A group calling itself We Have Rights has recently started organizing large back-to-work protests throughout California, calling on state and local leaders to end social distancing orders aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The group, which popped up in just the last two weeks, has a professional-looking website and a growing social media presence, which provide details for upcoming events, instructions for dealing with the media and highly produced Instagram videos, as well as T-shirts and other branded merchandise for sale.
It also has had a charismatic leader in 38-year-old Vivienne Nicole Reign, a Newport Beach entrepreneur who owns and operates several neuropathy clinics with a chiropractor. Her involvement appears to be ending, however. Last week, under scrutiny from the San Diego Union-Tribune, Reign said she was donating the organization to an unidentified nonprofit group.
“I will let them decide when they would like to announce who they are,” she said in an email to the newspaper.
Reign, who has been living with her husband in a $3-million home in Newport Beach, according to legal documents, is currently embroiled in legal challenges concerning her clinics, including a civil lawsuit alleging fraud and financial elder abuse. She and other defendants named in court papers have maintained their innocence, denying claims brought by former clients of medical negligence, financial elder abuse and fraud.
She recently told the Union-Tribune in a phone interview that she created the We Have Rights website after having to lay off members of her staff as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.
“I’ve had to let go of people that have worked with me for 10 years, and it happened overnight,” she said. “I’ll find a way to make it through this, but there are people who depend on me, and I feel a great sense of responsibility to provide them a paycheck.”
Reign did not cite political reasons as the driving force behind the campaign, although the rallies have promoted President Trump and conservative talking points.
Reign said the campaign has a wealthy backer but would not identify the person.
“Yes, we do have people who have contributed and we do have a benefactor who has contributed, and my husband and I have put money out of our own pocket,” she said.
The New York Times has reported that many of the anti-lockdown protests happening throughout the country are being bankrolled by wealthy conservative leaders and groups, including FreedomWorks and Tea Party Patriots.
However, Reign’s campaign stands out compared with similar efforts in other parts of the country, said Jared Holt, an investigator with the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Right Wing Watch.
“If something like this is happening in other states,” he said, “it’s certainly not as slick and well-produced as it seems to be in California, where this shadowy source of money is coming in with a very branded effort.”
Reign’s group urges visitors to its homepage: “Be part of the biggest movement in California.” It demands the right to worship at church, earn a living and assemble freely at sporting events, conferences and other gatherings.
“The elderly, sick, and high risk are encouraged to quarantine while the healthy and the able have a right to live their lives,” the website states.
A back-to-work rally held in downtown San Diego on May 1 drew hundreds of people, many waving American flags and few wearing face masks. Some flew “Trump 2020" flags and many wore the iconic red “MAGA” hats.
Many protesters cited financial hardship as a reason for attending and criticized Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has spearheaded the economic shutdown in California.
Other We Have Rights rallies that day across the state reportedly drew even larger crowds, including more than 1,000 people on the Capitol steps in Sacramento.
“Over 40,000 Patriots took a stand against the lockdown to demand Newsom fully open California and restore our rights!” the group’s website said afterward. That number could not be independently verified.
Among those addressing the crowd in San Diego was Dan Summers, a 70-year-old resident of Ramona who has long been plugged in to conservative politics and activism in the San Diego area.
Summers said he was encouraged to participate in a phone call from a man who identified himself as Thomas Paine, the name of the 18th century revolutionary who helped provide the theoretical underpinnings of the American revolution in his pamphlet “Common Sense.”
While Summers was pleased with the rally, he said he didn’t know much about the man who called him. “Paine” had called from a phone number belonging to Thomas Knight Reign, the name of Vivienne Reign’s husband, according to multiple legal and business records.
Thomas Reign, 46, has an IMDb profile identifying him as a TV producer and director. Over the years, he has started several film-production businesses under the names Red Horizon Films, Xposure Entertainment and the still-operating Agency X.
When the Union-Tribune reached out to Reign, he declined to comment and directed questions to an email address that uses the display name Thomas Paine.
According to court records, Thomas Reign and Vivienne Reign were married in 2011. At the time their legal names were Thomas John Wozny and Nicole Melanie Anderson.
Vivienne Reign said her husband changed his last name as part of his writing business, and at that point she, too, decided to change both her first and last names. She described her husband as a surfer and creative artist.
Reign said that before joining We Have Rights, she had never been an activist or even attended a protest. In 2016, she donated $250 to help Rand Paul’s presidential run.
She had said that she intended to focus her efforts for now on reopening the state’s economy, but said in her email Friday that she would let others take charge of the organization she nurtured.
“I have enjoyed my time working on this, and I feel we made great strides in a short time,” she wrote. “However, as I mentioned, I have many demands on my time with various business investments and wanted to pass this to people who have this as a full time passion and can do the movement justice.”
“We are happy to have contributed to helping all of the grassroots groups organize and get their message of preserving and protecting our rights out across California,” she added. “We have confidence the group we are handing it over to will do wonderfully at continuing the efforts even better than we did!”
Smith writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Union-Tribune staff researcher Merrie Monteagudo contributed to this report.