How a group that began by sharing racist memes, violent fantasies on Facebook became a force in Arizona politics
The Republic reviewed posts, comments, photos and videos from a members-only Facebook page where Patriots developed their beliefs and planned activities.
Rob O’Dell, and Richard Ruelas, Arizona Republic
As pressure began to build against Arizona’s COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, 500 people rallied at the state Capitol and stormed the lobby of the building where the Governor’s Office is housed. Some carried weapons and many had ties to the so-called Patriot movement.
A contingent led by Daniel McCarthy, the unsuccessful challenger to Martha McSally in this year’s Republican U.S. Senate primary, rode an elevator to the lobby of Gov. Doug Ducey’s office. They were there to demand that the governor lift orders that had shut down businesses statewide.
McCarthy later told the crowd in the lobby and watching via various social media livestreams that Ducey had refused to meet with them.
But it appeared Ducey received their message. If not that day, then on May 1 when a Patriot member mounted a recall campaign against the governor. Or two days later, when another 500 people turned out at the Capitol to protest.
Ducey had vowed to act only in the interest of public health. But despite no discernible turn in the state’s COVID-19 statistics, he unwound many of his orders. That set the state on a course that would see cases and deaths from the disease skyrocket for months and by July catapult Arizona to worst-in-the-nation status for cases of COVID-19 per-capita.
The governor would deny that the protests affected his decision making.
Marko Trickovic, who led the recall effort against Ducey, said regardless of what the governor claims, the protests “absolutely” made a difference.
“There was a lot of pressure put on that governor,” Trickovic said.
Success battling the public health measures was yet another sign of the Patriot movement’s influence within Arizona Republican politics, which has been building for years. That influence has shaped party governance, school policy and life-and-death decisions at the highest levels of state government.
This movement has been motivated, at least partly, by dark and hate-filled beliefs. The Arizona Republic reviewed thousands of posts, comments, photos and videos from a members-only Facebook page where a few hundred Patriots developed their beliefs and planned activities over more than two years. The posts contained Islamophobic and racist rhetoric, and followers traded in conspiracies and false information.
The Patriots: How a political movement took root and became a force in Arizona
The Patriot movement has an increasing influence in Republican politics. The movement was influenced by an Arizona author most don’t know.
DAVID WALLACE, THE REPUBLIC | AZCENTRAL.COM
In the members-only Facebook group, Muslims were frequently insulted as terrorists and “towelheads,” and crudely demeaned with false descriptions of sex acts. A Muslim woman running for U.S. Senate was labeled a “Subhuman bitch” who should be hanged. And members sometimes fantasized about watching illegal immigrants starve to death and fighting a civil war with liberals.
Patriot Movement AZ entered the public consciousness through provocative confrontations with groups they believe are destroying the country — liberals, immigrants, the news media and Muslims — while laughing off accusations that they were a hate group.
In 2018, a Patriot Movement AZ member, accompanied by another woman, streamed to Facebook as they entered a Valley mosque, took copies of the Quran and used anti-Muslim slurs. Later, members of the Facebook group confronted members of Christian churches who provided migrant families with temporary housing following their release from Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. The mosque incident led to criminal convictions against the two women, and the church incidents ended in a federal lawsuit. The Patriots who led the campaign at the churches agreed to stop their harassment.
While Arizonans are familiar with those episodes, few outside the group understand its influence on Republican leaders and its role as a party-aligned attack dog.
Even fewer knew what motivated the group’s thinking.
The thousands of posts and comments reviewed by The Republic were shared from mid 2016 until spring 2019, when the Facebook group was shut down — as members laid the groundwork for their growing influence on state politics.
Members of the closed Facebook group formed Purple for Parents, a conservative counterweight to the 2018 #RedForEd movementthat sought to increase public school funding and teacher pay.
They led a fight against K-12 comprehensive sex education, casting it as a conspiracy to persuade children to become gay, lesbian or transgender.
And Patriot Movement AZ’s successor groups, in both style and ideology, have been key in the movement that goaded Ducey to reopen the state during the pandemic.
“We are now seeing the fringes, particularly on the right, but across the ideological spectrum, holding greater sway,” said Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino.
He said groups on the far right, such as the Patriots, have undertaken a “reprehensible embrace of white nationalism” that is being mainstreamed through conspiracy-laden social media, particularly on Facebook.
“We are seeing discussions that in the past would have been segregated to an extremist fringe, now being mainstream acceptable,” Levin said.
No fewer than 13 members of the group have held or run for elected office, including at least seven 2020 candidates.
The Republic found at least nine members of the closed Patriot Facebook group have held official leadership positions within the Arizona Republican Party. And more than 30 members have become GOP precinct committeemen — the party’s foot soldiers and recruiters — with designs on expanding their influence there.
Kelli Ward, the chair of the Arizona Republican Party, declined a request for an interview about the Patriot movement.
Among 1,400 individuals The Republic identified as current or former members of the Facebook group are leaders of local Republican groups, an Arizona State University professor, legislative candidates and a school board member.
Among the notable names: Shawn Dow, who ran Ward’s 2018 U.S. Senate campaign; Dave Giles, a Republican congressional candidate opposing Democratic Rep. Greg Stanton; Forest Moriarty, the founder of Purple for Parents who ran for the Arizona Legislature this year; Alice Lara, who works for prominent Republican strategist Stan Barnes; and Merissa Hamilton, a Phoenix mayoral candidate.
Dow told The Republic that he was unaware he had joined the members-only group. He is often added to Facebook groups without his knowledge, Dow said. Giles said he recalled joining but rarely looked at what was posted. Moriarty hung up on a reporter who contacted him for comment. Lara said that she barely ever kept track of the group. Hamilton said she only posted news and events about Phoenix Councilman Sal DiCiccio, in whose office she worked, though The Republic reviewed material that showed she posted frequently about sex trafficking and other matters.
Some members of the Facebook group for Patriots never posted. Over time, some left the group. Others were kicked out. And at least one was discovered to be an interloper.
Whatever their reasons for joining, every member had access to the racist messages, hate speech about Muslims and illegal immigrants, conspiracy theories and fabricated news articles, and fantasies about violence contained in the posts reviewed by The Republic.
Few members denounced the objectionable content, even as the movement’s political influence grew. If anything, the occasional efforts to counter false claims put some members on bad terms with the larger group.
Patriot Movement AZ, which has since split over a personality clash among its leadership, has public Facebook pages as well. But the original, members-only Facebook group gave insights into the unvarnished thoughts that members shared among themselves but didn’t intend for a broader audience.
In the world described by Patriot Movement AZ, the United States faces an invasion by Muslims conspiring to install Sharia law with the help of liberal politicians and activists.
When the group discussed the U.S. Senate candidacy of Deedra Abboud, a Muslim woman, one group member wrote, “crawl back to your sh-thole country Ms Subhuman bitch.” Another chimed in, “hang this moslim piece of trash.”
In late September, after The Republic completed its review of thousands of Patriot posts and comments, it contacted Abboud.
She said she was familiar with the group. During her Senate campaign, she joined the Patriot’s members-only Facebook group to monitor threats to her personal safety, Abboud said.
She likely saw the anti-Muslim posts identified by The Republic in its reporting, she said, as well as others, including one falsely accusing her husband of having sex with boys.
Patriots confronted her campaign from the outset at restaurants and public parks, according to Abboud. Patriots sat a table at an Abboud campaign event, filming her with their phones as they asked her questions about her faith.
Abboud said she wants the public to see the full extent of the group’s hateful speech, even if it means repeating vile and offensive language directed at Muslims and other groups. If their comments were “watered down” — simply being described as racist — it would obscure the extent of the group’s hatred and mean that “other people don’t get to find out what Muslims get to hear.”
“Too often it’s just the Muslim in the corner that gets to hear it,” Abboud said.
Muslims were not the only target of the Patriots’ Facebook page. Migrant caravans traveling through Mexico to request asylum at the U.S. border also angered the group.
The U.S. should “drone bomb those f — kers,” one member commented. Others called for the U.S.-Mexico border to be lined with land mines or snipers. “Roaches, break out the napalm,” one group member commented in response to Central American migrants attacking the U.S. border fence.
Former President Barack Obama was a target of racist language. And one member shared pictures of CNN anchor Don Lemon photoshopped into advertisements for a minstrel show. But far fewer racist posts were directed at African Americans. The group was preoccupied with Muslims and immigrants.
While the racial-justice protests that captured national attention in 2020 had not begun during the period reviewed by The Republic, a few posts in earlier years were critical of Black Lives Matter, and called for it to be declared a terrorist organization.
The Facebook posts also showed members seizing on conspiracy theories.
Mass shootings — including the 2017 massacre at an outdoor country music festival in Las Vegas that killed 58 people and wounded more than 800 others — were frequently labeled “false flag” events carried out by the government or actors to advance gun control policy.
When a victim of the Las Vegas shooting was present at a November 2018 mass shooting in a Thousand Oaks, California, country music bar, the group didn’t see it as more evidence of how widespread gun violence had become in modern America, but rather further confirmation of a conspiracy.
“Possibly another false flag, or black op,” a member wrote. “Yeah that doesn’t sound fishy at all,” another added.
The Facebook group routinely fell for disinformation. Following the Thousand Oaks shootings, a member posted a picture and falsely claimed the gunman, Marine and Afghanistan war veteran David Ian Long, was in reality a Muslim man named Abu Al-Hom. “THIS is what the media is covering up.”
The Patriots’ source? Disinformation from the group “Republican Lives Matter” and anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller.
Group members believed other events were staged to harm the conservative movement. These included a President Donald Trump supporter mailing pipe bombs to CNN and prominent Democrats, including Obama, ahead of the 2018 election, and the 2017 white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us” and counterprotester Heather Heyer was run down and killed.
Patriots believed powerful forces were conspiring in other ways to harm them and their children. They dabbled in the world of QAnon, a far-right, pro-Trump conspiracy that falsely claims the “deep-state” is working against the president to cover up a network of high-ranking officials engaged in international child sex trafficking.
They believed liberals — aided by the LGBTQ movement — were bent on normalizing sexual relations between adults and children. One member shared a fabricated story from a well-known publisher of false stories reporting that France had eliminated the age of consent, “becoming the latest nation to give in to pressure from an international network of liberal activists determined to normalize pedophilia and decriminalize sex with children across the world.”
Members were also consumed by the idea that the country is sliding toward civil war, and vowed to use their weapons to defend themselves and their country. They routinely fantasized about shooting protesters when the civil war turned hot — with many members believing the conflict had already started.
“We are already in a civil war,” remarked the Libertarian political activist Mike Renzulli. “It got hot with the shooting of (U.S. Rep.) Steve Scalise.”
“(Checks Ammo) I’m good,” Moriarty, the Purple for Parents founder, responded.
Renzulli did not respond to requests for comment.
Group leaders implored members to abide by the law in public confrontations, and sometimes intervened when members suggested specific acts of violence.
Jennifer Harrison, a leader of the Patriot movement, said in an interview that the group worked to eliminate posts that threatened violence. Sometimes, she said, such comments came as she was livestreaming from an event, videos that were open to be seen by anyone. In those instances, two moderators watched for violent comments and deleted them, she said.
“We’re banning or blocking anybody who is just: ‘Shoot them in the head,’” she said.
Harrison was one of the most prolific posters in the members-only group, but when asked about the Facebook page, she claimed she didn’t spend much time on it. She didn’t disagree that some people’s posts were Islamophobic, homophobic and racist.
After she was given administrative access, she said, she deleted videos that crossed the line. In one, she said, a woman chased someone she thought had robbed her while yelling racial slurs.
A vast amount of the hate-filled material remained, however.
Lesa Antone, a co-founder of Patriot Movement AZ, said she that unlike Facebook, she would never “censor people and what they say.” Antone said she was more focused on the Patriot Movement’s public page than the invitation-only group, although she posted often in the closed group.
She said she’s not responsible for what people said in the Facebook group. “Unless it came out of my mouth, unless I personally posted it or commented on it, do not try and put it on me,” she said.
Antone said the focus should be on the violence and riots of Antifa and Black Lives Matter rather than a two-year-old Facebook group. She said those groups are violent, but the Patriot Movement isn’t.
“We’ve never been violent, that’s not what we’re about,” she said. “Why aren’t we talking about the violence, the burning down of cities, the removal of our country’s history?”
Antone said the media attempts to smear her because she holds different, conservative opinions and the media will never report on the positive things the Patriot Movement has done, such as feeding the homeless at public parks and fundraising for disaster relief in Florida.
Antone said she gave up her street activism.
“I just want to be left alone. I don’t want to be in some news piece. I’m not out there doing anything. I’m not bugging anybody,” she said. “Even a year and half later, I still can’t even have peace.”
Patriot Movement AZ and its successors have been labeled hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Members of the Patriot Movement sued then-state Sen. Katie Hobbs for saying the “OK” signs they flashed in a photo with Ducey indicated support for white supremacy. The case was later dropped.
Still, members posted pictures of themselves posing with guns and boasted of bringing weapons to rallies as a show of force and an expression of their love for the Second Amendment.
But others said they feared what left-wing protesters and Muslims might do to them if they met them unarmed.
In November 2017, Harrison posted a video to the Facebook group. It shows a man walking on a West Valley street. He wears a backpack and holds the Quran in one hand and points skyward with the index finger of his other hand.
“A man leaving the mosque on I-17 walked all the way home with his Quran in one hand and his ISIS finger up in the other for about 5 miles. Welcome to Phoenixstan, folks. #travelbannow,” Harrison wrote in her post.
She said in her post that she had followed him for miles. The post lit up with 85 comments.
A member said Harrison should have asked him where he is from and the meaning of holding up his finger. (The gesture signifies oneness with Allah, but has been used by ISIS fighters and sympathizers and is seen as a symbol of ISIS by some groups, especially on the right.)
Harrison responded that she didn’t want to confront him. “I was alone, in Phoenix in the Trump mobile with my Infidel stickers. I wasn’t about to draw his attention by myself haha. I didn’t know what was in the backpack.”
The commenter agreed that confronting him could be dangerous and suggested the backpack may have contained a pressure-cooker bomb.
Harrison said she planned to follow him the next day with Antone to get his address and send his name to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.“Lesa Antone and I are gonna stalk it out tomorrow and get some more footage,” she said.
Antone responded: “Let’s go out tomorrow!!!”
The man is “creepy,” Harrison wrote. “That is extreme Islam in my opinion. This dude is a radical,” Harrison said.
Antone questioned why someone wouldn’t be alarmed by the man walking down the street in that manner holding up the “ISIS symbol,” although she said she doesn’t think she ever went out with Harrison to find him because they would have live streamed it.
Imraan Siddiqi, the executive director of Council on American-Islamic Relations in Arizona, said he has never seen someone walking holding up a Quran with one hand and raising their finger with the other “in my lifetime as a Muslim.”
“They will do anything for social media and clicks,” Siddiqi said. “Most of their audience is outside the state of Arizona. They are using these streaming platforms to gain clout and to get clicks and go viral on social media.”
Posts reviewed by The Republic show a core belief of Patriot Movement AZ is that the United States faces a Muslim invasion that unchecked will force non-Muslim Americans to live under Sharia law and allow their children to be preyed on by pedophiles. Group members cite passages in the Quran to contend Islam encourages pedophilia.
In one post, a member asked the others what they would do if they heard a Muslim yell “Allah Akbar,” which means “God is great” in Arabic and has been shouted by terrorists during their attacks.
“Double tap the goat f — -er,” responded one member, using an insult common to the group. “Shoot first question later,” said another. Patriot Movement leader RJ Jaffe posted a GIF of a man firing a gun.
A member posted a meme calling for the destruction of Islam. “They come to the West, preach radical hatred and try to change our laws and culture. Pointing this out then makes us racist! Destroy Islam, save Humanity.”
One member pushed back, calling the post “way over the top.” The focus should be on annihilating the terrorist group ISIS, not millions of other Muslims, the member said.
In response, the original poster shared a picture of a snake in the grass with the words “radical Muslims are snakes. Moderate Muslims are the grass they hide in.”
The group sought opportunities to confront Muslims in public and prove their fears were justified.
Jaffe, a group leader who is married to Antone, posted videos critical ofCAIR and urged members to protest the “local terrorists” at a conference the group hosted in Mesa in November 2017.
At the protest of the CAIR event, video shows Jaffe screaming at attendees, asking them if they wanted to cut off his head. Harrison shouts at them, “Do you like your genitals, ma’am. Do you like your genitals?”
Following the protest, Antone posted a video defending the group’s actions, saying they “did not spread a message of hate” but instead “stood in truth.”
“It was a successful night and it was fun,” she said.
Siddiqi said one of the more disheartening things about the Patriot protest was the lack of denunciation of their behavior by local politicians.
“It’s something that has been an acceptable form of bigotry, especially among elected officials, where there’s been little to no commentary or movement to really curb that type of hatred,” he said.
Muslims weren’t the only invaders threatening the country, the group believed. Undocumented immigrants also imperiled the nation.
“Illegals are not ‘immigrants!’ They are illegal invaders/aliens/criminals by that very fact of entering and staying illegally!” one member posted in the Facebook group.
Legal immigrants were also incompatible with American culture unless they assimilated, many in the group said. That included those given legal status through Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a group often referred to as “Dreamers.”
In response to a news article about “Dreamers” going on a hunger strike to press for a vote to legalize their immigration status, one member posted to the group: “DO YOU CARE IF THEY STARVE. I DON’T … GET OUT! #NoAmnesty.”
A member added: “Unfortunately the jail can’t let them actually starve to death. Although I would pay to watch their last agonizing breath.”
They cheered Trump’s efforts to build a wall along more of the U.S.-Mexico border. In comments, they often echoed the Trump campaign chant of “Build the wall.” They also echoed his anti-immigrant rhetoric and politics of grievance — undocumented migrants were responsible for the problems of U.S. citizens.
Harrison suggested the group boycott a mortgage lender offering loans to DACA recipients. “What in the actual hell is this? No more rewards for being in the country illegally!”
“So let’s help the illegals but the hell with Americans who are struggling wtf,” another member responded.
Antone said in an interview that she supports legal immigrants but not those who have illegally crossed the border.
One woman posted video from a Los Angeles TV station showing a celebration following Mexico’s win over South Korea in a June 2018 soccer match. Hundreds of fans celebrated in an intersection, lighting firecrackers and doing doughnuts with their cars.
“They are so ‘proud’ of their sh-t hole that they scream and cry like little bitches when they are forced to return to it,” said a poster.
News of crimes committed by illegal immigrants were a frequent topic, including the murder of Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old University of Iowa student, by a Mexican farmworker in the country illegally.
Giles, the congressional candidate running to unseat Stanton in Arizona’s 9th District, responded to a Tibbetts post with “Build the DAM WALL!!!! Vote Giles.” He also liked a comment calling for sharpshooters on the wall to aim at people’s heads.
In an interview, Giles said he joined the group because it supports the flag, the Constitution and Trump. He said he did not closely monitor the discussion.
He said he supports building the wall but not putting snipers on it. He said he did not remember liking a comment about sharpshooters but said sometimes online you “poke” issues a little bit to see what kind of reaction you will get.
The group whipped itself into a frenzy in October 2018 over migrant caravans traveling through Mexico to request asylum at the U.S. border.Posters said if the caravans stayed close together it would be easier to drop bombs or napalm on them or shoot them.
Patriots also bought into fabricated news stories claiming ISIS terrorists had infiltrated the caravans. It was far from the only time the Patriots Facebook group fell for fake news.
Reading through thousands of posts and comments from the Patriots’ closed Facebook group is like falling down a rabbit hole where facts are “fake news” and actual false stories are fact. And where disinformation and conspiracy are shared as gospel. Truth in a funhouse mirror.
The arrest of ardent Trump supporter Cesar Sayoc before the 2018 midterm election on charges that he had mailed pipe bombs to the news media and Democratic donors and politicians ignited intense discussion in the group.
The primary concern: Sayoc had hurt Republicans, in particular the Trump-led MAGA (Make America Great Again) movement.
One man offered his opinion, “There’s a ton of false information about this guy right now. Many want to spin this as a Deep State operative. … He is clear(ly) not a stable person, there are many of us in the GOP and Qanon followers that are clearly not that stable.”
He compared Sayoc to the supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders who shot at Republicans at a congressional softball team practice. “He did not represent Senator Sanders, just like this maniac does not represent any of us, or our President.”
Few were persuaded, and the thread descended into conspiracies, including that Sayoc was a patsy in a Democratic National Committee scheme to discredit conservatives.
Sayoc’s van, covered with stickers extolling Trump and mocking Democrats and the news media, was a plant, remarked one poster. The stickers were too uniform and weren’t worn, causing him to believe they had been affixed to the van at the same time, a member said.
“Patsy all the way! This guy is a false flag!” the poster wrote.
Sayoc admitted to building and mailing 16 explosive devices and pleaded guilty to 65 felonies in connection with what the U.S. Department of Justice called a “domestic terror attack.”
Similarly, Antone and other group members claimed the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was a “false flag.” This one was orchestrated by Antifa and George Soros, the philanthropist and Democratic donor who has become a favorite bogeyman of the right. Antifa is a loosely knit group of counterprotesters who militantly battle “facism” and right-wing ideology.
One poster remarked that Soros, who is Jewish, had paid members of neo-Nazi and Antifa groups to clash at the event.
Another member blamed Antifa for the Charlottesville violence and said the news media had misrepresented it. “Trojan horses and wolves in sheep’s clothing everywhere,” she wrote. “There’s a war coming … I’m ready.”
While the group directed a drumbeat of criticism at the mainstream news media, often echoing Trump in calling it “fake news,” members routinely seized on actual fake news to confirm their biases and fears.
A frequent poster shared an article from the conspiracy and pseudoscience site Humans Are Free. It was titled: “The UN is Normalizing Pedophilia: The deep state is free to prey upon your Children.” She quoted the article, saying “as the Deep State is further exposed for their role in PedoGate, we can expect more counterattacks such as the legalization of pedophilia.”
The group responded, with 19 members liking the post and 56 commenting. Some cited the “news” as a manifestation of creeping Sharia law.
One group member recognized the story as a fabrication. “More fake news, has anyone even looked at this site?? Fake news on BOTH sides is a huge problem,” he said.
The original poster shot back, “Facts are facts, regardless whether you like where they originate from lololol.”
The critic of the post was no liberal troll. His personal Facebook page was full of criticism of Democrats and establishment Republicans. But he wasn’t buying Patriots’ promotion of fake news.
“I guess I know what they mean by far right conspiracy theorists now, this group is not for me. … I’m offended that I have to read fake news on a group of supposed patriots, starting to look more like a group of fake news conspiracy theorists, which is a huge problem in America.”
He urged the group’s moderators to remove such posts.
Antone, one of the moderators, instead kicked him out of the Facebook group.
“He only wants to be insulting. He can do that in his other groups,” she wrote.
Patriot members also accepted satirical “news” as fact.
“White man asked black friend to impregnate his wife to fight ‘White Privilege,’” one satirical article was headlined. It was accompanied by a photograph of a white couple holding a Black baby. “He feels ashamed of the privileged status he had endured all his life as a white Caucasian male,” the satirical article stated.
The source was the World News Daily Report (slogan: “Where facts don’t matter”), which carries a disclaimer that its content is fictional and intended as satire.
But most who commented took the article literally, and as confirmation that liberals are blinded by political correctness.
Hamilton, the Phoenix mayoral candidate, shared in May 2018 a post that claimed the LGBTQ community was adding P to the acronym. The P stood for pedosexual — sex between an adult and a child — also known as pedophilia.
Hamilton’s source: a disinformation campaign hatched on 4chan, an anonymous online forum that’s a frequent source of fabricated news stories, hoaxes, online harassment and conspiracy theories. It was the birthplace of the QAnon conspiracy theory.
The fact-checking website Snopes called the “LGBTP” post a PsyOps campaign by anti-gay activists seeking to link “homosexuality and pedophilia.”
Users commented 41 times expressing outrage over the “news.”
“Disgusting. Dare I CALL THEM…ANIMALS?,” said one poster.
Asked by The Republic about sharing the false story on the Facebook page, Hamilton sent an email expressing her disgust with the sexual exploitation of children, something she said was being aided by Democrats.
The Patriot Facebook group was obsessed with pedophilia, frequently contending that the group’s enemies — Muslims, liberals, the LGBTQ community — were behind a secret push to normalize sex between adults and children.
While the Patriots harassed local church workers assisting refugees, they suspected that what they were witnessing was a child sex trafficking ring. Both Antone and Harrison shouted versions of “Whose children are these?” at volunteers who had agreed to house the families for the night.
A poster set a bomb off in the group by sharing a New York Times opinion article that argued “pedophilia is a disorder and not a crime” and that pedophiles should get psychiatric treatment so they stop reoffending.
The group viewed the opinion piece as a broad endorsement of pedophilia.
“Disgusting!!!! Not a disorder, but pure evil, should get the death penalty not treatment,” said a group member. “It’s all connected, this is where liberal values are leading us to.”
Another said, “Patriots fight enemies foreign AND domestic! Pedo’s are an enemy of this nation.”
A man who sometimes talked with the group about QAnon, posted an article by fake news publisher YourNewswire claiming France had eliminated the age of consent so adults could legally have sex with children.
“NOW ALL THOSE M (Muslim) MIGRANTS ARE FREE TO RAPE FRENCH CHILDREN AT WILL,” the man wrote. “THIS SCUM BAG ELITES ARE ATTEMPTING TO LEGALIZE IT EVERYWHERE TO SUIT THEIR DISGUSTING HUNGER.”
In reality, the French law did not repeal any existing age of consent and actually strengthened penalties for sexual abuse.
Patriot Movement AZ also shared posts suggesting the LGBTQ movement was pushing sex with children, particularly singling out the transgender movement.
One commenter said: “How have yall not caught onto this, there is a movement within the lgbtq+ group for pedophilia, they are trying to justify it as a mental disorder and also saying children can consent to these animals sick desires.”
Brent Backus, a GOP precinct committeeman who in 2018 ran in the Republican primary for the Senate seat then held by Don Shooter said, “What’s wrong with Maricopa County? Maricopa county Superior Court now has a transgender judge … They are making their way into the system to change our Judeo-Christian values.”
In an interview, Backus said the United States is a Judeo-Christian nation and “a transgender judge to me is an abomination to the lord.”
Antone posted a picture of a teenager holding a sign reading, “I’m not a Boy or a Girl where do I pee?”
“LGBTQ IS A MENTAL DISEASE! GET HELP!!!” one member responded.
Antone said in an interview that one of her closest friends in the Patriot group is transgender and the meme she posted was likely about protecting girls from having to use the same same bathrooms as men.
The Patriot Movement’s accusations that the LGBTQ movement was trying to indoctrinate children into the gay and transgender lifestyle presaged conservative Republicans’ opposition to comprehensive sex education in Arizona schools.
The Patriot Movement AZ Facebook group reviewed by The Republic was archived in March 2019.
At 1,400 members, moderators said, it was too large and many members never posted. They also suspected a mole had infiltrated the group and was feeding information to Antifa. (Patriot Movement AZ within weeks opened a smaller Facebook group for vetted members.)
The original Facebook group could be written off as another corner of the internet where like-minded people confirm each other’s thinking in an echo chamber. But for Arizonans, the discussions and ideas had impact beyond the social media platform, influencing high-profile debates and public policy.
Patriot member Moriarty formed an offshoot group called Purple for Parents, intended as a “grassroots” counterweight to the influential #RedForEd movement that sought more funding for teachers and schools.
The Patriot Movement AZ administrator account welcomed Moriarty and Purple for Parents: “We need to protect our state from the socialist takeover which has hijacked the school/education system.”
Purple for Parents matched the Patriots’ in-your-face style. The groups also shared common members including the founder Moriarty, Jinhui Chen, Karen Wood, Rich Osiol and Angi Stamm, who are all precinct commiteemen in the Republican Party. Chen hung up on a reporter seeking comment. Wood, Osiol and Stamm didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The Patriot Movement and Purple for Parents’ brash and conspiratorial tone inflamed one of the state’s most divisive education debates over the past two years — comprehensive sex education.
The Arizona Board of Education in 2019 was deciding whether to alter the guidelines it set for school districts to give students medically accurate information and to allow more teaching about LGBTQ issues. Local school districts started debating changes to their curriculum as well.
The Patriots viewed comprehensive sex ed as a conspiracy to coach children to become transgender, gay and lesbian and to groom them for sexual abuse. Their public challenge to comprehensive sex ed had been brewing for years within the Facebook group.
Members had shared videos from Sex Ed Sit Out, America News Daily, and the Freedom Project Academy, which has ties to the John Birch Society, claiming that under comprehensive sex ed: Children as young as 4 would be encouraged to engage in sex play; third-graders would be taught they can choose their gender; fourth-graders would be shown graphic books that could be considered pornography; and European standards of teaching kids about masturbation and gender issues at ages 4 or younger would come to the United States.
The Patriots’ rhetoric — echoed by prominent Republican politicians and conservative groups — reverberated throughout the state. The Tucson school board had to postpone a September 2019 vote because of heated protests by parents challenging changes to the abstinence-only curriculum. Rival groups — faith groups opposed to the changes as well as LGBTQ groups that supported them — clashed outside the meeting, nearly escalating into physical altercations. Emotional meetings followed across the state, including in the Chandler Unified school district.
Lindsay Love, a member of the Chandler school board, said she ran for the seat in part after hearing the anguish felt by a transgender nephew who attended school in the district. Within months, though, she found herself accused online and at meetings of working to sexualize kids.
During a board meeting, she said Moriarty made a show of opening his suit jacket to show off his gun holster before he spoke to the board, a move she took as a sign of intimidation.
The state Board of Education backed off its discussion of comprehensive sex ed following a heated hearing in June 2019 during which Antone told the board they were “trying to sexualize little innocent babies.”
“You want to put them in makeup and make them drag queens and make them sexualized individuals,” Antone said. “Shame on you!”
Tami Staas attended that meeting wearing a T-shirt that read “Protect Trans Kids.” She was hoping revised standards would make adolescence easier for transgender youth like her son, who came out as a middle school student.
Staas, in a phone interview, said Antone tried arguing with her prior to the board meeting. Antone accused her of wanting to indoctrinate children and called her “trash.”
Staas said she sat “confused and dumbstruck” as people made speeches to the board. “All homosexuals are pedophiles,” she said, summing up the arguments. “Trans people are freaks.” Staas said she felt wounded as people said that parents of transgender children were subjecting them to psychological abuse.
When it was her turn to speak, Staas said walked up to the podium to a sea of boos and hisses. Similar noises punctuated her remarks. “I’d never been booed like that before or since,” Staas said.
In an interview, Antone said children should be allowed to be children and not taught about masturbation in kindergarten. “Does it scare me that liberals are continuing to move that goal post more and more and more? Absolutely, it’s terrifying,” she said.
In August, state schools Superintendent Kathy Hoffman was attacked in online messages that compared her to accused sex traffickers Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, saying she was grooming schoolchildren for pedophiles through sex education policies. The criticism echoed the Patriots Facebook group.
The Patriots’ broadest impact on public policy came during the COVID-19 pandemic in the push to reopen the state.
Data didn’t support reopening. Federal guidelines called for a 14-day decline in cases before lifting public health orders. But the protests had mounted. Ducey, with a visit from Trump scheduled for the next day, announced he would unwind his orders.
By the day the stay-at-home order fully expired May 15, Arizona hit a record number of coronavirus cases. Cases would explode, pushing the percent positive tests to 26% in July, the highest in the country.
When the stay-at-home order was lifted in May, Arizona had 13,000 cases and 650 deaths. By the end of September, there were more than 215,000 cases and more than 5,500 deaths.
Ducey has consistently said the reopen rallies, which included lawmakers and candidates for office, had no impact on his decision, which he said was guided by public health.
The governor and his spokespeople did not respond to requests for an interview about that May decision. A Republic reporter attended Ducey’s media briefings virtually for several weeks to ask about it, but was never given an opportunity to ask a question.
Days of protests from the Patriots and others elevated the idea that the state’s economy did not need to be shut down to protect public health. Groups inspired by the Patriots urged businesses to defy the order.
The rallies exposed people to extreme ideas beyond COVID-19 concerns. Attendees heard one man postulate that he might have to shoot Democrats were they not voted out. Another referenced the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Nina Jankowicz, disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center and author of the book “How to Lose the Information War,” said Facebook groups like Patriot Movement AZ’s have become a danger to society. People who join them are more trusting of information shared there by friends and acquaintances, and once Facebook learns an individual’s interests through the groups they join, its algorithm suggests ever more radical groups for them to join.
“It’s a place for them to organize out of plain sight and that’s really scary,” she said. “Already the effect that they are having on the outside world is more than I would want.”
Jankowicz monitors several Facebook groups opposed to requiring mask-wearing and vaccinations. She said the groups are a public health risk. “This is a vector for massive disinformation, and people are at risk because of the behavior that is spread,” she said.
Key members of the reopen movement were members of Patriot Movement AZ or inspired by the group. Trickovic, the leader of the Ducey recall effort launched to press the governor to end stay-at-home orders, was a member of Patriot Movement AZ’s closed Facebook group.
In an interview, Trickovic said he didn’t think the rise in COVID-19 cases after the orders were lifted had come from crowds that packed the bar districts in Old Town Scottsdale and Tempe’s Mill Avenue. Instead, he theorized, the state had intentionally held back reporting tens of thousands of cases and strategically released them to create an artificial spike and perpetuate fear.
“There’s a lot of money made off coronavirus,” he said, indicating he believed Ducey was among those profiting.
Steve Daniels, another organizer of the reopen movement, said he considers himself a Patriot movement member even though he did not join the Facebook group.
Daniels attended reopen rallies during those weeks, often heading to the building’s eighth-floor lobby with McCarthy, the U.S. Senate candidate, and demanding an audience with Ducey.
Video Daniels posted to Facebook shows him in the Governor’s Office lobby calling Ducey a “tyrant” and comparing Arizona Department of Public Safety troopers to Nazis who followed orders.
Daniels, in a phone interview, said he was convinced the new coronavirus was “a bioweapon” created by man, repeating a conspiracy that has circulated on the far right.
While Daniels was posting from inside the building, Moriarty — the Purple for Parents founder and member of the Patriot Movement AZ’s closed Facebook group — addressed a crowd of hundreds on the plaza across from the Capitol.
Moriarty, who ran for a legislative seat representing the suburbs east of Phoenix including Apache Junction, said he had been thinking about the Old Testament book of Exodus, in particular the “spirit of tyranny” embodied by Pharaoh, who enslaved the Israelites.
That spirit was alive and well in modern elected leaders’ orders to close hair salons and restaurants to fight the spread of COVID-19, Moriarty said.
“Remember the words spoken by Moses: ‘Let my people go,’” he thundered, leading the crowd in a chant. “Let my people go.”
Two weeks later, Ducey announced he would let the people go. First barbershops and salons. Then restaurants. Then gyms and public pools. Finally, pro sports and movie theaters.
Though 5,000 Arizonans would die of the disease in the months that followed, Ducey’s message in reopening the state was reassuring. Arizona, he said, was “clearly on the other side of this pandemic.”