A Teacher Marched to the Capitol. When She Got Home, the Fight Began.

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Esther Mafouta, a former student of Kristine Hostetter, in New York's Riverside Park, April 7, 2021. (Elizabeth D. Herman/The New York Times)
Esther Mafouta, a former student of Kristine Hostetter, in New York’s Riverside Park, April 7, 2021. (Elizabeth D. Herman/The New York Times)

SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. — Word got around when Kristine Hostetter was spotted at a public mask-burning at the San Clemente pier, and when she appeared in a video sitting onstage as her husband spoke at a QAnon convention. People talked when she angrily accosted a family wearing masks near a local surfing spot, her granddaughter in tow.

Even in San Clemente, a well-heeled redoubt of Southern California conservatism, Hostetter stood out for her vehement embrace of both the rebellion against COVID-19 restrictions and the stolen-election lies pushed by former President Donald Trump. This was, after all, a teacher so beloved that each summer parents jockeyed to get their children into her fourth grade class.

But it was not until Hostetter’s husband posted a video of her marching down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol on Jan. 6 that her politics collided with an opposite force gaining momentum in San Clemente: a growing number of left-leaning parents and students who, in the wake of the civil-rights protests set off by the police killing of George Floyd, decided they would no longer countenance the right-wing tilt of their neighbors and the racism they said was commonplace.

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That Hostetter herself had displayed no overt racism was beside the point — to them, her pro-Trump views seemed self-evidently laced with white supremacy. So she became their cause.

First, a student group organized a petition demanding the school district investigate whether Hostetter, 54, had taken part in the attack on the Capitol, and whether her politics had crept into her teaching. Then, when the district complied and suspended her, a group of parents put up a counter petition.

“If the district starts disciplinary action based on people’s beliefs/politics, what’s next? Religious discrimination?” it warned.

Each petition attracted thousands of signatures, and San Clemente has spent the months since embroiled in the divisive politics of post-Trump America, wrestling with uncomfortable questions about the limits of free speech and whether Hostetter and those who share her views should be written off as conspiracy theorists and racists who have no place in public life, not to mention shaping young minds in a classroom.

It has not been a polite debate. Neighbors have taken to monitoring one another’s social media posts; some have infiltrated private Facebook groups to figure out who is with them and who is not — and they have the screenshots to prove it.

Even the local yoga community, where Hostetter’s husband was a fixture, has found itself divided.

“It goes deeper than just her. A lot of conversations between parents, between friends, have already been fractured by Trump, by the election, by Black Lives Matter,” said Cady Anderson, whose two children attend Kristine Hostetter’s school.

Hostetter, she added, “just brought it all home to us.”

Complicating matters is Hostetter’s relative silence. Apart from appearing at protests and the incident at the beach, she has said little publicly over the past year, and did not respond to repeated interview requests for this article. People have filled in the blanks.

To Hostetter’s backers, the entire affair is being overblown by an intolerant mob of woke liberals who have no respect for the privacy of someone’s personal politics. Yet Hostetter’s politics, while personal, are hardly private, and to those who have lined up against her, she is inextricably linked to her husband, Alan, who last year emerged as a rising star in Southern California’s resurgent far right.

An Army veteran and former police chief of La Habra, California, Alan Hostetter was known around San Clemente as a yoga guru — his specialty is “sound healing” with gongs, Tibetan bowls and Aboriginal didgeridoos — until the pandemic turned him into a self-declared “patriotic warrior.” He gave up yoga and founded the American Phoenix Project, which says it arose as a result of “the fear-based tyranny of 2020 caused by manipulative officials at the highest levels of our government.”

Throughout the spring, summer and fall, the American Phoenix Project organized protests against COVID-related restrictions up and down Orange County, and Alan Hostetter’s list of enemies grew: Black Lives Matter protesters. The election thieves. Cabals and conspiracies drawn from QAnon, the movement that claims Trump was secretly battling devil-worshipping Democrats and international financiers who abuse children.

By Jan. 5, Alan Hostetter, 56, had graduated to the national stage, appearing with former Trump adviser Roger Stone at a rally outside the Supreme Court.

His appearance there and the next day at the Capitol prompted some of San Clemente’s more liberal residents to make bumper stickers that read: “Alan Hostraitor.” It also led the FBI to raid his apartment in early February, though he was not arrested or charged with any crime. (He, too, did not respond to interview requests.)

Kristine Hostetter was there every step of the way, raising money and filming her husband as he rallied supporters at protests. When the American Phoenix Project filed incorporation papers in December, she was identified as its chief financial officer.

The Teacher

Kristine Hostetter grew up in Orange County back when locals still joked about the “Orange Curtain” separating its conservative and overwhelmingly white towns from liberal and diverse Los Angeles to the north. In the late 1960s, Richard Nixon turned an oceanside villa in San Clemente into his presidential getaway, christening it La Casa Pacifica. John Wayne kept his prized yacht, Wild Goose, docked up the coast in Newport Beach.

“Orange County,” Ronald Reagan once declared, “is where the good Republicans go before they die.”

It also was where surfers and spiritual seekers met cold warriors and conspiracy theorists, where some of the conservative movement’s most virulently racist, anti-Semitic and paranoid offshoots went. In the 1960s, Orange County saw a surge in the popularity of the John Birch Society, an anti-communist organization that in many ways presaged the rise of QAnon. In the 1980s, its surf spots became a magnet for neo-Nazis and skinheads. And in 2020, the onset of the pandemic produced a new generation of Orange County extremists.

If Kristine Hostetter had any strong political leanings before last year, she did not let on, said her niece, Emma Hall. She only picked up the first hint of her aunt’s rightward drift at small party to celebrate the Hostetters’ wedding in 2016.

“There were about six people, friends of theirs, that did not let up asking me if I was going to vote for Trump,” recalled Hall’s husband, Ryan.

Neither of the Halls gave it much thought. Hostetter seemed happy, and her new husband exuded the laid-back charm that typifies a certain kind of Southern California man in the American imagination.

He led his yoga classes at a studio not far from where they lived, in one of the small apartment blocks packed onto the steep hillside rising from the beach. His sound healings drew a mix of well-to-do women and New Age types seeking “that peaceful place within us all that we can all touch if we just devote a little effort to finding it,” as he put it to VoyageLA magazine in 2019. His new wife also got into yoga, Emma Hall said.

Then came the pandemic and the American Phoenix Project.

“It just went from zero to a hundred, from not talking about politics at all to the only thing he was talking about was how Gavin Newsom was a dictator and COVID-19 is a fake and China and QAnon, Ryan Hall said.

As for Kristine Hostetter, she “wasn’t out shouting about it like Alan, but she was there,” her niece added.

In style and rhetoric, the American Phoenix Project married the mistrust of institutions so common among New Age devotees with a paranoid form of Trumpism gaining purchase across the country. Its protests quickly gained supporters — from self-described yoga moms to Dana Rohrabacher, the Republican former congressman.

At first, Kristine Hostetter appeared to keep her distance. When other teachers asked about the American Phoenix Project, “she was always like: ‘Oh, that’s just him. That’s not me,’” said a colleague, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing school administrators.

Soon enough, though, Kristine Hostetter was joining her husband at protests. When he and seven other people were arrested in May at a protest to tear down a temporary fence around the town beach, she set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for their defense.

As the year went on, the American Phoenix Project grew steadily more extreme. There was talk of domestic enemies and executions, curfew-breaking street parties and “patriot patrols” to monitor the few small Black Lives Matter protests in and around San Clemente. Alan Hostetter began wearing a “Q” pin in his fedora, and gained a reputation among those who disagreed with him as a menacing figure.

At one point, he suggested a woman who commented on one of his Facebook posts should come find him in person. “But before you try too hard to pay me a visit, let’s play a little game, snowflake,” he wrote in a Facebook direct message reviewed by The New York Times. “Let’s compare what we were both doing in 1995.”

He was a police officer at the time.

“You might pause a little bit before you look too hard for me,” he added.

That his wife had accosted people wearing masks in public only intensified concerns. Indeed, a number of San Clemente residents interviewed for this article would not allow their names to be used for fear of provoking the couple.

At the American Phoenix Project, they were joined by Russ Taylor, who owns a graphic design business, a multimillion-dollar home and a red Corvette he calls the “Patriot Missile.” The group’s board included Morton Irvine Smith, scion of a quarrelsome California family that once owned much of the land on which Orange County was built.

In January, the four of them traveled to Washington. The American Phoenix Project helped pay for the Jan. 5 rally in front of the Supreme Court.

A day later, they all listened to Trump’s speech at the Ellipse and marched to the Capitol.

How close Kristine Hostetter got to the building remains an open question. But Alan Hostetter and Taylor appear to have made it to the terrace on the west side of the building, and posted images of themselves a short distance from where a mob was battling the police.

The Petition

Esther Mafouta was visiting her grandparents in Spain when, a day after the Capitol attack, a friend texted her a photo of a woman marching in Washington that was making the rounds on Twitter. It was her old fourth-grade teacher, Kristine Hostetter.

“I kept zooming in to check if that was really her,” Mafouta, 18, said in an interview. “I remember how shocked I was.”

What until then had largely been a local skirmish in the national battle over COVID restrictions and stolen-election claims was about to be threaded together with the other explosive through line of 2020 politics: the fight over racial justice.

Mafouta says she has only warm memories of her time in Hostetter’s class and cannot recall being mistreated or singled out for being Black. But, she said, “maybe I didn’t notice it because I was so young. Maybe it affected how she viewed me and my other peers of color.”

In the years since, Mafouta said, she has grown keenly aware of race, and last year she and three friends, inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the country, started their own group, CUSD Against Racism, to fight the bigotry that they say pervades the schools in and around San Clemente. Their first move was an open letter to the Capistrano Unified School District that attracted more than 800 signatures.

The letter castigated the district for not explicitly supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and demanded a series of progressive reforms, such as adopting an explicitly anti-racist curriculum at all grade levels and hiring more people of color as teachers and mental-health counselors.

A decade ago, far milder proposals would have been dead on arrival in almost any corner of Orange County. But the county is in the midst of a remarkable political shift. In 2016, Orange County voted for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1936. Two years later, the congressional district that includes San Clemente elected a Democrat for the first time since its creation in 1972.

Yet the county, and especially San Clemente, remains overwhelmingly white, and frictions over race persist. As recently as 2019, San Clemente High School made national news when students shouted racial epithets at opposing players during a football game.

The open letter written by Mafouta and her friends included dozens of pages of testimony from students about episodes of racism at the 63 schools in the district: Black students pressured into giving white friends a “pass” to use a slur for African Americans. Latinos being described as dirty. A teacher asking an Asian student what it was like to use a hole in the ground as a toilet. A Jewish student being asked if he had killed Jesus.

It was in that context that Mafouta and her friends, seeing the Jan. 6 photo of Hostetter, with her Trumpist views and ties to the American Phoenix Project, decided they wanted the school district to do something about it. So they did what they knew best. They drew up a petition.

“The Confederate flag was flown in the Capitol for the first time in history. That kind of speaks on the insurrection in general,” said Mafouta, who is now a freshman at Columbia University.

“Kristine Hostetter is affiliated with that movement,” she continued. “We don’t know if she reflects those values, but that is something that is of grave concern to us.”

The Fallout

Signatures started piling on as soon as the petition went online. It was only days after the attack on the Capitol, and “we all wanted answers,” said Sharon Williams, a mother of a third grader at a different school who signed the petition.

She did have concerns about free speech, she said, but if “you’re out there promoting violence and conspiracies, and you’re a teacher, that’s problematic.”

Hundreds of other people who signed the petition also opted to send the school district an email pre-written by the students. It called on the district “to explicitly address the rampant white supremacy and anti-Semitism that occurred during the Capitol breach.”

The email, however, sidestepped an inconvenient fact — many people in the district, including some school board members, felt very differently about what had taken place on Jan. 6. While they said they were horrified by the mob attack on the Capitol, many were at least sympathetic to the stolen-election claims and the protesters who had rallied that day in Washington. Where progressives saw a battle in the war against racism, a great many others saw censorious liberals trying to silence dissent by tarring conservatives as racists.

“When did our youth lose sight of innocent until proven guilty and treating people fairly and respectfully?” Judy Bullockus, president of the school district’s board of trustees, wrote in a widely circulated email.

No one had written an open letter or posted a petition when teachers attended Black Lives Matter rallies, Bullockus said in an interview. No one had called for an investigation when a teacher displayed a Black Lives Matter poster in the background while teaching remotely.

“Now they want us to investigate a teacher’s politics?” she asked. “When someone had a different opinion, then suddenly the rules of the game change?”

The school board, though, was hardly united. Two members, both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering their colleagues, said they wanted her fired.

Both argued that Kristine Hostetter displayed poor judgment, and they were troubled by her open advocacy for an extreme cause. But, one of them said, “the place where she teaches? A lot of the parents agree with her.”

San Clemente is home to about 65,000 people, and Hostetter’s school, Vista Del Mar, is in one of the city’s toniest neighborhoods, an enclave in the arid hills above downtown where million-dollar homes sit behind well-watered lawns. The affluence is apparent in the small traffic jam that forms outside school each weekday morning — a long line of Teslas, BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes and Range Rovers just up the street from the golf club and the small shopping center with a Pilates studio and a pet spa.

Among the parents who support Hostetter is Denise Martinez, whose daughter is in her class. It was a matter of free speech and a teacher being targeted for her right-wing views, Martinez said. “And they started calling her a racist, that she was anti-BLM.”

Martinez’s mother came from Mexico, as did her husband’s entire family. Her daughter, who is “a pretty dark Mexican in a very white school,” has encountered outright racism, she said. But “never in Ms. Hostetter’s class.”

“She’s always preaching how everybody’s equal, it’s what’s on the inside that matters,” Martinez said.

And now Hostetter is back in the classroom. The district reinstated her last month after its investigation found she had done nothing more than protest peacefully in Washington.

That may have settled the matter as far as the district is concerned. But for many people, nothing has been resolved. If anything, Hostetter’s case has served as a still-unspooling coda to the Trump years.

“Frankly, it’s hard to get stoked about sending flowers and birthday cards to a classroom teacher who appears to align herself with a conspiratorial social movement and embraces the racist values of QAnon,” one mother wrote in an email to other parents.

The parent said she was waiting for an explanation from Hostetter, or even “an apology in the event she did something she now regrets.”

She is likely to be waiting a long while.

In an email sent to a fellow teacher days after getting back to work, Hostetter betrayed no hint of regret.

“If I was teaching students about journalism, I might consider a discussion about bias in the media, fact-checking and journalistic integrity,” Hostetter wrote to the teacher, who advises the student newspaper at San Clemente High School.

The paper had broken the news of her suspension, and she went on to suggest in a second email that the student journalists should “reflect on whether they allow their own bias, or that of their peers, to influence their articles.”

Now that she had been cleared, Hostetter hoped another story was in the works. “I will not be available for an interview, however,” she added.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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