By CECILLA CHAN AND JIM WALSH, GSN Staff
Jacek Spendel founded Project Arizona three years ago to push liberty in countries where there are none.
He does that by bringing six students each year to Arizona from the Eastern Bloc or Socialist countries to study ideas of liberty and how to implement them when they return home.
“The cause of liberty is universal,” said Spendel, who is from Poland. “If you guys fall as Americans what examples can we follow?”
Spendel was one of more than a dozen speakers at last week’s Patriotism Over Socialism rally at Gilbert Civic Center. The speakers focused their attacks largely against undocumented immigrants and socialism.
Gilbert officials, who last year officially adopted as its nickname Kindness USA, made it clear the rally was a private event not associated with the town.
The event coordinators went through the town’s Special Event permitting process to rent the Municipal Complex’s site for $700, according to town spokeswoman Jennifer Harrison. The fee included $450 for a full-day rental cost, $100 for a permit and $150 for six hours of having staff onsite.
Gilbert resident Kevin Jackson, a former Fox contributor, author, radio host and founder of Tea Party Community put together the free event.
It featured local conservative heavyweights such as U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs of Mesa; former state Sen. Russell Pearce of Mesa, the architect of SB 1070, a strict anti-immigration legislation that passed nine years ago; and Kelli Ward, chairwoman of the Arizona Republican Party and an unsuccessful candidate for U.S. Senate.
A few hundred people attended the three-hour event on Tax Day, turning it into a semblance of a Trump campaign rally with signs and banners proclaiming “Re-elect Trump 2020” and a vendor hawking “Make America Great Again” and “Trump 2020” hats and T-shirts.
Many of the attendees came dressed for the occasion, sporting red MAGA hats and T-shirts with messages such as “Liberal free zone,” “Make liberals cry again, Trump 2020.” and “Don’t tread on me, American born free—live proud.’’
A flag that resembled the American flag, except the stripes were replaced by a series of assault rifles that looked like AR-15s was flying from a pole carried by a man.
A majority of the crowd skewed older, white adults with a handful of families and younger children.
Three days before, the Southern Poverty Law Center or SPLC placed the rally on its Hatewatch.
The civil rights advocacy nonprofit noted the event drew the support of “hate and extremist groups” including Patriot Movement, AZ Patriots and the Arizona chapter of American Guard.
AZ Patriots and Patriot Movement both had a booth at the event along with others, including John Birch Society, Republican National Hispanic Assembly and Riders USA, which had a banner stating, “stop the invasion” and “secure our borders.”
Learn the Risk, whose mission is to educate the public about the harm of pharmaceutical drugs and vaccines, and Purple for Parents, which formed to counter the Red for Ed movement, also had a presence at the rally.
And at one booth, Rob Scantleberry, a retired Mesa cop and a Congressional District 25 committeeman in the Republican Party, was selling raffle tickets for $20 to win a Colt AR-15.
Other event headliners included Laura Loomer, an anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist, and Sharon Slater, a Gilbert resident and founder of Family Watch International, which promotes itself as a family values organization but is considered an anti-LGBT hate group by SPLC.
Family Watch opposes abortion, sex education in school and believes marriage is between a man and a woman and that same-sex attraction can be fixed.
According to SPLC, it tracked 20 hate groups in Arizona for 2018, up from the 18 for 2016 and eight for 2000.
Overall, it tracked 1,020 hate groups in the country for 2018, an increase from the 954 tracked in 2017.
There was no obvious police presence or counter-protestors at the rally, which was promoted as a family-friendly event and included three food trucks.
Jackson, who is African-American, countered SPLC ’s characterization of the rally by saying he put together the event with diversity in mind.
He said that eight of the scheduled speakers are women, including two Muslims, a Jewish woman and two Latinas.
Miranda Dawson, a spokeswoman for the rally, said Jackson has been involved in politics for over a decade and wanted to bring his connections to Arizona.
“The event is just a place to be inspired and educated and network with others,” she said hours before the rally’s start.
“We are just trying to bring all the different groups together to work together to build a better grassroots organization in Arizona. That is our long-term vision and goal.”
Spendel during his speech also bashed SPLC, calling its comments on the rally “B.S.” and said people like New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist, are “crazies.”
“Please stop it,” he told the audience. “I beg you as a citizen of Poland.”
Mary Ann Mendoza, an “Angel Mom” also spoke. Her son Mesa Police Sgt. Brandon Mendoza was killed in 2014 by a drunken driver who was in the country illegally and had a criminal history. Since then, she’s been advocating for tougher immigration laws.
“Angel Families is a club I don’t want any of you become part of,” Mendoza said.
The nonprofit advocacy group is for relatives of victims killed by those in the country illegally.
Mendoza showed the audience pictures of those killed by “repeat illegal alien criminals”- Grant Ronnebeck, a Mesa convenience clerk, Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry and Mendoza’s son.
She said criminals in the country illegally served less prison time than an Arizona resident and she cited statistics to bolster her claim that those who come to the county illegally were a financial drain.
She also said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is severely understaffed to oversee a border she said is controlled by the Mexican drug cartel.
She said the group is fighting sanctuary policies in California, Florida, Colorado, New Jersey, Texas and Maryland and that a movement was underway both in Tucson and Flagstaff to have them declared as a sanctuary city.
She added the group was starting a “Blood on your Hand Campaign” to “call out politicians who refused to stand with our president.”
The crowd cheered and one man shouted out, “build that wall,” a rallying cry for Trump supporters.
Mendoza added there are plans to put on billboards across the country pictures of victims killed by a “Dreamer” or an “illegal alien.” Dreamers is a term for those who were brought to this county illegally as a child and were given special status to attend school and work.
“I say build the wall,” said Ward, who acknowledged Mendoza and other families like hers.
She added President Trump’s idea to send undocumented immigrants to sanctuary cities was a win-win. Dr. Ward lost her U.S. Senate bid to Martha McSally in the GOP primary in 2018.
Ward said there are enemies inside the country and outside who want to overthrow the government and replace it with a failed system of socialism.
“The left continues to move further away from reality,” she said, adding socialism would destroy the founding tenets of the United States.
“There’s never been a more important time to embrace American patriotism,” she added.
And the way to deflect socialists was to re-elect Trump in 2020, she said holding up a Trump campaign sign.
“Re-electing President Trump is my No. 1 priority,” she said.
Sitting in lawn chairs enjoying the rally were Ginger Niesen and her next-door neighbor Debbi MacNicol, who drove from North Phoenix. They’ve known each other for 25 years.
“I’m in support of limiting government, of freedom and standing for freedom of speech,” said Niesen for why she came out for the event.
She said she was very much against those who come into the country illegally and that the border wall must be built.
“I’ve seen the destruction in the country,” she said of the illicit drugs that pour over from the southern border.
She said many blame the over 70,000 U.S. drug deaths in 2017 on doctors when 85 percent of the drugs enter the country from the south.
She also cited Trump’s assertion that one in three women is sexually assaulted on the long journey north.
“I don’t encourage a system where women and children are being raped and Congress sits on their hands and do nothing,” the 68-year-old woman said. MacNicol, on the other hand, faulted the school system for the younger generation’s fascination with socialism.
“They are not teaching American history in schools,” she said. “In history books now we are the bad guys and I’m sorry but America is not the bad guy.”
“A whole young generation thinks socialism is great. It’s not even great on paper. These kids don’t know, they think it’s a wonderful idea. The only way socialism succeeds is because capitalism funds it.”
Both Niesen and MacNicol, 64, traveled to the border, south of Sierra Vista, four years ago to check it out and they said there is no wall where they went.
“I have great compassion for people who want to come here but they have to come legally,” Niesen said.