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Local Patriot Event Has Chaffee Residents Asking Questions

A disturbing trend occurring across rural America appears to have come home to a local school district: right-wing organizations such as “patriot” groups, and militia groups such as the Three-percenters, are getting involved at the local level in school boards, questioning school policies and school district curriculum.

This coming Friday, Jan. 14, the local Chaffee Patriot group has invited School Superintendent Lisa Yates and BV High School Principal Jon Ail to their meeting and publicly asked them a set of questions that could be seen as intimidating. They’re asking about COVID protocol, face mask mandates, sex education curriculum, and the district’s criteria for evaluating teacher performance, among other things. Knowing Yates, she’ll no doubt be gracious. But then again, there’s no election on, the school administration isn’t under investigation, in fact, it’s done so well under extreme circumstances — so why now?

Ark Valley Voice has fielded this and other questions in the past few days, with callers asking why they would choose to hold it at a church, why (in their view) they would want to intimidate schools, what right this group has to question curriculum, and what sort of point is being made.

The same group asked all the Buena Vista school board candidates running in the 2020 coordinated elections to answer similar questions, getting into mask mandates, vaccine support, sex education, and critical race theory (a theory that is not taught in high school or lower grades, but a topic that has become a dog whistle for right-wing conservatives).

For a group whose own messaging says it is nonpartisan, these could be viewed as partisan moves. [Chaffee Patriots claimed in an apparently unedited piece dropped into The Chaffee County Times last week to represent “the very ethics and moral principals on which our country was founded.” But we all need to remember that the great compromise that resulted in the Constitution created vast inequities in Senate representation. The Constitution when first written protected white men, but not women, and allowed slavery in the southern states that festered into the Civil War, and then the Jim Crow era.]

Conservative involvement at the grassroots level isn’t an accident. The strategy, articulated early in 2020 by national Republican leadership, is to overtake American government at all levels, particularly at the local level; with committee work, boards, school districts, and commissioner roles. In and of itself, this would seem to be public service. But the questions being asked come down from the national levels and big underwriters include the Koch Brothers. The intent of this far-right nationwide shift: to grow their local influence.

A message sent to Chaffee County Patriots and Republicans a year ago, that was shared with Ark Valley Voice (AVV), read “it is time for a grassroots effort, Chaffee County Patriots Must Own Chaffee County.” What exactly does that mean? Does that mean involvement, or does it mean something else?

As noted, Buena Vista is not the only small rural school district in which the right-wing of the conservative movement are flexing their attitudes. In rural Eatonville,  Washington, The Washington Post reported that the school board race between a respected parent who had put in years on the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) and was well-versed in school policy and budgets was out-voted by a home-schooling, anti-masking member of the far-right Three Percent movement, who became the second member of the radical Three-percenter group on the five-person school board.

For those who may have missed AVV coverage of patriot groups, militia groups and Three Percenter ideology in stories we have run beginning in 2019, the Three Percenters is a self-styled militia movement that promotes conspiratorial views about government overreach and imagines “patriotic” Americans revolting against perceived violations of the Constitution. The name stems from the debunked notion that only three percent of colonists rose up in support of the American Revolution. Members often sport Three Percenter Tattoos and give a three-finger hand signal.

A meeting in Greenwood Village filled with those protesting mask mandates and school COVID policies threatened to become ugly. Photo by the Denver Post.

Having talked with extremist analysts about these far-right organizations over the past two years, AVV has learned that they present their views as “defending liberty,” and representing “real American values”. They tend to focus on rural conservative places like Eatonville, Washington — and Buena Vista, Colorado.

This past year, the Republican national narrative consisting of conservative grievances and fears overtook local elections and local party attitudes like never before. According to researchers who track the mainstreaming of far-right ideologies, the ideology of the Three-Percenters is now basically the same as most elected Republican leaders or pundits on Fox News shows. What this means is — right-wing extremism is moving to the center of what used to be conservative positions.

As first reported in The Washington Post, Kate Bitz of the Western States Center, a regional anti-extremism watchdog, said the school board and school leadership push is an extension of an “inside/outside” tactic of armed groups fielding candidates for legitimate posts, while simultaneously agitating for political violence. The attention from the U.S. Capitol riot forced groups to delay national work and basically begin to launder their image at the grassroots level, explains Bitz. “They are hoping that they can advance the inside part of the inside/outside game without having to take on the cost of the intimidation, the harassment, the undermining of democracy that they are also engaging in,” said Bitz.

Across the nation as well as in central Colorado, there have been several recent incidents in which “patriot” groups, Proud Boys, and white supremacists reportedly used force or intimidation at public events including school board meetings, particularly in the build-up to the last coordinated election.

In Eatonville, as The Washington Post detailed in its early January story, the school board race spiraled into a fight over mask mandates and how race is taught in school. The moderate parent who lost said she couldn’t believe that parents elected a militia member whose kids weren’t even students of the public school district.

“I don’t even know how to explain it except to say, in the face of the facts, they still chose to run with fears,” candidate Sarah Cole told The Washington Post, after losing to the three-percenter-tattooed Ashley Sova.

In Buena Vista last year, when the local Patriots group asked them to appear, the school board candidates who attended espoused generally conservative views in line with the community, some expressed skepticism over facemask mandates and critical race theory.   Similar efforts in Eagle and Summit Counties fueled by outside funding were less effective and the conservative candidates lost; showing that outside money doesn’t always influence the outcome.

In Custer County, which elected three new school board members last November, what had been a fairly balanced, more moderate school board has shifted to what one local journalist describes as a board with an anti-vaxxer, an anti-common core member, another on the extremist fringe, and just one who appears to have the necessary experience.

According to extremism trackers, the Chaffee Patriots, who formed out of nowhere in August 2019, and the Eatonville upset, are part of something that is bigger than a small-town influence group. Far-right groups have been moving away from national organizing to focus on building grassroots support. Their role is to create and harness conservative outrage, wrapped in religion, freedom, and apparently, apple pie, to influence school boards and other local offices.

According to extremism analysts, that grassroots effort was stepped up after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, because the militant right’s role in the insurrection came under federal scrutiny and is in operational disarray. This confusion was evident in social media, including in local social media, as the right-wing appeared to take a “we’re waiting to be told what to do” attitude on more aggressive action. Then areas of this and other states have moved on to local  “mom activist” groups focused on election integrity pushing a debunked theory that there was voter fraud [there wasn’t] then to school board races, and now it is flexing its muscles poking at community values.

As a state, “Colorado has always had a fair amount of libertarian crankiness,” said a Colorado journalist who works in a rural county near Chaffee. “But it wasn’t the authoritarian version we’re seeing now. It was the ‘live and let live’ mantra. Now,” and she paused before continuing. “It is just something else — and it’s not good.”

Editor’s Note: the references to the school board races in Eatonville, Washington all relate to a story first published by The Washington Post. We inadvertently failed to add that reference to the link title and apologize.