Politics

Should a Schoolteacher Be Punished for Going to the Capitol Riot?

Crowds of people on the lawn and steps of the Capitol. In the foreground, someone holds up an upside-down American flag and a Trump flag.
Pro-Trump protesters outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Brent Stirton/Getty Images

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Kristine Hostetter, a fourth grade teacher at Vista Del Mar Elementary School, was widely beloved in her Orange County, California, community—until people found out she marched to the Capitol on Jan. 6. Though Orange County is a conservative enclave in a generally liberal state, the revelation sparked a huge neighborhood drama. There was a petition going around calling for an investigation into Hostetter, then a counterpetition supporting her. Matthew Rosenberg, who reported from the Capitol on Jan. 6, recently covered this local controversy in the New York Times.

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So far, around 400 people have been charged for what they did on Jan. 6. But that’s just a fraction of those who were in the crowd that day. Alongside the people in tactical gear, the people waving enormous flags inside the Capitol rotunda, were “schoolteachers, firemen, office workers … this utterly ordinary swath of Americans,” Rosenberg says. Kristine Hostetter was one of those people just outside the frame, a supporting player in her husband’s many videos and photos. She was not part of the attack, as far as we know, but she certainly seemed to support the spirit of the “Stop the Steal” campaign. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Rosenberg about what Hostetter’s story says about post-Trump politics in America. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Matthew Rosenberg: Sometime after the pandemic starts, so spring last year, they first start noticing [Kristine’s husband Alan’s] postings on his social media getting pretty radical. Pretty extreme, pretty anti-COVID. A lot of this is a conspiracy, the government can’t tell me what to do, just that kind of talk. And they were surprised by that.

At first, by all accounts, Kristine kept a distance. Teachers at the school might ask her about it and she would say, “Well, that’s Alan’s thing. That’s not my thing.” But then the protests started getting louder and more extreme. There was a protest in May in which Alan and seven other people had tried to tear down a fence that had been erected to close off San Clemente’s beach during the lockdown. He’s arrested, and next thing you know, she’s got a GoFundMe page up raising money for him and the seven other people. He joined a lawsuit trying to sue California to get rid of COVID restrictions—it failed. That rhetoric really started amping up, and that’s when people really begin to notice, like, wait, what’s going on here? Why is this person, the teacher, out here really joining in?

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Mary Harris: Alan Hostetter had started an organization to brand his protests and lawsuits. He called it the American Phoenix Project. Kristine Hostetter was listed as one of the officers on the group’s incorporation papers. And then there was this story that Kristine was yelling at people about masks herself, right?

Yeah. The most detailed one I heard was on the beach around Thanksgiving time, when she went up to a family that had masks on and was accosting them. She had her granddaughter in tow, apparently. But there seemed to have been a number of other instances as well throughout the summer and into the fall where she began accosting people who were wearing masks in public.

So did this start a buzz at the time, in the winter, among parents of students or people at the school?

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It did among some. And one of the crucial things here is that there are a great many parents who agreed with her. They maybe are more subtle about it, they’re maybe a little more sophisticated about it, but they totally agreed with her and her husband’s politics.

But there are also a number of parents who are liberal, some students, older students in the high school and elsewhere in the district, who had started an anti-racism group, who were keeping an eye on him. They were keeping tabs.

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In January it becomes clear that Alan and Kristine are going to go to what initially was called a rally on Jan. 6. They’re also bringing some friends from Orange County. They’ve made connections with people with deep pockets, and all of them are flying out to be part of all this. When did the local community begin to see what they were doing in Washington?

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Within a day, screengrabs of Kristine, pictures of her in Washington, are going around. People are messaging them to each other. They’re tweeting them at each other. And that is what gets people going and saying, well, what’s going on here? What did she do? Did she take part in this attack? We need to know.

And Alan Hostetter is being pretty clear in these videos, saying stuff like this is our 1776, we’re going to get as close as we can, we’re going to march to freedom. And then Kristine is there.

She’s clearly marching. She looks like a happy and engaged participant. But she’s behind the scenes. She’s kind of the person behind the person. And it’s hard to tell where exactly she is on all of this.

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While this is happening and throughout the summer, a group of students and former students in the high schools of the area had organized their own anti-racism organization, kind of in response to the George Floyd killing and the civil rights protests throughout the country. They called it CUSD [Capistrano Unified School District] Against Racism. They started with an open letter in which they had a list of demands. They wanted the school district to endorse BLM, to stand up against white supremacy, an explicitly anti-racist curriculum, more minority hiring, more mental health counselors for minority students—a lot of requests or demands that would be pretty familiar to anybody who’s followed progressive politics for the last six months or a year.

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They had also been keeping an eye on the American Phoenix Project. That had been on their radar because it’s a pretty far-right group. So the founders of this group started texting amongst each other, saying, well, what do we do here?

And one of the founders of this group was one of Mrs. Hostetter’s former students.

Yup. Esther Mafouta, who is now a freshman at Columbia. And when I spoke to her, she had only really fond memories of her time in Mrs. Hostetter’s class and said she thought she was a great teacher. If there was any bias, she didn’t sense it. Esther now has said, well, maybe I didn’t see it, maybe I was too young. But she has no memories of anything that would suggest that Mrs. Hostetter treated her differently or acted differently—Esther is Black.

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Esther and her friends and colleagues started a petition to hold Kristine accountable for what she did. It wasn’t explicitly calling for her to be fired. It was saying there needs to be an investigation, if there’s criminal activity.

It was incredibly carefully worded. They understand that you don’t want to condemn somebody until you know all the facts, and they just wanted to know what had happened. Interestingly, that petition was very, very tightly focused on what had happened on Jan. 6. They didn’t really go into her politics in any kind of deep dive way. But along with that petition, they also had a kind of prewritten email that you could then send on to the school district, which brought up racism and anti-Semitism and more broadly got at what her politics were and the need to look into them. And that’s a lot of what then provoked the reaction.

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How did the school system respond?

They did suspend the teacher pretty quickly and launch an investigation, but members of the school board and others seemed not incredibly happy about the whole situation. I spoke to the school board president. She had, in a response to these form letters, written to some parents, decrying when did we not teach kids the difference between innocent until proven guilty, and suggesting that kids didn’t know how to be fair. And that’s when the other parents kick in. A bunch of other parents calling themselves Parents for Teachers’ Rights throw out their own petition insisting that she is being scapegoated and asking, if they start firing teachers for their political beliefs, what’s next? Religious differences? People immediately start going to their corners.

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There was not a whole lot of soul-searching from anyone about, well, what does this say about our community? How do we not ape the worst of our national politics and end up shouting past each other? How do we find a way to ask those questions, like why is a teacher out there accosting people on the street? And if she’s a great teacher, how do we then get that to stop and channel the best of her and get everybody to come together and figure this out and move forward together? There was not a whole lot of that that I can tell.

How long was Mrs. Hostetter suspended for?

She returned to class on March 15. Now, the investigation seemed pretty narrow, from what we can tell after the fact. They were looking primarily into had she done anything in the Capitol, and the investigator found she’d done nothing unlawful.

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Do you think what happened here is a story about Alan Hostetter and what he did wrong, or his wife, Kristine? And does it matter?

I think that it’s a story of this moment right now, because we’re not doing very good separating people from their partners, from their friends, from their business associates, in any meaningful way in a lot of areas of life.

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The community had seen some of her actions, they got a broad sense of her politics, but she wasn’t that vocal, so everybody sort of filled in the blanks. And he provided the information you needed to fill in those blanks. Had he been a lot less vocal, this might have just disappeared.

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The past year, in talking to people, between COVID, between George Floyd and the protests that followed it and the other killings that have followed it, “Stop the Steal,” the election, the attack on the Capitol, has all kind of blended together into this giant blob in people’s minds. And separating each strand out can be very difficult, even when thinking through it. So somebody who was kind of involved in one thing becomes part of the whole for the rest.

Being at the Capitol means you’re anti–Black Lives Matter.

Exactly. And when you’re anti–Black Lives Matter, you’re not anti the broader political movement—you’re anti the entire idea. That’s where the race issue really comes in here, because this is an incredibly difficult question. We could find no evidence of anything that I think most people would consider overt racism—using slurs, actively discriminating or treating a Black person as different or less than. We could find nothing in Kristine’s past to suggest any of that. And even Alan, for all the extremism of the American Phoenix Project—this is a Southern California group that makes no mention of immigrants at all. It doesn’t seem anti-immigrant in any meaningful way. And so, to a lot of people in the community, and I think to a lot of Americans, they’re, “OK, she’s not a racist. That’s the end of the discussion.”

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But then, to many other people, it’s like, well, wait, she’s at a rally with people who are waving Confederate flags, with a guy who’s wearing a Camp Auschwitz T-shirt. There are many people there who were just open white supremacists, even if she’s not. Even if she doesn’t agree with them, she’s comporting with them. So what do we make of her? Is she a racist? Is she not? How do we define this and then how do we act upon it? And that’s a debate that’s raging, that we’re far from settling anywhere.

Kristine Hostetter has been back at school teaching for over a month now, but the community is still a little raw about it.

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There are also a lot of parents who just flat-out agree with her. I spoke to parents who were like, “Yeah, I believe the election was stolen.” And to make it clear, this is not the kind of backwoods community of the liberal imagination, ignorant hicks of some sort believing anything. This is a community of multimillion-dollar homes where, every weekday morning, when they line up to get into school, it’s Teslas, Mercedeses, Range Rovers. This is the American dream as conceived by many people. There are beaches, there’s ocean. It’s California. It’s wealthy. So these are not poor, ignorant people with no means to find out things, and a great many of them do believe the election was stolen. So there are those parents who were just happy to have her back, they think it’s great, and they have no issue with her being there, no issue with her politics whatsoever.

Then there are the parents who are like, look, she’s back, but we’re not happy about it. Somebody passed on an email from a few days after Mrs. Hostetter came back—parents were emailing about organizing a birthday party for her in class. One parent wrote, “Frankly, it’s hard to get stoked about sending flowers and birthday cards to a classroom teacher who appears to align herself with a conspiratorial social movement and embraces the racist values of QAnon.” So I think there is some real division there still.

For people in the media and others, as we think about this going forward, it’s really easy to say, look, here’s a spectacle. Here’s a person who believes something really extreme and here’s what they’ve done. And there are instances across the country of people very much in gray areas. They’re behaving in ways that can be incongruous or that people are uncomfortable with. They’re maybe a little bit extreme, you don’t know, maybe they’re really extreme. But it’s dividing communities. It’s making people question one another. It’s pitting neighbor against neighbor.

People behave in very confusing ways. It’s our job also to explore those issues, the ones where there are no easy answers, there’s no clear-cut yea or nay or good or bad, and that we learn a lot about what our country is going through right now.

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