After A Cursed Year That Felt Like The World Was Ending, Here Are 11 North Texas Villains Who Had Their Fingers On The 2021 Self-Destruct Button.
Before you blithely dive into this year’s list of local horrors, I should confess my suspicion that this series of articles is cursed.
In my grim summary of 2020, I opened with a spotlight on portentous weather events around the globe, and the larger looming threat of catastrophic climate change; this past February, the state’s power grid buckled under the assault of a lethal winter storm.
My 2019 article referenced the ugly history of Dallas around the time of the John F. Kennedy assassination; at the end of this year, the city was besieged by QAnon adherents who camped out in the expectation JFK and/or his son, John F. Kennedy, Jr, would return to the living at Dealey Plaza and kickstart a bizarre political prophecy.
Admittedly, it would be a reach to call two ominous coincidences evidence of some supernatural maladaptive force, but while these articles are (probably) curse-free, our latest subject, 2021, does feel like a tainted year. The events of the past twelve months feel especially troubling when you consider how little 2021 had to do to clear the low bar set by 2020, a point in history marred by the arrival of the COVID-19 virus in the country.
If anything, this year seems worse because it felt like a strained, possibly futile effort to free ourselves from the sludge of the blighted year before.
The presidential election in 2020 sparked both genuine(ly misguided) furor and canny feigned outrage over the legitimate victory of Joe Biden, which crescendoed this past January with a roughshod attempt to seize the US capitol. The aforementioned winter storm kept almost everyone homebound for non-COVID but still deeply scary reasons.
While Governor Greg Abbott’s lax enforcement of infection safety standards gave residents of the state more freedom to move about during the pandemic last year, almost 75,000 Texans have died from the disease as of this writing, and those deaths continued into this year despite our access to vaccines, in part thanks to a rabid movement (one extending far beyond Texas) that fought their use. The virus continues to attack and mutate, and we now have confirmation of the Omicron variant’s arrival in the state.
Of course, the influence of more than just the last year has contributed to our ongoing woes. Climate change has been a concern for decades, and Texas was just one area of many beset by a weather event that would have once felt inconceivable in type and impact. The racism and craven political machinations of the people who helped Dallas earn the nickname “The City of Hate” before the JFK assassination in 1963 may be gone, but the prejudicial venom that once animated them continues to animate many of the asshats tarnishing the Metroplex today.
In other words, 2021 didn’t just suck because it failed to free itself from 2020, it sucked because the forces that helped ruin 2020 began to dogpile on our helpless, prone bodies before the start of this series, this website, or even the creation of the whole damn internet. That is why echoes of past year-end reviews can be found in 2021, and also why 2022 should be approached with heavily guarded hope at best.
Actually, since midterm elections are happening in 2022, the best mood you can justifiably muster might be sheer terror.
If we can’t exorcise DFW’s demons by calling them out in an annual list (the last five efforts certainly fell short), at least we can wrap the year with a bracing reminder they are among us, and if nothing changes, they’ll happily befoul the years to come.
At the start of the year, a disconcerting number of people connected to the Metroplex traveled to Washington DC on January 6 to protest and/or attempt to outright thwart the election of President Biden.
Ali Alexander, who grew up in the Fort Worth area and went to Fossil Ridge High School, was more than just one of the many DFW-connected attendees at that national embarrassment. The far-right agitator, who has a long career in right wing provocation, claimed in a now-deleted video he had help from Reps. Andy Biggs, Paul Gosar, and Mo Brooks in conceiving of the January 6 events. He had already helped foment the political frenzy with the “Stop the Steal” protests over Joe Biden’s win in November before that eventful date.
While he was both active and effusive in his praise of what January 6 would become, the aftermath of the event saw Alexander attempt to hide the digital evidence of his involvement. Considering how it all shook out, this seems understandable, though a full distancing is trickier to pull off when you do something as conspicuous as film yourself during the riots asserting that you would not denounce what was unfolding.
Social media companies and other digital platforms helped him scrub his online presence, as he was booted from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Venmo, and PayPal. He does remain active on Telegram, a platform that’s become a haven for the far-right.
With the storming of the US Capitol now under government scrutiny, Alexander seems primed for a turbulent 2022. He’s claimed a willingness to cooperate with investigations, and has faced a deposition as well as lawsuits concerning his role in the insurrection.
Jenna Ryan arrived at the January 6 insurrection in style, traveling on a private jet with friends to engage in the chaos. As if sensing her flight arrangements and participation in the insurrection were lacking in over-the-top, cartoonish villainy, she would go on to boast on Twitter that her blonde hair, white skin, status and prospects made her ineligible for a prison stint despite her public criminal behavior.
Her boast infamously backfired, albeit tepidly, as she received a sixty day sentence along with a $1,500 fine. On the one hand, prison is prison, but as we pointed out in our earlier article about her, sixty days is certainly not the potential six month sentence proposed for her actions. With lockup on the horizon, Ryan has secured a book deal and discussed using her time behind bars to improve her yoga skills.
Like Shelley Luther last year, Ryan found a way to leverage a larger political moment into personal notoriety. Luther went on to use her time in the limelight to lose an election; we’ll see what awaits Ryan at the end of her sixty day sentence.
Michael Brian Protzman
At the end of this year, a sect of QAnon followers came from different parts of the country to Dealey Plaza, giving Dallas a smaller, sadder and weirder version of January’s political invasion.
The gathering in Dealey Plaza came about thanks to Michael Brian Protzman, a notable QAnon figure and Washington State resident who drew some of his online following to the Metroplex on the belief John F. Kennedy will return to life at the place where he was killed, which will lead to the return of his son, John F. Kennedy, Jr (either resurrected or still alive), and the completion of larger QAnon beliefs.
Broadly speaking, QAnon followers claim a Deep State organization secretly guides world affairs. The Deep State, in addition to generally controlling our lives, is heavily involved in child trafficking. In some form or fashion, Donald Trump is key to stopping them. If this sounds too outlandish to be true, you have maintained a healthy incredulity that a possible 15-20% of people in this country may have lost.
Protzman is a controversial figure even among other prominent members in the far-flung fringe movement. Even for general believers of QAnon, belief in the resurrection of Kennedy family members (or the reveal they have been with us all along) is something of a stretch. Still, he has enough influence to entice hundreds to show up at Dealey Plaza, and has maintained a hold on attendees even after expected resurrections led to disappointment.
Protzman has a history of violence in his past, with allegations of domestic violence and unlawful imprisonment against him. So far, there are no reported issues with violence against the group, though family members of people who joined and stayed have expressed concerns over the hold Protzman and his proclamations have had on them.
Hopefully, the gathering breaks up as soon and as peacefully as possible, and attendees can return to some semblance of their normal lives. After they clear out, we can once again visit the spot where a former president died violently without having to feel weird.
It is a tragedy when someone dies from COVID-19 regardless of their vaccination status. With that said, when you do what Marcus Lamb did in using his considerable media platform to influence other people to reject vaccinations, the moral math on your COVID-19 death is more complicated. After all, how many other families lost people because a larger movement dissuaded them from using readily available protection?
Born in Georgia, Lamb moved to Dallas in 1990 and went on to create Daystar Television Network. Daystar is a Christian television platform that focuses on matters of faith, which surely explains why their airtime in 2020 was occupied by content from people like Robert Kennedy, Jr, who famously opposes vaccines, and an hour-long special to discuss supposed censorship around vaccine information.
Again, death from COVID-19 is a tragedy, full stop. Rather than dwell on the loss of one man who used his platform to stop people from using a life-saving vaccine, we should focus on all those people who could still be with us had they not been pushed away from protection against the virus.
What’s truly sad is that while Lamb is no longer with us, the dangerous message he helped broadcast will persist.
A long and ugly fight over how to educate on subjects of race and racism has bedeviled Carroll ISD for years.
Heated discussions were sparked in 2018 after a video of students at a Southlake school using a racial slur went viral (another video with the same content surfaced soon after in early 2019). Plans to introduce a Cultural Competence Action Plan in the district met stern opposition from locals, delaying its implementation. Earlier this year, two new school board members won seats by building campaigns around opposing the action plan, and through broader fear mongering about critical race theory, a subject taught in law school that was misrepresented and manipulated into a convenient rhetorical weapon for conservatives.
The larger story of Carroll ISD concerns those galling videos, the parents who refuse to see the need for better guidelines and more nuanced discussions of race, and recent statewide legislation that threatens to stifle classroom discussions out of a mutable, convenient fear over whatever someone needs critical race theory to represent in a given situation.
With that said, we can hone in on one moment that succinctly shows how much the community’s resistance to difficult subjects has debased it. That moment arrived thanks to executive director of curriculum Gina Peddy, who was caught on video stating that teachers who keep books on the Holocaust in their classrooms need to make shelf space for books with “opposing views.”
Peddy was talking about the implementation of HB3979, the new state bill regarding education and critical race theory, which does assert that teachers need to, “Give diverse perspectives without deference to any one perspective.”
On the one hand, the bill has led to concerns over what can and cannot actually be covered in the classroom, and poring over its finer points could be helpful. On the larger and more important hand, as a person in education, or just as a person at all, you should maintain the backbone to not care what a law might require and stick with classroom materials that only address the real history of the Holocaust.
Belligerent parents and administrators can do considerable harm to public education when they try to keep retrograde values in place. Unfortunately, they are not the only rotten apples on the teacher’s desk, as politicians have their role in coercing schools into providing worse support for kids.
This past October, Rep. Matt Krause sent out an ominous call to the Texas Education Administration and superintendents of state school districts for information on nearly 850 books.
The request asked if any of the listed titles are in the possession of districts’ library systems, and if so, how many copies are in stock, where they are located, and how much was spent on them. The overarching subjects of the books being interrogated concern matters of race and American history, along with facets of human sexuality.
There are two major strains of censoriousness in conservative politics. One is a frequently squawked-about fear of social challenges from more progressive people and institutions; the other involves the imposition of active restrictions and chilling inquiries on ideas they dislike. That can take the form of vaguely menacing certain books, or the passing of HB3979, the purported attempt to stop the teaching of critical race theory by broadly threatening discussions about race and historical events in classrooms.
While this request for book information could be a genuine inquiry in service of HB3979, we should note that in addition to this headline-grabbing move, Krause spent 2021 entertaining an ambitious challenge for Ken Paxton’s attorney general position before deciding to pursue the position of Tarrant County District Attorney.
The request has limited power, and leaders in Dallas and Austin schools have already declined to participate. Hopefully, the challenge — and any other newsworthy maneuvers from Krause — will stay behind alongside 2021.
Thomas Rousseau is the leader of Patriot Front, a white nationalist group with a history of sliming public spaces with propaganda for their cause. He was quick to enter the world of far-right provocation: In 2016, he contributed articles to his high school newsletter, including pieces about the then-upcoming presidential election. In 2017, he was in Charlottesville, VA as part of the infamous “Unite the Right” rally with Vanguard America, a far-right group.
That group was joined during marches by James Fields, who used his car to murder one woman and injure others during the event. Patriot Front is the organization that emerged after associations with Fields tarnished the name of Vanguard America, which, let’s be clear, had a pretty cretinous standing before the Unite the Right rally.
This year, Rousseau and Patriot Front attempted another demonstration, this time in Washington, DC. According to Daily Beast, Rousseau proclaimed during the event that this was an effort to show how prepared they are to organize and act upon their cause. In execution, it became an example of how susceptible they are to basic logistics failures, as their planned transportation from the end of the gathering couldn’t hold everyone, leaving clumps of participants stuck in the dark waiting for rides.
In a year where aggressive strides have been made to stifle what subjects schools and libraries can share with American children, the question of what values public systems can and should inculcate in students has become fraught. As a movement interested in squashing conversations about race and racism surges forth, it is more than a little disquieting to think about how many students might follow Rousseau’s trajectory and enmesh themselves in the world of white nationalism before the ink on their diplomas dry, and how many more will go without the resources to help them recognize the movement’s poisonous nature and history.
The Metroplex has had its share of memorable local advertising. Rather than try to mimic the impactful style of “The Texas Hammer” Jim Adler or attempt a jingle with the infectiousness of Dalworth Clean’s commercial-ending ditty, Home Marketing Service (HMS) CEO Bob Lovell would deliver monologues that mixed folksy charm with an undercurrent of smarm, and would heavily pepper in his catchphrase, “Bless your heart.” It presented him, and by extension the company, as reliably warm and genial, if a little superior.
However, based on the nature of a lawsuit brought against Lovell by an unnamed former employee, his demeanor in commercials may have cloaked a more licentious and petty nature. The details of the suit are unseemly even by the standards of the subject: The complaint alleges that Lovell had zipper-themed code phrases to request sexual favors, and when the plaintiff rejected his advances, he allegedly canceled her daughter’s health insurance in retaliation.
Lovell has not made a public comment we could find, and the case has yet to be tried. So while there is not yet clarity on what happened, this is a helpful reminder that when someone constantly tries to bless your heart, it’s fair to wonder about the darkness residing in theirs.
The former CEO for ERCOT is not a Dallas native, but geography has been a funny thing for the ERCOT board, as many of its members at the time of February’s winter storm weren’t even residents of the state, which kept them clear of fallout from the grid’s shocking vulnerability.
You could argue that blaming Magness, or the other board members who stepped down in the wake of February’s catastrophic power failures, is like blaming a captain at the helm of a ship that was built to sink. ERCOT provides oversight for an aggressively deregulated grid system, and exercises an alarming lack of actual control. In a meeting that broke down the pileup of failures at the feet of our weather disaster, Magness called out a lack of weatherization at power plants and supply lines, but conceded weatherization was not something those facilities were obligated to address.
“We don’t have regulatory authority to issue fines,” he explained, pointing out a lack of a mandate to protect crucial equipment from severe weather in the age of severe weather events.
Of course, one thing ERCOT can do is control wholesale prices. After raising those prices to the $9,000-a-megawatt-hour mark — the maximum during an emergency — the group was called out for keeping those prices up for longer than they were supposed to, which led to more chaos for providers and consumers. It is impressive, albeit in a sick sort of way, to see this toothless agency leave bite marks. Unfortunately, they were left on the ass of a state already reeling from the human toll of February’s disaster.
When COVID-19 descended upon Texas last year, Governor Greg Abbott chose to fight for the rights of the status quo and business interests, which meant muffling the kind of safety protocols that could have limited public exposure to the virus. The state’s residents had more freedom to gather and move about, but as mentioned above, we have also lost close to 75,000 residents.
After the weather events of February 2021, Abbott was steadfast as a leader, in that he held fast to a claim that fault for our wide-ranging power failures fell on the social and political push for more “green” energy. Texas, not surprisingly, relies on fossil fuels.
In the period after the grid and weather stabilized, Abbott made a point of investigating the failures in search of better protection for the state’s electricity systems. How chastened were the energy companies in the state after the governor and other politicians dealt with the various failures and shortcomings identified? Chastened enough to feel like boosting their donations to officeholders like Abbott. Kelcy Warren, the CEO of Energy Transfer Partners (who just so happens to have appeared on our first Asshats year-end list) actually handed over a $1 million donation to the Abbott campaign after the legislative session ended.
Overseeing a failing energy grid would be reason enough to put Abbott on this list, but 2021 was an embarrassment of embarrassing riches for the state. Earlier this year, the governor happily signed into law the Texas Heartbeat Act, which effectively criminalized abortion in Texas. The new rules not only made abortion essentially unobtainable, they incentivized members of the public to report people they suspect to have had or performed the medical procedure illegally.
It was a year of growth for the governor. Last year, his shameful refusal to take safety precautions seriously endangered the lives of Texans. This year, he managed to keep the state in danger with his handling of COVID-19, his reign over a flagrantly deregulated energy grid, and his endorsement of a bill that imperils the lives of people who face any kind of risky pregnancies. It is hard to imagine what Abbott might get up to in 2022, but if anyone in power can find new ways to immiserate the people of this great state, it’s him.
There are callous political decisions, and there are wild political miscalculations, but few actions have been as simultaneously cold and clueless as Ted Cruz’s decision to abscond to another country for vacation while the state he represents suffered through a cataclysmic weather event.
In other words, even by the low standard of being something Ted Cruz did, this action of Ted Cruz’s stands out for its sheer awfulness.
Cruz has been an uncovered wound on the flesh of our national politics for roughly as long as he has been in the Senate. Still, the last few years have seen the body of our system ravaged by extremists and opportunists, and as of this year attacked by insurrectionists. The change in our political climate arguably makes some of his offenses, like his fight with Sesame Street, feel less significant, if no less imbecilic. Without February’s ghastly blunder, he might have blended into the background with countless other officeholders who make us clutch our collective foreheads in aggravation and disbelief.
Do you ever feel sorry for Cruz as he works to stay afloat in a party that has gone through so much radical change, one seemingly hijacked by people on the hinterlands of conservative thought and shockingly blunt in their prejudices? A party effectively helmed by a former president who once used his media platform to call Cruz’s wife ugly, then took the senator’s support without a whit of apparent gratitude?
If you do, cut that shit out right now. The man tried to sneak out of the country while Texas families were trapped and freezing in their darkened homes. The most pitiful interpretation of Ted Cruz’s life is better than the one he deserves.