Among a sea of knock-off Captain Americas, naked Cowboys and misshapen Minions, I’m in Times Square in search of a rarer creature: the would-be rebel behind the campaign to make California its own independent country. “I’m in a camouflage-style jacket,” Louis Marinelli messages me as I push past a throng of tourists lining up for their chance to take a photo with a shabby-looking superhero. It’s the perfect attire for an aspiring revolutionary.
Over the past year, Marinelli—a former John Edwards volunteer, repentant anti-gay marriage advocate, one-time California State Assembly candidate and founder of the so-called Calexit movement—has ridden a tidal wave of fame and controversy as his secessionist crusade made headlines around the world. While Calexit’s platform to double down on the state’s liberal immigration laws and fight climate change are seemingly in sync with most California voters, Marinelli’s campaign seemed like a political fever dream when it was first launched in 2014.
But then Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, and everything changed.
The night the real-estate mogul turned reality-TV star shattered 227 years of U.S. election norms, “Calexit” started trending across Twitter. Marinelli’s California independence movement, nicknamed after the polarizing Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom, had reached primetime heights.
“Any chance California can pull a Brexit and leave the US? Honestly scared right now. #Calexit #ElectionNight,” one user in San Diego tweeted as returns began to indicate that a Hillary victory was increasingly unlikely.
“California has the 6th largest economy in the world. We don’t need all this. #Calexit #Caleavefornia,” another posted.
Even Perez Hilton, the celebrity gossip blogger, jumped on the bandwagon, tweeting his support for Calexit after most major media outlets declared Trump would be America’s next commander-in-chief: “Seriously. What are the steps to make this possible??? We must secede!!”
In total, the hashtag Calexit was tweeted more than 100,000 times in just a few hours, spreading like a social media forest fire. But in the months since Calexit went mainstream, Marinelli’s been called a traitor, a liar and even a Kremlin spy.
That’s because, up until last month, California’s leading secessionist wasn’t living in California or even in America. He was living in Russia.
With strands of white in his dark beard, Marinelli looks older than his 31 years might suggest. He’s warm and friendly, and as we chat for the next two hours, he tries to sell me on the idea that his plan to radically alter the shape of the United States could really happen, and that his connections to Russia are just a case of bad timing.
“I’ve lived in Russia full-time a couple times. The first time I went there was in summer 2006 on a study abroad program,” Marinelli explains over fries, adding that in Russia, you have to pay for ketchup separately.
“I liked it, I learned more Russian…and I decided to move there in 2009 while I was a college student,” he says. Marinelli stayed in Russia for about 18 months, working as an ESL teacher and taking classes full-time at Saint Petersburg State University, which he was says he was able to apply towards the Bachelor’s degree in Russian he was pursuing at Kent State University.
Eventually, a few months “here and there” added up to four years in total, during which Marinelli fell in love with a Russian woman. In 2011, the pair married and moved to San Diego, where Marinelli met Marcus Ruiz Evans, a former conservative radio show host and the author of the self-published book California’s Next Century. The book advocates for California to become a sort of 21st-century Switzerland. Together, Marinelli and Evans focused their political ambitions on building an “autonomous California.”
At first, these efforts were aimed less toward turning Los Angeles into a foreign metropolis and more about building a cohesive identity in a state of nearly 40 million people. The two tried to get nine measures on the ballot over the next few years, including an initiative to amend California’s constitution to refer to the state’s chief executive as “president” instead of “governor” and an effort to force state institutions to display California’s famed Bear Flag at the same height as the American flag.
Their work generated some attention but overall was too piecemeal to generate a statewide campaign. “Most people were disappointed that we weren’t about full independence, that we were trying to weave this narrow path. It was hard for people to understand what we meant by ‘Sovereign California’,” Marinelli says, referencing his organization’s original name.
Yes California asserts that the federal government is out of sync with Californian attitudes on immigration, healthcare, the environment and education.
Eventually, as more people expressed their support for a truly independent California, the two set their sights on full secession. That’s when Sovereign California morphed into Yes California, a nod to the Yes Scotland campaign that pushed for Scottish independence in 2014.
Similarly to the Scottish independence movement, Yes California markets itself as the logical extension of a self-evident truth: that the federal government is out of sync with Californian attitudes on a host of big ticket issues, including immigration, healthcare, the environment and education.
With new state laws on the books starting in 2018 restricting California police officers from cooperating with ICE agents, legalizing the sale of recreational marijuana and making the first year of community college free, the divide between Sacramento and Washington, D.C. seems wider than ever.
“There’s great dissatisfaction in California with the direction the federal government is going,” Dr. Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, an expert on California politics and professor at the University of Southern California School of Public Policy, tells me by phone. “We [California] probably have given Trump the lowest of his very low approval ratings…we hate Congress a whole lot more than we hate the state legislature, so there’s some really disgruntled Californians that might want to a look at secession.”
For these reasons and more, Yes California wants to put the ultimate question to the test and ask voters in a double opt-in referendum whether or not the state should move to declare itself independent.
If Californians vote to call a referendum in 2020 and then vote six months later for independence, the matter would move to the state legislature for action. However, getting that initial independence referendum on the state ballot, as Marinelli tried to do leading up to the 2016 election, isn’t easy. “We needed nearly 600,000 signatures to get on the ballot. It was just too much. We ran out of time.”
That’s when Marinelli decided it was time to put a pin in his wild idea and head back to Russia. “I was expecting Hillary Clinton to win and I didn’t really like Hillary, so I didn’t see much of a need for me to be in the United States for the next several months. I was going to go live overseas, do another teaching stint…like I did in the past. I was like, ‘Hillary Clinton’s going to be president, people are going to be sick of politics so I’m going to go take a break. Because after the election, it’s not going to be like Calexit is going to be the hot topic issue.’”
But Marinelli was wrong. Very wrong.
Trump’s improbable victory sent many Californians in search of an emergency exit. There was Calexit, framed in bright red lights. But not all of the people who pledged support for this fringe idea were tweeting from Marinelli’s future Independent Republic of California.
A year after Calexit took over Twitter, the BBC reported that many of the most widely retweeted accounts supporting Calexit were actually Russian bots, products of the mysterious Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency that was responsible for the countless anti-Clinton and pro-Trump ads tens of millions of Americans saw on social media last year.
And like Marinelli, the Russian government was prepared for a Clinton win. According to a declassified report issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, pro-Kremlin bloggers had organized a Twitter campaign claiming the election (and Clinton’s victory) was rigged, pushed out under the clever hashtag #DemocracyRIP.
Marinelli readily admits that separating California from the U.S. might be good for Russia.
With the election going sideways on them, though, it appears Russia had to call an audible. They needed something to spread division and Calexit fit the bill perfectly.
In the months since his independence movement has gained traction, Marinelli’s repeatedly denied receiving any support from the Kremlin, but it’s entirely possible that his campaign is just another in a long line of secessionist movements that Moscow has attempted to indirectly promote and propagate without the involvement of the separatists themselves.
“People who know the Russian political playbook say winking at these fringe movements—and even giving them a boost—is a part of a very real strategy,” says Casey Michel, a contributing reporter at Think Progress who writes frequently about Russia and secessionist movements. “Not only is this a way of puffing Russia’s domestic claims at turmoil in the United States, but it fits firmly within the Kremlin’s modus operandi of cultivating fringe groups in the West, especially those who would fracture the U.S. in a reprise of the Soviet Union’s demise, more than a quarter-century later.”
Marinelli readily admits that separating California from the U.S. might be good for Russia. “Just because one country would agree with something doesn’t make it wrong…California independence is inherently right and good for California, if another country’s going to benefit from that, or support that issue, it doesn’t mean it’s not good for California.”
“I’ll also point out,” he says, growing louder, “how happy the Americans were in Washington, jumping up and down, when the Soviet Union collapsed. And they helped that. We know that the American government helped fund and supported the collapse of the Soviet Union and continue to do that today with trying to expand NATO into Ukraine…and the separatist regions in eastern Ukraine are somewhat funded by CIA operations.”
It seems turnabout is fair play. Which is apparently the reason he didn’t shy away from accepting any foreign help as he worked to get his movement off the ground.
A few weeks before Trump’s inauguration, Marinelli made waves when he set up an “embassy” for his prospective Independent Republic of California in Moscow. But how did the married ESL teacher get the money to secure office space in Russia’s expensive capital city?
Marinelli didn’t pay for it, Michel tells me via email—an allegation Marinelli confirmed during our lunch. While Michel was quick to note that “there’s no indication Marinelli himself has received funding from the Russian government,” he was clear that “Yes California received rent-free space for its ‘Embassy’… provided by the Kremlin funded Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia.”
The embassy, located in a building that once housed Cold War-era chemical weapons designers, generated a ton of publicity—but it may have actually been an illegal foreign political donation by the Anti-Globalization Movement, an outfit that supports secessionist causes across America, including in Texas, Puerto Rico and Hawaii.
The organization has gone so far as to host international conferences for aspiring separatists all over the world, receiving more than $500,000 from a charitable trust founded by President Vladimir Putin to help with hotel and transportation costs to bring Americans, Spaniards, Italians, Ukrainians, Scots and others to Moscow.
At the time, however, Marinelli, seemed to relish the attention his embassy generated, doing remote cable news hits from Russia and defending the stunt as an effort to “start laying the groundwork for an independent California to [join] the United Nations.”
But as news of Russia’s attempts to influence the election picked up steam, Marinelli decided to shutter his lone California outpost, officially closing its doors on Independence Day 2017. “We closed it because it was a distraction. People didn’t like the fact that we were coming off as trying to build a partnership with Russia,” Marinelli says. “It caused more damage that it did good.”
As we finish lunch, Marinelli waxes philosophical about his dream of an independent California. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re working for Russia, you’re anti-American.’ But what we’re trying to do is probably much closer to the original American vision than what we have today…what we’re doing is pretty much in line with what the founding fathers envisioned,” he says, invoking the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, who, he claims, always thought America’s West Coast should become its own country.
Marinelli’s next stop is Yekaterinburg, Russia, where he’s finishing up his teaching job and moving the last of his things back to California. A few weeks later, he’ll be back in the Golden State for good. If everything goes according to plan, there’ll be a proposition on California’s 2020 ballot asking voters if the state should organize a vote on secession.
Right now, about 30 percent of Californians support the idea, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted in early 2017. Marinelli has three years to get that number up to more than 50 percent. If that happens, everyone in the country—maybe even the world—will know his name.
If not, he can always go back to Russia.