By Ryan Cook
In an emotional performance on June 17th, a group of Pennsbury’s “concerned parents” and “taxpayers” echoed the same misleading and politicized rhetoric of right-wing media pundits, QAnon conspiracists, and religious fundamentalists. Nearly every speaker who criticized Pennsbury’s diversity initiative is a member of “ReOpen Pennsbury”, a Facebook group linked to the broader “Reopen” movement. They shouted and screamed, declaring Pennsbury’s new diversity and equity initiatives to be “Critical Race Theory” or “CRT”. Many of them specifically targeted Pennsbury’s director of Diversity Equity & Education, Dr. Cherrissa Gibson.
“I want you, the school board, to terminate the employment of Dr. Cherrissa Gibson, with immediate effect,” shouts Simon Campbell. “And after you’ve terminated her employment, I want all of you to tender your resignations for hating on this country!”-LMT GOP Committeeman Simon Campbell
While their anger may be real, the rhetoric from these parents and other schools across the nation has no basis in reality. As many news outlets have reported, this wave of controlled opposition to so-called “CRT” is all part of a fake political crisis dreamed up by Manhattan Institute fellow Chris Rufo toward the end of the Trump administration. Threats of violence at school board meetings have led some districts like West Chester to switch back to virtual. While Rufo may have helped forge the “anti-CRT'” rhetoric, there was already a prominent right-wing activist infrastructure in place at schools in Pennsylvania. For decades, corporate reformists and religious extremists have been using boogeymen like “CRT”, Common Core and “woke indoctrination” to push for voucher programs and full privatization. This sort of billionaire-funded organizing with a grassroots appearance is known as astroturfing. Together with the corporate lobbying group ALEC and the Heritage Foundation, Rufo hosted a workshop in December of 2020 entitled, “Against Critical Theory’s Onslaught: Reclaiming Education and the American Dream”. Somehow Rufo and other conservative strategists keep saying the “quiet part” of their racist political strategy out loud while news media outlets continue to spread their message without challenge, providing a sense of legitimacy to their manufactured crisis.
Parents Defending Education (PDE) is one of the newest organizations in this political scheme. In his personal blog, Forbes contributor Peter Greene describes the group, “This is not just astroturf, but astroturf with its brown shirt on”. Like many of the literally hundreds of new organizations fighting diversity and equity initiatives, it operates under a cloak of liberalism or nonpartisan branding. PDE’s leadership is connected to the Manhattan Institute and numerous other right-wing “policy institutes” and think-tanks. They worked closely with Parents for In-Person Education (PIPE) to recruit parent volunteers and run candidates in Bucks and the rest of Southeastern PA during the May 18th election.
On July 14th, groups from across Pennsylvania demonstrated in support of the Teaching Racial and Universal Equality (TRUE) Act (HB1532) at the State Capitol. The legislation is designed to be a powerful form of censorship that would essentially make teaching about racism a form of “racism”. The law strips funding from schools who violate it and could paralyze the court system as every complaint against every “controversial” subject at every school would have to be defended in court or result in a loss of public funding. Pennsylvania Reps. Russ Diamond (R-Lebanon) and Barb Gleim (R-Cumberland) introduced the bill in June and some of the main groups involved include “Citizens for Renewing America”, run by Trump’s former OBM director Russ Vought; Freedomworks; Tea Party Patriots; and No Left Turn in Education. Freedomworks led a nationwide tour for its “BEST” organization to help train potential school candidates.
Pennsbury chose to delay the release of their June 17th board meeting video while they claimed it was undergoing “legal review”. Some of the recent board meetings have been edited to remove content Pennsbury claims to be “personally directed, abusive, obscene, or irrelevant”. While there are many well-intentioned reasons for doing this, there are also many reasons to be concerned about the practice. The massive right-wing media machine was quick to promote its own edited versions of the June meeting all while complaining their “free speech” was being oppressed. Pennsbury eventually released an unedited version of the June video on its website and appear to have stopped removing comments.
Death Cult for COVID becomes Notorious C.R.T.
“Libertarianism” in the U.S. is a political ideology which primarily associates capitalist property rights and wealth accumulation with “liberty”. The movement has always been strongly influenced by a complex network of billionaire-funded political organizations and think-tanks. The massive amount of funding they receive allows them to provide lots of free activist workshops, training and events. These projects redirect attention away from the real sources of economic exploitation and leverage public outrage to advance a right-wing corporate agenda.
The “Reopen” movement has many shared roots to the Tea Party of a decade ago. The cultural and economic impacts of the pandemic have been hard on everyone. Many working-class people embraced conspiracy in the face of job loss and isolation/alienation that was exacerbated by COVID restrictions. This is especially true for the business owner class which has historically been a driving element in fascist movements. Many Americans were quick to embrace Trump’s brand of nationalism and authoritarianism. With many people working or staying at home, the GOP and their corporate lobbyist friends have been able to outsource much of their work to volunteer activists.
These groups organize fairly openly on social media and while some mainstream platforms have taken steps to moderate “extremist” content, many users have shifted to networks like Telegram, MeWe, or Gab. These smaller networks create even more dangerous feedback loops of hate and disinformation. QAnon is the newest rebranding of the same anti-Semitic “Blood Libel” and satanic panic the Nazis used to gain power. The QAnon conspiracy has driven many extremists to run for school boards. As Steve Bannon recently stated in his podcast “the path to save the nation is very simple. It’s going to go through the school boards.”
When the pandemic began winding down, GOP operatives and school privatization organizations shifted their focus to causing panic over school diversity and equity programs. This is not solely a Trump/GOP issue however, and the “anti-CRT” mob is somewhat diverse for a movement that is based on Klan politics and nationalism. This collaboration between the religious right, New Atheists, Zionists, white nationalists, “Libertarians”, QAnon conspiracists, anti-vaxxers, conservatives and even liberals serves a variety of political purposes.
Fatu Markey dropped out of the Pennsbury race after she chose not to embrace the CRT hysteria. “After reviewing the results from the primary I simply lack the resources to be competitive against the well-funded, special interest operation,” she wrote on Facebook. Soon after, she posted emails leaked from the Lower Makefield GOP. They found a new candidate, Pirooz Abir who was willing to parrot the talking points about how “CRT” will “divide us”. Pirooz has already been endorsed by the Bucks County chapter of the “Proud American Patriots Network”, a militia group that had planned to protest Central Bucks School District over masking. The militia’s website has a forum with links to files on counterinsurgency and booby-trapping.
Sunlight makes the best disinfectant…
In the August 19th meeting, President Christine Toy-Dragoni opened the meeting with the following statement:
“There is a national, politically driven campaign to misrepresent critical race theory and then conflate critical race theory with any work related to equity. Throughout these last several months, there have been a vocal minority seeking to bring this misrepresentation and conflation to Pennsbury.”-Pennsbury School Board President Christine Toy-Dragoni
With the new McCarthyism of “CRT” paranoia and the county’s decision to require masking, the rhetoric from the right-wing has changed to encourage a new sort of “white flight”. Some parents are threatening to withdraw from the district and “defund” Pennsbury, seeking virtual charters and private schools instead. This reactionary element is being exploited and exacerbated by the GOP and its constituents in the education reform industry.
Simon Campbell – Former Pennsbury board member Simon Campbell led star performances in denouncing Pennsbury’s diversity and equity initiatives in both the June and August meetings. Simon is currently on the Lower Makefield Township GOP Committee and has been working hard to connect Republican candidates to wealthy donors. In emails posted by her husband Earl Markey, former GOP candidate Fatu Markey was forced to drop out of the race for her refusal to embrace the CRT-panic agenda of the GOP and the “well-funded” special interests. In the email, Campbell proposed that he might run for school board again as a write-in or spend his money in Palisades.
Simon is active in a number of regional “Tea Party” organizations and lobbyist groups in Harrisburg. He has led talks in support of anti-union “Right to Work” laws at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference, the United States’ largest state-based conservative conference. Simon heads the organization “Better Pennsbury” as well as Stop Teachers Strikes although both projects seem to be on the backburner while he’s focused on helping inundating public schools with frivolous RTK requests and electing a majority Republican school board in Pennsbury.
My interest is in winning an R majority for school board. Not 1-2 people getting on the school board. I’m talking about 5+ candidates getting on the school board. Anything other than majority control doesn’t interest me. If that’s not looking viable then I won’t waste my time and money in Lower Makefield. I’ll go help the Republicans in Palisades raise money instead.Simon Campbell – Lower Makefield Township GOP Committeman N3
Tim Daly – Tim has been working hard to promote the GOP’s candidate for Pennsbury Region 1, Victoria Czechowski. The campaign has been supported by “Keeping Kids in School PAC” and Daly along with Robert Abrams helped oust Fatu Markey when she was hesitant to promote talking points regarding “CRT”. During the August 19th meeting Daly became extremely aggressive during his rant regarding the many RTK’s he filed against the district.
Tim Daly also helped push for Pennridge School District to drop its diversity and equity program which Dr. Cherrissa Gibson helped create. The NAACP and the ADL released a statement condemning the district’s decision. Tim runs the Facebook page “Pennsbury Pride” (formerly known as ‘Save Gretzula’) and spends a lot of time promoting his rants in other Pennsbury community groups on Facebook.
Jennifer Spillane – Spillane is campaigning for the GOP in Pennsbury’s Region 3. She is also backed by KKISP and Pennsbury Students First”. Like most of the KKISP candidates, she crossfiled to run as both parties in the May 18th primary. Jennifer works at the Wilberforce School, a member of the Association of Classical Christian Schools (ACCS). The ACCS has been pushing its own “anti-CRT” campaign and the owners of Coventry Christian School (an ACCS school) helped form the organization Parents for In-Person Education
Candace and Frank Cabanas
Candace Cabanas is the spouse of Frank Cabanas, another KKISP-endosed candidate and Trump loyalist. Candace helped promote the petition against “CRT” that Liza Martin made.
The Watkins/Cabanas “Falls Guys for Pennsbury” have been sounding the dogwhistle on a potential merger between Morrisville and Pennsbury. The campaign sent out a bunch of mailers prior to the May election which are reminiscent of racist propaganda during the anti-bussing days.
Liza Martin is another GOP candidate who spoke at the June meeting. Liza started an online petition “Pennsbury Taxpayers and Parents Against Critical Race Theory”.
She’s endorsed by the Falls Township GOP committee led by Dennis Hamburg who is evidently linked to QAnon conspiracies and the PA Health Freedom Alliance.
Erin Lyons spoke at the August meeting and is the Bucks County chair for Moms for Liberty, the nationalist, anti-vax organization that has recently launched 44 chapters in 19 different states. Her ideological opposition to the institution of public schooling is quite obvious by her words at the August meeting:
“I hope you heed warning and make a change before you lose funding and watch the public school system collapse because we as parents will not stand for this any longer. we will pull our children from your district and explore safer options. Consider what you’re doing to make a buck.”-Erin Lyons, Moms For Liberty, Bucks County
Dr. Rashida Ghardi is part of the anti-vaccine/anti-mask “Pennsylvania Parents Protecting Children”. The organization declares CDC recomendations have no basis in science and masks are “child abuse”. The website has links to anti-mask petitions in every school district in Pennsylvania.
Dr. Ghari runs an IV bar called “Salus Hydrate” in Doylestown where people can receive injections of various vitamin cocktails. Ghardi’s site claims to “treat autism” which sounds eerily similar to the use of chelation therapy which has lead to death.
Janelle Sullivan spoke at the August meting and gave a passioned speech on how she supposedly used homeopathy to ‘detox’ her son from autism which was “caused by vaccines”. She asked how many people in the audience knew someone with autism and then told them it was because of vaccines. She also said she would not send her child to a school where they could “choose their gender”.
Janelle runs the Heartline Foundation and advocates for “CEASE” therapy for children with autism. CEASE therapy or (Complete Elimination of Autistic Spectrum Expression) is a pseudoscience which can be very harmful. “It’s absolutely appalling,” said Carol Povey, director of the centre for autism at the National Autistic Society (NAS), which helps develop best practice.
Zbigniew Stankiewicz spoke at the June meeting. He was reluctant to stop livestreaming and give his information but here’s some of his statement:
“This is communism. We escaped this. I will not allow it. My parents fought for me to have a better life and I’m gonna fight tooth and nail for my children to have the right type of education, the right type of life. That they can EARN their right to be successful. By work, character, hard work, which everybody in this country has the ability to do so. It has nothing to do with skin color and if you’re gonna sit there right now and judge me on the pigmentation of my skin and call me white, I’m gonna be offended. I am Polish. A proud Polish-American. So for you to sit there and try to discriminate individuals by the pigmentation of their skin and try to teach children that one is better than the other, that’s racist. This will not be allowed. We will not allow it. We will fight. Understand this? And if anybody wants to make an excuse, that’s exactly all they’re doing is making excuses. “
George Cannan is brother-in-law to Newsmax’s Shaun Kraisman. In June, Cannan spoke about how his son felt uncomfortable referring to Carl Weathers as “Black” because he was taught to “not see color”. He then showed the viral video of Kory Yeshua, a conservative Christian TikToker who recorded himself and his daughter speaking out against “CRT”.
George’s recording was uploaded to YouTube and promoted on Newsmax the very next day.