Welcome to Part 3 of Shawn Schwaller’s four-part A News Cafe series on the State of Jefferson (SOJ) movement and social and cultural issues in the proposed boundaries of what would become the 51st state. Part 1 examined social and economic realities in the proposed boundaries of the SOJ and Part 2 focused on homophobic and white Christian supremacist hate in the region. In Part 3, Schwaller explores the recent history of systemic and individual acts of racism, white privilege, white supremacist and neo-Nazi extremists in the proposed boundaries of the SOJ, as well as the perspectives of SOJ movement leaders on some of these topics. He also examines the Jefferson State Militia and the State of Jefferson chapter of the Proud Boys.
The 21 counties that constitute the proposed boundaries of the State of Jefferson (SOJ) are home to a diverse collection of beautiful landscapes. From the Humboldt and Mendocino County coastline to the many mountain ranges, to the mighty Sacramento River and the valley it calls home, it is a place to experience the wonders of the great outdoors. This scenic beauty, however, is polluted by a divisive pro-Trumpism right-wing secessionist movement that has virtually zero chance of succeeding.
California’s rural far north has a notable history when it comes to systemic and individual acts of racism. Leaders of the SOJ movement deny that this is important and that racism is a problem in the United States today, and they hold extreme views regarding a wide variety of race-related issues. It is safe to say that the region isn’t home to the most progressive race and ethnic relations in the state, however, it would be far worse if it seceded from California.
“No Room for Racism”
Nestled just above the northern edge of the Sacramento Valley, Redding is home to a plethora of parks and trails. In the 1980s, a clear message was sent to the city’s small population of color that these places were not safe for them. In the summer of 1988, a passerby yelled racial epithets at a black man and white woman standing together in Redding’s Caldwell Park and fired a gun. The suspect was captured by law enforcement officials and convicted. Around the same time, a man walked through a predominantly Asian American neighborhood in Redding, smashing car and house windows while shouting “Go back to Asia,” “Learn English,” and “You’re Not Welcome Here.” The district attorney’s office failed to treat the event as a hate crime.
The racist attacks in Redding encouraged concerned residents to form Shasta County Citizens Against Racism (SCCAR), and propose the posting of “No Room for Racism” signs throughout the county.
“Our argument was that this is affecting our community,” said SCAAR member Tom O’Mara. Redding City Council members quickly approved of the signs, while city officials in Anderson and the Shasta County Board of Supervisors initially declined.
“I think most of our issues here are due to a lack of exposure,” said O’Mara, who continued by stating, “there are just so many people here who have met very few black people or very few Filipino people or very few gay people,” and “it’s a very white, very Christian community.”
City officials in Anderson finally approved the “No Room for Racism” signs after an 8-foot cross planted in the front yard of an African American family’s home in Anderson was set on fire in 2004.
“It made us aware of racism,” explained then-Vice Mayor Keith Webster, who added, “Quite honestly, I was not aware of racism.”
Local law enforcement officials treated the incident as a hate crime and community members mobilized to organize a march. After pleading guilty of violating civil and housing rights, Christopher Dale Easley was sentenced to three and a half years in federal prison for the crime.
In the first two decades of the 21st century, Redding’s hate crime index was four times that of California, and it’s likely that many hate crimes went unreported. In March of 2019, 23-year-old Zachary Miller of Redding yelled racist slurs at an African American man after causing a car accident, then tried to run him over. In July of 2020, an intoxicated 56-year-old man named Robert Hardberger was arrested after smashing the windows with a shovel while yelling racist slurs outside a Redding home owned by African Americans. Upon officers’ arrival to the scene, Hardberger also threatened to kill police officers, who shot him with a nonlethal bean bag round as he swung the shovel at them. After the first shot, Hardberger was hit two more times with bean bags as he advanced upon the officers before being taken into custody. He was also arrested the previous June at his home for brandishing a bayonet and blasting what neighbors described as “Nazi music.” The fact that Hardberger was not shot and killed or severely injured by police officers as he advanced on them while swinging a shovel is a testament to white privilege.
While many residents of Shasta County and surrounding counties do indeed believe that there is “no room for racism,” leadership in the SOJ movement disagrees. They deny that racism is a problem in the United States; a belief rooted in white privilege that further contributes to racial inequities and violence against people of color. They also exhibit signs of white fragility when it comes to racism and other social justice related issues.
Sally Rapoza & Mark & Lyndia Kent of the State of Jefferson Movement
Leadership of the SOJ movement plays a direct role in the pollution of humanity in California’s rural far north. Sally Rapoza, the director of social media for the SOJ movement, Mark Kent, the tax consultant for the movement and the cohost of the “Sovereign Minds” radio talk show on AM 1460, and his sister Lyndia Kent, who serves as the treasurer of the movement and cohosts the radio show, regularly display their racist ignorance on Facebook.
Rapoza, whose husband Terry works as the county coordinator and chief merchandiser for the movement, supports the unrealistic idea that if African Americans simply did not break laws, they would not be mistreated by law enforcement officials. She recently shared a meme on Facebook which includes a picture of a black man pointing at his head that reads “You’re being treated poorly by the police? Have you tried not breaking the law to see if that helps?”
Rapoza’s post clearly shows a denial that racism in the criminal justice system exists and, because of her status, it can be surmised that other leaders in the movement agree.
A meme shared recently on Facebook by Mark Kent that expressed that “Race matters only to the racists,” while “the rest of us care about character,” is yet another example of pollution in the north state. Kent’s Facebook post is representative of a broader problem among right-wingers when it comes to coopting the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech to push for an ignorant view of “colorblindness” that conceals systemic and individual acts of racism.
His sister, Lyndia Kent, also dabbles in racist rhetoric on social media. In September of 2020, she shared a meme on Facebook which claimed that BLM stood for “BURN, LOOT, and MURDER.” People like Kent who are blinded by their white privilege focus solely on the destruction witnessed during some of the recent protests for racial justice and refuse to acknowledge the systemic and individual acts of racism driving it.
A few days before the aforementioned Facebook post, Kent shared a meme of the orange Dodge Charger from the popular late 1970s and early 1980s television show “The Dukes of Hazard” known as the General Lee with a Trump 2020 flag on the top, rather than the Confederate flag. It read “HEY LIBERALS, WE CHANGED THE FLAG FOR YOU – LIKE IT?” While clearly trying to be offensive and trigger people, did Kent realize the meme associated President Trump with a racist late 19th century secessionist movement designed to keep and maintain slavery in the American South?
“Teaching White Children to be Ashamed of Their Race is Systemic Racism”
Leadership in the SOJ movement also supports the flawed notion that measures taken to eliminate racism is “reverse racism” against white people. In a recent post on Facebook, Rapoza shared a cartoon regarding “equality” and “equity.” The point of the cartoon was to illustrate the idea that giving everyone an equal opportunity by addressing social inequities lowers the chances of success for everyone and is unfair to individuals who are already privileged. It is essentially depicting, in subtle fashion, the fallacy that helping historically marginalized nonwhite racial and ethnic groups is racism against white people.
An additional recent Facebook post by Rapoza stated that “teaching white children to be ashamed of their race is systemic racism.” While the former example was a statement about the fictitious idea that creating a more equitable society is harmful to white people, the meme about white children is rooted in the spurious notion that teaching white people about racist acts committed by white people is racist against white people.
An abundance of evidence supports the fact that systemic racism is a significant problem in the United States, and the failure by leaders of the SOJ movement to face this is rooted in white privilege. Moreover, it is people like Rapoza and the Kents who participate in the transmission of racism to new and younger generations.
The Killing of Desmond Phillips
The proposed boundaries of the SOJ are home to the kinds of law enforcement killings protested against by the Black Lives Matter movement and other groups and individuals fighting for justice. In March of 2017, Chico resident David Phillips called 911 seeking medical help for his son Desmond because he was suffering from a mental illness crisis. Medics and firefighters arrived first, but exited the apartment and called for the police after failing to appropriately treat Phillips’ PTSD.
Around 20 minutes later, Chico police officers arrived, and shortly thereafter officers Alex Fliehr, Jeremy Gagnebin and Jared Cumber broke open the door unannounced, shocking Phillips. Following this, Cumber stunned Phillips – who was reportedly holding two kitchen knives – with a taser, forcing Phillips to fall to the ground. Rather than proceeding to safely detain Phillips while stunned, Fliehr and Gagnebin fired 16 rounds at Phillips, 11 of which hit him. As documented in the 911 call, while David Phillips was still on the phone, the time span between the door being kicked open, the firing of the taser, and the deadly gunfire was only seconds.
Phillips was killed within seven minutes of the arrival of the police. The autopsy report concluded that all of the shots, including the deadliest one which pierced Phillips’ heart, were fired at a downward angle. David Phillips still lives in the same apartment, and its walls, along with those in neighboring apartments, are riddled with bullet holes from that incident.
Dispatch records show that there was no attempt to de-escalate the situation after the police arrived to the Phillips home. According to Roger Clark, a former law enforcement official who has testified as a police-conduct and use-of-force expert in cases across the country, officers Fliehr and Gagnebin had a chance to detain Phillips after he was stunned by the taser, but failed to do so. Rather than going “hands on,” cited Clark, the officers froze and “squandered their opportunity for Desmond’s safe apprehension.” “In my experience,” Clark explained, “this level of excessive shooting is indicative of a panic shooting.” Chief of Police Mike O’Brien disagreed, claiming in a statement that “when someone is at that level of crisis, that is too late,” and that “not every situation can be de-escalated.”
Sally Rapoza of the SOJ movement would no doubt agree with Police Chief O’Brien, as exhibited with a recent meme she shared on Facebook, attacking those who dared question law enforcement officials:
“There should be a special contempt for those who sit in safety and comfort, second-guessing at their leisure the split-second decisions that policemen had to make at the risk of their own lives” cited the meme.
During a meeting with the local chapter of the NAACP in Oroville three days after Phillips was killed, District Attorney Mike Ramsey claimed that he “investigated” the death and that it was justified. One month later, Ramsey argued the same point, concluding that Fliehr and Gagnebin “used the best tools and tactics they had available.” He also claimed at a meeting with the Human Relations Network of Butte County (HRN) that he attended with Police Chief O’Brien and community members, that Fliehr and Gagnebin feared for their lives. Attendees questioned if he could be objective, since he was good friends with O’Brien. When community members requested Ramsey bring in an outside entity to investigate the case, he initially resisted.
Ramsey also stated, shortly after Phillips was killed, that the young man died after being transported to Enloe Medical Center. His father, on the other hand, who crawled to his son after he was shot, stated he died instantly. A surgeon at the hospital corroborated the father’s story. Despite widespread inconsistencies in the case, after conducting an initial investigation, the California attorney general dropped the case, telling David Phillips that under the current law, he could not investigate it. A year after Phillips’ death, a federal judge overturned the family’s lawsuit against the city.
Since 1997, law enforcement officials in Butte County have shot and killed 35 people and injured nine with gun shots. Only one, against the behest of Ramsey in 2016, resulted in a criminal charge. To Phillips and others, this is a sure sign of a lack of accountability. Requests for reforms that included implicit bias and crisis-intervention training – and the defunding of the police department which takes up half of the city’s budget – by members of Justice 4 Desmond Phillips and others, have not been taken seriously by city officials.
The mayor of Chico approved the creation of an ad hoc committee to examine the police department’s use of force policy. However, the committee was problematic because its members included the chief of police and members of the police officer’s union. “The structure of the committee was so biased,” cited committee member and local activist Cory Hunt, that “any true questions I presented were met with hostility.” Other local activists who participated in the temporary committee expressed similar concerns.
Despite the lack of activity by the city council and police department, protests against the killing of Phillips have persisted. The first protest took place directly after Phillips’ memorial service when a group marched through downtown Chico, only to be physically attacked at the City Plaza by two white people who jumped out of a car as police officers looked on from the roof of City Hall but did nothing.
On March 21, not long after the Desmond Phillips memorial and march, hundreds gathered at the Bethel AME Church in Chico before moving to the front of the police department to hold a candlelight vigil. Toward the end of the vigil, a middle-aged white male passing by in a pickup truck, ostensibly angered by a “Black Lives Matter!” sign, shouted, “All lives matter!” The latter protest slogan, which SOJ movement leader Sally Rapoza has expressed on Facebook, is a racist backlash to the former that emerged after the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum in the early 2010s.
The tragic death of Desmond Phillips could have been avoided if officers Fliehr and Gagnebin and the other first responders had acted in a more responsible manner. If people like Sally Rapoza, other so-called “leaders” of the SOJ movement and society at large cared more about the role racism played in his death, California’s rural far north would be a far better place.
“Peacekeepers, Not Gunslingers”
Systemic racism in the criminal justice system is a national problem, plaguing even the smallest of seemingly peaceful predominantly white “liberal” college towns like Chico. Faculty members at Chico State also spoke out against the killing of Phillips. Dr. Diane E. Schmidt, a professor in the Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice, criticized the Chico police in a letter made public, in which she accused Chico police officers for demonstrating “extraordinary poor training, flawed judgement, and gross ineptitude” in the way they treated Phillips.
Schmidt also expressed that the Chico Police Department had a “duty to assemble a police force that is approachable as peacekeepers, not gunslingers,” and explained that she was originally from Ferguson, Missouri, where “the failure of the local police to engage constructively with citizens” predated the killing of Michael Brown.
“The culture of excessive use of force and abuse of power was endemic there,” Schmidt said, who added, “I thought I left that behind 35 years ago, yet I feel its presence as an amassing plague on our community.” Schmidt’s comments brilliantly summarized the issues surrounding Phillips’ death.
Despite the fact that officers Fliehr and Gagnebin could have avoided killing Phillips, the report written by officer Joel Schmid identified Officers Fliehr and Gagnebin as the “victims” and Phillips as the “suspect.” Ramsey’s report went into detail about Phillips’ history of mental illness – which should have been considered more upon the initial arrival of police officers – but said little about the two officers who killed Phillips. When asked at a press conference about the race of the police officers who killed Phillips, Police Chief O’Brien expressed it was “not relevant.”
Gagnebin graduated from Pleasant Valley High School in 2008, obtained a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from California State University, Sacramento, and a master’s degree in sports management from the University of Arkansas. He received his training at the Butte College Law Enforcement Academy in 2015 and was sworn in just 15 months before firing upon Phillips. Both officers possessed a combined experience in the field of only three and a half years, yet they were sent without supervision to deal with an individual who had a known history of mental illness. Both also participated in the killing of Tyler Rushing four months after Phillips’ life was taken.
The killing of Desmond Phillips by officers Alex Fliehr and Jeremy Gagnebin is an example of the deadly role played by racism in the criminal justice system. How is it that a white man with a history of threating his neighbors with a weapon and neo-Nazi music can use a shovel to break the windows of a home owned by African Americans while yelling racial epithets and swinging the same shovel repeatedly at police officers – as was the case in Redding – is not killed or seriously injured by said officers, yet Desmond Phillips – who did much less – was killed by officers?
Unfortunately, leaders of the SOJ movement are too blinded by their ignorance to see a significant problem with regard to differences between how some police officers treat a white man as compared to how they treat an African American man.
The Confederate Flag
Outside of the death of Desmond Phillips and the irresponsible actions of law enforcement officials, one of the most striking elements of the tragic event was the shirt worn by Gagnebin during an interview by the Butte County Sheriff’s and District Attorney’s office directly after Phillips was killed, and before Gagnebin went home. Gagnebin was wearing a shirt with the words “Brantley Gilbert Nation” and a modified version of the Confederate flag. Gilbert grew up in Jefferson, Georgia. He started his music career in 2007, has four studio albums, and possesses several prestigious awards from the Country Music Association and other groups. His albums and numerous songs have hit the top of the charts. He also sells a wide variety of merchandise with Confederate flags, and has performed with them on stage.
Gilbert claims to be a devout Christian, and he’s one of the country music industry’s most vocal supporters of the Second Amendment. His fourth studio album, The Devil Don’t Sleep — with songs like that of the title track, “Smokin’ Gun,” “Outlaw in Me” and “It’s About to Get Dirty” — was released just a few months before Gagnebin fired on Phillips. It’s frightening to think of a police officer encountering Brantley’s music, which is clearly geared to appease the right-wing conservative county-music market, on the way to work. Why was a Chico police officer wearing a shirt with a stylized Confederate flag at a time when Confederate monuments and flags were coming down in the name of progress across the nation?
Confederate flags are not totally uncommon in Chico. For years, a tattered one flew alongside Highway 99 on the northern outskirts of town. During the 2020 presidential election race a “Trump 2020” flag and a Confederate flag, visible from multiple streets, waved on a tall flag pole in the backyard of a home in the city.
In 2015, Chico High students parked with a large Confederate flag waving from a pole attached to their vehicle in front the home of an African American family. When asked by family members to move the vehicle, the students reportedly responded with racial epithets. Later that night, the same flag was staked in the family’s front yard.
“This flag means to me that somebody’s threatening my family’s life,” said resident Kelly Butler-McGriff.
In response to the harassment with the Confederate flag of the black family, Dave Scott, the assistant superintendent of the Chico Unified School District, simply explained that he planned to use the incident as a teachable moment on ways to avoid conflict and balance First Amendment freedoms in a responsible manner. Using the events as a teachable moment was a good idea, but Scott failed to take the opportunity to stand up against the kind of racist hatred and possible lack of awareness exhibited by the students and act as a true ally to the city’s small African American community.
A White Supremacist Neo-Nazi in Our Midst
In addition to the examples of racism in Redding and Chico and the killing of Desmond Phillips, the proposed boundaries of the SOJ is also home to a prominent white supremacist neo-Nazi. In January of 2004, white supremacist newspapers were distributed in an Oroville neighborhood. The literature was linked to former California-based Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard and White Aryan Nation (WAR) leader Tom Metzger. They included an insert which stated WAR “supports the complete and total extermination of all sub-human non-Aryan peoples from the face of the North American Continent.”
When a local journalist called the phone number on the literature, they reached an answering machine, left a message, and later received a call from a Palermo-based man named Gregory Withrow, who explained he was fighting for the rights of white men and the survival of white people. Reportedly the son of first cousins, Withrow was born in Sacramento in 1961. In 1979, he formed a group known as the White Student Union while attending American River College and aligned the organization with Metzger’s Aryan Youth Movement to recruit college students.
In 1986, Withrow visited a neo-Nazi Aryan Nation compound in Idaho and gave a speech which called for – like the literature he later distributed – the extermination of nonwhite peoples. A year later, he gained national attention for announcing he was a reformed racist, and toured the talk show circuit. He also spoke before civil rights organizations, published an autobiography heralded by the director of the Anti-Defamation League and his story was nearly made into a film starring Sean Penn.
In the early 1990s, Withrow relocated to a double-wide trailer on a barren 2-acre piece of land outside of Oroville. He was arrested for vandalism and theft charges, and, at one point, was ruled incompetent to stand trial. In 2000, he announced that his status as a reformed racist was a hoax, and filed a lawsuit that, if successful, would have abolished California’s hate crime laws. He also denounced his six-year marriage to a Mexican American woman, stating that it was based on a plot to secretly gain access to Mexican American culture, and that he “had as much feelings for her as you do for undocumented workers,” slaves or dogs.
In a 2001 interview, Withrow, while surviving by collecting disability and unemployment benefits, claimed to support the actions of “lone wolfs,” isolated individuals who could commit acts of racist terrorism, rather than visible organized gangs. Segments of the SOJ movement and some of its supporters have adopted this method, and have joined forces with white supremacist terrorist groups and militias. The extremist element in the SOJ movement presents a great danger to society and further illustrates it is rooted in far-right politics.
White Power, The Jefferson State Militia, & the Proud Boys
The actions and beliefs expressed by Gregory Withrow are not as far from the SOJ movement as some would like to think. In addition to the ignorance expressed by its leaders, there is a blatantly racist and dangerous right-wing extremist element in the movement. It contains its own self-identified militia, its leading figures have shared pictures of themselves online flashing the three-finger white power gesture that resembles the “ok” sign, they hold membership in other extremist groups, and there is a State of Jefferson chapter of the Proud Boys.
The Jefferson State Militia (JSM) is a fledgling City of Shasta Lake-based far-right extremist group founded by James Mark, a former planning commissioner in the city who unsuccessfully ran for a council seat in 2020. Its poorly presented and incredibly amateur website displays a hodgepodge of xenophobic far-right conspiracies. In one section, the site directs readers on “how to beat thermal imaging” because “big brother” is coming for you and your guns and claims that like “cave dwelling Taliban and Al-Qaida” forces, groups like the JSM can also hold off the U.S. government with the simplest of weapons.
The JSM’s answer to the fictitious threat of the New World Order, the United Nations Agenda 21 attempt to control the population, “anti-Constitutional Bill of Rights views,” gangs taking over cities, and uncontrolled immigration, among a variety of other deranged conspiracy theories, is “Operation Torch & Pitchfork” – the assembling of militias at state capitols to call out state legislators. In accordance with the operation, Mark appears in a ridiculous photograph on the website dressed in camouflage with tiki torch and pitchfork in hand.
While it’s difficult to take Mark and the JSM seriously, ideas expressed on the website are a dangerous threat to society and are shared with other more powerful far-right and racist extremist groups. It’s no coincidence that the affinity for the “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden flag, along with the Confederate flag, Donald Trump, the Proud Boys, the Red, White, and Blueprint recall movement in Shasta County, and the SOJ intersects in the worldviews of a significant amount of white right-wing extremists. As the saying goes, birds of a feather, flock together.
In December of 2020, the Placerville Proud Boys attended an event to donate toys to Toys for Tots. Proud Boys members, dressed in their customary black and yellow Fred Perry polo shirts, took a photograph with the individual dressed as Santa while holding up the three-finger white power gesture. A large number of community members, as well as civic and business leaders, were upset with the Proud Boys for showing up at the event, including Placerville Mayor Michael Saragosa. The Proud Boys group who attended the event also posed for an additional photograph, while again, displaying the racist hand gesture. Joining them, was a man wearing a SOJ T-shirt.
In addition, the Proud Boys and the SOJ movement are even more directly connected in some places. The State of Jefferson Proud Boys (SOJPB), which is believed to be based somewhere in the Roseville area, participated in rallies with pro-Trump supporters and regular members of the Proud Boys at the California State Capitol from President Biden’s victory in November until the January 6 rally and insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The rallies were driven by the idea that President Biden’s victory was illegitimate. Sources report that they abruptly ended after the insurrection in Washington D.C. because the people attending them were afraid of getting in trouble.
Last but not least is the SOJ representative in Tuolumne, Aaron Nasarow. He recently bragged on Facebook that his son hangs out with the SOJPB, and he pals around with violent right-wing militia members like Lewis Conley of the Central Valley Patriots (CVP) – and is also a member of the CVP – and shared pictures of himself on his Facebook page making the white power hand gesture while wearing an SOJ shirt. Nasarow’s Facebook page is littered with images of him wearing SOJ gear and selling it at numerous events over the last few years. He’s Facebook friends with Win Carpenter, the chair of the SOJ movement, and in 2019 was awarded the “David Garcia Award” for the “selfless work he does everyday [sic] to further the goals of Jefferson.” Nasarow also recently appeared in a photograph with the leader of the SOJ movement, Mark Baird.
Even though it belongs in the dustbin of history, the SOJ movement needs to clean house. But will its leaders do so? Will it denounce white racist right-wing terrorist groups like the Proud Boys, militia enthusiasts like James Mark, as well as racist violence and systemic racism? Will leaders of the SOJ movement stop posting racist content on social media, or ridiculously refer to these questions as another example of so-called “liberal cancel culture?”
Maybe Doug LaMalfa, U.S. Representative for District 1, should think twice about wearing SOJ gear. But will he?
There are a lot of great people in the proposed boundaries of the SOJ, but racism does exist in the region, and it’s toxic, dangerous and deadly. It is also an intergenerational curse due to the fact that people like Sally Rapoza, Mark and Lyndia Kent, Aaron Nasarow, and so many others are passing it on to younger generations.
Judging by the perspectives of SOJ leadership and their inability to separate the movement from racist right-wing extremists and conspiracy theorists, it’s safe to say that race relations would suffer even more if the SOJ became the 51st state. As argued in Part 1 of this series, the SOJ is an identity, not a practical geographic reality. It is part of a cultural civil war being led by people with beliefs that are on the wrong side of history, and it’s tarnishing the landscape.