2 women became stars of Arizona’s Patriot movement by antagonizing foes. Then they clashed
Jennifer Harrison and Lesa Antone became political figures through sheer will. A personality clash left each to lead their own wing of the Patriot movement.
Richard Ruelas, and Rob O’Dell, Arizona Republic
Jennifer Harrison was alone and feeling a little timid in her Donald Trump cap as she entered Phoenix City Council chambers, her first time attending a government meeting of any kind.
She was unsure where to sit or how to sign up to speak. Then, as Harrison recalled it, a red-haired woman wearing a black T-shirt that read Patriot Movement AZ grabbed her and told her, “C’mon, you’re with us.”
With that, Harrison and Lesa Antone would become fast friends. The September 2017 meeting would propel both women, and the Patriot movement they would champion, into the spotlight.
Over the next year, the two would become political figures through sheer will. They would become agitators and irritants.
Their favored tools were their cellphones, through which they streamed live video of their antics to their Facebook group, and a megaphone, through which they would bark insults and invective at their political enemies.
They would be interviewed by mainstream media outlets, as well as web-based talk shows. They would be photographed with the governor. They would endorse some political candidates and be demonized by others. They would file a lawsuit against a legislative leader. They would face a federal civil rights lawsuit. One would be banned from the Arizona House of Representatives.
Then, a personality clash would lead to them splitting apart, each to lead their own wing of the Patriot movement.
Harrison looks back on her time with Antone as a whirlwind of activity that she might not have been prepared for.
“We did have fun,” she said. “There are instances when I look back and say, ‘You know, wow, we could have scaled that down a little.’”
Antone agreed that she and Harrison shared some good times.
“We did a lot of good, we had a lot of fun, we had a lot of laughs. And when it was over it was over,” she said. “My hope is that we showed a lot of people not to be afraid to stand up, not to be afraid to use your voice and to voice discontent and anger.”
The Patriot group started during the 2016 presidential campaign, though electing Donald Trump was not the goal, according to Shelby Busch, one of its founders, preceding both Antone and Harrison.
Busch, in a July phone interview, said that she and some friends who would regularly talk politics online were incensed that then-FBI Director James Comey did not file criminal charges against Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for president.
For Busch and her friends, Comey’s decision “showed government corruption at all levels.”
They decided to meet in person and form a group to research and expose the ill doings of officeholders. And they would stay apolitical.
“The only rule was we were never going to sell ourselves as a partisan group,” she said. “We were a constitutional group that hated corruption.”
The group started two Facebook pages: one open to the public; the other accessible only by invitation.
It is not clear when Antone joined. She appears to have been one of the early participants in the Facebook groups.
In a Facebook post in August 2016, Antone put out a call for people willing to show up at protests and rallies. “When we stand united, we are noticed,” she wrote. “We can educate and influence those around us.”
Antone, of Litchfield Park, a relatively well-to-do suburb west of Phoenix, had taken part in a home-based business marketing candles. In blog posts from May 2010, as she was trying to draw attention to her enterprise, she described her life as a mother of two.
“I was a single mom and worked hard to climb the corporate ladder to support my kids,” she wrote. Her kids spent “a lot of time in after-school programs while I worked long hours to make ends meet.”
She felt fortunate to marry a man, RJ Jaffe, a physical therapist, who treated her kids as his own, she wrote.
After Trump’s election, Patriot leaders thought they were on the verge of a populist movement that would sweep the world. In a December 2016 post, Antone credited Busch for being among those who “helped lead the way and pave a path to freedom.”
Antone was listed as a facilitator on a flyer for a “March 4 Trump” event, one of several held across the country on March 4, 2017, to show support for the president less than two months after his inauguration.
The group sought advice from Ken Crow, a Texas-based political consultant who was key in the Tea Party movement. Crow, in a phone interview, said he helped the group line up speakers for events.
“For the most part, they were sweet people,” he said, though he didn’t see much in the way of leadership. “They weren’t going anywhere,” he said and so he gracefully backed away.
Crow said that Antone in particular came across as conspiracy-minded and grating.
“She was very in-your-face,” he said. “She likes that bully pulpit. Stand on your soapbox, doesn’t matter if anyone is listening or not.”
Crow said Antone talked with him about conspiracies involving the New World Order and a small cadre of global elites plotting to take over the world.
“The minute I hear that,” Crow said, “I just walk away.”
Crow said he figured the Patriot movement in Arizona was not going to change anything with the street activism it was doing.
“That’s not going to win you an election,” he said. “Everybody’s going to think you’re an idiot because you’re standing in 110-degree heat with a bullhorn at three in the afternoon.”
By summer, Busch was troubled reading comments on the group’s social media pages.
In June 2017, she had helped plan a rally at a Phoenix park against Sharia law, a set of rules found in the Quran, the holy book of the Muslim faith. Similar events were held across the country.
Busch wanted to protest the dictates of Sharia law, not Islam as a whole.
But online, and at the rally, she saw that distinction was lost on her fellow Patriots.
“They were saying negative things about Muslims. They were just focused on Muslims, focused on Muslims, focused on Muslims,” Busch said. “I understood their heart and where they were coming from. But their message isn’t my message.”
At the event, Antone gave an interview to a reporter writing for the Hatewatch section of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website. “Islam is our enemy and I don’t care, they can call me a hater. They can call me a whatever,” Antone told the reporter. “Islam’s our enemy.”
Busch, along with her significant other, formed a separate group, leaving the Patriot group in the hands of Antone.
Busch said Antone was eager to take over.
“She wanted to take the reins,” Busch said.
Though Patriot Movement AZ was one of a handful of groups with similar goals of returning the nation to constitutional principles, under Antone’s leadership, it would gain quick and wide attention.
It was a month after taking over as leader of the Patriot group that Antone spotted a Trump-cap wearing Harrison in Phoenix City Council chambers.
Harrison said two days later, she received a call from Antone. “You’ll be perfect in this,” she recalled Antone saying.
Harrison said she thought, “Alright, cool.”
Antone introduced Harrison to the Patriot group. “Jennifer is a bold, unapologetic Patriot,” Antone wrote on the members-only Facebook page in September 2017, “and will be a dynamic and outspoken addition to the team!!!”
Harrison said she found Antone a little rough around the edges but was excited to make her first foray into politics.
Harrison was born in Brooklyn and raised in the western suburbs of Phoenix and, until 2016, had never entered a polling place.
“It just wasn’t important to me,” she said. “It didn’t affect my day-to-day life.”
But Trump got Harrison excited about politics. She registered to vote in October 2016, one day before she would have been ineligible to cast her vote for Trump.
“He’s a strong personality, a strong New York personality. Very similar to my father,” she said. “That’s how I was raised, with a man of that demeanor.”
Harrison’s father moved from New York and opened a photography studio that landed contracts to take school photographs, ensuring a steady income.
Harrison’s father, Anthony Caminiti, wanted to leave the business to his children, Harrison and her brother. But, court records show, the two clashed over running it. The two sued each other. By the time the case settled in 2018, the business had folded.
Harrison was also sued by her parents in 2003 over damage to a condominium they let her live in. In court papers, Harrison’s father said the relationship with his daughter had “deteriorated during recent years due to what we perceive as serious drug, behavioral and social adjustment problems she is experiencing.”
Harrison, in an answer to the complaint, denied damaging her parent’s condominium.
In a phone interview this month, she acknowledged her recreational drug use almost two decades ago and said she left that lifestyle through inner strength and her Christian faith.
By the time she joined the Patriot movement, Harrison was working as a real estate agent. She was divorced and the mother of two children.
In Tucson, in January 2018, Harrison and Antone would find their modus operandi. They wouldn’t just organize their own events and actions. They would insert themselves into others.
Immigrants-rights advocates held a demonstration outside the office of then-Rep. Martha McSally. Harrison, Antone and about eight others made the two-hour drive to serve as a counterweight.
Antone stood near the protesters, who were asking that the Obama-era program that deferred immigration enforcement for certain young people, known as DACA, be retained.
Through a bullhorn, Antone shouted messages seemingly intended to rankle the protesters: “We will build the wall, put an end to DACA and deport illegal aliens,” she says on a video of the protest on the Patriot Movement’s Facebook page.
The actions were not intended to change the minds of those protesting, but to gain attention for the group, Harrison said. “More and more people were seeing what was going on and wanted to do something,” she said.
The group’s public Facebook page gained followers.
There were countless Facebook groups for like-minded conservatives, as well as in-real-life organizations such as Riders USA, Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association and Proud Boys.
But it was Patriot Movement AZ’s public actions that brought attention to its Facebook page, serving as a potential funnel to other groups in the movement.
Harrison said that when she joined, the group had about 500 followers. Over the next year, it would reach 40,000 followers, she said.
It seemed what they wanted was to see Antone and Harrison do more guerrilla protest actions.
In January 2018, they went to the state Capitol. The Latino group LUCHA was holding a news conference with Democratic lawmakers, part of a day the group brings students to the state Capitol.
It is a signature event for LUCHA, said Abril Gallardo, the group’s spokesperson, who was there that day. For most of the students, it is their first time at the Capitol. Some, she said, bring along their parents.
But on this day, Gallardo said, she had to explain why Antone, Harrison and other Patriots were shouting during the news conference — their voices competing with the speakers.
Afterward, the Patriot group roamed the Capitol grounds waving Trump flags and confronting people they encountered.
As a line of schoolchildren walked by, Antone yelled, “American dreams are for American children.”
Gallardo said the confrontations shook the children. She huddled the group together and “regrounded” them, she said, reminding them why they were there and why this day was important.
“No matter what they say, they’re wrong and we’re not going to give them space to instigate, to give them energy or space to disrupt this moment,” she said.
As a group of legislative staffers who appeared to be Latino walked across the Capitol plaza, Antone shouted, “Come into the country legally. Legal immigration … You do not have the right to disrupt our government.”
As one man walked away from Antone, she shouted at him. “You’re an illegal alien.”
Some legislative staffers told the Arizona Capitol Times the taunts were intimidating. Katie Hobbs, then-state Senate minority leader, sent a letter to her Republican counterpart and security calling such harassment unacceptable.
In the Patriot’s members-only Facebook group, someone posted a link to the Arizona Capitol Times story. In the comments, group members were appalled that they were being accused of directly saying individuals were in the country illegally.
One member noted the interaction, captured on video, in which Antone did exactly that. “In the future,” he wrote. “I’d refrain from calling anyone illegal unless you know them and have proof.” The man wrote that he knew the accusation wasn’t intended to be malicious.
But their antagonistic style would continue. All of it captured on video. Much of it livestreamed to Facebook.
The group “crashed” a speech by Sen. Bernie Sanders at the Orpheum Theater on March 6, 2018, chanting, “Build that wall,” from the audience.
A man crouched in the aisle and asked them to be quiet. After a few more minutes, and a few more outbursts, they were escorted out to cheers. Sanders had yet to take the stage.
The next week, two women tried to replicate Harrison and Antone’s tactics by entering a mosque in Tempe with a video camera. On the video, they instruct their children to pilfer pamphlets to stop the spread of what they deem Islamic propaganda. They also make disparaging remarks about the religion and its adherents.
After the women were arrested by Tempe police, Patriot Movement AZ tried to distance itself from the women. Both women were later convicted on criminal damage charges. In a Facebook post, the group described the women as former affiliates who “continue to show up where we are, but they do not represent us.” One of the women, according to another Patriot Movement AZ post, was removed as a member two weeks prior and the other was never considered a member.
But reporter Nick Martin, in an article for the Southern Poverty Law Center, wrote that he had spotted the mosque intruders at both the Sanders speech and at the state Capitol in January, where Patriots had hounded lawmakers and staff.
The Patriots attended a student protest calling for gun-control legislation. Students lay down in the lobby of the state Senate building, holding a “die-in.”
Harrison, carrying her camera, walked among the students, asking them to defend statements on their signs. She was met with silence.
“Last week, they were eating Tide Pods,” she said to the students and her viewers. “This week, they’re gun experts.”
At one point, Harrison and another protester lay down on the cement, mocking the “die-in.” Students turned and started chanting at the Patriots. Antone filmed them circling her and then showed her own face, smiling.
The group was getting attention, whether good or bad, and it knew it.
In April 2018, Patriot members headed to Mohave County for a “Patriot” dinner hosted by the Republican Party. Antone, Harrison and three other members posed for a photo with Gov. Doug Ducey. Antone held her fingers in an “OK” gesture.
The gesture has a complicated connection to white supremacy. The idea began as a joke in online bulletin boards, suggesting it could stand for O-KKK. But some appropriated it as such a symbol. Others began using it simply to annoy liberals.
Antone said her group, who had been invited to the dinner, took the picture to rub it the faces of the students who organized a March for Our Lives rally at the State Capitol the previous month. Ducey had refused to meet with those students.
After the photo was posted online, Hobbs, the state Senate minority leader, wrote on Twitter that Antone was flashing a white supremacy symbol while standing next to the governor.
Antone and Harrison filed a libel suit against Hobbs. A judge, noting to the muddled meaning of the gesture, dismissed the suit, saying what Hobbs had written could not be objectively proven false.
The symbol doesn’t mean a thing, Antone said, adding “leftists just can’t get it through their head and they need to see white supremacy and Nazis everywhere they look.”
A spokesperson for Ducey said at the time the governor didn’t know who he was taking a picture with.
But that wasn’t the case, Antone said.
“He knows who we are,” she said. “Did he deny it? Yeah, I don’t care.”
Beginning on Dec. 26, 2018, Antone, Harrison and other Patriot members began tracking immigrant families, including young children, from a Greyhound bus station to various churches in the Phoenix area.
The families were refugees seeking asylum. But Harrison and Antone saw them as illegal border crossers who were gaming the system, using a shortcut to gain entry into the country.
The churches, they said in videos, were rolling out a proverbial red carpet for the new arrivals while ignoring the needs of American citizens.
Antone wandered the grounds of the churches, phone in hand. Even when church members asked her to leave, she said she wouldn’t until ordered off the property by a police officer.
Outside Monte Vista church in Phoenix, Antone got into a discussion with Pastor Angel Campos. At one point, according to video of the interaction, Antone asked Campos if the refugee influx was “fair” to her and the community.
She mentioned the potential for the people to commit crimes or need to be hospitalized, but also mentioned something more personal.
“My grandchildren can’t play in the front yard of my home without me having to be worried because people come up that speak no English and come to my front door and want to do my yard work,” Antone told the pastor.
The videos were a hit. Harrison told a police officer, in a conversation captured in her livestream, that each was getting between 50,000 and 100,000 views.
Harrison and Antone also suspected something more sinister was afoot at the churches after watching families being loaded into cars and driven away. The cars belonged to churchgoers who had volunteered to host the families for a day or two. But Harrison and Antone wondered whether they were witnessing a sex-trafficking operation.
As refugees got off buses at churches, Antone and Harrison would shout versions of this question: “Whose kids are those?”
The trafficking accusations were the heart of the federal lawsuit filed against the Patriots by the churches, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The churches wanted the Patriots to stop coming onto their property and shouting at volunteers, some of whom, according to the lawsuit, felt badgered to the point of not wanting to help anymore.
The lawsuit was settled months later, with Harrison, Antone and the others agreeing to, among other things, stay away from church properties, not use a megaphone that could disturb church activities and take down videos in which they implied trafficking. Each also paid a modest amount for damages.
The Southern Poverty Law Center shared with The Republic the now-deleted videos, which were to be exhibits in the civil trial.
Although Antone, in the videos, appears to be more aggressive than Harrison at the December 2018 church demonstrations, Harrison said that by early January 2019, Antone was asking the group to tone down its activities.
Harrison said she believed the request was related to troubles Antone’s husband was having at work.
In the libel suit filed in October 2018, Jaffe asserted he had been “ridiculed at work” over the Ducey photo and criticism and that his employment had been “threatened and hangs in jeopardy.”
The next month, Jaffe was arrested by Tucson police. Jaffe had grabbed at the phone of a woman during a shouting match at a Patriot event, an incident witnessed by a police officer. Jaffe was cited with misdemeanor assault. Records show the charges were dropped in April 2019.
Antone was not with Harrison when she slipped past security at the state Capitol by pretending to be with a group of high school students interviewing a Democratic lawmaker.
The Republican speaker of the House barred Harrison from the chamber following that stunt.
And, Harrison said, Antone initially did not want the group to rally outside the home of Democratic U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego. Harrison said it was a coordinated effort with Patriot groups in California and Texas who were protesting outside Democratic lawmakers’ homes in those states. The premise: Show that the lawmakers were hypocrites for not wanting a border wall, despite their own homes being fortified with walls and security.
Gallego asked U.S. Capitol Police to investigate the incident. His office did not provide an update on the matter.
Harrison said Antone eventually showed up outside Gallego’s home after she saw other Patriots were going on without her.
But, Harrison said, Antone was upset that she didn’t have control of the group. Harrison said she and about a dozen other members decided to split off from Patriot Movement AZ and form AZ Patriots.
Antone wished Harrison well on the Patriot Movement AZ page on Feb. 18, 2019.
“We are sure their team will be active and successful at triggering those darn radical AZ leftists,” she wrote. She said the “founders” of Patriot Movement AZ would continue “our original intent of exposing corruption, supporting constitutional values and never backing down from the lies.”
Harrison said the split was simply a personality clash. “There wasn’t any freedom to say, ‘I have an idea. Let’s do this,’” she said in an interview. “It was Lesa’s way or no way.”
Antone’s response: “You do realize how stupid that sounds when you know Jennifer Harrison.”
In the first days of AZ Patriots, Harrison continued to post video from outside churches. She included pitches for viewers to subscribe to her new page. “Please, guys, this is a new page,” she said in one video outside a Mesa church. “AZ Patriots. Click, like, share and follow.”
Some Patriots tried to support both. But as time went on it became apparent the two groups were cleaved.
Jeremy Bronaugh, a longtime member of the group, likened it, during an interview, to a “schoolyard-type fight.” He joined Harrison’s group.
Harrison blamed Antone for causing friction between Harrison and her daughter. She also wondered whether Antone was somehow behind her arrest in Surprise for identity theft. Harrison was arrested for using hotel points that belonged to her former in-laws, though no charges were filed.
Antone said she has never spoken to Harrison’s daughter either online or in person. Antone laughed off her being behind Harrison’s arrest, adding that “Jennifer would still like to be relevant in my world and she is not.”
“I don’t have anything good, bad or indifferent to say about her,” Antone said. “I wish her the best. I hope she has a successful life. It doesn’t matter to me.”
Since the split, Antone’s group has been more muted. There have been frequent Facebook posts, but Antone’s aggressive protest actions have become scarce.
Early this year, Antone announced she was stepping back from Patriot Movement AZ to focus on her family and the future. She said she would still attend town halls, candidate events and rallies, “but my days of fighting in the streets are done.”
Antone has held to that vow, save for attending one of the rallies to end the state’s COVID-19 lockdown, she said. Antone called coronavirus the “scamdemic” and said COVID-19 has been “overplayed and overhyped to use against President Trump.”
Despite her years of street confrontation, she said activism doesn’t work.
“I don’t think it made a difference,” she said. “I thought it did. I hoped it did. But it didn’t. It made no difference.”
Antone said the movement became “more about personalities and less about principles.”
“The whole movement to me felt like it became more look at me, look at me, look at me, instead of trying to show people, look, this is what’s going on and this is what we need to do to preserve our country,” she said. “My whole goal is to make sure my granddaughters grow up in a free country.”
Antone said she needed to focus on her family. “I just decided to hang up my hat,” she said.
Harrison, meanwhile, has continued the street activism. She has also moved into the political realm. She became a precinct committeeman, an official position within the Arizona Republican Party, in April 2019.
But, Harrison said she remains more comfortable on the street than within the system.
“Anything in life that’s not right should be opposed strongly and boldly,” she said.
In June, Harrison and her boyfriend, Michael Pavlock, drove to the downtown area to monitor protests calling for police reform. They livestreamed most nights they attended.
In one video, the two stopped at an intersection that police had temporarily closed to let protesters pass.
Harrison, according to video, used her bullhorn to shout at the crowd. Her offerings included: “Pants up, don’t loot,” “Black rifles matter,” and “Trump 2020.”
About a half-dozen protesters peeled away from the march and approached Harrison.
She yelled, “You’re going to get sprayed.” Pavlock yelled, “You’re going to get shot.”
A girl approached their car and Harrison sprayed her with what she said in the video was “bear spray,” a concentrated form of pepper spray. An officer directed the two to leave the area.
In recounting the incident for viewers of the video, Harrison acknowledged she had “triggered” the crowd with her shouting.
“I was just being my obnoxious self on the megaphone,” she said. “I poke the bear. That’s what I do best.”