Charlie Kirk event in Crystal Lake could draw protests, organizers say schools topic ‘isn’t partisan’

‘Our schools are failing … all of us,’ organizer Karen Tirio said in an email

Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk introduces Brazil's right wing ex-president Jair Bolsonaro, at a TPUSA event at Trump National Doral Miami, Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, in Doral, Fla.

Conservative talk show host activist Charlie Kirk and others scheduled to speak in Crystal Lake this weekend about schooling in Illinois is drawing both ire and support from the community – as well as possible protests.

Those in favor of the event said they see it as an opportunity to educate and offer solutions to problems in the state’s schooling system, while those opposed said they view it as a dog whistle to attack certain groups and raise money.

The event, called “EXPOSING Radicals’ War on Kids,” is scheduled Saturday at the Holiday Inn in Crystal Lake.

It’s being organized by the McHenry County GOPac, a local conservative political action committee, which described the event as an “all-day summit on rescuing children from government-run schools that are ruining America’s future.”

McHenry County GOPac Chair Karen Tirio, who also sits on the elected McHenry County Regional Board of School Trustees, said she doesn’t feel the event should be partisan but still expects it to draw protesters.

“Our schools are failing … all of us,” she said in an email.

The McHenry County National Organization of Women has a protest planned ahead of the event. In a news release Monday, the group called on the hotel to cancel the event.

A petition on seeks to get the Holiday Inn to “stop hosting extremists” in the area, calling Kirk a “right wing extremist.” As of Tuesday, it garnered nearly 800 signatures.

Kirk, who grew up in Prospect Heights, founded Turning Point USA, a group that works to engage young conservatives on college campuses.

The protest is scheduled to start around 8:30 a.m., ahead of the event’s 9 a.m. start-time, National Organization of Women chapter President Paula Yensen said. Its duration likely will depend on weather, but Yensen said she expects “a significant number of people” to attend. It will take place just off the hotel’s property, she said.

“This individual [Kirk] is here to promote these ideas that are contrary to the mission of [the organization], and we stand strongly behind the idea that we should have an inclusive environment for education,” Yensen said. “What he represents is hatred.”

Tirio in an email on Sunday said she thinks it’s not productive “to be concerned with detractors.”

“Can you tell me why anyone would complain about an event that is designed to inform, educate, offer productive, clear-cut solutions with calls-to-action that will help our frustrated parents, disheartened students, concerned citizens?” Tirio said. “I try to stay focused and positive.”

Crystal Lake resident Bob Atkinson said he thinks the event is a “dog-whistle fundraiser” and that it’s an attempt to devalue public education, calling it “a lot of noise for no reason.”

He said he doesn’t plan to attend any protests tied to the event.

“Teachers [in Crystal Lake] don’t teach anything that isn’t already true and they don’t teach anything that is forcing kids or indoctrinating kids,” Atkinson said. “I think it’s simple minded.”

McHenry County Board member Terri Greeno, R-Crystal Lake, is an advertiser for the event. Greeno said she wasn’t familiar with efforts to protest or cancel the event, but added she isn’t surprised.

“Every parent has the right and responsibility to understand what’s in the curriculum and what are the goals of the education system,” Greeno said. “Anybody who would protest against this has a different agenda that has nothing to do with the welfare of children, families, parents or education.”

The event follows the cancelation of other events set up by conservative groups in the area. Right-wing provocateur and Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes was turned down twice in October after trying to host an event in the Chicago suburbs, before settling for the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4600 in McHenry.

That event in turn led to backlash within the VFW, with some questioning how the event was allowed to happen.

An Awake Illinois event, aimed at discussing issues surrounding children and scheduled for February in Des Plaines, drew ire as well in the lead-up. That event was canceled, too, following an outcry.

Attempts to reach Holiday Inn for a comment were unsuccessful. A person who answered the phone at the hotel’s convention center hung up after a reporter identified himself. Requests for comment from the hotel’s corporate office went unanswered on Tuesday.