By Steven Monacelli

A group claiming to be a local Black Lives Matter organization called Dallas Justice Now made national and international news last month after sending a petition to white parents in the wealthy enclave of Highland Park urging them to not send their children to top tier colleges to make more room for Black students.

Now some of you may be asking, what does this have to do with me? This was aimed at white people. Why should I care?

And in all the ways that matter, you’d have a point. Right-wing media personalities had a field day with the story. “You could identify this as a bigotry of low expectations,” said Candace Owens on Fox News. “They’re saying that Black Americans aren’t smart enough to get into these schools by their own merit.”

But the entire thing appears to be a hoax. As reported in the Dallas Observer, D Magazine and Vice News, some internet sleuths were able to dig up test websites for Dallas Justice Now that were traced back to a conservative political PR firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, called Arena.

Arena has denied any direct involvement with the hoax. But in a statement to CNN, they confirmed the veracity of the server the Dallas Justice Now test websites were found on as well as the suspect nature of the group’s objective.

“Arena did not and would never support an activity of this type,” wrote Chief Operating Officer Clint Brown. “We were working with a client and when we learned what their objective was, the project was terminated. Unfortunately, it appears someone from the group copied the original code containing a link to the abandoned ‘under construction’ website, which linked to our server.”

Records of Arena’s development server indicate they’ve created test sites for a number of other dark money groups and Trump loyalists across the country. Recently, pro-police organization Keep Dallas Safe started working with Arena, but they deny all associations with Dallas Justice Now, and there is no evidence linking them directly to the hoax. It makes little sense that an authentic Dallas-based BLM group would purchase a website for thousands of dollars from such an organization.

It is still unclear exactly who is behind the group. No one has been able to get a response from the quoted spokesperson, Michele Washington. The same goes for a woman who appeared in a since deleted video on the group’s Facebook, Jamila Nall. The donation page on the website has been taken down, and Michele Washington’s Facebook page has disappeared.

The only journalist to have quoted Washington, Juliette Fairley, has refused to acknowledge whether she ever spoke to Washington on the phone. But she did forward the request to her boss Brian Timpone. An investigation published by the New York Times in Oct. 2020 reported that Timpone manages a network of hundreds of local news sites that regularly publish stories “directed by political groups and corporate PR firms to promote a Republican candidate or a company, or to smear their rivals.”

After the story broke in the Timpone-linked Dallas City Wire, it spread rapidly throughout the right-wing ecosystem, eventually making its way to Tucker Carlson Tonight, the top-rated news television show. (Notably, Tucker Carlson’s lawyers defended him in the court of law by arguing Carlson is not interested in stating actual facts about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in exaggeration and non-literal commentary.)

This isn’t the first time a hoax story was cooked up to throw tar at the BLM movement. False stories about paid protestersBLM groups buying luxury buses, and BLM donations going to the Democratic party have all gone viral. (It’s gotten so bad that the national BLM organization has launched a way to help fight back against viral disinformation.)

As was reported this past May in NPR, “right-wing pundits such as Rudy Giuliani, Candace Owens and Carol Swain amplify often baseless anti-BLM messages to wider audiences. On a Fox News talk show last July, Giuliani said, ‘Black Lives Matter wants to come and take your house away from you. They want to take your property away from you’.”

Scholars like Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, argue this sort of tactic isn’t anything new. In an interview with NPR, Brown-Nagin compared anti-BLM disinformation to the anti-civil rights playbook of the 1960s used by the FBI and segregationists to discredit the civil rights movement.

“So opponents characterized activists as lawbreakers or as violent when overwhelmingly they were nonviolent,” Brown-Nagin told NPR.

Sound familiar? Even now, there are Republicans still trying to paint last summer’s protests as an exercise in nonstop violence despite studies showing that 93% of all BLM protests were completely nonviolent. In the absence of large protests to demonize this summer, it appears that those seeking to smear the BLM movement have invented their own controversy, a COINTELPRO for the 21st century, that neatly overlaps with another hot button right-wing topic of the day — school choice.

“Democrats have once again blocked people in failing school districts from having a choice of where they want to go to school,” said an anonymous right-wing YouTuber whose video promoting the Dallas Justice Now hoax appears to be spread by a network of fake Twitter accounts. “Something that Black Lives Matter or Dallas Justice Now don’t seem to have any issue with.”

In other words, fake news. So back to the initial question, what does this have to do with me? This was all aimed at white people. Why should I care if white people are lying to each other?

Well, what if I told you that even after the hoax was discovered and confirmed by (mainly) other white people (including this author), many folks in that Highland Park enclave still believe the lie?

“I mean, the flyer had a photo of James Baldwin and everybody knows that no ignorant racists know who James Baldwin is, so it has to be real,” paraphrases some of the more ludicrous attempts by believers in the hoax to find a logical explanation as to why Black people should be searching elsewhere for the culprit.

Which brings me back to my title, a tip, that we should all follow.

Additional reporting by Sherri Yarbrough 

Steven Monacelli is an independent investigative journalist based in Dallas. He has been contributing to Dallas Weekly since 2021. He is also the publisher of Protean Magazine, a nonprofit literary publication.