Before the anti-vaccine mandate protesters on Sunday marched across the National Mall, event organizers prepared for their arrival at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. A row of inspirational photos of anti-vax activists was unfurled at the bottom of the steps –pictures of an African-American family, an older Latina woman, a Native American man, an Orthodox Jewish couple, a woman of Asian descent among others. 

In a movement associated with the far-right, where its leaders liken vaccine passports to full-blown totalitarianism, and at a demonstration where the mostly white speakers declared themselves “not woke but awake,” the organizers had clearly gone out of their way to also try to present a welcoming, inclusive context. In posters and in speeches, they co-opted the language of diversity to give the impression of appealing to a wide audience and the appearance of embracing mainstream values. 

It was hardly the sole instance of cognitive dissonance at the demonstration. Conservative YouTube comedian JP Sears got the ball rolling, telling the thousands of protesters –“We didn’t come here to agree with each other.”

The crowd roared in agreement. The short, balding man in front of me turned to the tall, balding man next to him and said, “Exactly.”

There to denounce government vaccination mandates (and Big Pharma, the medical establishment, school closures, Bill Gates, fascism, CNN and surveillance) and champion truth and freedom (and vitamin D supplements, ivermectin, dissident doctors, parental choice and Joe Rogan), Sears and subsequent speakers repeatedly cited Martin Luther King Jr. as inspiration. Reminding the protestors that he had given his “I have a dream” speech on the same steps 58 years ago, King, said Sears, “wasn’t a mandate kind of guy. He knew you can’t comply your way out of tyranny.”

But behind their abuse of language and their warping of science in support of their unscientific arguments, the organizers had identified correct currents of concern: authoritarianism, surveillance, loss of privacy, digital tools of social control, experts selling the public a false bill of goods. These are legitimate sources of dread, potential threats to everybody’s liberty and freedoms. They are topics deserving scrutiny. 

But by putting these issues in service of their right-wing populism and viral disinformation, it begs the question whether any of the anti-mandate crowd –speakers and protesters– actually care about these things in the first place. Hours into the event, when all the soaring language of liberty and freedom faded and muted by repetition, what was left were true motives: influence, power, attention, and profits from selling useless medical remedies. 

Organizers had been adamant that this was a demonstration against government vaccination mandates, not an anti-vax event. That party line fell away when the speakers took to the podium but it had been a crucial messaging tactic. Instead of getting deplatformed by social media companies for propagating vaccine disinformation, organizers quickly amassed tens of thousands of followers on their “anti-mandate” Facebook pages, galvanizing people to travel to DC from across the country. 

But from the start of the demonstration –or the “show,” as JP Sears described the rally– vaccination hostility shared center stage with an anti-mandate agenda. The event headliner, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (son of Senator Robert Kennedy), warned of a coming apocalypse stemming from vaccinations and mandates. Even under the Nazis, he said, his voice shaking, Anne Frank was able to hide. But those seeking relief from vaccine tyranny will have nowhere to go. Another key figure behind the march, Robert Malone, a virologist and immunologist, peddled misinformation, fake cures, and compared the United States to a psychotic society similar to Nazi Germany. 

At the March: Anti-mandate firefighters –local media reported 200 DC firefighters attended– around a giant flag they had carried horizontally from the Washington Monument; different groups of protestors giving interviews in Spanish; the Proud Boys, a white supremacist group, mingling in the crowd.

Demonstrators and reporters lined up to take photos of a man with a white, wispy chin-beard, dressed head-to-toe as Uncle Sam with a giant syringe around his head. One man in his early 20s wore a Guy Fawkes mask; another man stood on stilts in a grim reaper costume, his sign warning of the deadly consequences of “In Pfizer we trust.” 

While the crowd thronged the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, around the edges, small groups held placards and commented on the proceedings with bullhorns, like an unhinged Greek chorus. One gaggle of people stood on the sidewalk, incessantly correcting the speakers that Christ is who matters here. “We need to remember what Lincoln stood for,” said a speaker. “You need to remember what Jesus stood for,” a member of the sidewalk group answered. This went on for about 30 minutes when, as three Hasidic Jews walked toward the Lincoln Monument, the group told them through the bullhorn to “get right with Jesus you dirty Jews.” 

Another scraggly group on the sidelines chanted “Darwin wins” as protesters passed. At first, I took them as counter-protesters, an anti-anti-mandate carve-out. But apparently, no: they were anti-vax and anti-mandate, and felt Darwin was on their side. The data shows otherwise: Although Covid-19 vaccine effectiveness decreased with emergence of the Delta variant and waning of vaccine-induced immunity, protection against hospitalization and death has remained high. 

Many of the protesters had drawn similar conclusions. Science is on their side. Speakers invoked Albert Einstein and Saint Augustine. While one particularly intricately drawn sign proclaimed “I trust and follow my intuition & instincts – discerning what is fight & true for me,” most of the others begged the world to follow the data. Echoing the ‘science is real’ lawn signs in front of progressive U.S. households, the rally signs urged people to believe in credentialed experts, but only the vanishingly small minority of medical experts who condemned vaccines and are unfairly persecuted by their colleagues, and realize, as one sign read, Galileo also was accused of spreading “misinformation.” 

The pre-rally messaging of a solely anti-mandate agenda, instead of anti-vaccination, allowed organizers to focus on what they argued is the true peril facing the world: the loss of liberty and freedom to digital vaccine passports, coerced vaccine shots, and medical surveillance. Speakers cited the Chinese social credit tracking system, surveillance phone apps, and China’s one child policy, which was rescinded in 2015. Protesters’ signs echoed the same concerns.

Much of that isn’t viewed as over the top by millions of Americans, according to the Center for Countering Digital Hate. While about 75% of Americans eligible for the vaccine have taken at least one shot, conspiracies centering vaccinations, government mandates, and disinformation are on the rise. Since January 2020, the 153 most influential anti-vaccine social media accounts have gained 2.9 million new followers.

The number of protesters who showed up for the demonstration was far less than the 20,000 promised by the organizers. But in promoting the message of diversity and multiculturalism while simultaneously denouncing ‘woke culture’, in claiming to defend science while simultaneously contradicting it, in condemning authoritarianism, surveillance, and the theft of privacy while promoting right-wing populism and a conspiracy worldview that allows for these things to prosper, the organizers have struck a chord. It’s dissonant, but it works. The next march will be bigger.