A promised show of strength for the anti-vaccine movement was precisely the opposite

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It was supposed to be a show of strength for the anti-vaccine movement. Two years into a gruelling and deadly pandemic, at a time when opposition to vaccines and vaccine mandates have become a national political issue, more than 20,000 were expected to line up before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC to hear from prominent vaccine sceptics, doctors, bloggers, podcasters and personalities. It was supposed to be a coming-out party for an idea that has for years threatened to break through into the mainstream.

In the end, though, only a few thousand turned up to ‘Defeat the Mandates’ – a reference to vaccine mandates implemented by the Biden administration to protect against Covid-19. Several thousand, coincidentally, is the number of Americans who are dying each day from the virus. It was just enough of a crowd to reach the bottom of the steps upon which Lincoln is perched. A long row of underutilised porta-potties that lined the National Mall spoke to the unmet aspiration of the day.

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But although the crowd was small, their words – their ideas – were big. In the run-up to Sunday’s march, organisers had repeatedly invoked the spirit of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the civil rights leader who famously spoke from those very same steps of liberty and equality. Their battle was one and the same, the vaccine sceptics claimed.

“Today we are going to reclaim Martin’s dream, the dream of hope, of love,” declared one of the first speakers, Kevin Jenkins, who heads an anti-vaccination conspiracy theory group called Urban Global Health Alliance. “I want you to think of the spirit of Martin Luther King watching over you now,” he went on, before urging participants to raise their signs into the air.

Follow our live coverage of the anti-vaccine mandate demonstration in Washington DC

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Had Dr King been watching over the crowd on this overcast day in January he would have seen more than a handful of signs calling for the imprisonment of the nation’s top infectious disease expert and White House coronavirus adviser, Dr Anthony Fauci. He would have seen, beneath 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 vaccine mandates for federal employees to the Holocaust.

A protest cannot be judged by its most egregious placards, but the dichotomy between reason and unreason became a theme of the day. Some participants said they were there simply to protest vaccine mandates, and not the vaccine itself. Some were there to call for more scepticism of the motivations of pharmaceutical companies. Some were there to express their opposition to creeping government control, which they saw in vaccine mandates introduced by the Biden administration for federal workers. Some came for all of the above and more.

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A promised show of strength for the anti-vaccine movement was precisely the opposite
© Provided by The Independent A protester holds a sign calling for the imprisonment of Dr Anthony Fauci at a rally against vaccine mandates in Washington DC. (Richard Hall / The Independent)

Brendan Hurrle, who travelled from Chicago with a sign that said ‘1984’ in reference to George Orwell’s opus on authoritarianism, said he was worried about both the safety of the vaccine and what the mandates represented.

“Today is about the vaccines. Today is about using this pharmaceutical product that’s experimental, that is being forced on the population with extremely manipulated science. The drug industry has spent decades perfecting the way to misrepresent data and control government agencies,” he said.

“If you want to take it, fine. It does do some good, maybe. But you better not be forcing people to take it,” he said. “I can’t go sit down in a restaurant. I can’t go to my son’s basketball game.”

A promised show of strength for the anti-vaccine movement was precisely the opposite
© Provided by The Independent Dr Robert Malone speaks at the 23 January Defeat the Mandates rally (REUTERS)

Theo, who came from Pennsylvania and gave only his first name, came to protest the mandates specifically.

“I think it’s an invasion of employee privacy,” he said of mandates for large employers, a Biden administration policy which was recently struck down by the Supreme Court.

“I’m against vaccine mandates for a moral reason. I don’t think the government has a right to make you take a form of medical treatment such as this especially when there is such a low risk of death and a high survival rate when you don’t have comorbidities such as obesity or old age.”

The speakers on stage were as diverse as the crowd. They included doctors who spoke out against what they called “medical tyranny,” and who claimed that they had been prevented from providing lifesaving treatment to their patients. In one moment they pilloried the healthcare establishment for its irresponsible response to the coronavirus, in the next they were shouting medical advice through a loudspeaker.

The doctors in white coats were followed by Dr Robert Malone, a scientist who was involved in mRNA technology research but is now a vocal sceptic of the COVID-19 vaccines that use it. Dr Malone was banned from Twitter for promoting misinformation about Covid-19 and subsequently gained further notoriety for a controversial appearance on Mr Rogan’s podcast, a platform he used to push the same discredited theories and to promote today’s rally.

“Fight for your children. Do not comply,” he concluded.

The crowd heard from 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 severe health problems which left him unable to live a normal life, let alone compete.

When the patients and the medical professionals had done their bit, a coterie of vaccine sceptic influencers and notables followed. Steve Kirsch, a tech millionaire, introduced himself with the humble remark: “I’m not a doctor, but I run a popular Substack based on Covid-19.” He then made false claims about the number of deaths the vaccine has caused in children.”

Robert F Kennedy Jr drew backlash for his comments likening 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 rebuke from the Auschwitz Memorial.

This was a crowd with a shared purpose and shared enemies. Besides Dr Fauci, Bill Gates and Joe Biden – the mention of whom prompted cries of “lock him up” – they had preferred treatments and procedures. They booed Remdesivir, an FDA-approved drug used to treat Covid-19 patients, and cheered at the mention of Ivermectin, a well-known medicine that is approved as an antiparasitic but not for treatment of the coronavirus.

But while the crowd and the speakers brought in a diverse array of ideas and people from the vaccine sceptic world, that was all it brought. Freedom on this day meant freedom from fact checks, too. There was no one there to challenge the false claims about the dangers of the vaccine. No one, for example, told the crowd that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has received only 11,468 reports of death among people who received a Covid-19 vaccine after more than 529 million doses (0.0022 per cent) — and that not all of those cases will be due to the vaccine. Or that a body of scientific evidence shows that the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risks.

The only challenge to the vaccine scepticism, in fact, came from a tiny group of counter protesters who set themselves up to the side of the mall, and who could be heard from the other side of it, shouting a modified version of a popular slogan beloved by supporters of the former president Donald Trump: “Let’s go Darwin.”

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