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Shawn Vestal: Report details ugly marriage between anti-mask protests and the radical right

Political activist Joey Gibson, founder of Patriot Prayer, uses a bullhorn in front of Spokane Regional Health District Health Officer, Dr. Bob Lutz’s house on West 27th Avenue, Friday, July 17, 2020. About thirty anti-masking protesters voiced their disapproval of how Dr. Lutz and Gov. Jay Inslee have handled the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

On July 17, a group of about 30 anti-maskers gathered on the sidewalk outside the home of our county’s public health officer, Dr. Bob Lutz.

“Lutz is Nutz,” one sign read.

“Masking is a Satanic Ritual,” read another.

One protester said, “The vaccine is coming with a chip.”

Joey Gibson – the Patriot Prayer leader and regular instigator at regional far-right gatherings who faces federal riot charges in Portland – spoke by bullhorn to the crowd. Casey Whalen, a North Idaho man who organizes gun rallies and other events, captured it all on camera for his YouTube channel.

It might have seemed like a one-off, a sad, silly spectacle of people with too much time, too little social responsibility and too few facts at their disposal. In fact, it was one in a series of events coordinated around the region – and the rest of the country – by a network that has taken COVID-19 denialism and mask opposition and welded it to the framework of far-right radicalism. The movement, named People’s Rights, is led by Ammon Bundy – the head of the Malheur standoff and fellow traveler of Spokane Valley’s Matt Shea.

A new report from the Seattle-based Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, titled “Ammon’s Army,” details the leadership and efforts of the organization, which was formed during the spring by Bundy from his home in Emmett, Idaho, and which has grown to a membership of more than 20,000 people in 16 states.

“Despite the different network branding, this report further highlights how the People’s Rights network shares many commonalities with far-right paramilitary movements of the past, including the Posse Comitatus and the militia movement,” the report says.

A few months before the protest at Lutz’s home, Bundy led about 40 people in a protest outside the home of a police officer in Meridian, Idaho, who had arrested a woman who refused to leave a park closed for the pandemic. Similar protests have been held outside the homes of mayors and other public health officials.

The same day as the protest at Lutz’s house, protesters gathered to holler outside a Panhandle Health District meeting in Coeur d’Alene. A few days after that, Gibson led anti-mask protests in Vancouver, Washington. The scenes have been replayed across the nation in Florida, South Carolina, Nevada, Boise, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio…

The IREHR report details the manner in which Bundy – who forced the cancellation of his son’s high school football game in southern Idaho because he refused to mask up – has married traditional guns-and-anti-government extremism with the COVID-19 conspiracy activism. People’s Rights is grouped by region, with 153 formal leaders helping to organize events.

“I think we were surprised at the level of organization and the way they’ve been able to cultivate this new following around COVID-19,” said Devin Burghart, the executive director of IREHR.

Burghart is a native of Spokane who remembers attending a protest in Riverfront Park as a teenager that was held to counter a demonstration by Robert Mathews, the neo-Nazi leader of The Order.

The pandemic has created an ironic new dynamic inside far-right movements – offering new fodder for conspiratorial thinking but also a new a pathway into the mainstream. People’s Rights can draw not just on its traditional supporters, but also anti-vaccine activists and those pressing to reopen businesses.

“The reopen stuff creates a political space for folks like Bundy to move into the mainstream,” Burghart said. “All over the country, in that space, you’ve had more hard-edged, far-right folks move into the mainstream, and be welcomed with open arms, basically.”

What remains as true now as it did during the Malheur standoff, however, is the connection between the apocalyptic narratives and extremist alarmism, and real conflict and violence.

The Michigan kidnapping plot against the state’s governor grew out of anger over coronavirus control guidelines. A man angry over mask mandates threatened to kidnap the mayor of Wichita, Kansas. Anti-mask protesters have been involved in street clashes with leftist protesters, including incidents in Portland and Denver that left people dead.

Armed mask opponents have stormed statehouses, including Bundy himself, who led a group that shoved their way past police officers and into the Idaho Statehouse. Bundy was arrested; he had to be tied to a chair and rolled from the Capitol.

Burghart’s report outlines connections between People’s Rights and the other corners of the far right: Posse Comitatus ideology, racist and anti- Semitic movements, and the rainbow of paramilitary groups that keep those who observe the far right busy trying to distinguish among them. It also names the leaders of the group, and provides backgrounds on some of their connections to movements across the far-right spectrum.

It’s a virtual Who’s Who of Western extremism, all revved up with a new cause, all with an eye on the coming civil war.

And it’s dangerous in a whole new way, helping to nourish the spread of COVID-19.

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