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Over the last few weeks, a sleepy middle school in Oregon became the latest target of an anti-trans harassment campaign.
On Sept Sept 27 a local right-wing provocateur, Ben Edtl posted a video X, formerly Twitter. The brief video, filmed in the middle school’s hallway, showed one student attacking another. Edtl primed his audience with hate-inducing fuel, claiming the attacker is trans and drumming up transphobic outrage about how “girls are at risk.”
Free Oregon, Edtl’s nearly defunct “non-profit” business, saw the incident as an opportunity to “fight back.” Following the safety meeting on Sept 27, Free Oregon, in collaboration with Gays Against Groomers, sent out a call to action to protest the district and school’s handling of the incident at the next regular meeting.
On Oct 9, that protest occurred outside of a mostly empty building, while the Tigard-Tualatin board met virtually. Regardless, Edtl and Free Oregon used it as an opportunity to hold a “press conference.”
Though the organization seemed to have stopped operating after a financial scandal nearly a year ago, they saw this incident as a good time to make a comeback. The group demanded discriminatory laws against trans children as well as criminal punishment for the minor involved in the incident. They promoted a crowdfund effort to sue the district, and, in general, spread anti-trans hate.
MORE LIKE (MEMBERSHIP) FEE OREGON
Edtl is the president and founder of Free Oregon (FO), a Tualatin-based antivaxx protest group that’s since pivoted, as right wing groups do these days, to attacking schools over trans and queer issues. Free Oregon is a private membership club claiming to offer different levels of benefits while funding lawsuits, recalls, and campaigns across the state. As the president of Free Oregon, Edtl encourages his followers to buy a membership. Membership is tiered, with different levels offering more and more supposed protection of members’ rights. One of the top levels allows for an individual to take part in litigation financing if or when their constitutional rights are infringed.
Free Oregon touts itself as a non-profit, but the organization is not recognized as a 501c3 or a 501c4 with the IRS, nor is it registered as one with the state. Initially, Free Oregon was registered as a Political Action Committee, but with the filing as a “public benefit” business the organization stopped publicizing their donor and expense information. Though the business registration listed the organization as a public benefit group, proper non-profit status was never obtained. Currently, its revenue and expenditures are not available and the organization has experienced quite a few changes.
Leading into the November 2022 general election, Free Oregon was busy endorsing their members, owners, and alleged board as candidates in different races throughout the state. Most notably, Edtl ran for a senate seat that year, ultimately losing out to his opponent, incumbent Robert Wanger.
November 2022 proved to be a difficult month for Free Oregon. Double-Sided Media published an article highlighting the fact that though the group claimed to be a legitimate non-profit they were endorsing themselves as candidates, using donor money to fund litigation against various entities including the state of Oregon, and that most of the funds raised during the organizations’ short time as a PAC were spent on reimbursing Edtl for miscellaneous purchases, donor platform fees, and merchant services. Also that month, independent journalist John Hacker found evidence that Edtl had mishandled the nonprofit’s funds, jeopardizing their 501c3 status. Apparently the board was unaware that Free Oregon was never legally a nonprofit.
In response to the article, Free Oregon members ran a failed harassment campaign against the author of that article (and this one), attempting to get her fired. They also targeted Hacker unsuccessfully.
According to Hacker, it was Angela Todd who questioned the misappropriation of funds. Todd was ousted from the board and is no longer with Free Oregon. Todd moved on to create PDXreal, a media network that exists mainly to vilify houseless people.
Following the scrutiny on the organization’s finances, Edtl disappeared as Free Oregon’s figurehead leaving the remaining members to sort through the wreckage. In December 2022 Edtl started a new gig as the press relations guru for a threat risk management consulting group, Complete Threat Preparedness. Edtl didn’t stay with the organization for long, leaving in August this year. In July, he filed a new business registration with the state for Politogy, Inc, a Limited Liability Corporation.
Politogy’s registration states that it’s member managed and it may have more than one member, but there is no public list of who’s involved with the group. But through the LLC, Politogy shields their “shareholders or owners with limited liability protection from debts that exceed their investment in the company” stating the indemnification clause in its registration.
“The company elects to indemnify its members, managers, employees, agents for liability and related expenses
under ORS 63.160 to 63.170.”
Politogy, Inc is a press relations firm with a mission to “defend and advance true American values” by swaying public opinion, legislation, and people in power. Edtl filed the paperwork for the company as its registered agent and managing member.
On Sept 14, 2023, Free Oregon’s business license was dissolved by the state. It appeared that the group was fading into history. Yet as the conflict around the Hazelbrook incident escalated, Free Oregon has come out of hiding and is currently organizing.
NO OPPORTUNITY LIKE VILIFYING TRANS CHILDREN
Initially, the incident at Hazelbrook picked up heat locally and complaints led the school to hold a public forum on Sept 27 to answer questions about safety from the audience.
The district explained that they do not use a zero tolerance policy when it comes to violence. Instead, they use alternate practices that take more into account than the single incident and do not label students as criminals nor victims following an incident. They hope to help students learn to resolve their issues differently, working towards reconciliation and away from crime and punishment in an effort to reduce the effects of the school to prison pipeline. The district also said they never release identifying information regarding students without consent.
However, the audience seemed more focused on punishment than reconciliation.
One audience member asked if the district was prepared to be sued for negligence for failing to handle this incident as they saw fit. The Q&A seemed to have left many parents angry and one man walked out. Later that night, Edtl posted the video of the assault.
It’s not clear why this particular video was taken, nor how Edtl obtained it. But it is easy to track the source of the outrage campaign back to Edtl. He made his first post just after 9 p.m. on Sept 27.
Edtl called on a number of right wing influencers in the region with his post, including radio personality Lars Larson. The video was quickly spread through the right wing media ecosystem.
The slant of the story was that the queer community, specifically trans people, are violent, pose a threat to society, and need to be handled like criminals regardless of age. The video was shared without redaction or consent. One of the first outlets to write about the incident was an anti-trans hate mill called Reduxx Magazine. A Hatewatch article on the outlet says Redduxx content reveals a “deep enmity toward those who fail to conform to “traditional” gender roles” and the outlet is used as a “source for other mainstream right-wing outlets.
“Reduxx is an endless scroll of alleged trans sex offenders and pedophiles. The site is regularly used as a source by right-wing news outlets, including, especially, Fox News,” SPLC researcher Cassie Miller writes in the article.
Reduxx’s tweets were no different here, echoing Edtl’s claims that a “transgender student assaulted a female student.”
Edtl also posted a separate video of another altercation he claims was instigated by the same student. LCRW cannot verify this claim due to childrens’ privacy laws. Edtl and his supporters claimed that the school allowed the student to get away with multiple assaults and is being too lenient because of its “woke ideals.”
The very next day, Reduxx updated their tweets indicating that the student had, in fact, been arrested. Hours later Reduxx posted that they received a bomb and mass shooting threat directed at Hazelbrook Middle School and multiple individuals associated with the school and area. The statement said Reduxx immediately notified the local authorities and FBI and classes were canceled on Friday and Monday as a result.
Commenters on Reduxx’s posts reflexively blamed “antifa,” and “leftists” for the threats. Edtl shared the alarming news, also baselessly blaming “antifa.” Edtl also posted other videos of prior violent incidents. LCRW cannot confirm Edtl’s claims that these incidents occurred at the same school or that the instigator was the same person, let alone whether that person is trans. Further on he shared a post from someone claiming to be the parent of the victim in the first video. LCRW is unable to verify the veracity of these claims because it’s a sealed investigation involving minors. However, the poster claiming to be the mother of the victim wanted to “press charges” against the assailant and shared private and protected information about the incident in question.
It wasn’t long before others in the right wing media sphere jumped in. Echoing Edtl’s allegations, Turning Point USA pumped out a story, as did the Post Millennial. While Katie Daviscourt wrote the Post Millennial piece, it was her mentor, right wing provocateur Andy Ngo, who shared the story on Twitter with a special thanks from Edtl himself. The Daily Mail, FoxNews, Newsweek, The New York Post, along with countless other outlets all published articles.
Again, Edtl would amplify the message, now with a much louder audience since he, specifically, was named as the source of the information in the first few articles. Pictures of his tweets were shared in those reports begging more people to follow him.
Edtl gave an interview to KGW8 regarding his involvement with this particular story, stating that he had no regrets about sharing the videos online. Nor was he concerned that it may have led to more violence. He further added that the threats directed at the school resulting in canceled classes following his amplification were “hoaxes” constructed by “leftists” and were “false-flags.”
“I suspect that the bomb threat came from somebody who supports [Superintendent] Sue Reike-Smith and that’s why nothing’s being done about it. I think it’s meant to distract and take people’s attention away from the facts of the matter,” Edtl told KGW8. Edtl again stated that the issue at hand was about the safety of girls at school if trans people are allowed to be in their “safe spaces.”
“And the facts are, is that a boy decided he was going to put on girls clothes, so he could go into the girls bathrooms and safe spaces and violate the safety of girls, and this has to end,” Edtl said.
IN FRONT OF THE EMPTY BUILDING
As the right wing outrage over the incident grew, Edtl and his organization, Free Oregon, capitalized on the momentum. Free Oregon and Gays Against Groomers created a flier shared via social media that urged their supporters to demand “safe restrooms and locker rooms” for girls, to “protect the integrity of girls sports,” and to “stop sexuality indoctrination,” by showing up to protest the school and Tigard-Tualatin School district at the next school board meeting to “keep the pressure on.”
On Monday, Oct 9th anti-trans activists began arriving rather slowly at the district. The flier asked supporters to show up at 3 p.m., hours before the meeting was set to begin. On Twitter, Edtl told his followers that the district would host the meeting via zoom due to the increased interest in attending.
As a result, the far-right protest was held outside the mostly empty district building.
Roughly sixty people showed up outside the district in response to Free Oregon’s protest. Among them were semi-local right-wing provocateurs Chelly Bouferrache, Julie Turcol, David Medina, and Brandon Brown.
They were joined by another podcaster from Washington, Amy E. Sousa, called “Known Heretic” on social media. Sousa, a therapist and trans exclusionary radical feminist, spends her time spreading misinformation about gender and gender identity propagating heteronormative stereotypes and has “reportedly organized numerous anti-trans protests.”
Just before 6 p.m. Sousa set up her livestream filming a group of people, including an LCRW contributor as well as Hacker, and labeling them as “antifa” before priming her audience with more misinformation. Andy Ngo reposted a similar picture on Twitter, sharing their names, photos, and identifying them with inaccurate bios labeling them again, as “antifa.”
Sousa went on to gather the crowd towards the microphone and asked Edtl to set the tone for the evening’s “press conference.”
Edtl quickly jumped up to the mic and explained that he will talk “way better” after a prayer. Shortly after, someone from the crowd walked forward.
“Many of us wanted to show up tonight because we wanted to pray,” said Jenny Donnelly of the Collective Church in Portland. “God loves the family unit, and he loves children, and he loves every single one of you,” she added.
Donnelly stated that she believed that they don’t fight “flesh and blood,” they “fight the spirit” that has taken over the school board before offering her prayer for God.
Other speakers then took their turn at the microphone explaining from their point of view what they were protesting, offering prayers, or songs in support.
Many of the political action directors from Free Oregon were present, such as Gabriel Buehler, Sharrie Ryan-Bivins, and Dana Hidnman-Allen. Each one spoke during the “press-confrence” beginning Edtl.
Again, Edtl repeated the same story he posted all over Twitter and in the news, alleging that the student was transgender and that they had assaulted other girls prior without punishment. He told the crowd that he wasn’t just there as a “civil rights leader,” but as a Hazelbrook parent before he rambled on about “gender theory,” and making more assumptions about the student who started the incident.
Edtl believes that each child is a victim of the school district’s ideology which has created a tolerance for trans folks, protecting them with special privilege, and has allowed for girls to be bullied and violated in school.
Free Oregon was joined by other right-wing organizations attempting to sabotage public education like Gays Against Groomers, Parent’s Rights in Education, and Partners for Ethical Care.
As the protest dragged on outside, the regular meeting began just after 6:30 p.m and carried on without interruption via Zoom. Per the meeting’s agenda, public comments were allowed and parents from inside the school district were given priority before allowing comments from individuals outside the district.
The board chair, Tristan Irvin, also provided information about how to submit comments to the board if speakers maxed out their allotted time. They also reminded the audience that the board would not listen to any comments about specific people, staff and board members, or any comments containing bias, hate, threats, or harmful language towards any person or demographic.
The first few speakers of the evening spoke from the heart about issues in the schools, raising their concerns about the increase in violence while pointing out that the level of hate being displayed.
“We can’t expect our children not to be bullying each other if parents and concerned citizens are doxing our teachers, doxing our school administrators, and harassing children, and threatening children online,” said the first speaker. Further adding “I really implore the school board to please stay focused on the issues at hand; bullying, safety, the mental health of our students and the mental health of our educators, especially in our minority communities.”
Another parent explained that the district had failed to address both hate and violence and they were not satisfied with responses given during the previous week’s safety meeting. They implored the school to denounce violence and hate and to address the inefficiencies in the student handbooks quickly.
Outside the district building, Free Oregon was waiting for their chance to speak to the TTSD board, and, just as before, Edtl went first.
Even though he had a poor connection it was clear to the board chair that Edtl was espousing harmful rhetoric towards the trans community and cut him off.
“So I’m going to have to stop you, we are not talking harmful language around any groups,” Irvin said. With that she moved onto the next speaker who reiterated concerns regarding violence and inadequate and unclear policies.
Janet Bailey, a FreeOregon member followed after but was also cut off by the board chair for insulting the superintendent. Buehler shared his thoughts with the board as well. He questioned the boards’ decision to host the meeting via zoom and encouraged them to speak with the mom whose child was hurt in the first viral video.
The person claiming to be the mother of the victim was present for Free Oregon’s protest and is attempting to mount a legal campaign against the district and school. LCRW is unable to confirm their identity due to privacy laws. She initially posted her accusations on social media, which were shared by Edtl. She then created a crowdsourcing effort to raise the legal funds on GoFundMe, but later disabled donations through the platform. The fundraiser was moved to the Christian nationalist platform, GiveSendGo, where one can offer donations or prayers in support.
As of this writing the fundraiser has earned $4649 in donations towards its goal of $50,000 and Edtl contributed one hundred dollars towards the effort, made in his name, as well as the names of his company, Politogy, and Free Oregon.