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PHILADELPHIA — If you’re going to celebrate yourself as “Moms Rocking the Cradle of Liberty” on your SWAG, it’s fair to expect a fight.  

That’s especially true if you are Moms for Liberty — the conservative group known for anti-LGBTQ+ attacks and efforts to ban books, challenge curriculum and gain control of school boards — gathering in a city that visibly embraces diversity.  

In a striking change from the first Joyful Warriors National Summit in Tampa, Florida, last July, where protesters were few, the second gathering in Philadelphia June 29 – July 2 was met with pushback from social justice advocates and parent activists opposed to the group’s right-wing policies. 

“It was bold, very bold” of them to come to Philadelphia, said Kim Barbero, a Bucks County, Pennsylvania, mom and a deputy director for Red, Wine & Blue, a national group organizing progressive suburban women. “They bring chaos into our communities, and we need to counter that,” she said. 

There were so many protests — rallies with speakers, “Dance Party Protest” events, a “Banned Book Giveaway”— that those attending the summit did so with a large, visible police presence around the Downtown Marriott where it was held. Attendees were advised not to wear conference badges on the street.  

“Why has Moms for Liberty become such a target for vilification? Because in a very short time since our founding in January 2021, we and our moms have been making a difference.”

Moms for Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice 

Protesters seemed to be everywhere. Moms for Liberty attendees, who numbered about 700, stepped off coach buses for a reception at the Museum of the American Revolution to chants of “Shame! Shame! Shame!” Protesters behind a police barricade held signs, including “Let Queer Youth Live” and “Say Gay, Stop Homophobia.” (Several organizations representing historians denounced the museum’s decision to host the group.) Earlier in the day, a box truck with the message “Stop Extremists and Moms for Liberty. Protect Our Freedom to Read” circled the hotel.  

After the summit, Moms for Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice in a tweet applauded attendees who she said “stood strong in the face of so much vitriol being thrown at them.”  

The protests had been months in the planning, but were amplified after an Indiana chapter of Moms for Liberty topped its June 2023 newsletter with a quote from Adolf Hitler (the group later apologized). At the summit, Justice responded angrily to “some nasty things said about Moms for Liberty recently on social media” after that incident, including death threats. “I assure you we are acting,” she said, adding that they were investigating and would turn over information to law enforcement. 

And then she described the attacks as a sign of success. “Why has Moms for Liberty become such a target for vilification?” said Justice. “Because in a very short time since our founding in January 2021, we and our moms have been making a difference.”

Related: Inside Florida’s ‘underground lab’ for far-right education policies   

Unlike the first Joyful Warriors national summit last year in Tampa, Florida, this year’s event drew large protests. Credit: Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report

In Tampa last year, the group laid the groundwork for the present battles around the country, offering Moms for Liberty members a soft introduction to political involvement. Speakers acknowledged that moms might not be used to stepping into the spotlight, speaking at school board meetings and — yes — seeking office. The summit offered help in running a campaign. And, more critically, a rationale for doing so. 

The messaging, the reason Moms were told to cast aside hesitation, was that their children were in danger: Speakers said public schools were brainwashing their children with Marxist beliefs, sexualizing them at young ages, indoctrinating them with “gender ideologies” — and failing to teach the basics. 

At last year’s summit, some attendees appeared genuinely shocked, but also motivated, by such charges. Much like the calls during World War II for women to step out of homemaking roles and work in factories, the conference deputized attendees as “War Moms” with a mission to challenge schools in order to protect their children.

This year, the disinformation about what actually happens in public school took on the sheen of familiarity. Strategy sessions covered ground that had become mainstream to many in attendance: “Comprehensive Sex Education: Sex Ed or Sexualization,” “Protecting Parental Rights,” “Protecting Kids from Gender Ideology,” “Cracking the SEL Code: The Manipulative Double Speak of Social Emotional Learning.” 

“It does not do anything to really prioritize what our children need in this moment. If you take a look at the NAEP scores, you take a look at the mental health crisis, we have work to do, and this is not work. It is political posturing.”

Keri Rodrigues, president and co-founder of the National Parents Union

Given that many attendees were now veterans of the culture wars, sessions included help in dealing with the media (including tips from Christian Ziegler, chairman of the Florida Republican Party) and running political campaigns, plus getting your school board to act once you have successfully “flipped” it to a majority of conservative members.

The second year also brought more sponsors, including Patriot Mobile, a Christian conservative wireless provider that donates a portion of earnings to far-right organizations, including the National Rifle Association, Conservative Political Action Conference, anti-abortion groups, and Patriot Mobile Action, a Political Action Committee it formed in 2022. 

The group, based in Grapevine, Texas, last year identified and funded 11 school board candidates in North Texas, all of whom won, which “flipped” four school boards, including one in Keller that has since adopted some of the most restrictive library book bans in the country.

Related: Florida just expanded school vouchers – again. What does that really mean?

Even as the national Moms for Liberty organization has attracted national conservative leaders and funders, some chapter members complained privately at the summit of getting no financial support from Moms for Liberty and having few resources to carry out their work. Nonetheless, the organization lists on its websiteschool board candidate endorsements by Moms for Liberty chapters, naming 17 that have “flipped” school boards to “parental rights supportive majorities.”

Beyond influencing school policy, local school board elections are seen by national conservative groups as a way to mobilize ordinary voters on other social-policy fronts. 

While those on the left were slow to recognize the significance of school board races and that school boards can be “flipped” with relatively few votes because of low voter turnout, increasingly, those groups are connecting with one another. In Philadelphia the “Schedule of Events Against the M4L Summit” was organized by a coalition that included nine named groups, but many others came to support them. Several said they expected the coordination to continue.

Meanwhile, the influence wielded by Moms for Liberty, which says it has more than 120,000 members in 45 states, resulted in a dazzling line-up of presidential hopefuls: Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Asa Hutchinson and Vivek Ramaswamy. 

While DeSantis was the darling of last year’s event — he was presented with the “liberty sword” award and a ballroom of women waved red “Mamas for DeSantis” campaign signs as he took the stage — his reception this year was more muted. His wife, Casey, who with their daughter Madison stole the show last year, was scheduled to speak, but did not appear.

Yet DeSantis, like every candidate, worked to court the room, insisting “mama bears” were “the most powerful political force in this country.” He rattled off his education-focused accomplishments in “the Free State of Florida,” as he calls it, from the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law to a voucher expansion that some experts fear will profoundly undercut funding for public schools.

DeSantis also acknowledged the protesters. “I see that Moms for Liberty is coming under attack by the corporate media, protests on the street,” he quipped. “Now you know what I feel like.” 

“It does not do anything to really prioritize what our children need in this moment. If you take a look at the NAEP scores, you take a look at the mental health crisis, we have work to do, and this is not work. It is political posturing.”

Keri Rodrigues, president and co-founder of the National Parents Union

While Haley and Hutchinson labored to connect to the crowd, Ramaswamy, who brought his wife, Apoorva, and two young sons on stage, earned a strong response when he promised, if elected, to abolish the Department of Education: “We will shut it down!” 

Trump — who in 2020 famously begged suburban women, “Will you please like me?” — received strong support from Moms for Liberty attendees who perhaps appreciated his defiant tone given their school board experiences. They stood in security lines for nearly an hour to enter the ballroom; many wore red MAGA hats. They cheered and chanted throughout his rambling hour-and-a-half speech (he received 19 standing ovations to Ramaswamy’s six and DeSantis’s three).

Trump joked about the protesters. “People are inspired and you have a lot of people who are very much in support outside,” he said to laughter. He ridiculed the Southern Poverty Law Center, which last month named Moms for Liberty an “extremist” group. “Can you imagine Moms for Liberty a hate group? I tell you, these people are sick,” he said. 

He dug into education, preying on parental fears with ill-defined promises to “overhaul juvenile justice to get violent monsters out of your children’s classrooms,” to “liberate our children from the Marxist, lunatics and perverts who have infested our education system,” to allow parents to  elect school principals and “move our education back to the states.” (Education is already primarily a state and local function with, on average, just eight percent of funding coming from the federal government.) 

Related: How Moms for Liberty wants to reshape education this school year and beyond

To critics, the reliable applause lines candidates embraced — critiques of “wokeness” in schools, denunciations of teacher unions, assertions that “there are only two genders, male and female”— didn’t have much to do with education and learning. 

This frustrates leaders like Heather Harding, a mother of two and executive director of the Campaign for Our Shared Future, a nonpartisan group supporting inclusive K-12 public education. She said the group held the “Banned Book Giveaway” both to bring attention to the fact that books were being banned and to put books that are becoming less available in schools into people’s hands. “What is happening as a result of Moms for Liberty is that certain groups are not represented in the curriculum and made to feel less welcome,” said Harding. 

Moms for Liberty has a prominent voice, but has diverted attention from critical issues, said Keri Rodrigues, president and co-founder of the National Parents Union, which has 1,000 affiliated organizations in 50 states plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. “We actually have deep concerns as parents that we want to have addressed. We want to have a serious conversation. This is not serious. It is a distraction,” she said, as she prepared to speak at a rally at LOVE Park, called that because of the 1970 Robert Indiana sculpture on the site.

“It does not do anything to really prioritize what our children need in this moment. If you take a look at the NAEP scores, you take a look at the mental health crisis, we have work to do, and this is not work,” she said. “It is political posturing.”

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