On a sunny Saturday in a Knoxville, Tennessee park, a man with a microphone told a crowd of parents to bar entry to their children’s schools.
“Starting Monday morning and until this is over, we need to bring Knox County schools to a screeching halt,” he said to applause. He called on parents, students, and staff to participate. “We have a moral obligation to our children’s future. Block the entrance to the school with your car. That’s my suggestion. Block the entrance to the drive—don’t even let a bus in your schools. If you can be that bold in your groups, do it.”
The event, “Parents In The Park” was billed as a meet-up for parents who objected to a mask mandate in Knox County schools. But the Sept. 26 gathering was more than just concerned caregivers. It was organized and hosted by the John Birch Society (JBS), a far-right organization that found the peak of its power in the 1960s and ’70s—when it fought civil rights legislation, attracted segregationists, and believed that communists were poisoning Americans with fluoride—before rejection by mainstream conservatives sent it into decline. But the organization has made efforts to rebuild since the 2010s. And in its opposition to COVID-19 restrictions, the once-fringe group is hoping to tap into a popular right-wing grievance.
A Facebook event for the “Parents In The Park” event described it as hosted by the JBS’s Tennessee chapter. That chapter’s “field director” Jon Schrock also spoke at a recent “Patriot Church” meeting about the need to demonstrate against Knox County school mask requirements.
Paul Dragu, a JBS spokesperson, confirmed that Shrock had hosted the Sept. 26 event, but said the JBS did not endorse an event speaker’s calls to block school doors with cars.
“The purpose of the event was to facilitate a gathering of parents and citizens whose main commonality was concern about the mask mandate imposed on students in the Knox County Schools district,” Dragu told The Daily Beast via email. “During the event, multiple people spoke, including a gentleman who, as evidenced by video, suggested blocking the school entrance and bringing the schools to a ‘screeching halt.’ That gentleman was not the organizer of the event nor did he represent the JBS. There was no indication beforehand he would say that.”
Instead, Dragu said, the JBS encourages the elimination of public schools.
“A nightmare scenario of having to don a mask in order to play the theatrical part that the overall community of do-gooders wants you to do…”
“While we disagree with all mask mandates, we do not endorse blocking schools or impeding anyone’s ability to access them in any way,” Dragu said. “The official JBS stance is that instead of struggling against public schools, parents should immediately abandon them altogether.”
Shrock also distanced himself from the speaker who called for blocking schools, and instead proposed defunding the Department of Education.
“We are calling for the shutdown of the schools via funding,” Shrock told The Daily Beast, “so his comments would not be in line with what we would be calling for.”
The John Birch Society has spent more than half a century in militant opposition to liberal policies, often waging those fights through public schools
“Since its founding in 1958, the John Birch Society has actually viewed schools as a primary way to pursue reactionary right activism. They had been involved in fights against desegregation, bussing, affirmative action in college admissions, against the creation of ethnic and Black studies programs,” Susan Corke, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project told The Daily Beast. “It also fits into a larger pattern of delegitimizing elected school board officials and public school teachers who are perceived to be ‘anti-American.’”
Founded in 1958 by wealthy candy manufacturer Robert Welch Jr., the JBS spent decades leading conspiratorial crusades in the name of anti-communism. Opposed to the civil rights movement, sex education, and the Equal Rights Amendment, the JBS spun fanciful stories of impending communist takeovers supposedly lurking just behind modest social reforms. Although those theories became an embarrassment to the broader GOP by the ’80s, the group mounted a comeback effort after President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, said Darren Mulloy, a professor of history at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University.
“I think in the 2000s, they saw an opportunity, first with the rise of the Tea Party then the alt-right and Trump Republicanism,” Mulloy, author of the book The World of the John Birch Society: Conspiracy, Conservatism and the Cold War, told The Daily Beast. “I think they saw a shift in the culture that they believed would help them revive their politics. I think they made a concerted effort to push themselves forward and make themselves more relevant. I would imagine these anti-mask protests are part of that ongoing effort to rebuild itself.”
Knoxville-area schools are not the only site of the JBS’s mask-based outreach efforts. Last summer, the JBS paid for a pair of anti-mask billboards around Spokane, Washington. With a picture of a woman grimacing at a face mask and the text “freedom is the cure,” the billboards also displayed the group’s URL. The JBS field director who organized the billboards, the Spokesman-Review reported, was a longtime associate of Matt Shea, a far-right former Washington lawmaker who was reported to the FBI after distributing a manifesto about killing non-Christian men during a religious war.
The local anti-mask efforts appear to follow broader JBS messaging. Last August, amid a global pandemic and a bitter presidential election, JBS CEO Bill Hahn made a video predicting that face masks would be “the most divisive issue of 2020.”
“You’ve probably experienced some of this same rhetoric as you going about doing what used to be mundane weekly chores like shopping, which have suddenly turned into a nightmare scenario of having to don a mask in order to play the theatrical part that the overall community of do-gooders wants you to do, all without a care or thought to what this usurpation of powers will lead to in the future,” Hahn said in the video. He went on to describe mask requirements as a nefarious symptom of democracy.
“This is what democracy looks like,” he said, “a majority sweeping away the rights of the minority.”
From Welch to Hahn, the JBS and its leaders have long voiced open hostility to democracy. When a Politico reporter sat in on a JBS training session in rural Texas in 2017, he was treated to a 45-minute video titled “The Dangers of Democracy,” in which a lecturer described democracy as “mob rule.”
“They had been involved in fights against desegregation, bussing, affirmative action in college admissions, against the creation of ethnic and Black studies programs.”
Despite Dragu’s disavowal of blocking school entrances, school officials claim that some demonstrators have done just that.
An Oct. 1 legal filing by the district’s school board highlights mask-based conflicts. Many stem from a local Facebook group, which “currently has over 4,200 (four thousand and two hundred) members,” the filing reads.
“During the time the group was public, there were numerous posts organizing protests or suggesting that students attend schools unmasked as a form of protest. Those threats of protests have come into fruition. For example, for the past few days, there have been protestors at Farragut schools with students having to walk past protesting adults calling them ‘sheep’ and allegedly trying to physically disrupt their path to school.”
During a speech at a “Patriot Church” service on Oct. 3, Schrock encouraged congregants to join a daily demonstration outside the Farragut schools. Its purpose, he said, was to walk children who opposed the mask mandate to the schools, where they would perform the pledge of allegiance outside.
“It’s something very peaceful,” Schrock said. “You might be told that you’re an insurrectionist. You’ll probably get posted on Twitter but you know, that’s part of standing up for our children. Hope to see you out there, 7:15 in the morning.”
That following morning, the requested crowd did show up. Photos from the Tennessee group Opossum Press show a group of people standing outside the school entrance with flags and signs. The group had blocked entrances to the high school and was calling passersby “sheep.”
Shrock told The Daily Beast he was unaware of such actions, or of the school district’s recent legal filing.
Mulloy, the author of The World of the John Birch Society, said he’d be surprised if the current JBS has more than a few thousand members: a precipitous drop from its mid-century peaks. That said, Mulloy noted, much of the mainstream GOP that once spurned the JBS has now adopted its talking points.
“Many of its concerns have been already subsumed and articulated through right-wing Republicanism and Trump Republicanism,” he said. “There’s less of a need for an independent organization pushing the far-right politics of the John Birch Society. It’s actually much more prevalent in the culture.”