their involvement in Unite the Right in Charlottesville. Anti-immigration rallies under the banners of “Anti-Sharia,” and “Build the Wall” in southern California also became honeypots for performative protest culture—especially for local right-wing grifters hoping to get their 15-minutes of infamy.
California’s far-right history
However, the pandemic opened the floodgates for the culture war movement as we know it nationwide, particularly in states and cities like Los Angeles that had aggressive COVID-19 restrictions. Because everyone was impacted by COVID, it allowed for people from different ideological, political, and ethnic backgrounds to come together under a shared umbrella of grievances. Suddenly “normies” were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with far-right extremists who saw an opportunity to reach and radicalize from a deeper pool of recruits than they previously had access to.They became a loud—and often obnoxious—minority who, thanks partly to rhetoric from Donald Trump and his allies, saw themselves as renegade freedom fighters, standing up to a tyrannical left-wing governor by refusing to wear masks and theatrically flouting rules that were intended to curb the spread of COVID-19, which killed 102,000 Californians. “The combination of Trump and the pandemic created this elastic and familiarized network of villains and heroes in the culture wars. Not everyone who shows up to protests necessarily has the same depth of prejudice or embrace of violence,” said Brian Levin, who heads the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “But it doesn't matter because what these wedge issues do is enable people from different backgrounds but who have extreme emotions to work together.”
Local culture war drama may be especially pronounced in progressive strongholds, like California, said Levin, because hard-right activists know that the only way they can leverage any sort of power is within local politics. The types of angry scenes that have recently played out in Glendale are unlikely to play out in Florida, for example, because extremists and culture warriors know they have an ideological ally in Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The local politics trend became especially apparent in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, when groups like the Proud Boys retreated from the national stage and sought to exploit local right-wing protest movements. And they were able to seek alliances with other hard-right groups, such as Moms for Liberty, and Christian nationalists, as they provided the muscle for protests against school board meetings over CRT and libraries hosting Drag Queen Story Hours. “We’re seeing extremists being more brazen not only in rallies and conflicts, but being more brazen as they try to get a real operational foothold in mainstream politics,” said Levin. “And the easiest way to do that is by going after what were previously sleepy civic and local administrative positions.”
The mainstreaming of the movement
In 2021, Los Angeles became the backdrop to some intense political violence that made national headlines. In July that year, a group of far-right protesters —including Bagheri— were seen on video heckling and then spraying bear mace at a cancer patient as she headed into a treatment clinic in West Hollywood. They’d targeted that clinic because of its mandatory mask policy.
That same month, a video uploaded to Instagram of women confronting staff at Wi Spa in a Korean neighborhood in LA went viral. In the video, the women made transphobic remarks about an individual they claimed had exposed their genitals to other women in the changing room. (Weeks later, the individual in question was revealed to be a registered sex offender, had a criminal history of indecent exposure, and was charged). The right pounced on the video, which quickly made its way to Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News and was used to fuel disinformation and hateful bigotry against the trans community, which played out during two separate angry protests outside Wi Spa. A far-right protester stabbed two people , a videographer was bludgeoned with a metal pipe (his assailant was ultimately arrested). And Guardian reporter Lois Beckett was thrown to the ground by far-right protesters who tried to take her phone to stop her from documenting the violence.
Later that month, another videographer was hospitalized with several broken bones in their face after they were mobbed by a group of anti-vaxx protesters in West Hollywood. The attack was seen on video, and logged by the Press Freedom Tracker’s in their database of attacks on press in the U.S.Yet another anti-vaxx protest also devolved into violence that August, as demonstrators —many of the same cast of characters—rallied outside City Hall and faced off with counterprotesters who’d organized under the umbrella of “No Safe Space for Fascists.” An individual described by the Los Angeles Times as being on the counterprotester side stabbed someone (who was later arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon), and two reporters were attacked by right-wing protesters. Moon, aka “Rooftop Korean”, was seen strutting through the crowd, shouting “unmask them all'' while gesturing toward counterprotesters.
In 2022, there was a relative lull in the culture war scene in LA and elsewhere as the far-right were “shopping” for the next issue to rally around. Mask requirements were becoming a thing of the past and anger over vaccines were subsiding, as evident by the low energy caravan of anti-vaxxers and truckers who convoyed their way, starting in southern California, to DC to demand that the Biden Administration rescind non-existent mandates. When the far-right reemerged as a rebranded opposition front to “grooming” in schools, Stuart, the photographer, was concerned by the energy—and the presence of people she had long associated with violence around LA. “It feels like it’s intensifying,” said Stuart. “There was a time that I felt like it was going to chill out, but now it seems like it’s ramping up again.”“I think people have been allowed to get away with violence, and there’s an entitlement,” said Stuart. “They’re able to beat the shit out of people, and nothing happens to them.”