EDITOR'S NOTE : James Stout is a San Diego-based journalist. LCRW is trying to pay him $300 for his work. You can donate to him on cash app at $jamesstout and venmo at @james-stout-5.
Reddit–like much of the phenomenon of social media–really is a window into other people’s souls.
On Sunday the 25th of October, a post appeared on the r/ElCajon subreddit. The post bumped a person requesting a threesome–with Snapchat collateral–and a self-described “nobody” who wanted to “hold a press conference…possibly be on the news, just because if my words are heard they might calm the masses.”
The post, courtesy of user LaCroixorDie, shared a meme that suggested that Darrell Issa, Republican candidate for California’s 50th district, in which the southern California city of El Cajon is located, was an “andrenochrome pimp” and that voters should, instead, write in local White Aryan Resistance and Defend East County leader Justin Haskins.
Although this might seem like a pointless meme, we have seen QAnon candidates succeed all over the United States throughout this election cycle.
QAnon is a quintessential postmodern conspiracy theory. It is essentially authorless and participatory, synthesizing centuries-old anti-Semitic blood libel with the American “one good cop” mythos and Boomer social media hysterics to create a powerful, and easily manipulated, threat to society. Because nobody knows who Q might be, anybody can speak on their behalf, leading QAnon’s adherents and acolytes to abduct children, drink bleach, get in armed standoffs with police and murder.
u/LaCroixorDie did exactly that. Late Sunday afternoon, they went on something of a binge with their new meme, posting the same picture in r/conspiracy, r/realgreatawakening, r/Temecula, and r/Santee. Temecula and Santee are both rural areas not far from El Cajon with strong ties to white supremacist movements. Temecula was White Aryan Resistance founder Tom Metzger’s home for many years, while the other communities are devoted to conspiratorial thinking. Crucially, all the geographical subreddits the meme was shared in are part of the 50th district, where Issa is running for office.
The post, which was titled “Qalert," read “Darrell Issa protects pedos!!! #wwwg1wga”. WWG1WGA is shorthand for a popular QAnon slogan–”where we go one, we go all.” It then made accusations that Issa“backed up convicted boy abuser Denny Hastert" and “supported former Democrat congressman Mark Foley,” who “sexted teenage boys.” (Foley did send explicit emails and IMs to congressional pages in 2006, but was a member of the Republican Party.) LCRW was unable to find much linking Foley and Issa beyond fringe conspiracies.
Hastert, also a Republican, was sentenced to prison in a hush-money case in which allegations of sexual abuse surfaced. Issa had worked with Hastert, who was Speaker of the House at one time, and they both formed part of a tiny anti-weed caucus.
Issa is currently running against another man of Middle Eastern descent, Democratic candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar. Both have met with Defend East County leader Justin Haskins for mask-free Facebook Live discussions that Haskins broadcasts to the 20,000-odd followers of his Defend East County page, and, perhaps unwittingly, to local anti-fascists. Haskins has made no secret of his political ambitions, saying he might run for Santee council and interviewing political candidates for his Facebook page. He uses his page and the controversy it generates to sell merchandise, as well as to, in the words of one former member, “be president of something.”
Although Haskins’ organization presents itself as a concerned citizens group, it has repeatedly counterprotested Black Lives Matter rallies, allowed its members to assault people of color, and hosted white supremacist hate speech. Haskins presents himself online as a concerned citizen, but he led followers in a chant of “East County WAR [White Aryan Resistance]” last month at a memorial event for a Black man extrajudicially killed by El Cajon police while he was having a mental health crisis in 2016.
Haskins and the group he runs are both familiar with QAnon and its unique power to be manipulated and molded for specific grievances. Defend East County has become deeply “Q-pilled” since its creation in early June. The group shared photos of child pornography in an effort to prove the veracity of claims of child sex trafficking, while Haskins himself not only has labelled the LGBTQIA pride flag the “pedo flag” before being corrected, but also taken a strong stance against pizza, which he believes is a dog whistle for pedophilia because of the QAnon predecessor conspiracy “pizzagate.” His group frequently uses the hashtag WWG1WGA and several members have QAnon-themed bumper stickers which can be seen at DEC “caravans.”
Although the group Haskins runs isn’t about QAnon per se, it is possible to watch members of the group get “Q-pilled” on an almost daily basis, which Haskins personality benefits from through the growth of his group, a larger market for the DEC merchandise that he sells, and the increased “clout” he seems to feel from directing the group. Thanks to this influence, a liberal attitude to death threats by members of his group, and a nearly constant presence on YouTube, Facebook, and in person events, Haskins seems to be succeeding in appearing front of mind as a leader for the conspiracy-thinking electorate in East County and likely could genuinely pull a number of votes.
As a homeowner in Arizona currently seeking rental opportunities in California, however, Haskins appears to be ineligible for either the congressional or council positions. With that said, he seems to have been willing to co-opt a vast range of anti-government, anti-BLM, and conspiracy-flavored sentiments to bolster his online following. Haskins is effectively the candidate of choice for local conspiracy theorists.
Instead, Haskins has endorsed Darrell Issa for the 50th district in 2020. Issa, a GOP Trump appointee to the U.S. Trade and Development agency, is a liar when it comes to his service records and the subject of several Congressional ethics complaints. He’s also no stranger to terrorism–in 2001, federal agents foiled a bomb plot by the Jewish Defense League, which had planned to attack Issa’s offices and a mosque.
Until his appointment in 2019, the Lebanese-American former congressman was the wealthiest serving member of Congress, thanks to his car electronics business Directed Electronics. Following the fallout from Campa-Najaar and Haskins bro-ing down over whiskey and cigars in a room that inexplicably contained a sword, Issa might well win the 50th district and be a congressman again.
The LaCroixodDie user who shared the post appears to have taken a deep dive into the world of conspiracy theories during the lockdown. Earlier this summer, they posted in at least seven subreddits with links to the same conspiracy theory about Toyota. They also appear to have generally liberal politics, with their only previously political posts relating to CBP detention of minors, which is not a conspiracy theory, and which really happens. Comments by the account from previous years seem to focus more on sneakers, tattoos, weight loss, and the belief that Donald Trump is a Russian asset.
Since making the first post, u/lacroixordie seems to have spiraled, making a video attacking Issa as a “never-Trumper” (although Issa endorsed Trump in March 2016) and uploading it at around 2am Tuesday, according to the XML code. The video was taken down in several subreddits, but remains online at Vimeo under the username Greg Ostertag. Ostertag’s account was created this month and seems unlikely to be the real name of the user, given that no residents of California can be found under that name.
However, John Sepulvado, a self-styled Black Lives Matter activist, uploaded the same video to Facebook well before Ostertag’s account pushed it on Reddit. He also posted about the initial meme, despite the fact it was lurking on a tiny subreddit with no replies.
Sepulvado is active on Twitter, using the same profile image as the one in the Facebook group to which he uploaded the video. However, as of October 30th, he seems to have deleted all of his tweets. Sepulvado had not previously been hugely vocal about QAnon, according to several sources familiar with his posting.
The user lacroixordie has posted frequently in r/sneakers. Although Sepulvado has deleted many of his recent tweets, he has not deleted his replies to other tweets. In these discussions, Sepulvado shows a similar appreciation for retro sports footwear and dubs himself a “sneakerhead.” That same user, u/lacroixordie, also shared a flyer for a protest promoted by Sepulvedo’s organization.
It seems likely that Sepulvado is the one sharing and creating these memes, or is at the very least linked to them, given that he seems to have early access to the videos and posts before anyone else and that there is overlap between the niche interests of the two accounts.
Sepulvado is a former reporter who was widely praised for his coverage of the Malheur wildlife refuge standoff in 2016, but has recently rebranded himself as a community organizer. He claims to have been “arrested” in Santee in a now deleted tweet. Although he was briefly taken into the sheriff’s station when chalking the sidewalk outside, he does not seem to have been charged. Several protesters present that night had raised concerns about Sepulvado silencing unhoused people who wished to speak about their own experiences with police violence.
According to his Wikipedia page, “On January 29, 2019, Sepulvado announced on Twitter that he was leaving journalism for good. The next day, he told Politico that he had signed a deal with Turner Broadcasting to produce podcasts, and would be doing humanitarian work along the United States-Mexico border. It was announced on the California report on February 8, 2019 that Sepulvado had “moved on.”
The Wikipedia page adds, “It’s unclear what led to his sudden departure.”
Sepulvado may be sharing these memes, but other than posting them in subreddits
geographically linked to the 50th district and general conspiracy based subreddits, neither his Twitter account nor the Reddit account LaCroixorDie seem to interact with the QAnon conspiracy theory very much. It seems unlikely that he is a true believer. It is perhaps more plausible this is an attempt to make Haskins the Jill Stein of East County San Diego and divide the Republican vote, leaving a pathway for Campa Najaar to win despite his interview with white supremacist hate group leader Haskins.
It also seems unlikely that Justin Haskins of DEC is u/LaCroixorDie, and rather that the Arizona resident has succeeded in installing himself as the “reluctant leader” of residents of East County who oppose Black Lives Matter. However, the write-in campaign does align with the authoritarian fashion in which he runs the Facebook group. Haskins has spoken openly about his political ambitions and split with other anti-BLM groups due to leadership conflicts. Despite this, he seems to be as yet unaware of the write-in campaign and has made no comment. Haskins spent his Sunday last week with other members of DEC dressed in pink in a “Boob Lives Matter” fundraiser car wash event and has been engaged in a public feud with Mike Forzano – leader of a rival local anti-BLM group– in which Forzano dubbed Haskins a “fat coward” and Haskins allegedly claimed Forzano had substance abuse issues.
Whatever the intent of the post, it shows a growing trend of the use of QAnon to bring internet users into far right and other extremist groups. Other local anti-BLM groups have held QAnon themed marches which have prominently featured members and symbolism from local white supremacist groups like the American Guard. Conspiracy theories have spiraled during lockdown, and the combination of more time online, a sense of social exclusion, and election paranoia has created a massive online community that refuses to believe anything that contradicts its dogma.
QAnon is a new American political religion and just like other faiths, fanatical belief will offer power-hungry grifters an opportunity to profit. While Haskins may well be a true believer and seems not to be behind this post, he has defended sharing child pornography on his page and seems unwilling to denounce anything that gets him attention–and thus, it appears he has fallen into an uneasy alliance with the very radical liberals he claims to despise.
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