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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: The surge of ‘mini-insurrections’ reflects evolving pandemic extremism

In this screengrab from video by KREM-TV’s Dave Somers, protesters stand outside the Coeur d’Alene School Board meeting in protest of masks.  (KREM video)
In this screengrab from video by KREM-TV’s Dave Somers, protesters stand outside the Coeur d’Alene School Board meeting in protest of masks. (KREM video)

The images from the anti-mask demonstration run amok last week in Coeur d’Alene were too familiar for comfort.

Glowering protesters banging on locked doors, demanding to enter and hollering at local cops. Crowds surrounding and shouting down officials, threatening to push their way inside. Police clearing out the public and journalists for their own safety, and district officials feeling personally threatened.

“Everyone’s safety was at issue, in my mind,” the school board president, Jennifer Brumley, wrote later in a message to district staff.

It was a tense scene, packed with aggression and the seeming potential for violence, and it’s been repeated over and over this year. Protesters have shut down city and county government meetings. School board meetings have become intense battlegrounds. Public health officials have been confronted, and vaccine clinics disrupted.

And, of course, there was Jan. 6. The differences between Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C., and Sept. 24 in Coeur d’Alene are manifest, of course. But the similarities – commonalities of belief and a commitment to using force over reason – are unmistakable.

“In a lot of respects, we’ve got a series of mini-insurrections playing out all across the country around issues of masks, vaccines and mandates,” said Devin Burghart, the executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights.

The Seattle-based IREHR has just released a report, “Facebook and Covid Denial,” examining the ways that COVID-19 denialism and vaccine opposition have become a unifying force for far-right movements – aligning formerly disparate movements and attracting new members via hundreds of Facebook-organized groups.

His team identified more than 1,700 Facebook groups built around COVID denialism, with almost 2.5 million members. The report provides a detailed examination of the way these groups interact with and draw upon many forms of extremism as they have moved toward more aggressive, threatening tactics.

This pandemic-conspiracy umbrella takes in paramilitary groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, whose members played significant roles on Jan. 6; white nationalists and racist organizations; alt-right YouTube provocateurs and old-school one-world order conspiracists; Stop the Stealers and critical-race-theory opponents; Christian nationalists and constitutionalists.

All have found common purpose in COVID denialism, fostered by Facebooks’ incredible power as a platform for false information and human connection.

New York University researchers examined the social media site from August 2020 to January and found that posts with misinformation drew six times more clicks than factual news articles. While there was nonsense posted on both sides of the political spectrum, 68% of the posts identified as misinformation came from the far right.

“The ranks of the far-right have swelled like I’ve never seen in my 30 years of doing this work,” Burghart said.

‘Clear connections’

Kate Bitz, a program manager and trainer/organizer in Spokane for the Western States Center, a Portland-based organization that tracks right-wing extremism, said the combination of anti-government and conspiratorial views, as well as the philosophical foundations of many on the far right, made a pandemic backlash predictable.

“After all, it requires a recognition of our vulnerability, interdependence, and the importance of stable, inclusive democratic institutions to respond,” she wrote in response to questions.

“That’s extremely unsettling to people whose values are based in rugged individualism and often a belief in their own invulnerability. It was almost inevitable that the right would downplay the severity of the COVID pandemic.”

Bitz said her organization has identified “clear connections” between those involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection and “groups that mobilized at school board meetings, hospitals, anti-vaccine rallies and other smaller events around the region this year. For example, an anti-mask protest at Central Valley School District this fall was advertised on a Proud Boys group’s social media, and at least one (Jan. 6) insurrectionist showed up at last week’s anti-vaccine rally in downtown Spokane.”

‘A state of war’

That rally, in Riverfront Park and throughout downtown on Sept. 25, was a representative sample of these changes.

It was organized by some of the usual suspects – Matt Shea, the former GOP representative who aided and abetted the Malheur occupation and now leads a Spokane Valley church, and Caleb Collier, the former Spokane Valley city councilman who is working for Understanding the Threat, a group specializing in Islamophobic conspiracies.

But it also bore many of the hallmarks of a routine family event in the park. Music. Face-painting. A job fair. An estimated 4,000 people attended – far more than the typical size of such patriot gatherings in the past – and for all the pleasant trappings, they were treated to a hodgepodge of conspiratorial fear-mongering, including threats the children would soon be raped and killed, and all the worst, most uninformed views of the pandemic.

Collier told the crowd, “It’s an event where we spread love, where we spread kindness, where we spread fellowship with our fellow Christian patriots.”

There was less talk of love and kindness when Collier and Shea spoke on a podcast a couple of days before the rally, as Collier talked about his new job, in which he plans to teach others how to stalk and harass political opponents.

“We are in a state of war,” Collier said. “It’s OK to go to a local coffee shop and watch as a city council member meets with a local leader of antifa, and it’s OK to take photographs of their license plates and run that down and see who else they’re meeting with.

“Those are tactics that are OK. It’s OK to stand in front of a mayor’s house and picket when they’re doing something that’s a violation of your natural, God-given rights … you can actually get them to pack up and leave town or resign.”

He also demonstrated the perfect fit between pandemic conspiracies and pre-existing paranoias.

“They have never been so close to being able to implement their globalist agenda,” Collier said. “They see this COVID-19, this engineered pandemic as a means to an end. They don’t care what the crisis is, so long as they can take total control of your life and ultimately establish their one-world government plan.”

‘Deadly serious’

Militarized, revolutionary talk has long been a feature of the far right, and a lot of the time that’s all it is. It’s impossible to ignore the fact, though, that there is a growing aggression in public life around pandemic issues – a sense among some people that the time has come to fight back, literally, against an evil adversary.

Berghart documented a lot of this in his report, citing example after example of people calling for civil war or insurrectionary actions on Facebook, as well as real-life disruptions of local government meetings.

“I think far too often we underestimate rhetoric and its ability to move people to reality,” he said. “People in this movement are deadly serious and they have deadly serious aims and the consequences of their actions are deadly” in terms of the pandemic.

Following Jan. 6, there was a shift toward more localized demonstrations, and the incidents of local government officials being bullied, threatened and harassed are now frequent. Bitz noted that a planned Washington, D.C., rally to celebrate the Jan. 6 insurrectionists flopped, but on the same day, a thousand anti-vaccine protesters marched through Salem, Oregon.

“A major factor in this localized organizing is that inclusive democracy is much easier to disrupt at the local level,” she wrote. “The U.S. Capitol is a much harder target than a local school administrative building, and far-right groups have unfortunately found success obstructing democratic practice at the local level by shutting down public meetings, intimidating local elected officials into resigning, and badgering frontline workers.”

‘Spiral of mistrust’

The connection between existing, pre-pandemic conspiracies – such as the old reliable “globalist agenda” – and pandemic conspiracies is strong. In March, researchers at Network Contagion Research Institute released a report estimating where in the country significant anti-vaccine and anti-mask protests might occur.

The most important correlations indicating anti-mask/vax activity were: counties that had experienced notable anti-Black Lives Matter counterprotests, that had stricter pandemic restrictions – and that had a high incidence of Google searches for “New World Order.”

On these metrics, Spokane County was one of the top 30 counties in the country where significant protests against public health measures were increasingly likely, along with King and Snohomish counties, and Idaho’s Ada County.

The researchers drew a direct ideological line between these movements and the events of Jan. 6, and pointed out the ways in which they could create a feedback loop that keeps the country trapped in a pandemic.

“The unwillingness to take the vaccine is grounded in the same distrust in leaders and institutions that led to the attack on the Capitol,” they wrote. “For anti-democratic actors, this offers the opportunity to create a spiral of distrust: The more distrust in leaders and institutions they sow, the longer it will take to vaccinate enough of the population to achieve herd immunity; the longer it takes to achieve herd immunity, the longer it will take for life to get back to normal; the longer it takes for life to get back to normal, the less credible leaders appear and the lower the public’s trust in institutions.”

‘Chaos and fear’

Burghart’s report includes recommendations for ways to address the thriving misinformation pandemic on Facebook. Chiefly, he writes, the platform should “de-platform COVID denial,” as it has tried, with mixed success, to do with other forms of misinformation. He further argues that Congress should investigate the role of the social media platform in spreading misinformation.

But there is another important group that needs to join the fight against COVID denial more forcefully, he said – the average non-COVID-denying citizen. People need to speak up, defend health care workers and government officials, support public health and safety measures, and not allow the conversation to be dominated by extremists.

“This is no longer a policy fight, it is an effort to push, by force if necessary, an agenda that threatens public health,” he said. “We live in a democracy, and it is not a spectator sport. It requires all of us to participate.”

Meanwhile, the incidents are having a pronounced effect on local government officials and the decisions they’re making.

The protest in Coeur d’Alene last week came as the school board was considering a temporary mask mandate, in response to the pandemic surging in the community and in classrooms. Doctors and medical professionals were scheduled to speak about the dire situation in the community and hospitals.

The meeting was canceled as a result of the protests, and demonstrators then moved on to the district offices, which was placed on lockdown. No mask mandate was discussed or implemented.

“This was not a laughable or funny situation,” Brumley, the board chairwoman wrote in her message to staff. “I was tearful and truly saddened. I was concerned for my safety, after the fact, in light of the anger over canceling the meeting.”

And the ongoing influence of the mini-insurrectionists is clear: Brumley and trustee Tambra Pickford have resigned. The next board meeting will be held over Zoom.

And masks are not on the agenda.

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