The protest on Friday in Sacramento urging California’s governor to reopen the state resembled the rallies that have appeared elsewhere in the country, with crowds flocking to the state Capitol, pressing leaders to undo restrictions on businesses and daily life.
But the organisers were not militia members, restaurant owners or prominent conservative operatives. They were some of the loudest anti-vaccination activists in the country.
The people behind the rally are founders of a group, the Freedom Angels Foundation, which is best known in California for its opposition to state efforts to mandate vaccinations. And the protest was the latest example of the overlapping interests that have connected a range of groups — including Tea Party activists and armed militia groups — to oppose the measures that governors have taken to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
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Activists known for their opposition to vaccines have also been involved in protests in New York, Colorado and Texas, where they have found an audience for their arguments for personal freedom and their suspicion of government. But their growing presence at the protests worries public health experts who fear that their messaging could harm the United States’ ability to turn a corner following the pandemic if Americans do not accept a future vaccine.
“One of the things that we’re finding is that the rhetoric is pretty similar between the anti-vaxxers and those demanding to reopen,” said Dr Rupali Limaye, who studies behaviour around vaccines at Johns Hopkins University. “What we hear a lot of is ‘individual self-management’ — this idea that they should be in control of making decisions, that they can decide what science is correct and incorrect, and that they know what’s best for their child.”
Heidi Muñoz Gleisner, one of the three women who hosted the rally in Sacramento on Friday and were arrested by the police, said the stay-at-home orders that are expiring in many states had mobilised people who span a variety of groups focused on individual liberty.
“My hope and prayer is that all Americans stand up and take notice that they have to be actively engaged with their government,” Muñoz Gleisner said Saturday when she returned to the Capitol grounds to let her son play in the grass. “From day one, it’s been difficult that we’re always castigated as anti-vaccine, and these protests are castigated as anti-lockdown. We have always been about freedom.”
In recent years, Muñoz Gleisner and the two other founding members of the Freedom Angels, Denise Aguilar and Tara Thornton, have organised people in California and New Jersey against bills that crack down on residents who are exempt from vaccinations and the doctors who were granting the exemptions.
Many were galvanized by a 2015 fight over a state bill introduced in response to a measles outbreak at Disneyland.
The proposal dramatically tightened personal and religious exemptions for the vaccination of schoolchildren that had allowed a whole range of Californians to dodge those immunisations.
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