When a group of conservative Downers Grove parents organized this year to oppose mask mandates and equity initiatives at schools, it led to some tense school board meetings in the western suburb.
Yet students at Downers North and Downers South high schools said they didn’t see a big impact on their lives until the parents sought to remove a graphic novel by a nonbinary author from the school libraries over concerns it included a few sexually explicit illustrations — a fight that caught the attention of the Proud Boys, a far-right gang that has recently seized on the culture wars playing out at school districts around the country.
A Proud Boys contingent ultimately showed up for a board meeting in Downers Grove last Monday where the book was discussed, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.
Edgar “Remy Del Toro” Delatorre, a leader of the group’s northern Illinois chapter who was at the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C., said he was among roughly 10 Proud Boys in attendance.
They were joined by Proud Boys associate Brian Kraemer, who has appeared at demonstrations with members of the group and who was charged with brandishing a knife at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Joliet last summer.
Their presence at the meeting — where students said the men jeered at them, even called them “pedophiles” for supporting keeping the book in the library — was “unnerving” and “intimidating,” they told the Sun-Times. It has led to rifts among students in the school, including one who wore Donald Trump garb to class this week while arguing against the book.
“Politics have never caused division in the school setting before,” said Tabitha Irvin, a Downers North junior. “But it kind of fell apart after the board meeting.”
Telegram posts target board meeting
Earlier this month signs of the tensions began leaking from Community High School District 99 board meetings into high school hallways.
An article in the Downers North student newspaper, the DGN Omega, led to some student chatter about the parents’ attacks on board policies — primarily by the conservative group “Wake Up D99” — as did a lawsuit over mask mandates that some parents joined against 145 Illinois school boards and Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
Then, some area Proud Boys caught wind of the complaints against “Gender Queer,” a book that has been targeted by conservatives nationwide. “Gender Queer” is an autobiography about nonbinary author Maia Kobabe’s journey of gender identity as a teenager and young adult. A few pages that include illustrations of sex acts have drawn the bulk of the ire, while other students, parents and community members see the book as a vital tool for youth discovering their identity and efforts to ban it as censorship.
The District 99 November board meeting was promoted on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app favored by extremists and others on the far-right. A flyer advertising a “SCHOOL BOARD SHOWDOWN” was posted to the Telegram channel for the northern Illinois chapter of the Proud Boys, which has more than 280 subscribers.
“Please join the parents of [District 99] fight to keep pornography out of Downers Grove Schools,” the post said.
A Telegram account apparently belonging to Kraemer also urged other Telegram users to join him at the school board meeting.
“I will be speaking against child porn in my kids [sic] school. The left is planning to show up strong,” he wrote. Kraemer wouldn’t say if he has children, and he lives in New Lenox, about 30 miles from Downers Grove.
At the meeting, members of the group joined parents and others in the audience holding signs saying “No Porn” and jeered at the board and any students or parents who spoke in support of the book, but the group of men largely did not make any public remarks themselves. They also didn’t appear to wear Proud Boys regalia or clothing with the group’s signature black and yellow colors.
In a series of Twitter messages, Delatorre confirmed to the Sun-Times that he and other Proud Boys attended the meeting.
But he insisted his group isn’t homophobic and that he and the other Proud Boys were merely standing against the sexual imagery portrayed in “Gender Queer,” which isn’t required reading or part of the district curriculum. The group’s Telegram channel, however, includes multiple recent posts that appear to be homophobic and transphobic.
He added that some Proud Boys are parents “concerned on what [is] being shown to their sons and daughters,” though it’s unclear whether he has children.
Delatorre, 34, of Chicago, was previously seen outside the U.S. Capitol as rioters stormed the building Jan. 6. Other Proud Boys have since been ensnared in the sprawling federal investigation into the insurrection and its planning.
Delatorre was later arrested in connection to a March dustup at an anti-Biden rally in Schaumburg. The charges against him were ultimately dropped, Cook County court records show.
Kraemer, 31, was seated in one of the first few rows right behind the microphone stand where speakers addressed the board.
Reached by phone and text message Tuesday, Kraemer threatened to call the cops and declined to answer questions but acknowledged he was at the meeting. He questioned where a Sun-Times reporter found his phone number because he “did not put it anywhere at the meeting last night.”
He was arrested last July in Joliet when he allegedly disrupted a Black Lives Matter demonstration and “brandished a hunting knife and held it in a threatening manner,” police said.
Will County court records show he was charged with misdemeanor counts of reckless conduct and disorderly conduct in that case for allegedly “aggressively” pulling his vehicle into a crowd of protesters before displaying the knife and yelling obscenities at protesters. A jury trial is scheduled to start Jan. 4, records show.
Activist Candice Quinerly, one of the listed victims in a charging document, told the Sun-Times that Kraemer initially drove past her group and yelled, “You all are going to die.”
That wasn’t their first interaction. Quinerly had seen Kraemer mulling around other protests, and just a few weeks earlier allegedly had called her a “Black antifa b----,” she said.
“It just freaks me out that he’s just out here doing this to people,” she said.
‘That’s not OK’
A group of Downers North students attended the meeting to ask the school board to ignore calls for “Gender Queer” to be banned.
One of those students, Josiah Poynter, an 18-year-old senior at Downers North, told the Sun-Times that after he addressed the board, a man in the audience repeatedly told him, “You’re a pedophile. You promote pedophilia” and threatened to call the police on him. In the parking lot later, the man allegedly drove up to Poynter shouting “pedophile” at him, Poynter said.
Shown a photo of the audience, Poynter pointed to Kraemer as the man who made the comments.
“The last thing we need is some 30- or 40-year-old man who lives in the middle of nowhere to be calling ... some kid a ‘pedophile,’” Poynter said. “That’s not OK.”
Lauren Pierret, a senior at Downers Grove North, said “it made me very uncomfortable” that there were “men in the back yelling things out for no reason” when she and her friends addressed the board. The school board president threatened to adjourn the meeting several times because of shouted interruptions, jeers and comments to speakers.
“Having an adult man behind me saying things to me was very unnerving,” she said.
Hank Thiele, the district’s superintendent, didn’t respond directly when asked whether he was alarmed that Proud Boys members and associates attended the meeting.
“All District 99 Board of Education meetings are open to members of the public, and there are always equal opportunities for attendees to address the Board,” he said in a statement.
Divided student body
Pierret said she had been surprised by students’ togetherness and supportiveness so far this school year as they grappled with the return to in-person learning during the pandemic. But students have been divided since last Monday, she said.
“Even the students whose parents are part of Wake Up D99, they didn’t really make it a big deal or a big issue,” Pierret said. “But then when the Proud Boys, this big intimidating group, came in and made this issue so big, it forced students to look at what’s going on.”
Irvin said several of her classes have discussed the week’s events, she said, and she noticed for the first time a student wearing a “Trump 2024” hat as he voiced his dislike of “Gender Queer.”
“Students are now getting really caught up in the political controversy in the whole issue, and that’s exactly what fuels groups like the Proud Boys,” she said. “We can’t stoop down to their level and engage with them because it only strengthens them.”
Parents distance themselves from Proud Boys
Parents who want to remove the book sought to distance themselves from the Proud Boys. The “Wake Up D99” group wrote in a Facebook post that it “will NEVER be associated with The Proud Boys” and that its “flyer was used in combination with a Proud Boys Flyer without our permission.”
Terry Newsome, who spoke at the meeting, said he didn’t want his concerns as a parent of two high schoolers to be conflated with Proud Boys messaging. Newsome said he and another parent have a meeting scheduled with district administrators this week to discuss the book.
“You got the politics of the left and right with the antifa and Proud Boys who have their own little political agendas, I guess,” Newsome said, referring in part to the decentralized antifascist activists who track and protest extremist groups. But he said that “doesn’t have anything to do” with his complaints.
The Proud Boys have recently joined school board protests around the country, appearing at a North Carolina meeting against mask mandates and forcing another in the state to move its meetings online, similar to what happened at a meeting in Oregon.
David Goldenberg, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Midwest office, said it’s now “a common trend” for members of the Proud Boys and other extremists to attend school board meetings and other public events “to either recruit, to antagonize [or] to engage.”
Meanwhile, state and federal lawmakers have taken notice of the Proud Boys’ presence. Illinois General Assembly’s five-member LGBTQ Caucus urged district officials to protect queer students “from hate and censorship by immediately rejecting calls to censor a queer positive book in the high school library.”
Thiele said at the meeting the book will remain in circulation while administrators review parent’s complaints.
U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, the Democratic congressman who represents the district, said he has talked to board members since last Monday about student safety.
“I think the Proud Boys are reprehensible. They’re part of the biggest threat to our country, domestic terrorism, and they are part and parcel of that,” Casten said.
“Let’s be really blunt about this. If you are a grown adult and you are walking through a library in an elementary school or high school and having sexual thoughts, you are the problem. It ain’t the book.”