Experts warn of rise in violence from anti-vaxxers

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An uptick in violent incidents and rhetoric directed at vaccination efforts have some extremism experts very worried.

A man calling himself the "vaccine police" walked into a Missouri Walmart on Aug. 16 and told pharmacists they would be executed if they continued to administer COVID-19 vaccinations.

Days later, on Aug. 21, a man drove his car through a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in California, allegedly striking two workers intentionally before speeding off.

In far-right social media groups, members of extremist movements are encouraging one another to follow suit and push back against vaccination efforts with violence. That threat has extremism experts on high alert, warning that anti-vaccine violence could escalate further in the coming months.

"We're watching three streams that seem to be crossing and creating a perfect storm," said Eric Ward, the executive director of the Western States Center and a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. "In this country, there has long been an anti-vaccination movement and a segment of that movement often adopts a conspiratorial world view, in terms of science and medicine."

Backlash to COVID-19 safety measures is nothing new. In March and April of 2020, when states across the country first began implementing shutdowns and mask mandates to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, protests — some of them violent — quickly became commonplace.

In Michigan, armed demonstrators in paramilitary gear stormed the state capitol building where lawmakers had convened for a session to demand that the Legislature lift Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home orders. Similar protests occurred at statehouses elsewhere in the country, and some of the extremists who participated in those demonstrations were later arrested on allegations of plotting to kidnap Whitmer and, separately, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.

But since the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines in late 2020, and the subsequent push to get as many people vaccinated as possible, the rhetoric in far-right circles has evolved from firm refusal to more threatening rhetoric that, in recent weeks, has increasingly turned into action.

The Proud Boys, for example, a far-right white nationalist organization that has encouraged followers to resist vaccination efforts and mask mandates in online channels — "They are going to make it as hard on you as they can until you comply. Stay strong," one Telegram message read — have engaged in violence during rallies to protest vaccines and other safety mandates over the past month.

On Aug. 15, members of the Proud Boys joined an anti-vaccine rally in Los Angeles that eventually turned violent as members brawled with counter-protesters and physically assaulted journalists covering the demonstration.

As The Daily Beast reported, some Proud Boys have also teamed up with anti-mask parents to attend school board meetings to discuss mask mandates in places like New Hampshire and Florida, which has one of the highest COVID-19 caseloads in the country at present. Though they have not engaged in violence at those meetings, their presence has been criticized by local officials who say the group's intentions are questionable.

"Proud Boys come to our board meetings for what? For what? What is the purpose of them being here?" one Nashua school board member asked, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader. "Are they here for our children? I think not."

The outlet noted the group had flashed white power symbols while standing outside the meeting.

This lines up with what Ward sees as the "second stream" that's causing a rise in anti-vaccine violence.

"The insurgent right in this country — the white nationalist movement, the [far] right, those who have put themselves in opposition to democracy — see this as a potential base from which to recruit," Ward said.

He compares the efforts of these groups to foment anti-vaccine rage to how the National Rifle Association was able to turn what was essentially a sport-hunting organization into an anti-government lobbying behemoth. "It became a political machine that sees the federal government as hostile," Ward said.

Even as GOP leaders previously aligned with the extreme ranks of their base reverse positions on COVID vaccines and urge people to get the shots, anti-vaccine rage continues to rise.

With schools reopening, reviving debates over mask and vaccine mandates as the delta variant pummels much of the country, Ward and other experts worry violent incidents will escalate in similar fashion.

Violent backlash to school safety measures is already happening: In Northern California, one parent allegedly assaulted a teacher over masking rules. Another parent in Texas allegedly ripped the mask off a teacher during a back-to-school meeting. And in Tennessee, a group of anti-mask demonstrators threatened public health officials who showed up to a school board meeting, yelling "we will find you ... we know who you are."

Ward worries that this kind of anti-vaccine and anti-mask violence could turn deadly if government officials — particularly those with more extreme-right bases — don't step up and dispel misinformation about COVID-19 as often as possible.

That's the third stream fueling threats of violence, he said.

"This is a conspiracy that is actually having an impact on public health," he said. "And our public health infrastructure is not being provided with the support to withstand this type of pressure."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.