Dallas Has a Problem With ‘Zombie’ Astroturf Groups
Despite being exposed as bogus, some right-wing organizations keep coming back from the dead. No one knows who is funding them.
This piece is part of Special Correspondent Steven Monacellis’ reporting on extremist groups masquerading as grassroots, social justice organizations.
In September 2020, a large, white transportation truck wrapped in splashy adverts drove through the streets of downtown Dallas. “Tell City Council to Defund Themselves—Not the Police,” read one side. “Don’t let Dallas become Portland,” read the other. It was a direct response to the Black Lives Matter movement in Dallas and was a preposterous display for more than its garishness: Dallas had not seen major unrest since June 2020, when police tear-gassed hundreds and arrested others for protesting on a bridge. But it served to introduce Keep Dallas Safe (KDS)—a shadowy pro-police group with unknown funders—into Dallas politics.
Within months of KDS arriving on the scene, my reporting linked a KDS spokesperson to an astroturf scheme in New Orleans. Like many cities across America, Dallas is home to its fair share of dirty politics. But in recent years, a strange phenomenon has plagued the city.
KDS is an example of an organization portraying itself as local and “grassroots”—as evidenced by a name that emphasizes a locality—but that have funding sources that are unclear. Political scientists often refer to groups that appear to be local and citizen-based but receive outside funding or fail to disclose funding sources as “astroturf” groups.
It’s not merely that Dallas is home to one suspicious “grassroots” group. It’s that multiple astroturf groups continue to amble along like shambling zombies, repeatedly coming back to life despite critical coverage exposing them as empty husks. One telltale sign is their three-word names: Dallas Justice Now, Save Texas Kids, and Protect Texas Kids, all of which appear to be local but decline to reveal their funding sources.
The zombie astroturf plague started not long after Dallas saw significant protests against police brutality in months following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020. Thousands took to the streets under the banner of Black Lives Matter (BLM), and the city saw more than one hundred days of protests. Within months, a host of conservative nonprofits quickly sprung into existence to promote a counteragenda. KDS was the first to emerge. In addition to the garish truck, it mass-mailed scurrilous flyers ahead of a May 2021 city council race, attacking several candidates for “defunding the police,” which never actually happened in Dallas.
The second group, Dallas Justice Now (DJN), popped up in November of 2020. It presented itself as a local BLM-allied organization and caused national controversy in July 2021, when it sent a letter to wealthy, white families in the enclave city of Highland Park demanding they not send their children to Ivy League schools. The day after, the scandal was featured on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. While the organization posed as a grassroots group, in fact, it had ties to Arena, a Republican PR firm that’s worked with dark money operations across the country as well as KDS. Arena has confirmed that it created a test website for DJN but says it “terminated” the project “when we learned what their objective was.”
The third group, Save Texas Kids (STK), was founded in July 2021 to combat “critical race theory” and “gender fluidity.” After shuffling leaders and going defunct within a year, STK’s cause would later be picked up by a fourth group, Protect Texas Kids (PTK), which stokes anti-LGTBQ+ hate across the state by protesting drag shows and LGBTQ+ events.
“That sort of cycling is a feature, not a bug,” said Anne Nelson, whose book, Shadow Network, documents connections between the Christian right and right-wing, Republican operatives.
“Not only will they swap out leaders, especially when they’ve been involved in scandals, but sometimes they’ll go and change the entire name,” Nelson added.
Websites funded by billionaires have often platformed these groups: Texas Scorecard, a right-wing website funded in large part by billionaires Tim Dunn and brothers Dan and Farris Wilks, and the Dallas Express, a website that frames itself as nonpartisan and is published and funded by Monty Bennett, a Trump-supporting hotel magnate.
All four of the aforementioned astroturf groups are registered in Delaware. Delaware public records indicate three of the four groups, Keep Dallas Safe, Save Texas Kids, and Protect Texas Kids are tax-exempt corporations, a category that includes 501(c)4 nonprofits. The fourth, Dallas Justice Now, is registered as a stock-bearing general corporation in Delaware and has previously claimed that it is applying for 501(c)4 status. According to the Delaware Division of Corporations website, DJN is registered as a “general” entity type, which the website says is “a legal entity with no special attributes such as non profit or religious.”
All four of the groups have advertised themselves as 501(c)4 groups. Thanks to a rule introduced by the Trump administration in 2020 that allows 501(c)4 groups to conceal their donors, no one knows who funds them.
Keeping Dallas Astroturfed
In February 2021, a few months after Keep Dallas Safe (KDS) sent a sketchy mailer ahead of a city council election, I reported that the first public face of KDS, Daniel Taylor, had been caught red-handed paying actors to attend public meetings in New Orleans to pressure the city council to approve a power plant. Taylor denied that KDS used similar tactics in Dallas, but would not comment on the group’s unnamed funders.
A year after several city council candidates KDS had opposed secured their victories in the May 2021 election, Taylor announced on Facebook he would no longer run the operation. A newsletter KDS sent that week announced a new leader, Stephen Moitz. Moitz is a recent graduate from the University of North Texas, where he was a member of the Young Conservatives of Texas alongside the founder of Protect Texas Kids (PTK), Kelly Neidert.
Under Moitz’ leadership, KDS pivoted from attacking candidates portrayed as insufficiently pro-police to promoting punitive anti-homelessness policies such as banning panhandling. Shortly after penning an op-ed for the Dallas Express arguing that personal charity to the homeless enables drug use, Moitz was arrested for his second DWI within a year in September 2022.
Within a month, Moitz was replaced with a young man with ties to a neo-fascist organization: Jake Colglazier, a former InfoWars employee and Don Huffines campaign staffer, has extensive ties to the America First/Groyper movement led by Nick Fuentes, an antisemitic neofascist who has spoken favorably of Hitler and recently drew controversy for attending a dinner with Kanye West and former President Donald Trump.
Under Colglazier’s leadership, KDS has continued the focus on homelessness by speaking at Dallas City Council meetings and posting photos and videos of encampments on social media. He’s also posted hateful messages on his personal Twitter, including Confederate flags. One post suggested non-white Christian churches promote “paganism” and “anti-white race hatred” and “should have their errors corrected.” KDS has also mocked drag shows on its official Twitter account—an issue that has become the focus of Protect Texas Kids (PTK).
Colglazier did not respond to a request for comment.
Dallas Injustice Now
The second astroturf group to emerge in the wake of the BLM protests in Dallas is called Dallas Justice Now (DJN). The group was first mentioned in an article for the Dallas City Wire written by an author who has also written for the Dallas Express. The Dallas City Wire is affiliated with the Metric Media network—a network of partisan websites masquerading as local news.
But all was not as it seemed. Anonymous antifascist researchers uncovered a test server containing a mock-up of DJN’s website. The test site had been created by Arena, a Republican PR firm with an extensive record of working with dark money operations across the United States. The server also included a mockup for KDS, which has denied any direct connection to DJN.
After the news broke of the link to a Republican PR firm, the original leaders of DJN, Michele Washington and Jamila Nall, disappeared. Reporters were unable to reach them for comment. A few months later, a new leader of DJN, N’Dure Cain, was announced via a pay-to-play PR newswire service. A review of Cain’s social media and background revealed he is not a Dallas local and appears to have moved from Philadelphia to Dallas for the DJN role in 2021.
In recent months, DJN has focused its efforts in two seemingly unrelated areas. On one hand, they’ve been promoting interviews with Black-owned business-owners on social media. On the other hand, they’ve been denouncing the Dallas public school system while promoting “school choice”—a conservative policy position that isn’t shared widely in the BLM movement but aligns with a statewide push for school choice by Republicans.
While this two-pronged strategy has helped DJN gain some traction on social media, it has occasionally backfired.
“Dealing with the ongoing dilemma of failing schools in the Dallas ISD, we reached out to Akwete from the PanAfrican Connection bookstore,” reads a now-deleted post from DJN’s Twitter account made in August 2022, which featured a video filmed inside PanAfrican Connection. “[Akwete] was kind enough to allow us to use their meeting space for gatherings in the future.”
Akwete Tyehimba, the CEO of PanAfrican Connection, is a fixture of the Oak Cliff community. She’s managed PanAfrican Connection for over thirty years, turning it into a vibrant community space, book store, and African Art gallery. She chatted with the Texas Observer about her interaction with Cain, DJN’s leader.
“I agreed to allow him to have a meeting addressing poor education in our community,” Tyehmiba said. But after looking more into the group, she decided to cancel. “I talked to them and told them I wasn’t comfortable with their objectives. I told them their credibility was definitely questionable. And I asked them to remove the video.”
Tyehimba didn’t mince words when it comes to their activities.
“There are several organizations in our community that appear to be liberating campaigns in form but in essence are pushing corporate and private educational agendas to profit and continue exploitative relationships in our communities,” Tyehimba said. “They use Black faces and liberating narratives to deceive folks. We call these astroturf groups.”
Dominique Alexander, president of a Dallas-based social justice group Next Generation Action Network has described DJN as a “fake social justice organization” that he believes is funded by private GOP donors.
In response to Alexander’s allegations, DJN said it is a real social justice organization, but said they are “funded by donors we have never met” and that they “did agree to work with campaign narratives.”
The identities of those donors, and who sets the campaign narratives, is still unknown.
In recent weeks, the Collin County GOP has boosted DJN on social media. DJN in turn boosted a Republican politician and a school voucher activist. DJN has also seen a significant increase in its followers on Twitter, gaining over twenty thousand since November 2022. But independent analysis of those followers reviewed by the Observer suggests they may not be authentic. According to Mason Pelt, a managing director of Push ROI, a Dallas digital marketing firm who reviewed Twitter API data, over 80 percent of DJN’s Twitter followers created their accounts in the last four months, and over 80 percent have never posted. Hundreds of them share the same naming conventions.
DJN has never issued a statement regarding its association with a Republican PR firm that created a test website for the group, even after Arena confirmed the relationship. I approached its leader, Cain, at a protest outside the home of the President of the Board of Trustees on March 3, 2023. Cain would not comment on the identity of his anonymous donor. When I brought up the reporting that had linked the group to Arena, he said it was “false.”
Attacking Texas Schools
Save Texas Kids (STK) launched its Twitter account in July 2021. It didn’t take long for the group to make headlines. In September 2021, I reported that they’d encouraged Dallas teachers to snitch on their colleagues for teaching so-called “critical race theory” and “gender fluidity.” Carlos Turcios, a leader of STK, was previously employed by GoodBoy Public Relations, the company that first operated KDS. When I reported the group’s second leader was agitating at Dallas school board meetings despite not living in the district, the group stopped posting on social media.
Another group, Protect Texas Kids (PTK), picked up where STK left off. Public records show PTK was officially formed in April 2022, the same month that Save Texas Kids went defunct. PTK has been around the shortest amount of time, but has created the biggest splash. The organization’s founder, Kelly Neidert, is a self-described “Christian fascist” and a recent graduate from the University of North Texas, where she helped lead the Young Conservatives of Texas chapter alongside Moitz, a former leader of KDS.
PTK’s mission calls for the end of “woke” education. Its efforts focus on school board advocacy, seeking the ban of books they deem obscene (books that often feature and focus on the perspectives of non-White and LGTBQ+ people), and organizing protests of drag shows and LGTBQ+ events that regularly draw far-right, white supremacist, and even neo-Nazi groups. KDS has boosted PTK events on its social media accounts.
A drag show in Dallas was among the first events targeted for protest by PTK. And while the group has been active at events across the state, the majority of them have been in the greater Dallas-Fort Worth metro area.
Recently, Neidert identified herself as a member of the New Columbia Movement’s women’s cohort, an extreme Catholic traditionalist, “Christo-fascist” group that calls democracy a “failed experiment” and seeks to turn the U.S. into a Christian theocracy, according to its manifesto.
While Neidert has not named her primary funders, she was captured on video at a True Texas Project event saying her group is a nonprofit that takes donations—but not “Soros money,” a comment that caused one of her supporters to chime in by saying that they don’t take “Jew money.”
Platformed By Billionaires
Right-wing news outlets funded by billionaires have been lending their legitimacy to these zombie astroturf organizations, in many cases long after they should have folded. Chief among them is the Dallas Express.
The Dallas Express was originally a progressive, Black-owned newspaper. In 2021, it was relaunched by Republican activist donor Monty Bennett, who has sought to frame the outlet as nonpartisan. Since then, the Dallas Express has run at least 112 articles and opinion pieces that mention one of the four of the aforementioned astroturf groups—an average of roughly one story a week. Dallas Express articles have omitted mention of key details about these groups, including the tainted backgrounds of KDS operatives, the link between DJN and a Republican PR firm, and the frequent appearance of neo-fascist groups at the protests organized by PTK.
In turn, all of the groups have shared Dallas Express articles on their social media pages. Texas Scorecard has also published several articles and op-eds featuring KDS and PTK, but only the latter group has received recent coverage, and in total, it is a fraction of the articles published by Dallas Express.
Both billionaire Tim Dunn and Bennett are known as major donors to school-choice and school voucher causes. Dunn and Bennett have also been linked to a network of partisan websites masquerading as local news, known in the industry as “pink slime journalism,” that are associated with conservative businessman Brian Timpone and have been used to push big oil talking points. The Dallas Express, before Bennett’s purchase, was described by D Magazine as being “run by a Chicago-based operation called Metric Media News,” an example of a “pink slime” network of “dubious news sites.” Dunn was named a managing director of Pipeline Media in 2020, which according to the Columbia Journalism Review is one of the companies making up the core of the Metric Media network.
Bennett has denied associations with Metric Media in court. In 2023, the Dallas Express continues to feature articles originally published by The Center Square, a project of the Franklin News Foundation, which the Tow Center has reported is affiliated with the Metric Media network.
In August 2021, the Dallas Weekly and I received a letter threatening a lawsuit for an article that cited the link between Metric Media and the Dallas Express and that described the outlet as “right-wing propaganda.” Bennett would file a lawsuit in October 2021 in which he claimed the Dallas Express had “never been owned or run by Metric Media.” Bennett initially won in trial court, but later lost in appellate court, in part because the characterization of the Express as a “right-wing propaganda site” as used in the context of that article was held to be constitutionally protected opinion and that the alleged tie between the Express and Metric Media was an accurate report of an allegation first made by D Magazine. As of this writing, Bennett has appealed to the Supreme Court of Texas.
After filing the lawsuit, the Dallas Express went on to hire a large number of writers and editors. They currently list 27 staff on their website. Two of the new reporters worked with WallBuilders, a Christian Nationalist education organization that also happens to be funded in part by Dunn, according to publicly available records.
In 2023, the Dallas Express continued to quote and platform three of the four groups mentioned in this article: Keep Dallas Safe, Dallas Justice Now, and Protect Texas Kids.
In response to a request for comment, the Dallas Express threatened a lawsuit but did not address the substance of the request. While we may never know exactly whose donations pay the bills for the zombie astroturf groups that Dallas Express has been so keen to provide a platform, we can still see the groups for what they are.