A School Principal Marched to the Capitol. The Fight Began When She Returned Home.
Kristine Hostetter was a well-liked fourth-grader. Then came the pandemic, the election, and the Washington, D.C., riot on Jan. 6.
When Kristine Hostetter was seen at a public mask-burning on the San Clemente pier and appeared in a video sitting onstage while her husband spoke at a QAnon conference, word spread quickly. When she violently confronted a family wearing masks near a nearby surfing spot with her granddaughter in tow, she made headlines.
Even in San Clemente, a wealthy bastion of Southern California conservatism, Ms. Hostetter stood out for her vehement support for both the revolt against Covid-19 regulations and former President Donald J. Trump's stolen-election lies. After all, this was a teacher so revered that parents competed each summer to enroll their children in her fourth-grade class.
However, it was not until Ms. Hostetter's husband posted a video of her marching down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol on Jan. 6 that her politics collided with an opposing force gaining momentum in San Clemente: a growing number of left-leaning parents and students who, in the aftermath of the civil-rights protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, decided to end their allegiance.
That Ms. Hostetter had not shown blatant bigotry was irrelevant — to them, her pro-Trump views seemed to be inextricably linked to white supremacy. As a result, she became their cause.
To begin, a student group petitioned the school board to investigate whether Ms. Hostetter, 54, was involved in the Capitol attack and whether her politics infiltrated her teaching. The district then obliged and suspended her, prompting a counter petition by a group of parents.
“What happens if the district initiates disciplinary action based on people's beliefs/politics? Discrimination on the basis of religion?” it cautioned.
Each petition garnered thousands of signatures, and San Clemente has since become embroiled in the divisive politics of post-Trump America, grappling with uncomfortable questions about the limits of free speech and whether Ms. Hostetter and those who share her views should be dismissed as conspiracy theorists and racists with no place in public life, let alone shaping young minds.
This has not been a civilized discussion. Neighbors have taken to watching one another's social media posts; others have also penetrated private Facebook groups to ascertain who is on their side and who is not — and they have screenshots to prove it.
Even the local yoga group, which included Ms. Hostetter's husband, has been divided.
“It extends beyond her. Numerous conversations between parents and friends have been shattered already by Trump, the election, and Black Lives Matter,” said Cady Anderson, whose two children attend Ms. Hostetter's school.
She added that Ms. Hostetter "had took it all home to us."
Ms. Hostetter's relative silence complicates matters. Apart from her appearances at demonstrations and the beach incident, she has made few public statements in the last year and has declined several interview requests for this post. Individuals have filled in the gaps.
According to Ms. Hostetter's supporters, the whole incident is being blown out of proportion by an intolerant group of woke liberals who have little regard for the dignity of another person's personal politics. Ms. Hostetter's politics, though personal, are far from private, and she is inextricably connected to her husband, Alan, who emerged as a rising star in Southern California's resurgent far right last year.
Mr. Hostetter, an Army veteran and former La Habra, Calif., police chief, was well-known in San Clemente as a yoga guru — his expertise is “sound healing” with gongs, Tibetan bowls, and Aboriginal didgeridoos — until the pandemic transformed him into a self-declared “patriotic warrior.” He abandoned yoga and created the American Phoenix Project in response to "the fear-based tyranny of 2020 triggered by manipulative officials at the highest levels of our government," according to the organization's website.
The American Phoenix Project coordinated demonstrations against Covid-related restrictions during the spring, summer, and fall, and Mr. Hostetter's list of adversaries grew longer: Protesters from Black Lives Matter. Vote swindlers. Cabal and conspiracies inspired by QAnon, the campaign that asserts Mr. Trump was secretly fighting devil-worshiping Democrats and foreign financiers who rape children.
By Jan. 5, Mr. Hostetter, 56, had graduated to the national stage, co-headlining a rally outside the Supreme Court with former Trump advisor Roger Stone.
His presence there and the following day at the Capitol inspired some more liberal residents of San Clemente to create bumper stickers reading "Alan Hostraitor." Additionally, it prompted the FBI to conduct a raid on his apartment in early February, despite the fact that he was not arrested or charged with any offence. (He, too, did not respond to requests for an interview.)
Ms. Hostetter was by her husband's side throughout, fundraising and filming him as he rallied supporters at demonstrations. She was listed as the American Phoenix Project's chief financial officer when the organization filed incorporation papers in December.
Ms. Hostetter grew up in Orange County at a time when residents joked about the "Orange Curtain" dividing the county's conservative and predominantly white towns from liberal and diverse Los Angeles to the north. In the late 1960s, Richard M. Nixon renamed an oceanfront villa in San Clemente La Casa Pacifica as his presidential retreat. John Wayne kept his prized yacht, Wild Goose, docked in Newport Beach, California.
Ronald Reagan once announced that "Orange County is where the healthy Republicans go until they die."
It was also a meeting place for surfers and spiritual seekers, as well as cold warriors and conspiracy theorists, as well as some of the most virulently racial, anti-Semitic, and paranoid offshoots of the conservative movement. In the 1960s, Orange County witnessed a boom in prominence for the John Birch Society, an anti-communist group that foreshadowed the emergence of QAnon in several ways. Its surf spots became a magnet for neo-Nazis and skinheads in the 1980s. And in 2020, the pandemic's outbreak resulted in the birth of a new generation of Orange County extremists.
If Ms. Hostetter had clear political views prior to last year, she kept them to herself, according to her niece, Emma Hall. She first became aware of her aunt's rightward drift in 2016 at a small party celebrating the Hostetters' wedding.
“About six guys, friends of theirs, never stopped asking me if I was going to vote for Trump,” Ms. Hall's husband, Ryan, recalled.
Neither of the Halls considered it carefully. Ms. Hostetter appeared content, and her new husband exuded the laid-back charm that, in the American imagination, typifies a certain kind of Southern California guy.
He taught yoga classes at a studio near where he and Ms. Hostetter lived, in one of the tiny apartment buildings crammed into the steep hillside rising from the beach. His sound healings attracted a mix of well-to-do women and New Age types seeking “the happy place inside us all that we can all touch if we only dedicate a little effort to finding,” as he put it in a 2019 interview with VoyageLA magazine. Ms. Hall added that his new wife has also taken up yoga.
Then the pandemic struck and the American Phoenix Project was born.
“It just went from zero to one hundred, from him not talking about politics at all to him talking exclusively about how Gavin Newsom was a tyrant and Covid-19 is a hoax, as well as China and QAnon,” Mr. Hall explained.
Ms. Hostetter, on the other hand, "wasn't out shouting about it like Alan," her niece added.
The American Phoenix Project's style and rhetoric combined a widespread distrust of institutions among New Age adherents with a paranoid type of Trumpism gaining traction across the world. Its demonstrations quickly gathered support — from self-described yoga moms to former Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher.
Ms. Hostetter initially tended to maintain her distance. When other teachers inquired about the American Phoenix Project, "she was always as if to say, 'Oh, that's just him.' That is not me,'" a colleague explained, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to avoid antagonizing school administrators.
Eventually, however, Ms. Hostetter joined her husband at protests. When he and seven others were arrested in May during a protest to knock down a temporary fence surrounding the town beach, she established a GoFundMe page to raise funds for their protection.
The American Phoenix Project became increasingly extreme over the course of the year. There were rumors of domestic enemies and killings, curfew-breaking street parties, and “patriot patrols” monitoring the few minor Black Lives Matter demonstrations in and around San Clemente. Mr. Hostetter started wearing a "Q" pin on his fedora and developed a reputation as a threatening figure for those who disagreed with him.
He suggested at one point that a woman who posted on one of his Facebook posts come meet him in person. “But before you make an unnecessary effort to pay me a visit, snowflake, let's play a game,” he wrote in a Facebook direct message checked by The New York Times. “Let us compare our activities in 1995.”
At the time, he was a police officer.
“Perhaps you should pause for a moment before you look too hard for me,” he said.
Concerns were heightened further by his wife's public accosts of people wearing masks. Indeed, some residents of San Clemente who were interviewed for this article refused to give their names for fear of provoking the pair.
They were joined at the American Phoenix Project by Russ Taylor, who owns a graphic design company, a multimillion-dollar home, and a red Corvette dubbed the "Patriot Missile." Morton Irvine Smith, scion of a quarrelsome California family that once owned a large portion of the land upon which Orange County was founded, served on the group's board.
The four of them moved to Washington in January. The American Phoenix Project contributed to the cost of the Jan. 5 rally outside the Supreme Court.
They marched to the Capitol the next day after listening to Mr. Trump's address at the Ellipse.
How near Ms. Hostetter came to the building is unknown. However, Mr. Hostetter and Mr. Taylor seem to have made their way to the terrace on the west side of the house, where they shared photographs of themselves a short distance from the scene of a crowd clash with police.
Esther Mafouta was in Spain visiting her grandparents when a friend texted her a picture of a woman marching in Washington that was making the rounds on Twitter the day after the Capitol attack. It was Ms. Hostetter, her former fourth-grade teacher.
“I kept zooming in to make certain it was her,” Ms. Mafouta, 18, explained in an interview. “I recall how taken aback I was.”
What had been mostly a local skirmish in the national struggle over Covid limits and alleged stolen elections was about to be entwined with the other volatile thread running through 2020 politics: the fight for racial justice.
Ms. Mafouta recalls only pleasant memories of her time in Ms. Hostetter's class and has no recollection of being handled differently or singled out for being Black. However, she said, "maybe I was unaware of it because I was so young." Perhaps this had an impact on her perception of me and my other peers of color.”
Ms. Mafouta said she has developed a keen awareness of race in the years since, and last year, motivated by the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the world, she and three friends founded CUSD Against Racism to combat the bigotry they allege pervades the schools in and around San Clemente. Their first action was to circulate an open letter to the Capistrano Unified School District, which garnered over 800 signatures.
The letter chastised the district for failing to specifically endorse the Black Lives Matter campaign and demanded a number of progressive changes, including the adoption of an explicitly anti-racist curriculum at all grade levels and the hiring of more teachers and mental-health counselors of color.
A decade earlier, even more moderate plans would have been shot down in almost every corner of Orange County. However, the county is undergoing a remarkable political transformation. For the first time since 1936, Orange County voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 2016. Two years later, the congressional district that encompasses San Clemente voted for the first time in its history to elect a Democrat.
Nonetheless, portions of the county, especially San Clemente, remain predominantly white, and racial tensions persist. San Clemente High School made national headlines in 2019 after students yelled racial epithets at rival football players during a game.
Ms. Mafouta and her friends included hundreds of pages of testimonies from students about incidents of bias at the district's 63 schools: Black students are compelled to give white friends a "pass" to use a racial slur directed at African-Americans. Latinos are referred to as filthy. A instructor inquiring about the experience of an Asian student using a hole in the ground as a toilet. A Jewish student is questioned about his involvement in the assassination of Jesus.
It was in this sense that Ms. Mafouta and her friends decided to contact the school district after seeing the Jan. 6 photo of Ms. Hostetter with her Trumpist views and connections to the American Phoenix Project. As a result, they did what they were best at. They compiled a petition.
“For the first time in history, the Confederate flag was flown in the Capitol. That speaks volumes about the rebellion in general,” said Ms. Mafouta, a Columbia University freshman.
“Kristine Hostetter is a member of that organization,” she said. “We may not know if she represents those ideals, but it is something that concerns us greatly.”
As soon as the petition went live, signatures began to pour in. It was just a few days after the Capitol attack, and “we just needed answers,” Sharon Williams, a mother of a third-grader at another school who signed the petition, explained.
She expressed reservations about free expression, but noted that if "you're out there encouraging abuse and conspiracies as an instructor, that's problematic."
Hundreds of additional petition signers chose to give the school board an email written by the students. It urged the district to "explicitly resolve the rampant white supremacy and anti-Semitism that existed in the aftermath of the Capitol breach."
However, the email omitted an awkward fact: many people in the district, including several school board members, had strong feelings about what occurred on Jan. 6. Though they expressed horror at the mob attack on the Capitol, many expressed sympathy for the stolen-election charges and the demonstrators who protested in Washington that day. Whereas leftists saw a struggle in the war on racism, a large number of others saw censorious liberals attempting to suppress opposition by vilifying conservatives as racists.
"When did our youth lose sight of the principle of innocence unless proven guilty and the importance of treating others equally and respectfully?" In a widely circulated email, Judy Bullockus, president of the school district's board of trustees, wrote.
When teachers attended Black Lives Matter protests, no one had written an open letter or started a petition, Ms. Bullockus explained in an interview. No one had requested an investigation after a teacher remotely taught while displaying a Black Lives Matter poster in the background.
“Now they want us to look at a teacher's political views?” she inquired. “When anyone expressed a contrary view, did the rules of the game immediately change?”
However, the school board was far from unified. Two representatives, who requested anonymity to avoid upsetting their colleagues, said that they wanted her fired.
Both contended that Ms. Hostetter lacked judgement and expressed concern about her outspoken support for an extreme cause. However, one of them asked, "the location where she teaches?" Numerous parents concur with her.”
San Clemente has a population of approximately 65,000, and Ms. Hostetter's school, Vista Del Mar, is located in one of the city's most affluent communities, an enclave in the arid hills above downtown where million-dollar homes are hidden behind well-watered lawns. The wealth is evident 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 block from the golf club and a small shopping center with a Pilates studio and a pet spa.
Denise Martinez, whose daughter is a student in Ms. Hostetter's class, is one of the parents who supports her. Ms. Martinez said that it was a matter of free expression and a teacher being singled out for her right-wing views. “And they began labeling her as a racist and anti-B.L.M.”
Ms. Martinez's mother, as well as her husband's entire family, are Mexican. Her daughter, who she described as "a fairly dark Mexican in a predominantly white school," has experienced outright racism. However, "I was never in Ms. Hostetter's class."
“She is always preaching how everyone is equal and that what matters is what is on the inside,” Ms. Martinez said.
Ms. Hostetter has returned to the classroom. Last month, the district reinstated her after an investigation determined she had done nothing more than peacefully demonstrate in Washington.
That may have resolved the matter in terms of the district. However, little has been settled for many people. Ms. Hostetter's scenario, if anything, has acted as a still-unfolding coda to the Trump years.
“To be honest, it's difficult to get excited about sending flowers and birthday cards to a classroom teacher who seems to be affiliated with a conspiratorial social movement and adheres to QAnon's racist values,” one mother wrote in an email to other parents.
The parent said that she was awaiting an explanation from Ms. Hostetter, as well as "an apology if she did anything she now regrets."
She is almost certainly going to be waiting a long time. Ms. Hostetter expressed no remorse in an email sent to a fellow teacher days after returning to work.
“If I were teaching students about journalism, I would include a conversation about media bias, fact-checking, and journalistic integrity,” Ms. Hostetter wrote to the teacher, who also serves as advisor to the San Clemente High School student newspaper.
After the paper broke the news of her suspension, she suggested in a second email that student journalists should "reflect on whether they allow their own or their peers' bias to affect their posts."
Ms. Hostetter hoped another story was in the works now that she had been cleared. “However, I will be unavailable for an interview,” she said.