Anti-vaccine protesters gather in front of the Lincoln Memorial Sunday Jan. 23, 2022.
Anti-vaccine protesters gather in front of the Lincoln Memorial Sunday Jan. 23, 2022. Credit: Eli Weiner

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Anti-vaccine activists gathered on the National Mall Sunday to protest vaccine mandates, wrongly rip prevailing public health policy, and rail against the power of the pharmaceutical industry. 

It was a marquee event for those opposing vaccine mandates for extended entry to most indoor public spaces. D.C.’s vaccine mandate went into effect just over a week ago, amid a surge in cases due to the omicron variant.

Several thousand participants from across the country showed up (well short of the 20,000 expected attendees), including prominent anti-vaccine figures such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Dr. Robert Malone. Rejecting evidence of vaccine safety and fuming at attempts to impose inoculation requirements, they gathered at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and parroted the language of civil rights leaders as they congratulated themselves for bravely resisting “the evil heel-clicks of history.”

The night before the rally, activists attempted to enter Union Pub without offering proof of vaccination, and on Sunday evening a similar confrontation occurred at Old Ebbitt Grill, D.C.’s longest running restaurant. These anti-mandate “sit-ins” may continue to grow, buoyed by the Supreme Court’s recent block of the Biden administration’s attempts to institute a vaccine-or-test program for large employers.

American flags—waving on poles, stitched on sweaters, draped around shoulders—dominated the scene Sunday afternoon along with pro-Trump gear and a variety of merchandise featuring the phrase “Let’s Go Brandon,” a code popularized in recent months which translates to “Fuck Joe Biden.” A lone Infowars flag fluttered in the wind, and nearby someone hoisted the banner of the World War II-era French Resistance.

“Most people here are not anti-vax, they’re anti-mandate,” claimed John Preston, who came to D.C. from Long Island. The event was billed as a more palatable anti-mandate rally, but a strong anti-vaccine sentiment prevailed among attendees. Others made it clear that the pandemic led to a radical shift in their attitude toward inoculations, all evidence of the safety and effectiveness of COVID vaccines notwithstanding. 

Tracie Gorham, in town from Washington state, said that COVID “totally changed [her] mind” when it came to vaccines. “I had all my vaccines growing up,” she told City Paper. “But this is different.” 

Kurt Dommermuth, standing beside the Washington Monument, confessed that his “trust has completely been destroyed” in the pharmaceutical industry. “Fauci is responsible for more deaths than Mengele,” he said, referring to the Nazi doctor nicknamed the “Angel of Death” for his experiments on human beings during the Holocaust. Comparisons of the vaccine mandate to the state-sponsored killing of more than six million Jewish people in Nazi Germany was popular among Sunday’s protesters. 

A large contingent of federal workers also attended as part of the organization Feds for Med Freedom, which sued to block the administration’s vaccine mandate for federal employees. Their efforts have so far proved successful: A judge recently halted the enforcement of the mandate.

Will Jones, a D.C. firefighter, erroneously claimed that “mandates are putting our city at risk, [and they are] going to hurt the most underserved populations in D.C. the most.” Jones, who said he works at one of the busiest stations serving wards 7 and 8, faulted Mayor Muriel Bowser’s mandate for city employees, saying that close to 300 members of the department felt similarly and risked termination. The omicron variant has hit the District’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department especially hard. From Christmas Eve to Dec. 28, more than 9 percent of workers tested positive. More than 1,800 FEMS employees have been vaccinated, and those who refused have largely claimed a religious exemption. “Most of the people we’re serving don’t care about vaccines,” Jones claims. “They want an ambulance or fire truck on time.”

The rally began in earnest shortly after noon with a rousing rap song performed by Hi-Rez and Jimmy Levy, an anti-vaxxer and one-time contestant on American Idol. Levy later sang the national anthem. J.P. Sears, a conservative YouTuber and comedian, emceed the event. “You’re feeling cold?” he asked the audience at one point, as the temperature hovered in the 30s. “Communism’s colder.”

Malone, an anti-vaccine physician who is banned from Twitter for violation of its misinformation policy and whose interview on Joe Rogan’s podcast drew condemnation from more than 1,000 doctors and scientists, received a hero’s welcome (the crowd roared their approval at the mention of Rogan’s name). Malone attacked the “Davos oligarchs,” insisting that “Omicron [had] destroyed the approved narrative that the vaccines work.” New research shows that mRNA vaccines in conjunction with a booster significantly reduces a person’s likelihood of hospitalization. A number of studies have echoed this finding, indicating that the combination of vaccines and boosters remain effective in reducing hospitalization and serious illness.

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the head of the nonprofit organization Children’s Health Defense, delivered a lengthy speech that leaped from a granular rehearsal of Pfizer trial data to fulminations against the surveillance state, the “information chaos,” and the “fog of war that they orchestrated…to make us compliant.” Kennedy embraced a diversity of wild conspiracy theories loosely connected together under a broader heading of what he termed “turn-key totalitarianism,” abetted by new technologies like 5G that were being rolled out “to harvest our data and control our behavior.”

The crowd enthusiastically received his apocalyptic prophecies. “The minute they hand you that vaccine passport, every right you have is transformed into a privilege,” Kennedy told them. “They will make you a slave.”

Jamal Kelly, the lone man running the Dogs on the Curb food truck there to serve rally VIPs—the coterie of individuals walking around with laminated credentials that included scheduled speakers and their entourages—was apathetic. “People have freedom of choice,” the D.C. resident said, shrugging his shoulders as he prepared a loaded dog. 
Two young men standing off to the side of the rally, conspicuous in their masks, were dismissive of the whole effort. “It’s honestly sadder than I thought it would be,” said Sol Eure, noting that in comparison to Friday’s March for Life, ebullient at the prospect of finally overturning the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 decision Roe v. Wade, the day’s anti-mandate march was a sorry affair. His friend, Ben Carl Raker, agreed, but predicted trouble later in the day. “I’m really worried for any service workers around here,” he said, suggesting that attendees could look for confrontation. “Avoid the Hard Rock Cafe,” Raker joked. Left unsaid was the fact that D.C. residents were again forced to walk uncomfortably in their own city as national grievances played out on local streets.