Jen Cousins remembers the exact moment she decided she had to stop Moms for Liberty. At a school board meeting in Orange County, Florida in October 2021, Proud Boys member Jacob Engels stood up to speak with a copy of the book Gender Queer in his hand.
Cousins, who had just given the same book to her gender non-binary 12-year-old child, watched as the meeting descended into chaos. During Engels’ speech to the board, the Proud Boy, an acolyte of Roger Stone and a well-known member of Florida’s far-right, read out an out-of-context segment of the book, which is about the author Maia Kobabe coming out as nonbinary in high school. Engels was kicked out of the meeting, but his stunt had the desired effect: The book was removed from school libraries in the district.
Cousins knew where Engels had gotten the book from, because she’d watched when, as Engels prepared to stand in front of the meeting, member of the extremist “parental rights” group Moms for Liberty Alicia Farrant had handed it to him.
After Gender Queer and other books were banned in Orange County, Cousins joined with Stephana Ferrell, a mom to two biracial children in the county, to create the Florida Freedom to Read Project to combat the banning of more than 1,100 books from Florida’s libraries, and the work of groups like Moms for Liberty, which has helped ban hundreds of pro-LGBTQ books from school libraries.
But the more Cousins pushed back against book bans, the more Farrant, who is now an Orange County School Board member, and Moms for Liberty, came after her.
Over the next 10 months, the group led an online harassment campaign against Cousins. Members took pictures of her children and posted them on Facebook, including on one occasion when Cousins and her family attended a drag brunch in support of a survivor of the Pulse nightclub shooting.
“I don’t know how they got access to my pictures, but they did. They posted them everywhere, constantly calling me a groomer and a pedophile. It just spiraled, it got pretty nasty,” Cousins told VICE News.
Farrant did not reply to specific questions about the harassment of Cousins, but told VICE News that she is “proud of the work we are doing here in Florida to let kids be kids and protect their innocence.”
The harassment campaign against Cousins culminated in August 2022, when she spoke at a rally in support of trans rights in Orlando. “Look at Jen Cousins the pedophile, Jen Cousins the groomer, are you going to go home and read porn to your four year-old,” Engels, who was at the rally with other members of the Proud Boys, shouted as Cousins spoke, according to a video of the event Engels posted online.
“I don’t know how they got access to my pictures, but they did. They posted them everywhere, constantly calling me a groomer and a pedophile.”
“I have been targeted by this man at rallies, school board meetings, and online. I now fear for my life, and the lives of my four children,” Cousins wrote in a statement to the officer, according to a copy of the police report reviewed by VICE News.
Engels’ targeting of Cousins, she believes, came as a result of the harassment campaign conducted by the Orange County chapter of Moms for Liberty.
Moms for Liberty was founded in Florida by Tina Descovich, after she lost a school board re-election bid in a deeply red district in 2020. The group has grown rapidly and now boasts over 115,0000 members in 280 chapters across the country. Moms for Liberty has deep ties to the GOP establishment, and has notched some significant wins, like all its book bans, and helping get the “Don’t Say Gay” bill signed into law in Florida. They have also been instrumental in getting hundreds of candidates onto school boards, where they have quickly fired superintendents and other officials who are not aligned with their worldview.
Their tactics are also extreme: A recent VICE News investigation uncovered a pattern of harassment by Moms for Liberty members, who used violent rhetoric and underhanded tactics to threaten, damage, and endanger people’s lives, as the group leads the charge on book banning and attacking students, parents, and staff who support LGBTQ rights.
But now, hundreds of local groups across the country are taking a stand against book banning campaigns and efforts to insert pro-Christian curriculums into public schools. VICE News has spoken to dozens of activists across the country who are fighting back against what they see as the tyranny of Moms for Liberty. And at the national level, VICE News found several organizations that are trying to knit these grassroot groups together so that they can more effectively combat Moms for Liberty’s slick online presence and unified messaging. And despite facing threats and attacks, activists think their tactics are working.
And while Cousins admits Moms for Liberty are succeeding in many ways right now, the tide is beginning to turn as organizations gather against them.
“I do think that they’re starting to feel the heat,” Cousins said.
In 2017, Taylor Lyons co-founded Chattanooga-based Moms for Social Justice in response to the election of former President Donald Trump. Lyons was concerned about the Trump administration’s attacks on transgender rights, and its choice of Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education, Lyons told VICE News.
But what really sparked Lyons and her friends into action was the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. “Do we want to look at our kids 20 years from now and tell them that in this moment of great racial reckoning and social unrest and tell them that we did nothing?” Lyons wondered at the time. “We started an organization, thinking that we may not be the only parents who felt that way in our community, and we were right. It started with four moms in my living room, and we very quickly organically grew to around 3,000 active community members in and around our community.”
“Do we want to look at our kids 20 years from now and tell them that in this moment of great racial reckoning and social unrest and tell them that we did nothing?”
And it seemed to work, at least initially. “We were seeing our city pass safe ordinances for the LGBT community,” Lyons said. “We were hosting events like to teach parents how to support trans and queer youth, and they were heavily attended.”
Then Moms for Liberty came along in 2021, and showed up at school board meetings to protest mask mandates. Then they started calling for book bans that targeted LGBTQ authors and topics, and claimed that Lyon’s group were pedophiles and groomers aiming to sneak pornography into school libraries.
“It has really devolved from there to where it has become a situation that’s exhausting, it’s demoralizing, and sometimes it has been flat out scary,” Lyons told VICE News. “It was very clear from the onset that this was taking a very radicalized and ugly turn. The rhetoric that they were using from the onset was just so extreme that we were, quite frankly, shocked by it and not really prepared for it.”
Lyons also said that the Moms for Liberty members harassing people at meetings had never, to their knowledge, been actively involved in school life before. “The majority of Moms for Liberty members making outrageous comments at school board meetings don’t have children attending public schools,” added Lyons. “They’re making outrageous accusations about teachers and curriculum and things that are going on in the public schools and they’ve never darkened the doors.”
Across the country, Moms for Liberty have managed to activate parents who have never been involved in school policy before—or who might not even be parents of students in the district—but who are motivated to show up to school board meetings and push their far-right agenda.
Moms for Liberty did not respond to a request for comment about their methodology or the growing number of groups both locally and nationally that have formed to fight back against their agenda.
Moms for Liberty have managed to activate parents who have never been involved in school policy, but who are motivated to show up to school board meetings and push their far-right agenda.
“When you’re on a school board or local elected office you normally have frequent fliers who you see very often at school board meetings, parents that are really involved and so you just know them because they’re just hyper-involved in the schools in a positive way,” Christina Gagnier, founder of Our Schools USA, told VICE News, adding that in recent years, Moms for Liberty members began turning up out of the blue. “In our community, a group of parents emerged who other board members had no idea who they were, they were not parents that were immediately identified by our school-side administrators or others.”
Moms for Liberty established a chapter in Gagnier’s district in Chino Valley, California in March 2021, just months after the national group was officially incorporated in Florida. At the time, Gagnier was on the Chino Valley School Board, and like others who spoke out against Moms for Liberty, she became a target for their coordinated attacks.
“I would get pretty vitriolic emails saying ‘I hope you die,’” Gagnier said. “I shared that I have an autoimmune disorder during one of our board meetings, so people started saying, ‘I hope you die from your disease. I hope you get more sick.’”
Gagnier was also followed home from school board meetings and it got to the point that her husband had to track her movements to know she was safe. “My husband would often watch the meetings and time from when I left the meeting to coming home,” Gagnier said, adding that someone even tried to break into her home.
After Gagnier lost her re-election bid in 2022 to a Moms for Liberty-endorsed candidate, she realized that what was happening in her district was also happening across the country. Together with Kristi Hirst, a former teacher, she founded Our Schools USA, with the aim of becoming a national organization on a par with Moms for Liberty. “Our hypothesis was, there is not a group in the United States organizing to counter Moms for Liberty. And so we started talking to people and we quickly realized we were right.”
Another national group opposing Moms for Liberty was also building across the country. Laura Leigh-Abby was inspired to create Defense of Democracy when she saw Moms for Liberty-endorsed candidates for school board in her district in New York state with signs that said “Christ is King” in April 2022. When she posted about it in a local moms group online, she was attacked by Moms for Liberty members who had just established a chapter in Dutchess County. So Leigh-Abby tried something different, putting up her own signs saying: “Teachers shouldn’t be preachers.”
At the election in November, record numbers voted and Moms for Liberty candidates were defeated. “So we immediately realized, okay, grassroots does work and we can get people to fight this,” Leigh-Abby told VICE News.
Defense of Democracy, co-founded last year by Leigh-Abby and Karen Svoboda, now has chapters in 48 states. Just like Moms for Liberty, the group grew quickly. Within months, Defense of Democracy had chapters in more than a dozen states and over 2,000 members who were taking part in training and workshops designed to counter Moms for Liberty’s rhetoric.
Svoboda and Leigh-Abby have suffered a torrent of vicious attacks. They have been called groomers and pedophiles online and received threatening voicemails, during one of which someone threatened to put Svodoba in a wood chipper. “We’re absolutely in the crosshairs of some very scary and very violent people,” Svoboda said.
But others are thrilled by their work. Svboda and Leigh-Abby have been inundated with requests from small grassroots, parents’ groups across the country who were in dire need of advice and guidance about how to combat what they were seeing at school board meetings.
Their advice is somewhat simple: treat Moms for Liberty like a real threat to their community.
“We treat Moms for Liberty like the KKK,” Svoboda said. “If you knew that a KKK meeting was happening in a church down the street from your house, everyone would be alarmed, we would be picketing, we would be protesting, we’d have a petition. And that was exactly what we do.”
“We treat Moms for Liberty like the KKK. If you knew that a KKK meeting was happening in a church down the street from your house, everyone would be alarmed.”
When VICE News first spoke to Defense of Democracy in December 2022, they were struggling to combat Moms for Liberty and cope with the influx of new member requests. But when VICE News spoke to Svoboda again in April, she felt as if the tide had turned.
“We have them on the defense which feels so fucking good. We never thought we’d have that kind of effect,” Svoboda said.
One of their victories was getting three Pennsylvania lawmakers to sign a letter critiquing the Marriott hotel chain for hosting Moms for Liberty’s second annual convention in Philadelphia next month.
“Hosting an organization with a track record of promoting discriminatory practices and divisive policies goes against the principles of inclusivity and respect that should be upheld by a reputable establishment like yours,” Sen. Nikil Saval, Rep. Mary Louise Isaacson, and Rep. Ben Waxman wrote in the letter addressed to management at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown hotel. Marriott did not respond to a request for comment on the event or the letter from the lawmakers.
But success has come at a cost. Svoboda’s son, who is a member of the Gender Sexuality Alliance at his high school, has been targeted by attacks from Moms for Liberty. A former New York State assemblyman wrote an article calling members of the club groomers and pedophiles, and Moms for Liberty groups publicized the piece in Dutchess County, where Svoboda lives, and neighboring Orange County.
Liz Mikitarian, who was an educator for 30 years, is from Brevard County, the birthplace of Moms for Liberty. Mikitarian has remained active in school life, working on suicide prevention in schools and helping to fundraise for some social emotional learning (SEL) programming, a decades-old teaching practice to help students manage their emotions. In recent years, however, conservatives have baselessly connected SEL with critical race theory, making it a lightning rod in the war over what is taught in classrooms across the country.
“I was watching everything that Moms for Liberty were doing but when they started talking about social emotional learning, I’ve seen the benefit of that, I’ve seen the children and teens that have been saved, because the schools are trying to do something about mental health,” Mikitarian told VICE News. “And so that was what kind of pushed me to the brink to say ‘Okay, I gotta do something.’”
In July 2022, Mikitarian started the Stop Moms for Liberty Facebook group. Her aim was not to build a nationwide network, but to tap into the existing, though disparate, network of grassroots groups that had organically formed in recent years to tackle Moms for Liberty locally.
“There was no coordination either nationally, or statewide, where people could talk to each other, share ideas, share strategies, and that's why Stop Moms for Liberty was born. It was just a communication tool,” Mikitarian said.
The main Stop Moms for Liberty group now has over 7,000 members and there are 26 state or county-level subgroups which help organize on a local and regional level.
Their efforts, Mikitarian believes, are paying off: “They seem to be in defensive mode more than they were before,” Mikitarian said. “They had no one refuting what they were saying, no one fighting back or pushing back—and now they do. At a national level they are trying to encourage their members to be respectful and be kind. It’s an orchestrated effort to save their image.”
Mikitarian has also become the focus of threats and attacks online including claims by Moms for Liberty members that she has created a “hate group.” Every day, she has to remove Moms for Liberty supporters who are trying to infiltrate the organization’s private Facebook group.
“They had no one refuting what they were saying, no one fighting back or pushing back—and now they do.”
“As a founder of Stop Moms for Liberty I expected the attacks,” Mikitarian said, but when a cease and desist letter issued by lawyers on behalf of Moms for Liberty mentioned a family member’s name, it was a step too far. “Come after me but not my family,” Mikitarian wrote on her Facebook page after a Moms for Liberty group in Pennsylvania posted the letter on their page.
“The letter is a sham and they’re trying to take steps that they believe will intimidate us and scare us,” Mikitarian told VICE News. “They constantly throw out that they're coming after us legally and yet there’s nothing they can come after us for. We haven’t defamed them because we haven’t said anything we don't have proof for.”
The speed of Moms for Liberty’s growth, the resources it has available, and its deep ties to GOP donors and lawmakers has led critics to question its bona fides as a grassroots movement.
The group has repeatedly said that it makes the majority of its money from selling t-shirts, but it has incorporated as a 501(c)4 non-profit which is a well-known vehicle for dark money groups. Moms for Liberty refused to say who has donated money to its cause. Critics have said that it’s an astroturf movement.
Conversely, the vast majority of the grassroots movements fighting Moms for Liberty claim to have virtually no money.
“We have no budget, I can’t stress that enough. We have nothing. And we have been able to create this. We are grassroots,” Svoboda said, pointing out that she has been working 70 hour weeks for the last year without getting paid a single dollar for her work.
But one organization fighting Moms for Liberty is taking a leaf out of the Moms for Liberty playbook. Our Schools USA has been established as a 501(c)4 and will soon be setting up a Political Action Committee, in order to support their candidates in school board races across the country.
“We have got to play the game and that’s the game they’re playing,” Gagnier said, adding that if they named their donors those donors would immediately become targets for Moms for Liberty harassment.
But for most of the groups who are fighting back against Moms for Liberty, the fight is happening in classrooms and school board meetings in towns and cities around the country, where dozens or hundreds of small victories are building, activists hope, into a national movement.
“When you feel like your child is in the crosshairs, that’s when you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and say: ‘Okay, what needs to get done,’” Svoboda said. “I wouldn’t be doing this if, in my heart, I didn’t believe there were more good people than bad in the world.”
Follow David Gilbert on Twitter.