The first person I met at Defeat the Mandates—a rally held in Washington, D.C. this past weekend in opposition, organizers and attendees unconvincingly claimed, not to vaccines but to vaccine mandates—was a well-composed woman named Maya, who had travelled from Michigan. A speech-language pathologist who works with autistic children, Maya was sitting with a small group of friends in front of a barricade at the Lincoln Memorial, wearing a yellow band bearing black text on her right arm.
A few hours later they would see Robert F. Kennedy Jr. unfavorably compare the conditions under which they are living to those faced by Jews living under the Nazis. “Even in Hitler’s Germany, you could cross the Alps to Switzerland,” Kennedy said in remarks his own wife called “reprehensible and insensitive.” “You could hide in an attic like Anne Frank did.”
“I believe that we are following the same steps that happened to every generation of people that have been led to a genocide,” Maya said earlier in the day, when I asked what was up with the armband. “Here in Washington, D.C. it’s beyond segregation. They’re not providing a restaurant for unvaccinated and then a restaurant for vaccinated.”
(In addition to the armband, Maya had a sign that read “UNVACCINATED APARTHEID.”)
I asked her if this wasn’t a bit offensive.
“No,” she said. “So this is why people think that wearing a yellow band is not undermining what happened to the Jews in Germany: It’s actually acknowledging that the Holocaust happened, that this is a horrific crime against humanity, and once again we are following those same steps as a society that happened in Nazi Germany.” I didn’t see any connection. “They didn’t immediately start rounding up the Jews and taking them to concentration camps. It started with a propaganda campaign to demonize a certain population,” she said.
Maya, who falsely believes that vaccines are the leading cause of autism, would not say whether or not she thought it was appropriate to compare herself to Jews living in Nazi Germany or Black people living under segregation and Jim Crow, though she did acknowledge that the unvaccinated are not being rounded up and murdered. “But we need to acknowledge the steps that get to that,” she said.
“If you’re taking a society and you’re propagandizing them to fear another group of humans that are in your society—”
I asked if I should not fear people communicating a deadly respiratory illness. She pointed at her yellow armband.
“This is called unvaccinated, mandated outcast,” she said. I asked the question again and she pointed to a blue band on her left arm. It represented natural immunity. “I’m a survivor of COVID,” she said. “But I am outcast from society.”
I asked her if the logical implication of what she was saying wasn’t that the ideal—the final, I might have asked—solution to the pandemic would be for everyone to contract COVID so as to develop natural immunity, no matter how many people die. She didn’t want to exactly answer; she was simply saying, she said, that our society is following the same steps that Nazi Germany did.
“The restaurant owners here in D.C. are being told to be like the Gestapo and stop people and make them show their papers. This is a sign from D.C. that they are not allowed to come in and eat in a restaurant unless they are vaccinated,” she said, pointing to her anti-apartheid sign. “That is called being outcast from society. That is very dangerous.”
There was nothing obvious to separate Maya from most of her somewhat more or somewhat less than 5,000 fellow attendees at the rally, which was organized by a motley collection of activists and influencers (reportedly including, curiously, an NBCUniversal sales director) and promoted on Joe Rogan’s popular Spotify show. Despite the assertions of the speakers, who congratulated the rally for being a gathering of, as a t-shirt I bought said, the “vaccinated and unvaccinated, Democrats, Republicans, and independents,” it was a heavily right-wing crowd among which the unvaccinated—who are, at this point, a small fraction of the population—were surely disproportionately represented. Vendors selling “FUCK JOE BIDEN” and “LET’S GO BRANDON” flags, hats, and shirts did brisk business. The crowd was heavily white and apparently prosperous, and, to judge by what they said and the signs they carried, the people in it were against vaccines as well as mandates. So, on the whole, were the speakers they came to see, a collection of fringe medical personalities like Robert Malone of “mass formation psychosis” fame, Peter McCullough, and ivermectin enthusiast Pierre Kory; entertainers, including one billed as vaccine-injured; and anti-vaccine luminaries like Kennedy and Del Bigtree.
There were signs reading “STOP SEGREGATION,” “SEGREGATION IS NEVER THE SOLUTION,” “JOE BIDEN IS A VACCINE RACIST,” “RESIST MEDICAL TYRANNY” (this was accompanied by a swastika made of syringes), “‘You must never be fearful about what you’re doing, when it is right’—Rosa Parks,” “SEGREGATING MANDATES HAVE NO PLACE IN A FREE SOCIETY” (this was accompanied by a prohibitory sign over the phrase “Jim Crow 2.0”), “STOP THE VACCINE HOLOCAUST,” and “AMERICA=LIBERTY, MANDATES=SLAVERY.” The person holding this last sign was a pleasant and healthy-looking man named Eric, from San Diego.
“America’s built on freedom of choice,” he said when I asked him if he could unpack his sign a bit. “Now, what they’re trying to do is mandate something that you don’t have a choice to do, so that’s why it means slavery. Because slavery, as you well know, you can’t have a choice. It’s either you’re a slave, or you die. So we’re trying to let people know the other side: ‘Hey, you have a choice. You’re an American, you’re in a nation that gives you those liberties.’ Just because people push one narrative and try to give you information that just causes fear and doubt? No, look to the other side and see what the facts are as well.”
Eric believes that COVID vaccines are a tool elites are using to lower the population, and that it will soon be unsafe to live in big cities. America, he explained, was founded by God to allow freedom-loving people to flee the tyrannical governments and money of old world Europe—which we all know, he said, meant Rome, the papacy. He attached great significance to Pope Francis’ September 2015 visit to the Senate. “We let the pope that’s in charge now—which is a Jesuit pope, the first Jesuit pope ever—to come into the Senate, and everyone bows down, Tim. From there on everything went haywire.”
Without surveying everyone in attendance there’s no way to know how close to the rally’s center of gravity Eric was, but nothing suggested he was very far from it. This complicates the narrative (to use a word favored by attendees) that rally organizers and supporters hoped, and hope, to present. The day after the event, for instance, Eric Weinstein—managing director of Thiel Capital and brother of Bret Weinstein, an anti-cancel culture gadfly who’s slowly transformed into a conspiracy theorist over the last year and was involved with promoting the rally to the point where he invited Joe Rogan to speak, but didn’t himself attend—called out a curtain-raising story Motherboard had published ahead of the rally as an example of the nonexistence of journalism. What precisely he was objecting to wasn’t clear; it seemed to be that a reporter had described an anti-vaccine rally starring such friends of Joe Rogan as Kennedy and Malone as what it was, whereas he, a supporter, would have preferred for it to be described as “not an antivax rally.”
The general disavowal of the actual rally by the people participating in and supporting it in favor of a theoretical rally different from the one actually being held was one of the most striking features of the day; another was the sheer prevalence of white racial grievance. Both of these dovetailed neatly in the remarks of the two speakers who followed an opening performance by genuinely terrible anti-vaccine rappers Hi-Rez & Jimmy Levy, who at one point started a call-and-response that had them and the crowd chanting the QAnon-adjacent slogan “save the children.”
The first was anti-vaccine influencer and comedian JP Sears, who emceed the event. (While he was in D.C., his wife, Amber Lee Sears, a fellow anti-vaccine influencer, was complaining about having to take care of their baby with no support, their nanny not having come over due to Amber having symptoms of something that sounds a lot like COVID, which she said on Telegram and Instagram that she has been treating with ivermectin and a bouquet of vitamins. “I’ve truly never experienced anything like this,” she wrote, also on Telegram. “It doesn’t run its course like a normal virus/flu. It works in waves and attacks you mentally, physically AND spiritually. I’ve not only been dealing with physical symptoms, but navigating some big emotions like anxiety and depression.”)
Sears pitched unity to the crowd, stressing without exactly saying so that it would be good for them not to turn into a violent mob rampaging through the U.S. Capitol. (To the crowd’s credit, there was absolutely no reason to think there was any chance of anything like this happening.) Protesting from a place of anything other than love, he said, would be to “fall to a place of lower consciousness.” He then made the first of what felt like thousands of invocations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made by speakers during the day, which was met, like all of them, with raucous cheers. (“King” ran a close third behind “Rogan” and “ivermectin” among the words inspiring the most applause.)
“Dr. King wasn’t a mandate kind of guy,” Sears said. “He gave his life for civil rights and we’ve let him down.
“He knew you can’t comply your way out of tyranny.”
The two white women next to whom I was standing were enthused by this. “So true,” said one. “Very well stated,” said the other.
The next speaker, conspiracy theorist and anti-vaccine activist Kevin Jenkins, even more directly claimed King’s legacy. Jenkins is perhaps best known for his role as a producer of the propaganda film Medical Racism: The New Apartheid, made by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense organization. “Today,” he said, “we’re going to reclaim Martin’s dream!” (“Yessssss!” said the women next to me.) He directly equated the tyranny of “58 years ago,” when King gave his famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to that of today, and congratulated everyone present for braving the 40 or so degree weather, comparing them to Jesus being crucified and King being shot. He asked them to be quiet, so they could listen to King.
“If he was here,” Jenkins said, “he would be against mandates.”
It’s true in many ways that this wasn’t principally an anti-vaccine rally. Its central, defining element was white Christians claiming the mantle of the Holocaust, slavery, and segregation, and posing themselves as morally equivalent to the victims of some of history’s greatest atrocities. This is an old song in the American hymnal, to which more and more people have increasingly returned in recent years, seeking the moral authority of the victim, and which they’re now simply singing more loudly than ever. Down to the sad, haunted-looking acolytes of the now-dead and increasingly irrelevant crank Lyndon LaRouche wearing sandwich boards depicting the president as Hitler and handing out leaflets about inflation at the edges of the crowd, this was simply a Tea Party rally; most of the people there probably could have gotten equally fired up about Benghazi, or critical race theory, or the steal, or her emails, or the birth certificate, and many almost certainly have.
This was, nonetheless, deeply an anti-vaccine rally, complete with ubiquitous use of euphemisms like “medical freedom” (for an anti-vaccine stance) and “repurposed drugs” (for snake oil) to go alongside the preference for “anti-mandate” to take the place of “anti-vaccine,” which has taken on some of the stigma of a racial slur among people who are vigorously opposed to vaccines. Robert Malone, after invoking King, claimed that one in 3,000 vaccinated children will be hospitalized due to vaccine damage; Christina Parks, whose recently viral claims about vaccines have been thoroughly debunked, made the particularly repulsive claim that the CDC had covered up evidence that vaccines caused Black boys to be hundreds of times more likely to become autistic. (This particular false claim was a cornerstone of the anti-vaccine film Vaxxed, made by anti-vax luminary and disgraced ex-physician Andrew Wakefield, which gave extensive airtime to the claims of a “CDC whistleblower” named William Thompson, though Thompson himself never appeared in the film. While the history of Thompson’s statements is too tangled to unwind here, the claim that MMR vaccines led to an increase in autism for Black boys or anyone else has, at this point, been extensively debunked, yet it continues to live on, unchanged, at anti-vaccine rallies and conferences.)
Speaker after speaker ominously spoke about “genetic vaccines” and warned of the untold harm being done to children not just by vaccines themselves, but by efforts to prevent disease rather than cultivate natural immunity. The interminable monologue in which Kennedy told his devotees they have it worse than Anne Frank because their refusal to take a safe, effective vaccine means they have to get burgers for takeout in D.C. was a truly bizarre bit of business in which he covered a range of false and obscure assertions about vaccination and public-health agencies, alluded to 9/11 conspiracies by saying we’re seeing the “controlled demolition” of the U.S. Constitution, and suggested that 5G is being used to contain and surveil the population in an apparent allusion to beliefs that vaccines contain microchips. It was, in all, floridly batshit, and apparently far too esoteric for even this crowd, a solid third of whom left as he spoke.
Among the crowd, though, there were certainly representatives of schools of thought other than “LET’S GO BRANDON,” hints at the diversity the organizers claimed: A woman in pink and lavender, for instance, was doing yoga next to a pink and lavender portrait of an owl and a mystic symbol. “I trust & follow My Intuition & Instincts,” text in the painting read. “Discerning what is Right & True for me.” Nothing about this would have been out of place at my local farmer’s market in West Philadelphia; nor would a demonstrator I met named Michael, from North Carolina, who was carrying a sign that read “Bernie Democrat Says Ivermectin Saves Lives, No Mandates or Passes.” A veteran of demonstrations dating back to the Vietnam War who came seeking connections to like-minded people, as he doesn’t find many in the college town where he lives, he said he found out about ivermectin “just on the internet, reading different things. Probably the first person that turned me on to it was Dr. Peter McCullough, and then Robert Malone and several other people.”
Michael said he believes ivermectin is effective as both prophylactic and cure for COVID—something which is currently being studied, but for which no compelling evidence exists—and is taking it himself. He’s confident in the drug and the science, though he admitted to doubts.
“Of course, what I’ve found out from studying all these studies is that you can’t depend on studies,” he said. Our conversation was interrupted by a small group of counterdemonstrators chanting “LET’S GO DARWIN.” A bit later, I heard, they came into conflict with a group of 10 or so Proud Boys carrying a sign reading “STOP SANITARY SEGREGATION,” though I didn’t see the conflict myself.
(Disclosure: Gavin McInnes was a co-founder of VICE in the mid-1990s. He left the company in 2008 and has had no involvement since then. He founded the Proud Boys in 2016.)
What to make of all of this, I don’t know. This was, as all protests are, performance, people enacting a series of rehearsed and tired routines they’ve seen in a thousand increasingly derivative iterations, so rehearsed that it all could have been, and was, predicted in each detail. Everyone—certainly including me—played their assigned part. What more about it is telling relative to any other such event is unclear, especially in a time when, for all the furor, the vast majority of people are vaccinated and complying with what measures they’re asked to take to prevent spreading infection, including the ones they find absurd. All the power of the influencers and Joe Rogan and Facebook and Telegram and whatever other vectors of misinformation people like me are professionally concerned about gathered a few thousand people—far fewer than the 25,000 the event was in theory prepared to accommodate—and they were unconvincing in their demonstration of power.
A bit more than halfway through the schedule organizers had distributed beforehand, JP Sears abruptly announced that “they” were going to cut the power in 20 minutes, meaning that many of the people whom the crowd had come to hear wouldn’t get a chance to speak; there were a few scattered, perfunctory boos and even more people than had already left began trudging off back to their hotels across the river in Virginia, where a person can go into a bar and have a drink without showing their papers. I don’t believe these people are in themselves or represent in any straightforward way a truly powerful tendency in American politics, especially when more than 80% of Americans over the age of 5 are vaccinated; I also can’t see thousands of middle- and upper-middle-class white people gathered in one place to claim their place alongside the victims of the lash and the ovens, and receive the imprimatur of the prince of an American dynasty in so doing, and not be deeply worried.
Maya, the speech language pathologist wearing a yellow armband, had a short answer when I asked her why she thought unvaccinated people are dying so much more than vaccinated people. “That is not true,” she said. “Read your science.” She’s wrong, of course, but quite certain in her beliefs, as are the many people who locate the first cause of the suffering the pandemic has caused them in the reaction to it, and the even greater number of well-off white Americans who seek to place their struggles at the center of history and themselves atop the nation’s moral hierarchy. The people I met at the rally and I do not disagree on one central point: People will believe what they want to.