“IF YOU MISS THIS EVENT,” Del Bigtree wrote recently on Twitter, “it will be like telling your grandkids YOU MISSED WOODSTOCK.”
Bigtree is a former TV producer turned big wheel in the anti-vaccination movement, and he’s nothing if not skilled at creating hype. Most recently, he’s been intent on turning out the troops for what he and others are promising will be an extraordinary march on Washington, an event loudly promoted on Joe Rogan’s podcast and involving several well-known anti-vaccine activists he’s had on as guests. (Bigtree himself has not been a guest, despite his program’s Twitter account begging Rogan to feature him.) “On Jan 23rd I am joining a historic lineup of Health Freedom Warriors including RFK Jr and Dr Robert Malone,” Bigtree added in his tweet. “I’LL SEE YOU THERE. #BeBrave.”
Since nearly the start of the pandemic, anti-mask, anti-vaccine events have been thick on the ground. There have been rallies, marches and conferences, whose speakers tend to be the same small group, over and over again: Bigtree and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. most often featured among them. And the so-called Defeat the Mandates march is, to be sure, more or less the same group of people; among them are Bigtree, Kennedy, Dr. Pierre Kory (best known for his advocacy of ivermectin, a discredited COVID treatment), and anti-vaccine comedian JP Sears, who said in an email newsletter that he’s sponsoring the march. (It bears noting here, of course, that scarcely a week ago, the Supreme Court struck down the Biden administration's proposed broad vaccine mandate, which would seem to render the point of the march more or less moot. Then again, there are always state-level regulations and individual workplace mandates to protest and mall food courts to storm.) Kennedy’s anti-vaccine organization, Children’s Health Defense, claimed in January that Rogan would also attend the rally; three days later, it issued a correction, writing, “Mr. Rogan is not on the scheduled list of speakers.”
This time around, the usual faces are teaming up with a few new allies and attempting a slightly shifted set of talking points. The Defeat the Mandates march is claiming not to be an anti-vaccine march at all, but instead a unified group of people, “vaccinated and unvaccinated,” coming together to Reclaim America from unjust vaccine mandates. “We’re coming home,” the site declares. “Americans of every class and color. Democrats and Republicans. Vaccinated and unvaccinated. United we stand. In peace we march.” Leading the PR for the rally, which will make its way from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, is Trevor FitzGibbon, a one-time state-level communications director for Barack Obama whose former firm, a powerhouse in progressive media, loudly shut down in 2015 amidst a storm of accusations of sexual harassment and assault against him.
In a press release on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, FitzGibbon, who is white, declared, “Dr. King’s legacy of unity and peace is the essence of our march was founded.” In a nod to Dr. King he probably wouldn’t have appreciated, the march’s website also calls on the country to, as they put it, “Stop segregating by vaccination status.” (FitzGibbon acknowledged receiving questions about his involvement from Motherboard, but didn’t provide any responses before publication.)
This particular rally became big news after Dr. Robert Malone announced its existence during an appearance on Joe Rogan’s show. Malone is the latest darling of the anti-vaccine movement; he claims to have invented mRNA technology, though as The Atlantic wrote, that’s a vast oversimplification of his role. (Most scientists agree that mRNA vaccines are a field to which hundreds of scientists—including Malone—contributed research.) Today he’s better known for popularizing, on Rogan’s show, the dubious idea that mainstream ideas about COVID-19 are the result of “mass formation psychosis. (He’s not the first guest to bring it up, either: Dr. Peter McCullough, a Dallas cardiologist and vaccine critic, also mentioned the concept in his Rogan interview, along with a raft of other unsupported claims about vaccine safety. McCullough, too, is set to appear at the rally.)
The rally’s website says that donations made to it will benefit something called the Pandemic Health Alliance. The PHA appears to have been founded by Dr. Richard Urso, an ophthalmologist in Texas who’s also associated with the anti-vaccine group America’s Frontline Doctors. While its website seems to have been pulled down sometime between November and this week, cached versions of the site show that it advocated for discredited COVID treatments, most notably hydroxychloroquine. One of PHA’s affiliated doctors, Peter McCullough, also went on Tucker Carlson’s show to extol the drug. Advocates for hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin have begun referring to both drugs as “early intervention” treatments—language that’s echoed on the PHA page—despite the fact that they’re not proven to be COVID treatments at all.
Other speakers include Bret Weinstein, the podcaster and Intellectual Dark Web figure who’s recently made ivermectin advocacy a major cornerstone of his public platform, even downing the drug on air with his wife and co-host Heather Heying looking on. Weinstein presents himself as less nakedly anti-vaccine than other speakers, telling Matt Taibbi that he and Heying and their children are vaccinated against many diseases. However, he added, “We are not vaccinated against Covid, and do not intend to get vaccinated against Covid (unless, perhaps, a traditional vaccine were to be produced).” Read charitably, this could explain Defeat the Mandate’s insistence that some of its speakers are vaccinated. Another group participating, a firefighters’ group that has dubbed itself Operation Freedom of Choice, has claimed its members are also composed of vaccinated and unvaccinated people alike. They posed for a photo together which will surely appear in the weirder pages of a future American history textbook.
Also on the docket are a notably higher number of Black anti-vaccine activists than are usually featured at these events, which tend to be overwhelmingly white. They include ex-NBA player Kwame Brown, a famous bust after being drafted by Washington first overall who’s claimed Black people are “used as guinea pigs” when it comes to vaccines, a common talking point, as well as Rizza Islam, a social media influencer and Nation of Islam member, who, like many prominent NOI personalities, opposes vaccines. (He’s previously likened them to the Tuskeegee experiment, the infamous pseudo-experiment in which nearly 400 Black men with syphilis were left to suffer for decades while being observed by the United States Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, well after the government knew of an effective syphilis treatment.) Also featured, according to the site, is Trammel Thompson, an employee at the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York City who’s previously claimed that Black and Latinx transit workers are especially reluctant to be vaccinated.
“Let’s make no mistake about it, us not trusting the government didn’t happen overnight,” Thompson told The City NYC. “This was decades, centuries of conditioning.”
In a bit of light comedy, at one point, the rally’s website also listed as a speaker someone they referred to only as “Rabbi Epstein.” The site used a photo of Mendel Epstein, the infamous Orthodox rabbi convicted in 2015 of masterminding a long-running operation in which he and his cronies kidnapped and tortured men to persuade them to give their wives gets, or Jewish divorce decrees. FitzGibbon did not respond to an email inquiring about whether Mendel Epstein was indeed speaking at the rally. By the following morning, however, Mendel’s photo had been quietly swapped out for one of Rabbi Zev Epstein, a known anti-vaccine activist and a far more likely candidate for someone who’d speak at this event.
In the end, the march feels incredibly similar to many other events that have gone before it, with the light sheen of a more “unifying” message and a vague appeal to patriotism. The only slightly jarring note is the organizers’ repeated intimations that someone will use the rally to do harm or commit violence, but that it’s unsanctioned by them. “Organizers have contracted out comprehensive private security who will work in concert with local and federal law enforcement in keeping this March peaceful and in the spirit of Dr. King,” FitzGibbon wrote in his press release. “Participants in the March are asked to please report any suspicious or threatening activity to law enforcement which will be on hand at the march.” In an FAQ, the Defeat the Mandates website also instructed marchers not to veer off course—towards the Capitol, for instance. “If a group seems to be heading off the direction of the march, don’t follow them,” the site instructs. Additionally, it adds, “If anybody seems to be agitating for violence or is trying to encourage racist or violent acts, DO NOT ENGAGE, break out the camera and start video recording and calmly back away.”
By using lighter, less extreme messaging, however, the march is also giving vaccine-hesitant people on the fringes of the movement an entry point, a way in, placing them at the top of the slide before giving them a hard push down.
On the Wednesday prior to the event, an event on the app Clubhouse for rally attendees was full of people giving rambling soliloquies about the ways in which they’ve come to feel disconnected from the people around them, all due to their suspicion of vaccines.
“I feel like I'm the only one in my family and my close circle that has not taken the jab,” a woman from Virginia told the room. She sounded older, soft-voiced, sad. “Including my two daughters. I’ve always been vaccine hesitant, for the past 10 years. But it’s funny how my circle is getting smaller and smaller and smaller. I’m the odd one out.” Soon enough, if the march serves its purpose, she’ll find herself in a new circle, among a new set of personalities, all too eager to strengthen her fears.