Jul 23, 2024  |  
 | Remer,MN
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Nathan Harden

NextImg:Merrick Garland and the Love Warriors

The year 2021 was not an easy one to be a school board member. Some parents had concerns about the use of critical race theory in the curriculum, and many were angry about school closings and restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Public school board meetings grew increasingly contentious in many districts.

In October of that year, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a controversial order directing the FBI and other federal agencies to identify and prosecute violent threats and harassment from parents attending school board meetings.

Garland issued the memo days after the National School Board Association (NSBA) sent a letter asking the Biden administration to halt a growing problem of violence or threats of violence directed at school board members. The letter documented 20 such incidents at school board meetings across the country.

“We are coming after you,” said one such letter mailed to an Ohio school board member. “You are forcing them to wear mask – for no reason in this world other than control. And for that you will pay dearly.”
Despite the examples cited by the NSBA, Garland’s critics saw his actions as an overreach – perhaps politically motivated – of federal policing power. The backlash against Garland’s order, especially from Republicans, was swift.

Sen. Josh Hawley placed himself at the center of the outcry, sending a letter to the attorney general a few days later.

“All around the country, Americans are speaking out against the radical racist ideology sometimes called ‘critical race theory,’” Hawley wrote. “Americans have responded to this radical ideology by winning elections for local school boards and protesting peacefully at school board meetings. Yet your memo yesterday to the FBI and local U.S. Attorneys ignored all of this and warned of an insurgence of ‘threats of violence’ and ‘efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views.’”

“I certainly share your view that threats of violence have no place in this country, but the backdrop of your memo strongly suggests that your concern is not violence, but democratic pushback against critical race theory,” Hawley wrote, adding that Garland had “provided no evidence of actual, genuine threats of violence.”

Republicans feared that Garland’s order could have a chilling effect on parents who wanted to speak out about their kids’ educations. At a Judiciary Committee hearing a few weeks later, GOP senators grilled Garland about his memo, and Sen. Tom Cotton called for his resignation.

Despite the blowback, both Garland and his order remained in effect. His critics’ ire was stirred again in May 2022 when a whistleblower revealed that the FBI had launched dozens of investigations of parents and had labeled them with a threat tag created by the bureau’s counterterrorism division.

Meanwhile, in Loudoun County

Fast forward a year later. In Loudoun County, Virginia, a mere 40 miles from FBI headquarters, a new controversy erupted related to school board meetings and alleged threats of violence. Only this time, it was the parents who were the target of the threats.

The controversy began after some Loudoun County parents spoke up at school board meetings on issues such as school safety, single-sex bathrooms, and parental rights in education. Some were later threatened with violence on a message board for a Facebook group that called itself, rather incongruously, the “Loudoun Love Warriors.”

Members of the Loudoun Love Warriors group published the home address of at least one outspoken parent and began a campaign to demand that others be fired from their jobs. One father said that he lost his job after the group contacted his employer.

According to a report by local ABC affiliate WJLA, here are a few examples of what members of the Love Warriors wrote:

WJLA reported that the Loudoun Love Warriors group included supporters, volunteers, and staff of several Loudoun County officials, including four members of the Loudoun County school board. None of the school board members themselves were members of the online group. When reached for comment, these officials denounced and distanced themselves from the threatening messages their supporters, volunteers, or staff had posted online.

Yet some of the targeted parents believed that the Love Warriors’ threats should have prompted a criminal investigation. Elicia Brand, Scott Mineo, and Mark Winn were three of the individuals named and targeted by the group. Brand referenced Merrick Garland’s order to investigate parents, and Brand accused the attorney general of practicing a double standard.

“When we have something like this in writing, I call out to Merrick Garland and I say this is domestic terrorism, not parents who are speaking out for their children and others and trying to advocate for the best education possible for them,” Brand said. “Domestic terrorism is the fear that they’re putting into my life, taking away Scott’s ability to provide for his family, and threatening Mark’s life. That’s domestic terrorism.”

Conservative activists were galvanized by the close relationships between Loudoun County officials and members of the Facebook group. A conservative media watchdog group, Accuracy in Media, launched a billboard campaign to publicize the connection between Loudoun County school board officials and the individuals who posted the online threats.

Politicized Law Enforcement

What transpired on the Loudoun Love Warriors Facebook page was certainly detestable, maybe even illegal in some instances (though an initial police investigation resulted in no criminal charges). Whether it was, in fact, “terrorism,” as Brand asserts, is doubtful – but not as doubtful as believing that parents across the country who, like Brand, speak up at school board meetings belong on the FBI’s counterterrorism watchlist. Nevertheless, to this day, that appears to be the legal opinion of the attorney general of the United States.

Garland’s directive and the lunacy in Loudoun County feel related somehow – like two random chapters pulled from the same ugly story. What lesson does that story hold? First, an obvious one: no school board member should face threats of violence, and the same goes for any concerned parent who addresses a school board meeting.

But perhaps another important lesson of the Loudoun Love Warriors story concerns the role that political bias plays in federal law enforcement. Garland was quick to launch a national effort to investigate (largely conservative) parents attending school board meetings and protesting the decisions of (largely progressive) school board officials. Meanwhile, federal law enforcement officials launched no similar response when the (largely conservative) parents themselves were threatened by supporters and staff of the (largely progressive) school board officials.

That seeming double standard is at the heart of conservative parents and activists’ ire over what transpired in Loudoun County. Maybe Garland is simply keener to see danger on the opposite side of the political spectrum from the one he inhabits. In that sense, he is like most other Americans. But, of course, Garland is unlike any other American in one crucial respect: he is the most powerful law enforcement official in the country. His bias, therefore, likely makes him more worrisome than any of the outspoken parents being investigated by his counterterrorism division.