LAPD rolled out the red carpet for an astroturfed right-wing event, funneling traffic around Grand Park and blocking off streets for the sake of about a thousand antivaxxers, fifth-dimension vibe-nauts, Proud Boys, and at least one neo-Nazi last Sunday. They wandered in to watch “COVID is a hoax” cranks and celebrities who got hooked on conspiracy theories during lockdown and hear the guy who got kicked out of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones do weird antivaxx protest songs. Not content with being unopposed, some of the attendees roved around looking for people to fight and ended up attacking a woman who was working as a journalist.
If you’ve never been to downtown Los Angeles, let me paint a picture of the setting. Grand Park is a relatively small patch of green next to some fountains. It’s nestled in the middle of a bunch of tall government buildings and other landmarks—City Hall, LAPD HQ, a federal building, the Hall of Justice, The Music Center, Walt Disney Music Hall, Our Lady of the Angels and others. Driving around, there’s a big echo from the small park, yet you can’t really get a good idea from your car how many people are crowded into it. In other words, it’s good for making small rallies look and sound bigger than they are.
For a few blocks around Grand park, out-of-town trucks and vans slowly snaked into a nearby parking garage, clogging up the lane LAPD left open for everyone unfortunate to pass through. At one point we were stuck behind a local L.A. crank who has a sometimes-changing and very wordy series of conspiratorial missives draped on banners across his truck. They were all the usual conspiracies about globalists controlling the world with 5G radiation and vaccines. I slowly passed by blocked off, empty streets with big LED displays and paltry food trucks. Not many people were buying it. One huge sign said “COVID 19 VACCINES DO NOT PREVENT INFECTION OR TRANSMISSION.”
It was clear a lot of money went into this thing. Just pull the thread of one of the sponors/partners for “Defeat the Mandates”: ICAN or the Informed Action Consent Network. ICAN is funded by billionaire Bernard Selz. Selz has been funding antivaxx causes since well before the pandemic. ICAN was started in 2016. Its director, Del Bigtree, spoke on Sunday. More hundred dollar bills than people flow through this movement.
A thousand people at your event isn’t nothing, however. It’s enough to make an event look a lot bigger than it is. But wandering around it felt hollow. I passed by some young guys dressed like white approximations of Parliament Funkadelic extras holding giant papier-mache roses and talking about how the fifth dimension is love or some other new age bullshit. At one point I saw this woman who was ostensibly selling merchandise from the flop trucker convoy out of her Winnebago. She came out of the back door, look around and just sigh and walk back into the RV.
“Despite the all star lineup, it’s pretty dead,” NBC’s Ben Collins said of the rally on Twitter, and he was right. “Same talking points since 2020 at this rally, same characters…No new ideas or bad guys, might explain low attendance,” he added. “[Y]ou get the vibe that fewer and fewer people care enough about this stuff to show up in public and listen to Facebook memes out loud.”
The “Defeat the Mandates” rally had very little to protest as masks are mostly not required in California anymore and the state is almost 75% fully vaccinated. The waning enthusiasm for conspiracy theories about Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci microchipping everyone gave way to a much more basic, visceral and inarticulate hatred of any vaccine, mostly as an aspect of a larger plot to do something horrible to children.
While I didn’t see any open QAnon iconography, the message was everywhere. Speakers repeatedly shared horror stories of children dying from vaccines and a quack doctor talked about how they injure children. Someone hung a banner over the freeway early in the day that read “THIS IS CHILD ABUSE” with a picture of a syringe. The story these people really get fired up for is the QAnon one: there’s evil, powerful people and they want to hurt your kids. The villain a few days before in Burbank was Disney indoctrinating their kids into homosexuality. The villain on Sunday was governments and scientists who want to make your kids autistic or whatever through vaccines.
But antivaxxers have a lot of overlap these days with other paranoid far-right activist scenes and all sorts of grifters thought this was a good event to get their message out to new suckers.
Two guests some might not expect at this event were Jimmy Dore and Max Blumenthal. Dore used to work for The Young Turks news network and spent a lot of time promoting Bernie Sanders. He also spent a lot of time denying Bashar Al-Assad’s war crimes, gave a soft interview to a boog boy, and recently started grifting off of antivaxx paranoia. Blumenthal founded the ‘Grayzone,’ a nominally leftist website that kowtows to most any regime around the world doing genocide as long as they’re kind of adversarial to the United States. This wasn’t Blumenthal’s first appearance at a “Defeat the Mandates” event. He spoke at the D.C. rally earlier this year where antivaxx conspiracy theorist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. infamously said Jews in Germany had it easier than antivaxxers today.
“I regret to inform you that I’m a member of the media—the worst profession in the country,” Blumenthal said at the start of his speech.
“Honestly, I’m one of the good ones,” he added with a smirk, before calling the COVID vaccine “experimental gene therapy” and insisting that “this is not about left versus right” and that mainstream media is trying to divide everyone on behalf of the elites. A sea of people in Trump gear with “Fuck Joe Biden” flags cheered.
Blumenthal shared the stage in January and again in April with Lara Logan, who got fired from Fox News for comparing Fauci to Joseph Mengele, Will Witt of far-right propaganda mill PragerU, and antiSemitic conspiracy theorist Rizza Islam. Islam, who’s one of the 12 on the Center for Countering Digital Hate’s Disinformation Dozen report, seemed to have the mostly white crowd in the palm of his hand as he quoted Louis Farrakhan and told them “If you attempt to force this on us, we will take that as a declaration of war.” Then he started hocking the Nation of Islam’s paper.
There were, of course, some of the big names of COVID conspiracy-world like Mikki Willis, the director of the “panedmic-is-a-hoax” viral movie aptly-titled “Plandemic.” Willis had the audience take a bizarre, sovereign citizen-sounding oath, telling them to repeat that they were “one human family now” and that “the tyrants of this state” will not force them into another lockdown or tolerate any more mandates. The star of Plandemic, quack scientist Judy Miskovits, also spoke.
Other big names in antivaxx-world like ivermectin-hocking intellectual dark web guru Brett Weinstein, who got in a Twitter slap fight with his brother Eric on Twitter after Eric posted the link to a recent study that concludes that horse dewormer doesn’t cure COVID.
Most recently in the news and least relevant, Brian Brase of the People’s Convoy limped back from DC with a couple dozen big rig trucks in tow. Brase’s group camped out at a racetrack 80 miles from Washington DC after wasting fuel driving around the Beltway for about a month straight. Brase was too scared of getting locked up like the J6 organizers to go into DC and try to shut down traffic like the Canadian convoy protests his group was trying to mimic, and his discretion earned him a speaking spot at the L.A. rally.
“The People’s Convoy has your back” Brase said about L.A.-area EMTs and healthcare workers who won’t get vaccinated. “Honk honk,” he added.
At some point after everyone’s brains were cooked by hours and hours of speakers essentially saying the same things over and over. But church ended and the crowd had some pent-up energy to dispel. This is often a dangerous time during far-right rallies, when the crowd disperses into the surrounding area and some try to find people to attack or get in shouting matches with. But this time, the rally organizers had a treat for the attendees: the trucker convoy.
The trucks lined up on the street and got ready to roll out and people acted like little kids on a field trip who’d just been let into the petting zoo. For about half an hour they waved their signs and flags and ran around screaming “WOOOO!” and security had to gently put their hands on people to get them to not run into the big rigs as they creeped into the street to leave. It was a strange sight.
But the day wasn’t without violence. A local independent journalist who goes by ‘Sky Spider’ on Twitter was followed around by neo-Nazi Ryan Sanchez, who was at the rally trying to score points with the region’s Trumpers after getting booted from the People’s Convoy last month. Sanchez and his associates surrounded Sky Spider with a group of other men to intimidate her before he shoved her and another man named Peter slammed her with his back. Peter later denied he’d done it intentionally. A woman from the trucker convoy stepped in and got Sanchez and company to back off from her.
“Rise above, bro, be better—be the cream of the crop,” another attendee told Sanchez after he came back to heckle Sky Spider later in the day. Sanchez spasmed and tried to contain his grin when he heard the words “rise above.”
“Rise above? Rise above? That’s interesting! I also believe in rising above!” Sanchez replied.
In case you didn’t know, he’s a former member of a neo-Nazi street brawling gang called the ‘Rise Above Movement.’