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Windsor Police Chief Won’t Apologize to Lieutenant Held at Gunpoint

Army Second Lt. Caron Nazario being held at gunpoint by police in Windsor, Virginia.

Army Second Lt. Caron Nazario being held at gunpoint by police in Windsor, Virginia. (Source: body camera footage)

The police chief of the small Virginia town where Caron Nazario was pulled over at gunpoint, threatened, and pepper-sprayed said the incident “upset” him. But he still doesn’t believe the Army lieutenant is owed an apology. 

Windsor Police Chief Rodney “Dan” Riddle acknowledged during a press conference Wednesday that an internal investigation into the controversial Dec. 5 traffic stop concluded in late January.

Riddle viewed body-camera footage of the incident multiple times, he said. And some level of disciplinary action was taken, which Riddle declined to describe. 

Then the four-month-old incident went hugely viral, in part because Nazario, who was in uniform at the time of the traffic stop, filed a lawsuit against the cops on April 2, alleging violations of his constitutional rights. (The lawsuit was first reported by the Virginian-Pilot.) And the police department had to act again. 

As the traffic stop drew outrage and national media attention, the chief “got to a point” over the weekend where it became clear that one of the two officers involved could no longer serve the community, Riddle said. So, Joe Gutierrez, who pepper-sprayed Nazario and told him he “should be” afraid, was fired. 

The state’s attorney general said he’d investigate the department for an “unlawful pattern or practice of conduct.” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam called the treatment of Nazario, a Black and Latino man, “disturbing.” Even the FBI is investigating, according to the Virginian-Pilot. 

Despite all that, Riddle seemed to at times defend the officers and deflect blame toward Nazario during his press conference Wednesday. When asked if he had anything to say to Nazario, for example, he said: “At the end of the day I’m glad that nobody got hurt, that situation ended the best way it could’ve. I wish he would have complied a whole lot earlier.” 

“I’m going to own what we did wrong,” Riddle said. “My guys missed opportunities to verbally de-escalate that thing and change that outcome.”

Still, when asked if he thought the department should apologize to Nazario, Riddle said: “I don’t believe so.” 

“Lt. Nazario took certain actions that created where we got to,” Riddle said. “And I think that, you know, we’ll let the courts sort that part of it out, and litigate that part.” 

Jonathan Arthur, the attorney representing Nazario in his lawsuit, slammed Riddle’s comments in a lengthy press statement Wednesday. The president of the local Isle of Wight NAACP also called for Riddle’s resignation in wake of his comments, according to WTKR, a CBS affiliate in Norfolk.

“The chief says he is glad that no one got hurt. OC spray hurts,” Arthur said, referring to the pepper spray Gutierrez used on Nazario. “Being threatened with ‘riding the lightning’ hurts. Being told you should be afraid to follow police commands hurts.”

The video of the traffic stop showed that officers “missed some serious opportunities,” Riddle said, while adding that Nazario had raised red flags. The officers treated the traffic stop as a high-risk encounter and drew their weapons because Nazario had allegedly taken a while to pull over, had tinted windows, and lacked a license plate. The cops initially handled the situation well, Riddle said. 

But the SUV was newly purchased, and temporary tags were visible on the back of the vehicle, according to the lawsuit filed by Nazario. And he began to slow down within seconds of Windsor Police Officer Daniel Crocker initiating the traffic stop. He drove less than a mile only so he could reach a well-lit BP gas station. 

Riddle noted that both officers were relatively new to the department, although Gutierrez had more experience, while Crocker was a recent graduate of the police academy and was still in field training. Crocker made an effort to de-escalate the encounter, Riddle said, and “has the makings of being a policeman.” 

“As the event unfolded, there were some moments there where the use-of-force continuum—escalation of force, de-escalation of force—they actually were doing,” Riddle said. “They came out with their firearms. Officer Gutierrez transferred to his Taser, then eventually to his pepper spray, and then went hands-on. So that’s coming down the use-of-force continuum.”

“What they missed, though, was the opportunities to verbally de-escalate that situation,” Riddle said. “To engage Mr. Nazario in a positive manner, and use language to gain compliance from him.”

Riddle pointed out that one phrase used by Gutierrez, ”You’re fixin’ to ride the lightning,” was likely a reference to utilizing a Taser, though it was still inappropriate. The lawsuit alleged it was a “colloquial expression for an execution.” 

Riddle also said he was upset by Gutierrez telling Nazario that he “should be” afraid. 

“Those kind of comments, they don’t serve any purpose,” Riddle said. 

But the small police department still has to reckon with them. 

“We’re a small community,” Riddle said. “We’re 2,600 people, and we know just about everybody here. That’s why we have good relationships within our community itself, is our ability to interact with people.”

“That was destroyed by the social media posting, the media coverage of” the incident, he said.

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Derek Chauvin Pleads the Fifth and Won’t Testify in His Own Murder Trial

Defense attorney Eric Nelson, left, and defendant, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, right, listen, Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in the trial of Chauvin at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis.

Defense attorney Eric Nelson, left, and defendant, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, right, listen, Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in the trial of Chauvin at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis. (Court TV, via AP, Pool)

This is a developing story. Please refresh for updates.

After weeks of speculation, Derek Chauvin told the court once and for all that he will not be telling his side of the arrest that led to George Floyd’s death in his ongoing murder trial.

“I will invoke my Fifth Amendment privilege today,” Chauvin said in Hennepin County Court in downtown Minneapolis Thursday. His brief remarks were the first time the jury heard from the former Minneapolis police officer since the start of the trial last month.

In addition to Chauvin’s decision not to take the stand, defense attorney Eric Nelson told Judge Peter Cahill that he plans to rest his case Thursday. Prosecutors will rebut with additional testimony from witnesses later in the day.

Chauvin’s decision to not testify is a matter of playing it safe, criminal defense attorney Andrew Wilson, a partner at Wilson Criminal Defense in Minneapolis, told VICE News.

“The jury only knows Chauvin through third parties. Having him testify permits the defense to attempt to mitigate misgivings the jury may have about him,” said Wilson, a former colleague of defense attorney Nelson during his tenure at the Minnesota firm Halberg Criminal Defense. “But the State is permitted to cross[-examine] Chauvin if he testifies, which the State would use to combat any positive light the defense shone on him through direct examination.”

The defense had just two full days of witness testimony, compared to the more than 10 days prosecutors spent building their case that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death when he kneeled on the 46-year-old Black man’s neck for more than nine minutes last May. Floyd was being arrested for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 to buy cigarettes at a convenience store in South Minneapolis. 

In total, Nelson called seven witnesses, including the park police officer called to the scene of Floyd’s arrest as well as Shawanda Hill, the woman who was with Floyd just moments before he died. Many of them ended up bolstering points the prosecution had made rather than speaking to Chauvin’s innocence.

On Wednesday, Nelson also called Maryland’s former chief medical examiner Dr. David Fowler, who’s being sued over a Black teenager’s death in an encounter remarkably similar to Floyd’s.

Chauvin is charged with second- and third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. He’s facing up to 65 years in prison if convicted.

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We’re About to Find Out How Dangerous the FBI Thinks QAnon Really Is

QAnon conspiracy theory believers were front and center at the Jan. 6 rally in support of Trump's baseless claims of widespread election fraud as well as the riot that followed. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

QAnon conspiracy theory believers were front and center at the Jan. 6 rally in support of then-President Trump’s baseless claims of widespread election fraud as well as the riot that followed. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it’s causing, and what we should do about it.

In May 2019, an FBI memo produced by the agency’s Phoenix field office described QAnon as a potential domestic terror threat, saying it would “emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts.”

At the time, QAnon was a little-known movement that was still largely siloed on fringe and alternative websites like 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit. But the FBI’s prediction proved eerily accurate.

In the almost two years since that memo was produced, QAnon has gone mainstream. It exploded on major platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. It was tacitly endorsed by a sitting president. It has been linked to numerous acts of violence, including at least four murders. It’s torn families across America apart. And, its followers played a key role in the Capitol insurrection just three months ago.

But in all that time, the FBI has refused to publicly update its assessment of the QAnon movement. Now, that’s about to change.   

On Wednesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray told a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Worldwide Threats that he was going to release a report on the threat posed by the group “very shortly.” 

The move is a delayed response to a letter sent in December by a group of senators asking the FBI and U.S. Department of Homeland Security for a written assessment of QAnon, which they said “has inspired acts of domestic extremism and violence, sought to undermine democratic institutions, and contributed to hatred in the United States and overseas.”

The FBI didn’t immediately respond, and a month after the letter was sent, QAnon adherents played a central role in the Capitol riots.

In February the FBI finally submitted a report to Congress, according to Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), who questioned Wray during Wednesday’s hearing. That report was not classified, but it was labeled “for official use only,” meaning it could not be shared publicly.

For the last two months, Heinrich said, his staff has been working with agents at the FBI to create a version of the report that can be made public. 

On Wednesday, Wray said the report is close to being finalized.

“My understanding is my staff is working with yours and we should be able to get you a fully unclassified version very shortly,” Wray said. 

The FBI director did however outline how the agency is thinking about QAnon right now. “We understand QAnon to be more of a reference to a complex conspiracy theory or set of complex conspiracy theories, largely promoted online, which has sort of morphed into more of a movement.”

He also said that at least five self-identified QAnon supporters had been arrested in the wake of the Capitol insurrection—however, a recent analysis of the people charged for offenses during the riot showed that 34 QAnon followers had been arrested for various crimes related to the Capitol attack.

QAnon began life on 4chan in late October 2017, when the anonymous leader of the movement, known simply as Q, posted their first message. But soon after that, Q moved to another message board known as 8chan, which subsequently became 8kun. The website is owned by Americans Jim Watkins and operated by his son Ron Watkins.

A recent documentary series that delved into the origins of QAnon shows the pivotal role the Watkins family played in facilitating the growth of QAnon, and presents evidence that Ron Watkins himself may have in fact posted messages as Q after the movement migrated to the site he controlled.

Heinrich raised the question of whether Jim and Ron Watkins could face criminal prosecution for their part in QAnon’s growth, but Wray said that the FBI is focused on violence perpetrated by any particular group, not just their ideology. 

“We have to be careful to be focused on violence, threats to violence, and things that violate federal criminal law,” Wray said. “There may be certain instances where language becomes part of a conspiracy, and there are instances where there are other federal statutes which may be violated. But those are complicated questions which I would refer to the lawyers over at the Justice Department.”

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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The GOP Is Using Tucker Carlson’s Race-Baiting to Attack a Biden Nominee

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Left: In this March 2, 2017 file photo, Tucker Carlson poses in a Fox News Channel studio, in New York. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File) Right: Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division nominee Kristen Clarke speaks during an event with President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

It seems like the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee have been watching a lot of Tucker Carlson lately.

During Wednesday’s confirmation hearings for Kristen Clarke, President Biden’s nominee to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, they grilled her with accusations that parroted bad-faith attacks Carlson has pushed in recent segments of his Fox News show.

Carlson, whose latest controversy has been touting the white supremacist theory that Democrats want to “replace the current electorate” with “voters from the Third World,” has made Clarke a frequent punching bag, airing a half-dozen segments with the goal of painting her as an anti-white extremist. 

“In a sane country, Kristen Clarke should be under investigation by the Civil Rights Division, not running it,” Carlson said earlier this year.

Republicans were happy to use his segments as fodder for attacks against the 45-year-old Black nominee during her hearing.

The most glaring example came from Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who took a clearly satirical article Clarke wrote in college to question whether she was a reverse racist.

“Maybe there’s a misprint, I’m sure you can clear it up for me, dating back to your days in school when you seemed to argue that African Americans were genetically superior to Caucasians. Is that correct?” Cornyn asked.

Clarke said it was “a satirical reference” aimed at mocking “The Bell Curve,” a best-selling racially charged book that had been written by a Harvard professor while she was on campus a quarter-century ago.

“What I was seeking to do was to hold up a mirror, and put one racist theory alongside another to challenge people as to why we were unwilling to wholly reject the racist theory that defined the Bell Curve book,” she said.

Cornyn followed up to ask “So this was satire?” Clarke said it “absolutely” was, leaving him to pivot to other topics.

Cornyn responded to a tweet from this VICE News writer about the exchange by complaining about a “double standard” for Clarke and how reporters treated now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his hearing. But he repeatedly declined to say whether he thought Clarke was being literal or facetious.

It’s clear that this wasn’t her actual position. But it’s debatable whether people should be judged harshly for their half-baked teenage political views, as Cornyn must understand: Way back when he was a high school student, Cornyn backed segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s presidential campaign.

Clarke has spent two decades working on civil rights issues for the Department of Justice and at legal advocacy organizations. But Iowa GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley, the committee’s ranking Republican, plumbed Clarke’s school days as well. 

While a student at Columbia Law, she helped organize a conference that included a panel where people argued against the controversial conviction of Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal for killing a cop. Raising a guilt-by-association attack that Carlson has also pushed, Grassley said she’d helped organize “a conference that featured a number of speakers that called violent radicals, including numerous cop killers, political prisoners and POWs,” and asked her if she agreed with their views. 

Clarke said she was a student volunteer who helped organize the event and didn’t agree.

That wasn’t enough for Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz.

“Your advocacy and frankly extreme position on defunding the police is paired with a history of not only excusing but celebrating murderers who have murdered police officers. It’s been reported that during law school, you helped organize a conference with speakers who referred to convicted cop killers as political prisoners,” Cruz told Clarke.

If guilt by association is an important issue for Cruz, he might recall he chose Iowa GOP Rep. Steve King, who was already known for his long history of racist remarks, to be a national co-chairman for his 2016 presidential campaign.

The attacks are even more absurd given how long a public track record of advocacy Clarke has. She is undoubtedly a liberal civil rights activist—until recently she led the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and before that she worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Other Republicans were much more effective during the hearing at actually focusing on Clarke’s recent views.

An easy target: Clarke’s 2020 Newsweek op-ed that was titled “I Prosecuted Police Killings. Defund the Police—But Be Strategic.”

“I’m sure that we’ll hear the usual refrain today that nominees don’t really mean it when they say ‘Defund the police.’ But the fact is, it was said,” Grassley said at the beginning of the hearing.

The actual op-ed is more nuanced than the headline, which Clarke disavowed as “a poor title chosen by the editor.” But cutting funds to police departments is a controversial topic that doesn’t need to be distorted for actual questions.

Clarke’s talking-point defense on that op-ed was that she didn’t have “the power of the purse” to increase resources for everyone when she wrote the piece so was advocating for taking police resources for other uses. 

“I don’t support taking away resources from police and putting communities in harm’s way,” she said, seemingly reversing her earlier position as she repeatedly said she supported Biden’s push to increase funding to police departments.

But Utah GOP Sen. Mike Lee pushed Clarke hard on that piece, pointing out that at multiple points in the op-ed, she’d written, “We must invest less in police.”

Arkansas GOP Sen. Tom Cotton took a different approach, asking Clarke pointed questions about her comments criticizing the grand jury decision not to charge Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown and her initial claim that Jacob Blake was unarmed when he was shot by a white police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin last year (Blake had a knife but no gun).

“Based on your pattern of comments and jumping to conclusions without evidence every cop in America should be terrified that the Department of Justice is going to jump to a conclusion when they have to make a split-second decision to defend themselves,” Cotton said.

Grassley repeatedly pushed Clarke to say that she thought Republicans could vote against her without being racist and sexist, firing back against criticism that they’ve unfairly targeted Biden nominees that aren’t white men.

“So is it possible… for Republicans to oppose President Biden’s nominees on ideological grounds without being racist or sexist?” he asked Clarke.

Of course. But bad-faith distortions of a nominee’s record don’t help make the case.

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Daunte Wright Protesters Are Facing Militarized Cops

The area around a police precinct in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, became a war zone Tuesday night when National Guard troops and local cops rolled out their surplus military gear to subdue a small crowd of civil rights protesters.

Scenes of clashes captured on video by local activists and reporters were surreal: National Guard armored trucks traveling caravan-style, soldiers in camouflage firing “less-lethal” rounds through a chainlink fence, heavily-armed riot cops from neighboring agencies, Minnesota State troopers standing in formation, and clouds of tear gas engulfing an apartment complex. 

The protesters were demanding justice for Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man who was killed by police from Brooklyn Center police during a routine traffic stop on Sunday earlier this week. 

Though the scenes may have been  surreal, they were not unusual. America’s police departments, from big city agencies like the NYPD to small suburban precincts, have undergone creeping militarization over the last two decades, thanks to the 1033 Program. Once described as “Uncle Sam’s Goodwill Store,” the program has allowed billions of dollars worth of military equipment—including high-powered weapons, armored helicopters and other tactical gear— to be transferred to local cops. 

Brooklyn Park, a suburb near Brooklyn Center whose officers were present at the evening protests on Tuesday, has benefited significantly from that program. Since 1998, it’s received nearly $600,000 worth of surplus military gear from the federal government, including high-powered rifles, night-vision goggles, sniper scopes, and thermal imaging systems, according to a review of federal data by VICE News. They also received four “unmanned vehicles.” (A spokesperson for Brooklyn Park Police Department told VICE News that none of that equipment was used on Tuesday evening). 

A Marshall Project tally of 1033 Program recipients from 2014 identified Brooklyn Center as having received 14 rifles and an armored truck.  

Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department, which encompasses Minneapolis, also deployed to Brooklyn Center precinct. They appeared to bring an armored truck with them. It’s not clear where they got it and Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department did not respond to VICE News’ inquiry, but the same Marshall Project investigation noted that they received an armored truck prior to 2014.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota National Guard deployed around 500 members to the Twin Cities area on Tuesday. A deployment plan was already in place for the end of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the white Minneapolis police officer charged with the murder of  George Floyd after he knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes last summer, setting off widespread protests. But that deployment plan was accelerated following Wright’s death, KROC News reported.  

The militarization of America’s police departments and their crowd control tactics was thrust into the national spotlight in 2014, when police in Ferguson, Missouri, brought out tanks and other military equipment to quell protests after a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, a Black teenager. Those protests were part of the first wave of the modern Black Lives Matter movement. 

Amid widespread scrutiny of the 1033 Program that followed, former President Barack Obama signed an executive order limiting the initiative the following year. It  remained intact, but his restrictions meant that the some of the most hardcore military-grade items — armed helicopters, firearms with .50 caliber or higher, grenade launchers, tank-like vehicles, and so on — were no longer up for grabs for local cops. 

This was a major bone of contention for police unions, who put the reinstatement of the 1033 program at the top of their wishlist when Donald Trump took office. In the summer of 2017, he signed an order reinstating the program in full. Over the following three years, local law enforcement agencies obtained nearly half a billion dollars worth of surplus military gear via the 1033 program, a USA Today investigation found. 

The 1033 program remains in full swing. House Democrats wrote a letter last month urging President Joe Biden to limit the 1033 program by executive order. 

Last summer, Minneapolis became the epicenter of Black Lives Matter movement after Floyd’s death. Several buildings were burned down during the protests. With that memory so fresh, it’s clear that by bringing out armored trucks and other military-grade weapons, law enforcement is doubling down on efforts to contain uprisings triggered by Wright’s death. 

In anticipation of further unrest, city workers were photographed on Wednesday erecting concrete barricades and fencing around the home of former Brooklyn Center Officer Kim Potter, who killed Wright on Sunday. Potter has been charged with second-degree manslaughter, and resigned Tuesday, along with the Brooklyn Center police chief. 

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Cop Who Killed Ashli Babbitt During Capitol Riot Won’t Face Federal Charges

On the left, supporters of President Trump storm the United States Capitol building. On the right, a driver's license photo of Ashli Babbit.

On the left, supporters of President Trump storm the United States Capitol building. On the right, a driver’s license photo of Ashli Babbit. (Left, Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images) (Right, Maryland MVA/Courtesy of the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office via AP)

The Capitol police officer who shot and killed 35-year-old Ashli Babbitt during the January 6 insurrection probably didn’t break any laws, and as a result, won’t face federal charges, the Justice Department said Wednesday. 

Babbitt, a QAnon adherent and Stop the Steal devotee from the San Diego area, was shot once in the shoulder while attempting to climb through a broken window inside the Capitol after rioters had breached the building. The DOJ said in a statement that investigators from the Civil Rights Division found no evidence to indicate that the officer, who has never been identified, acted out of “fear, mistake, panic, misperception, negligence, or even poor judgement” when they shot Babbitt. The department also wrote that investigators couldn’t find any evidence to dispute the officer’s claim that he shot Babbitt to protect their life, or the lives of members of Congress who were in the process of being evacuated.

Babbitt and other rioters were attempting to gain access to a hallway outside the Speaker’s lobby on January 6. Members of Congress were close by, and police had piled up furniture to barricade a set of glass doors, but “members of the mob attempted to break through the doors by striking them and breaking the glass with their hands, flagpoles, helmets, and other objects,” the DOJ said. Eventually, the mob shattered the glass entryway, and three Capitol police officers who were stationed by the doors were “forced to evacuate.” Then, Babbitt tried to climb through the broken door. That’s when a Capitol police officer pulled out his gun and shot her.   

The moment Babbitt was shot was captured in graphic video by several rioters at the scene. The Capitol police emergency response team made their way through the hallway and reached Babbitt, put her on a stretcher and carried her outside to an ambulance that was waiting nearby. She later died at the Washington Hospital Center. 

Babbitt was one of five people who died as a result of the violence at  the Capitol that day. Another woman Roseanne Boyland, also a QAnon devotee, died of an amphetamine overdose during the riot (initial reports stated that she had been trampled to death). One police officer, Brian Sicknick, died after he was sprayed with chemical substances by rioters, though investigators are still working to determine the cause of death. 

It didn’t take long for Babbitt to be turned into a martyr by hardcore Trum supporters and far-right extremists. On 4chan, they came up with a flag to symbolize Babbitt — showing the outline of a woman standing in front of the Capitol, with a drop of blood. QAnon conspiracy theorists, including pro-Trump attorney Lin Wood, have meanwhile falsely claimed that the shooting of Babbitt was a “false flag” and that she is still alive. 

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Defense Called Witness Being Sued Over Black Teen’s Death

Dr. David Fowler testifies Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Dr. David Fowler testifies Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Court TV via AP, Pool)

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Derek Chauvin’s defense just called an expert witness who’s being sued by the family of a 19-year-old Black man who died under the weight of several cops, just as George Floyd did.

On Wednesday, the 13th day of Chauvin’s murder trial, defense attorney Eric Nelson called Dr. David Fowler, a career forensic pathologist who served as Maryland’s chief medical examiner between 2002 and 2019, took the stand for the defense. In 2018, Fowler ruled that the death of Anton Black, who died after being handcuffed and having his legs and body restrained by multiple cops in Greensboro, Maryland, was accidental, as first reported by The Intercept

No officers were charged in Black’s death. In December of 2020, his family sued Fowler and 13 other parties, for wrongful death and civil rights violations.

One day in September 2018, Black was experiencing a mental health crisis while walking with his 12-year-old cousin. When a white couple noticed Black roughing up his cousin, they called police at the boy’s request.

When police found Black near his home, four different officers handcuffed him and used their weight to restrain the distressed man facedown on the ground as his mother watched. After three minutes, Black used his final words to tell his mother “I love you” before being declared dead soon after.

The lawsuit notes that Black died in a “chillingly similar manner,” to Floyd, who died while being arrested for using a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store in South Minneapolis. Like Floyd, Black was unarmed, cried out for his mother in his final moments, and verbalized to police that he couldn’t breathe.

In his autopsy, however, Fowler determined the death was likely the result of the stress-induced during his struggle with police, combined with underlying bipolar diagnosis and heart issues.

While on the stand in Hennepin County Court in downtown Minneapolis Wednesday, Fowler would echo much of his findings when discussing Floyd’s death. 

“In my opinion, Mr. Floyd had a sudden cardiac arrhythmia due to his atherosclerotic and hypertensive heart disease, you can write that down multiple different ways, during his restraint and subdual by police,” he said. 

Fowler said that from his analysis, Floyd’s pre-existing health issues, including an enlarged heart and hypertension, as well as his prior use of methamphetamine and fentanyl, that likely caused the narrowing of his blood vessels and ultimately, his death. He also testified that carbon monoxide emissions from the vehicle near Floyd at the time of his arrest played a significant role in his death.

Fowler’s testimony aligned perfectly with what the defense said during opening statements: that Chauvin placing a knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, which set off months of international protests against police brutality,  did not cause Floyd’s death in police custody.

Fowler’s theory goes against the findings of Floyd’s autopsy, which ruled his death a homicide—meaning at the hands of someone else—by asphyxiation. The report included his heart disease and the 11 nanograms of fentanyl in his system but specifically noted the drugs did not cause his death. Medical experts who testified for the prosecution also refuted that his pre-existing conditions or an overdose killed him. 

Fowler also helped the defense argue that the National Association of Medical Examiners may consider deaths due to positional restraints induced by law enforcement as “homicide,” that doesn’t necessarily mean murder. Citing the association’s 2002 guide for manner of death, he argued that homicide is a neutral term that should have no ramifications in court.

“The manners of death are virtually unique to the United States Of America,” he said. “These were put on death certificates by the Center for Disease Control in order to gather information on how Americans die for epidemiology purposes and to study and try to prevent deaths. They are not meant to usurp any kind of legal process. In fact, in many circumstances, regardless of what the medical examiner puts on a death certificate in the way of manner, the legal system can and will act in a completely independent and different format.”

Between 2013 and 2019, 30 percent of police-involved deaths reviewed by Maryland’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner were ruled accidents, undetermined, or because of natural causes, according to state data analyzed by The Intercept.

Despite his legal problems, Fowler, a 1983 graduate from the University of Cape Town, has been the defense’s most prominent witness in the case so far. He spent more than three hours on the stand Wednesday, when just a day earlier, many defense witnesses seemed to bolster the state’s arguments against Chauvin

When reached for comment, an associate of Fowler told the Washington Post that the former medical examiner wouldn’t be commenting on the pending litigation in Maryland due to his involvement in the Chauvin trial.

Chauvin is charged with second- and third-degree murder as well as second-degree manslaughter. He faces up to 65 years in prison if convicted.

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Kim Potter Is Already Getting Charged With Manslaughter

Officer Kim Potter.

Officer Kim Potter. (Photo by Bruce Bisping/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

The Minnesota cop who fatally shot Daunte Wright will face a second-degree manslaughter charge, according to several news outlets.

Pete Orput, the prosecutor for Washington County, told the New York Times that the manslaughter charge will be filed Wednesday against Kim Potter, who resigned from the Brooklyn Center Police Department in the wake of shooting the 20-year-old Black man. Police have said that based on bodycam footage, it appears she mistook her firearm for a Taser, and shot Wright during a traffic stop. 

The Washington County Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment. But agents with the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension said they arrested Potter Wednesday morning in St. Paul.

Potter will be booked into the Hennepin County Jail, according to a press release from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

The second-degree manslaughter charge comes just three days after the fatal shooting, and will reportedly be lodged in Hennepin County, where ex-Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin is also currently on trial for charges of third-degree murder, second-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter in the killing of George Floyd. Police have traditionally avoided criminal charges after killings in the line of duty. In Hennepin County, no one was charged in 42 police shootings between 2000 and 2016, a local TV station reported.

Potter resigned from the police force on Tuesday, along with Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon. Her attorney, Earl Gray, did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment. (Gray is also representing Thomas Lane, another ex-Minneapolis police officer charged in Floyd’s death.) 

Wright died of a gunshot wound to the chest after cops said they pulled him over for expired registration tags, and learned he also had a warrant out for his arrest. Wright was shot after he tried to get back in his vehicle.

Before shooting him, Potter shouted “Taser,” according to body camera footage. She then said: “Holy shit, I just shot him.”

Brooklyn Center, a suburb of Minneapolis, erupted into protest following Wright’s death. Authorities arrested at least 79 people during demonstrations Tuesday night, according to KARE, a local NBC affiliate. 

Photos posted to Twitter on Wednesday by a New York Times reporter appeared to show that city workers have fortified Potter’s home with cement barriers and fencing. 

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Kenosha Cop Who Shot Him 7 Times Is Back on the Job

The Kenosha, Wisconsin, cop who shot at Jacob Blake seven times last August, paralyzing the Black man from the waist down, is back on the job after it was apparently determined he didn’t do anything wrong— “the only lawful and appropriate decision,” according to his boss.

“He acted within the law and was consistent with training,” Kenosha Police Chief Daniel Miskinis said of Officer Rusten Sheskey, who is white, in a statement posted to Twitter Tuesday.

The decision to let Sheskey return to work without any disciplinary action has infuriated some, especially amid the rash of police violence that continues to prompt demonstrations in cities like Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, Washington, D.C., and New York City. 

Officers were attempting to arrest Blake for an outstanding warrant last August when a pocketknife fell out of his pants, according to the Associated Press. The 29-year-old picked up the knife and was heading back to an SUV when Sheskey shot him. 

Sheskey, who said he feared for his life, was not charged with any wrongdoing over the encounter, which triggered protests across the city after it was captured on bystander video. 

Blake has said he was ready to surrender once he put the knife in the vehicle; his young children were inside. 

“We are outraged as a family, as a community,” Justin Blake, Jacob Blake’s uncle, told WDJT, a local CBS affiliate, after it was revealed that Sheskey was off administrative leave. 

“You think it’s okay to put a police officer back in harm’s way of our children, of our seniors, it’s unconscionable.”

One of Blake’s attorneys, Patrick Salvi Jr., told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he was also surprised by the decision. Blake sued Sheskey over allegations of excessive force last month.

“How can anyone say this is a desired result for a police encounter?” Salvi said. 

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin, called the announcement “a failure of our justice system.” 

“This officer should not have a job, he should be facing a trial,” Pocan said in a Twitter post. “The Blake family deserves better than this, they deserve justice.”

It’s unclear what exactly Sheskey’s duties will entail now that he’s back to work. The Kenosha Police Department did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment.

Miskinis said in a statement about Sheskey’s return to the force that the shooting was reviewed internally, in addition to reviews from an outside agency, an “independent expert,” and the Kenosha County District Attorney.

“Although this incident has been reviewed on multiple levels, I know that some will not be pleased with the outcome,” Miskinis said. “However, given the facts, the only lawful and appropriate decision was made.” 

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Anti-Vax Activists Are Quietly Bending State Politics To Their Will

South Carolina State Representative Bill Chumley was feeling vindicated. His many suspicions about COVID-19 vaccines, he told VICE News, appeared to have been justified. 

“I called my doctor early this morning,” Chumley said, after the news broke that the FDA has paused use of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine over reports of six patients developing rare and serious blood clots two weeks after getting the vaccine. “His comment was that he’s more convinced than ever.”

So is Chumley. That’s why, on March 2, he was one of the sponsors of South Carolina’s “Vaccine Bill of Rights,” a resolution stuffed with misinformation and conspiratorial language based on model legislation from a medical fringe group that’s become notorious in recent months. 

Legislators in at least five states, VICE News has found, have introduced a so-called “Vaccine Bill of Rights.” The text of these bills is strikingly similar for a reason: They’re all based on a document released in January by a group called America’s Frontline Doctors (AFLD), a pseudo-medical collection of physicians and not-at-all-physicians devoted to spreading the worst possible information about COVID. Resolutions using language similar or identical to the group’s have been proposed by Republican lawmakers in Wyoming (as first reported by the Powell Tribune), Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota, and South Carolina, according to a review conducted by VICE News. 

These resolutions are also feeding into the recent debate around “vaccine passports,” a still-theoretical construct related to the idea that the country should develop a standardized way for people to prove they’ve been vaccinated against the novel coronavirus. Republican lawmakers are treating it as a clear and present danger; some, like Marjorie Taylor Greene, have used baldly conspiratorial langage comparing vaccine passports to the Biblical Mark of the Beast. In several proposed “Bill of Rights” resolutions, there’s language that explicitly seeks to bar vaccine passports, saying that “such required documentation pose[s] substantial risks to personal privacy and equal treatment before the law for all citizens.” 

The text of many of these proposed pieces of legislation also says that employers should be prohibited from mandating vaccines for any of their employees, making no exception for those who work in a hospital setting; that employers should be forbidden from asking doctors and nurses to “promote” the COVID-19 vaccine; and that school districts should be forbidden from mandating vaccines as a condition of returning to in-person instruction without massive exemptions that would shred them into Swiss cheese. Some of them also make much darker claims about COVID vaccines, calling them “experimental” and implying that it would be a violation of the Nuremberg laws to require anyone to take them.

Chumley, one of the co-sponsors of the South Carolina version of the legislation, is skeptical of all three COVID vaccines currently being administered in the United States, which are believed to be overwhelmingly safe and effective by public health authorities nationally; by the European Medicines Agency, Europe’s largest public health body; and by the World Health Organization. Chumley is also dubious about the well-established fact that wearing masks prevents the spread of coronavirus. He doesn’t wear one personally, he told VICE News, although, he said, “I do if someone asks me to, if I’m in an area where someone is not comfortable.” 

His doctors are critical of vaccines too, he said—both his personal family physician and two other doctors who work on a committee that advises him on medical affairs. Chumley said he believes his doctor belongs to the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons, a controversial group that’s been skeptical of vaccines for years. “All three of them are in total agreement on the dangers of the vaccine,” he said. He is determined to make sure that no one is forced to take a vaccine in the state of South Carolina.

“To me it’s a freedom issue,” he said. “When is the last time that you’ve seen everybody being—I don’t want to say coerced or forced—encouraged to take a vaccine? It’s not—my problem with it is the FDA hasn’t recognized it and the manufacturers are not liable. There haven’t been a lot of tests made. All that being said, my point and my reason for doing this is a freedom issue. People ought to be able to do their own research without being penalized.” (The FDA granted an Emergency Use Authorization for all three vaccines, and vaccine manufacturers can be sued in a federal no-fault court system, a system anti-vaccine groups have spent years lobbying against.)

“To me, it’s a freedom issue.”

Chumley and the other state legislators promoting Vaccine Bills of Rights are just one piece in a large mosaic of vaccine paranoia that is playing out on the state level. In a separate but spiritually similar bill, 16 House Republicans in the Ohio Legislature are seeking to ban “discrimination,” as they called it, against unvaccinated people. And many of these lawmakers aren’t doing it on their own: During the pandemic and the rollout of the COVID vaccines, anti-vaccine activists have made other sorts of alarming progress in their project of bending state politics to their will. 

Major anti-vaccine figures like Del Bigtree, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Judy Mikovits—the star of the conspiracy-addled purported documentary Plandemic—have spent the pandemic speaking to state legislators and local groups, trying their hardest to remake the country’s COVID policies to their liking by peddling fear and pseudoscience in equal measure. (Mikovits even claimed that while flying from one event to another, she was arrested for refusing to wear what she called a “toxic paper mask,” and promised to sue the airline involved.)  

More and more, these activists are finding willing lawmakers to join them on what they believe are the front lines. Some of them, like Chumley, say they don’t work with organized anti-vaccine groups; others attend their meetings and take their talking points from those groups in more direct ways.  

For his part, Chumley said there are four bills in the South Carolina General Assembly, all taking aim at COVID vaccines in different ways. “We have four bills and resolutions on this and they’re all going in different directions,” he said. How they turn out, he added, “remains to be seen.” 

America’s Frontline Doctors first garnered public attention when Dr. Stella Immanuel gave a resoundingly bizarre and irresponsible speech at one of its first public press conferences. Immanuel, a Texas physician and pastor, claimed that no one needs to use a face mask and instead promoted hydroxychloroquine, a debunked COVID cure also promoted by Donald Trump; the Daily Beast later reported that Immanuel had a history of claiming that other medical issues were caused by, variously, demon sperm and alien DNA. (“Demons are sleeping with people,” she insisted, in a followup interview with NBC’s Houston affiliate KRPC.) 

Meanwhile, AFLD’s founder, Dr. Simone Gold, was arrested after a video showed her entering the Capitol during the insurrection on January 6, and faces charges of entering a restricted building, violent entry and disorderly conduct. In a speech outside the White House early that day, she referred to the COVID vaccine as “an experimental biological agent deceptively named a vaccine,” the Intercept reported. The Intercept also reported that in an address at a COVID-denialist church in Tampa Bay, Florida early in January, she told the audience, “Always use the word ‘experiment’ when you talk about this. Always. The socialists win the language wars.” (America’s Frontline Doctors didn’t respond to a request for comment from VICE News prior to publication.) 

None of the legislation based on AFLD’s Bill of Rights has passed so far, and resolutions wouldn’t necessarily be legally binding. It’s also—to put it lightly—unclear how any of these bills square with Jacobson v. Massachusetts, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that affirmed that states can require residents to be vaccinated, which quite clearly means that public employers can make a vaccine mandatory for their employees. And private employers likely can too: The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission confirmed in December that requiring a mandatory vaccine isn’t a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, though there still may be other reasons to give exemptions, including for religious beliefs or due to medical issues. 

All this aside, the text of the model legislation written by AFLD is a clear expression of what anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine groups—and their allies in state politics—are promoting, successfully, to the public. It implies that the coronavirus is a far lesser threat than government overreach, and that “dangerous” or “rushed” vaccines against COVID are soon to be forced into the unwilling arms of the public—a prediction the anti-vaccine movement has been falsely making for years about other vaccines. It also strongly suggests that the people are, as the text puts it, in danger of being “mandated, coerced, forced or pressured” to get vaccinated.

It implies that the coronavirus is a far lesser threat than government overreach, and that “dangerous” or “rushed” vaccines against COVID are soon to be forced into the unwilling arms of the public—a prediction the anti-vaccine movement has been falsely making for years about other vaccines.

On a more granular level, AFLD’s model legislation also makes a number of other bizarre and misleading claims. It states that “no COVID vaccine is FDA-approved but some are authorized under a temporary Emergency Use Authorization as experimental (investigational) agents only.” While true, this would suggest to a layperson that the vaccines being given to the public don’t have a track record of safety; in fact, EUAs are weighed carefully before being granted in emergency situations. Respected independent public health bodies like Johns Hopkins have said they’re confident the current vaccines have “a very good safety profile” and that no safety steps were skipped before they were made available to the public. (The EUA, as an aside, also means that even the Pentagon cannot make the COVID vaccines mandatory. In at least one branch of the military, vaccine hesitancy seems high: A recent CNN report found that more than 40% of U.S. Marines have declined the shot.) 

AFLD’s proposed Bill of Rights also claims that it is “neither feasible nor safe to administer experimental vaccines to many groups of patients, such as persons with post-natural infections, waning titers, allergic reactions, as well as childbearing women, etc.”—a statement stuffed with misinformation. Having had a “natural infection” (having, in other words, gotten COVID before) doesn’t make it unsafe to get vaccinated, nor does being a “childbearing woman.” Neither does having “waning titers,” something that’s put in the model bill text with zero explanation, and which made it into the South Carolina version verbatim. (After vaccination, as after a COVID infection, the body produces an antibody response; scientists are still studying how quickly neutralizing antibody titers, which means the amount of antibody concentrated in the blood, fade in people who had severe versus mild COVID cases. Any reasonable person would conclude that “waning titers” would be a good reason to get a vaccination, not one to avoid it, but that’s not the realm this text inhabits.) 

The text of the Bill of Rights is, on top of all of this, focused on making sure people don’t have to show proof of vaccination to enter large gatherings like stadium sports events or concerts. One clause reads “out of state vendors including Ticketmaster, cannot require venue operators and organizers to mandate proof of vaccination from concertgoers and other paying customers before freely entering a venue on private or public property.” In other words, the goal is to make sure that those mounting large events—one of the riskiest possible things to do during a pandemic—should be able to proceed without organizers being able to ask that attendees be vaccinated first. 

While AFLD’s seemingly sudden influence on state politics is deeply odd, an alliance between fringe groups and state-level politicians has been a long time in the making. And some of these legislators haven’t been shy about making their suspicions known, loudly. 

“How do we really know what is in these vaccines?” Ohio State Rep. Nino Vitale asked on the platform in September. “Do you trust the government and big pharma to have your best interest in mind, or is this a scheme to line their pockets with money, or worse, create serious health problems or death?” 

In a months-long blizzard of conspiratorial posts and homemade memes, Vitale—a member, despite his anti-government rhetoric, of the Ohio House since 2015—has made it clear that he believes, wrongly, that vaccines are dangerous. The pandemic has weighed heavily on him, continually bringing him to new heights of disgust and outrage over the basic public health measures his fellow elected officials have enacted. On the Fourth of July, he wrote disgustedly that people who refused to wear masks were subjected to social disapproval. “The hatred unleashed on our fellow citizens for what someone ‘thinks’ someone else should wear on their face is astounding,” he thundered. “The real disease is the sickness in the social fabric of our society.” In April of last year, talking to one of Ohio’s two anti-vaccine groups, he also theorized that Bill Gates had either created COVID-19 or was “in on it,” adding, not very convincingly, “I hope no one’s that evil.” In his Independence Day post, he also warned, darkly, that soon “forced” vaccinations would be upon us.  

Vitale isn’t alone in promoting conspiratorial talking points at work and online. His fellow Ohio State Representative Diane Grendell claimed in a state Senate committee hearing that the data coming out of Ohio’s health department regarding COVID-19 infections “has been corrupted,” claiming she’d learned the dastardly fact from sources she refused to disclose. In April, as Ohio experienced another surge in infection rates driven in part by new variants of COVID-19 circulating in the state, Grendell was on Facebook linking to an article from the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation casting doubt on the efficacy of mask mandates. “Some interesting reading,” she wrote. Grendell previously praised the Amish in Ohio for not wearing masks, saying in a public hearing, “The Amish in our community … they don’t wear masks,” she continued. “They refuse to because they believe in God, they have that faith in God. Initially, I think seven Amish died. And many of them were older and they have … other problems. But now they don’t have it anymore. They’ve culled the herd, so to speak.” (Amish communities across the U.S. have been impacted by COVID-19, as well as medical misinformation about the pandemic. Mask-wearing is not uniform among Amish communities, but it is true some  are hesitant to do so.) 

In Minnesota, the so-called “Vaccine Safety Council of Minnesota,” a group uniformly critical of vaccines, announced that the “Bill of Rights” would be introduced before it was, indicating they’d heard from the lawmaker who sponsored it. That lawmaker, Republican Representative Glenn Gruenhagen, shared an article on Facebook in June from the ultra-conservative Liberty Counsel claiming that COVID vaccines in trial at the time were using “aborted baby cell lines,” suggested that Bill Gates “wants to reduce the world’s population by 15%,” and that that fact was somehow connected to his funding of vaccine research, and claimed that the vaccines also carried “the added health risk of injecting a foreign DNA into your body.” (Fetal cell lines were used in COVID vaccine research, but none of the vaccines contain fetal cells. Gates’ commentary on slowing population growth worldwide has been twisted by vaccine opponents into a false claim that he was saying vaccines need to be used to kill people. Vaccines will not alter your DNA.

Vitale, Grendell, Gruenhagen and other newly passionate anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown politicians aren’t coming to this risible rhetoric all on their own. They’ve been goaded along by anti-vaccine groups, which are more focused than ever on wooing state politicians and local groups. There are extremely clear signs it’s working, particularly in Ohio: State Representative Scott Lipps, the chair of the state’s House Health Committee, met with the anti-vaccine group Health Freedom Ohio in April, telling them he’d need their help. 

Newly passionate anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown politicians aren’t coming to this rhetoric all on their own. They’ve been goaded along by anti-vaccine groups, which are more focused than ever on wooing state politicians and local groups.

“I need help with members of the health committee, because we’re going to face a couple huge bills that are gonna matter,” he said on a Zoom call with HFO’s members. “We’re gonna face a couple bills that this group does not like. And I have to have energy to stop this vaccine shit that’s coming.” Despite those comments, Lipps was allowed to keep his position as chair of the committee. (Lipps also publicly shared when he got his first vaccination shot in late March, writing on Facebook, “I do not believe in mandatory vaccines in ANY situation and will fight for medical freedom and personal choice. Many of you that know me, are aware I have dealt with some personal health struggles and live with some pre-existing conditions. With that, and strong input from my family, I made the decision to get the COVID-19 vaccine.”) 

While they’ve spoken to state groups in the past, the pandemic has given new urgency to the messages of distrust these figures are trying to promote—and a new way for attendees to register their defiance, just by showing up. Some of these conferences have been held in person, with no requirements to social distance or any other attempts to keep people from getting or spreading COVID. Texans for Vaccine Choice held a “fall freedom festival” in October, to which attendees were urged to bring their kids; it featured speeches from Del Bigtree and pediatrician Bob Sears, a prominent figure amog anti-vaccine parents who was disciplined in 2018 and 2019 by the Medical Board of California for providing medical exemptions for vaccines to children who the Board said didn’t legally qualify for them. 

“There’s a lot of really bad warning signs” about the COVID vaccines, Kennedy said in May of 2020, speaking over Zoom to the members of the anti-vaccine group Health Freedom Ohio. He was there to throw his support behind HB 268, a bill which would have prohibited employers from taking “adverse action” against someone for not being vaccinated. “Let’s get this legislation passed in Ohio and make Ohio a template that we can point to in the rest of the country. Let me know how I can help.” He paused, impishly. “Where are your masks?” he asked some of the audience members, grinning. “Just kidding!”  

HB 268 failed to pass, but Health Freedom Ohio and Kennedy pressed on. In January of this year, he was in the state for the group’s annual symposium along with Mikovits and Andrew Wakefield, the father of the modern anti-vaccine movement. All of them spoke in front of a roaring, maskless crowd, who gave Wakefield a standing ovation after he insisted that the current vaccines will only serve to create ‘new strains’ of the virus. “We face an industry that will exploit this situation,” Wakefield said. “That’s where we’re headed.”

In truth, Wakefield was correct, and an industry is trying to exploit the pandemic: It’s the industrious anti-vaccine lobby.

“When the pandemic hit, they became even more effective,” said Sarah Barry, an independent pro-vaccine activist who’s been keeping an eye on anti-vaccine groups in Ohio, where she lives. “This might be due in part to the fact that they were finally paying for a lobbyist who could do even more than them, but also because they felt like they had to put a stop to the ‘tyranny’ of Mike DeWine.” The pandemic, among other things, allowed anti-vax groups to join forces with other groups who felt oppressed by public health measures seeking to stop the spread of COVID. She’s found that at least five state legislators have done presentations or “town halls” with the state’s two leading anti-vaccine organizations, and more recently has seen them making alliances with other groups. 

“When the pandemic hit, they became even more effective.”

“As protests against DeWine’s orders started at the statehouse, the anti-vax groups joined and began to network with other fringe causes and their ranks grew,” Barry said. “I started to notice that a lot of people at the protests (including of course the anti-vaxxers) were hosting somewhat regular gatherings at Blystone Farm in Ohio to coordinate strategy.” 

And it’s not just Ohio. In September, Oklahoma State Representative Sean Roberts, the chair of the House of Representatives’ public health committee, invited two anti-vax doctors to speak at a hearing on the state response to the pandemic. The pair inveighed against mask-wearing and claimed people of color were at higher risk for COVID due to their melanin, both nonsensical claims. In October, Chris Kapenga, a Republican State Senator in Wisconsin, questioned the efficacy of masks and hospitalization numbers.

In the same vein, both anti-vaccine groups and their allies in state government are promoting paranoia about vaccine passports. Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis both recently signed executive orders against them, and several bullet points in AFDL’s proposed Bill of Rights are clearly aimed at them. 

“It’s a savvy political issue,” Ann Lewandowski says. She’s the executive director of the Wisconsin Immunization Neighborhood, a grassroots group in Wisconsin. She says the major anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown group in her state has been, as she puts it, “very successful in becoming part of what I would call the new standard Republican platform.” That represents a major issue for the basic problem of getting the pandemic under control, she said. 

“What has happened is that it’s become so entrenched and part of people’s identity that it’s going to be overwhelming,” she said. “In Wisconsin we have a 2:1 ratio of Republicans to Democrats. So in a situation where the Republicans have embraced this as a part of their ideology there’s no way for us to win. It’s going to be really problematic. We have a situation where people are going to decline to be vaccinated and that poses a serious biosecurity risk for everyone.” She’s particularly worried about rise in worrisome COVID variants, she said: “If we start getting into reinfections, we need a new vaccine and then we have to go through all of this all over again.”

“Honestly,” she said, “I’m worried for our communities.”

The Bill of Rights push is only one of many recent examples of state representatives across the country promoting anti-vaccine views in response to the pandemic. Earlier this month, grassroots organizers in Texas watched in alarm as lawmakers on the state’s Senate Committee on Health & Human Services had a warm exchange with Bigtree, who recently moved to the state and is the CEO of the Informed Consent Action Network, which seeks to cast doubt on the “scientific integrity” of vaccines. 

Bigtree was testifying in favor of an “informed consent” bill introduced by State Senator Bob Hall that would require patients or their parents to be given a list of the “excipient” ingredients in a vaccine, meaning things like stabilizers. The Texas Medical Association has denounced the bill as a clear scare tactic, designed to discourage people from vaccinating themselves or their children by giving them a long list of ingredients that a layperson might find confusing and therefore frightening. (Misleadingly named “informed consent” laws have also been used as a barrier to abortion access.)  Austin pediatrician Marjan Linnell told the committee “A list of highly technical, chemical compounds that may be used to help prevent bacterial contamination of the vaccine or that work as a stabilizer to protect the vaccine from heat or light is confusing. This information does not contribute to patients’ and parents’ understanding of the risks and benefits of vaccinations, and may sow doubt about the efficacy and safety of vaccines by complicating patient understanding.”

Bigtree, meanwhile, insisted in his testimony that the bill would discourage “anti-vaxxers,” a category he claimed he is not a part of. “I’ve never met a doctor that can list all the ingredients in vaccines,” he said. “Or tell us which ones have mercury, those types of things. In a world where we have such vaccine hesitancy—it’s probably one of the growing problems in this world as we speak—certainly holding back information is just playing into the hands of the anti-vaxxers.” (Vaccines do not contain mercury; Bigtree was repeating a common and oft-debunked anti-vaccine talking point.)

“Mr. Bigtree, what you’re saying is you’re not an anti-vaxxer, you’re just an information gatherer?” asked the chair of the committee, Republican State Representative Lois Kolkhurst. (Bigtree’s entire public profile is centered around opposition to vaccines, and he has previously, explicitly, in the hearing of this reporter, referred to himself as an “anti-vaxxer.”)

Bigtree warmly agreed that he was just gathering information; another committee member then praised the bill for creating transparency. Kolkhurst, who did not wear a mask throughout the duration of the hearing, has previously been critical of lockdown measures, writing on Facebook in September, “This pandemic has eagerly been used by some as a way to ‘reset’ and ‘reimagine’ our society or inflict unnecessary pain to impact a November election. The restrictions of the several months are perhaps the most devastating policy initiatives in our lifetime.” 

The interaction was part of a disturbing trend for pro-immunization groups in the state, said Lacy Waller. She’s an organizer with Immune Texas, a grassroots vaccine advocacy group that works throughout the state. “He co-opted pro vaccine language,” she said, to give cover to extreme ideas. Texas has seen that in the past, she said, often around anti-abortion bills, “but we’ve never seen the responsiveness of lawmakers” like this.

“Vaccines and immunization ,we’ve worked hard to keep it a bipartisan issue in Texas,” she said. Texas lawmakers have long prided themselves on being “congenial” even on hot-button issues, she said. But this time, witnesses testifying against the bill were treated with barely disguised contempt, both during their testimony and when they called legislators’ offices to register their objection. “We’ve never seen this level of disrespect, or accommodation towards the anti-vax side,” she said.

The anti-vaccine activists continue to make the rounds: Bigtree is set to appear at VaxCon, an event in Wisconsin later this month sponsored by the state’s chiropractic association, virtually at the same moment that Andrew Wakefield is set to be a speaker at the so-called Health & Freedom conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Another featured speaker at that conference is ardently pro-Trump and pro-QAnon lawyer Lin Wood, which is not surprising; vaccine conspiracy theorists have also spent considerable time during the pandemic creating alliances with the far right.

Bigtree, Plandemic director Mikki Willis and anti-vax social media personalities Ty and Charlene Bollinger all attended a MAGA Health Freedom Rally on January 6, down the street from Capitol. (Willis, in fact, came to the rally directly after he’d filmed himself entering the Capitol in a large crowd. He hasn’t been accused of any acts of violence or vandalism or charged with any crimes.) The vaccine opponents are also eager to show the world that they’re presenting a united front, producing a surreal video titled “Unity” earlier this year declaring their opposition to “the threat of being bullied into vaccination,” as Lyn Redwood, a past president and current board member of Children’s Health Defense, put it. 

In all, activists working to promote good information and trust in science are alarmed by the ways these new alliances seem to be gathering steam. 

“This has stretched us,” says Lacy Waller, the Texas grassroots pro-vaccine activist, referring to the current political, legislative and social climate. “It has politicized illness in a way we’ve never seen before. We’ve never seen this level of ugliness. I don’t know what else to call it.” 

Chumley, the legislator in South Carolina supporting a Vaccine Bill of Rights, said he remains “committed to freedom, liberty, justice.”

“People have the right to choose,” he said. “Sometimes you’re right, and sometimes you’re wrong.”