IIt was meant to be a show of strength for the anti-vaccine movement. Two years into a grueling and deadly pandemic, at a time when opposition to vaccines and vaccine mandates has become a national political issue, more than 20,000 people were expected to line up outside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. to hear from prominent vaccine skeptics, doctors, bloggers, podcasters and personalities. It was supposed to be a coming-out party for an idea that had been threatening to break into the mainstream for years.
In the end, however, only a few thousand people showed up to “Defeat the Mandates” – a reference to the vaccination mandates implemented by the Biden administration to protect against Covid-19. Several thousand, coincidentally, is the number of Americans who are die every day of the virus. It was just enough people to reach the bottom of the steps on which Lincoln is perched. A long row of underused porta-potties that lined the National Mall spoke of the day’s unfulfilled aspiration.
But even though the crowd was small, their words – their ideas – were big. As Sunday’s march approached, organizers had repeatedly invoked the spirit of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the civil rights leader who spoke of those same steps of freedom and equality. Their battle was the same, vaccine skeptics claimed.
“Today we’re going to reclaim Martin’s dream, the dream of hope, of love,” said one of the early speakers, Kevin Jenkins, who leads an anti-vaccination conspiracy theory group called Urban Global. Health Alliance. “I want you to think about the spirit of Martin Luther King watching over you now,” he continued, before urging attendees to raise their signs in the air.
Had Dr King watched over the crowds on that cloudy January day, he would have seen more than a handful of signs calling for the jailing of the nation’s top infectious disease expert and White House coronavirus adviser, the Dr. Anthony Fauci. He would have seen, under the podium from which he delivered one of the most famous speeches in American history, signs thanking Jesus Christ for the bravery of popular podcaster Joe Rogan. He would have seen signs comparing the vaccination mandates of federal employees to the Holocaust.
A protest cannot be judged by its most egregious placards, but the dichotomy between reason and unreason has become a theme of the day. Some attendees said they were there simply to protest the vaccination mandates, not the vaccine itself. Some were there to call for more skepticism about the motives of pharmaceutical companies. Some were there to voice their opposition to creeping government scrutiny, which they saw in the vaccination mandates introduced by the Biden administration for federal workers. Some came for all of the above and more.
Brendan Hurrle, who traveled from Chicago with a sign reading “1984” in reference to George Orwell’s opus on authoritarianism, said he was worried both about vaccine safety and what mandates.
“Today it’s about vaccines. Today it’s about using this pharmaceutical which is experimental, which is forced on the population with extremely manipulated science. The pharmaceutical industry has spent decades trying to perfecting how to distort data and control government agencies,” he said.
“If you want to take it, fine. It’s good, maybe. But it’s better not to force people to take it,” he said. “I can’t go sit in a restaurant. I can’t go to my son’s basketball game.
Theo, who came from Pennsylvania and gave only his first name, came specifically to protest the warrants.
“I think it’s an invasion of employee privacy,” he said of warrants for large employers, a Biden administration policy that was recently struck down by the Supreme Court.
“I am against vaccination mandates for a moral reason. I don’t think the government has the right to put you through any form of medical treatment like this, especially when there’s such a low risk of death and high survival rate when you don’t have any comorbidities such as obesity or old age.”
The speakers on stage were as varied as the crowd. Among them were doctors who spoke out against what they called “medical tyranny” and who claimed they had been prevented from providing life-saving treatment to their patients. At one point they pilloried the healthcare facility for its irresponsible response to the coronavirus, the next they were shouting medical advice through a loudspeaker.
The white coated doctors were attended by Dr Robert Malone, a scientist who has been involved in research into mRNA technology but is now a vocal skeptic of COVID-19 vaccines that use it. Dr Malone was banned from Twitter for promoting Covid-19 misinformation and later gained further notoriety for a controversial appearance on Mr Rogan’s podcast, a platform he used to promote the same theories discredited and to promote today’s gathering.
“Fight for your children. Don’t comply,” he concluded.
The crowd heard of the “vaccine injured” – those who suffered adverse health effects after taking the vaccine. Kyle Warner, a professional mountain biker, said a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine led to serious health issues that left him unable to live a normal life, let alone compete.
When patients and medical professionals did their part, a coterie of influencers and notable vaccine skeptics followed. Steve Kirsch, a tech millionaire, introduced himself with the humble remark, “I’m not a doctor, but I run a popular Covid-19 based sub-pile.” He then made false claims about the number of deaths the vaccine caused in children.
Robert F Kennedy Jr has drawn backlash for his comments comparing the vaccine mandate to the Holocaust, including a shocking reference to Anne Frank.
“Even in Hitler’s Germany you could hide in the attic like Anne Frank did,” he said, drawing a reprimand from the Auschwitz Memorial.
It was a mob with a common goal and common enemies. Besides Dr. Fauci, Bill Gates and Joe Biden — whose mention prompted cries of “lock him up” — they had favorite treatments and procedures. They booed Remdesivir, an FDA-approved drug used to treat patients with Covid-19, and cheered at the mention of ivermectin, a well-known drug that is approved as an antiparasitic but not for the treatment of coronavirus.
But while the crowd and speakers brought a wide range of ideas and people from the vaccine-skeptical world, that’s all he brought. Freedom that day also meant no fact-checking. There was no one to dispute the false claims about the dangers of the vaccine. No one, for example, told the crowd that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had only received 11,468 reports of deaths among people who received a Covid-19 vaccine after more than 529 million doses (0. 0022%) – and that not all of these cases will be due to the vaccine. Or that a body of scientific evidence shows that the benefits of the vaccine overcome the risks.
The only challenge to vaccine skepticism, in fact, came from a small group of counter-protesters who set up shop on the side of the mall, and who could be heard on the other side, shouting a modified version of a popular slogan. adored by supporters of former President Donald Trump: “Let’s go Darwin”.