In late June, anti-vaccination groups planned to hold two events in New York, in the towns of Ghent and Akron. While the events don’t seem to be organized by the same people, and one has since been cancelled, they highlight an alignment between the anti-vaccination movement and a constellation of far-right organizations.
The first was to be held on June 19 in Ghent, a fundraising event featuring author Naomi Wolf, recently suspended from Twitter for spreading conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccinations. Although the event was cancelled “due to a scheduling conflict,” its organizer, Kathryn Levin, had promoted it with an intentional comparison to Juneteenth, the annual celebration of the emancipation of the final enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, suggesting that under temporary pandemic restrictions, “We have been enslaved by our government.” Wolf made a similar comment on YouTube this March, arguing, “Vaccine passports equal slavery forever.”
Levin and Wolf’s use of Juneteenth and slavery analogies is tied to a larger and more sinister trend of the anti-vaxx movement targeting people of color, particularly Black Americans, over the course of the pandemic. A 2020 report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, The Anti-Vaxx Playbook (pdf), shows the shared rhetorical structure, or “master narrative,” that anti-vaxxers and associated groups use to reach out to disparate communities. The report describes various anti-vaxx messaging strategies for communities of color, including using historical references to structural and medical racism, such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiments or “smallpox infested blankets”; downplaying the likelihood of transmission among communities of color; and conspiracy theories that the vaccine is designed to kill people—specifically people of color. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s new anti-vaxx propaganda film, Medical Racism: The New Apartheid, also explicitly targets Black Americans, tying the long history of racist medicine to both the current vaccine rollout and disproven claims about vaccines causing autism.
The anti-vaxxers often frame their work as a new front in the battle for civil rights, “one meant to stop experimentation on the Black community,” or as a parallel to resisting Nazi genocide. Anti-vaxxers have appropriated the legacy of the Nazi resistance organization White Rose, using the name of the long disbanded resistance movement in their messaging campaigns, on and off-line, and embedding its anti-fascist literature into their anti-public health, anti-science, and anti-government rhetoric. These efforts may be contributing to lower vaccination rates among African Americans.
The Anti-Vaccination Movement’s Enmeshment with Far-Right Militias
Several trends have aligned during the Trump years, heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic and associated public health restrictions. The Anti-Vaxx Playbook report documents an October 2020 conference organized by the prominent anti-vaccination group National Vaccine Information Center. Drawing heavily on remarks made by presenters both during their conference lectures and in private forums, the report demonstrated the ties between the highly profitable “alternative medicine” industry (including Joseph Mercola’s natural supplement empire), anti-vaxx nonprofits like Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense, QAnon and antisemitic conspiracism, and social media influencers.
These trends are building a new level of influence and interaction across and between these varied movements, sharing messaging, cross-promoting, and using each other’s audiences to target new recruits. Advocates for holistic or alternative medicine (such as Mercola supplements) frequently end up promoting vaccine skepticism. Those hawking multi-level marketing schemes overlap with proponents of evangelical homeschooling and anti-abortion activism. And all of the above have increasingly become entangled with the conspiracy theory-turned-mass delusion QAnon, with antisemitism at its core.
In Western New York, elements of these sectors have also become enmeshed with far-right militias who use anti-vaccine events to promote their ideology. One of the more prominent local militias, the New York Watchmen, expresses deep suspicion of the government and science and is intimately tied to the anti-vaccination ecosystem.
The Watchmen were founded in 2020 in explicit opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, claiming that they would protect private property and provide what they call “civil defense.” Like other far-right militias, they assert that the U.S. must return to a time of Anglo-Saxon legal principles, and refuse to condemn its history of chattel slavery. While they deny charges of racism and claim their brand of civic nationalism is opposed to ethnonationalism, they have exclusively targeted racial justice protests, some of their members participated in the January 6 insurrection, and have overlapping membership with the Proud Boys. An article in the Buffalo News exposed how former Trump administration official and long time Russian and Ukrainian hypeman, Michael Caputo, promoted its formation and its leader Charles Pellien.
The “Prophetic Freedom and Health Conference” on June 22-23 at a Buffalo exurb golf course illustrates the convergence of these varied groups within the anti-vaccination landscape. The conference’s speaker lineup includes a mix of anti-vaccination activists, holistic specialists, pastors, and a local politician. One of the holistic specialists is scheduled to give a talk entitled “Doctors Don’t Work.”
One featured speaker, Dr. Simone Gold, was arrested on January 18, 2021, for alleged “violent entry” of the U.S. Capitol on January 6. She founded America’s Frontline Doctors, a prominent anti-vaccine group that promotes fears about the COVID-19 vaccine. (In July 2020, as Mother Jones reported, Gold helped convene an anti-vaccination summit with Tea Party Patriots on the steps of the Supreme Court, including one speaker “who believes that some gynecological problems are caused by having sex with demons.”) At a pre-insurrection event in Tampa, Florida, this January, Gold called the vaccine an “experimental biological agent” and said, “They are making an overt and covert attempt to push [the vaccine] heavily on Blacks and browns.”
Another speaker, Nancie Orticelli is an ordained youth pastor at My Father’s House, a nondenominational Christian evangelical/Pentecostal/Charismatic church in Elma, New York, which her late father, Operation Rescue anti-abortion activist Fred Naedele, founded and where her mother Donna Naedele is now lead pastor. Orticelli is also president of the Constitutional Coalition of New York State, a far-right group focused on Second Amendment activism, opposition to vaccines, and 2020 election fraud claims, and which has an active advocacy and media presence in the area. Orticelli’s husband Nicholas works for private developer and former New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, who was denounced for racist comments he made about the Obamas in 2016. Nicholas Orticelli has a history of violence, including threatening a Buffalo radio host in early 2020, and allegedly assaulting anti-racist activists at Niagara Square last December.
While Nicholas Orticelli has never admitted membership in any militia groups, in May, he wrote on Facebook, “Join the Watchmen. If you’re interested even a bit, let me chaperone you as my guest to a Watchmen meeting this weekend.” And both Orticellis are leaders among the self-identified “Unified Patriot Groups,” which includes the Watchmen, the Constitutional Coalition, the Rolling Patriots, and Save Our Seniors. The groups’ overlapping memberships cover a range of anti-abortion, anti-mask/anti-vaxx, and White supremacist activists in the Buffalo area that have strong ties to local politicians.
Among them is Erie County comptroller Stefan Mychajliw, who is also Nancie Orticelli’s co-host for the conference. He has used his position to promote noncompliance with COVID precautions by claiming that his office has the sole authority to collect payments for these fines, and that he wouldn’t make violators pay for between 20 and 100 years, depending on the size of the fine. The Department of Health disagreed, and has continued to require payments be sent to its office. In response, Mychajliw has claimed that his office will issue refunds to anyone who does pay a DOH fine.
Other presenters at the conference include noted racist and anti-mask/anti-vaxxer Robby Dinero, a gym owner in Buffalo-area village Orchard Park whose November 2020 rally against health department regulations was promoted by insurrection planner Alex Jones and Donald Trump, Jr. Dinero has more recently crusaded against masking requirements in schools and the teaching of books like Of Mice and Men and The Hate U Give that illustrate racial inequity.
Other speakers, such as Katrina Galla-Allen, a licenced massage therapist and owner of the Buffalo Holistic Center, have no obvious ties to the United Patriot Groups. Allen promotes various forms of alternative medicine for health and wellness, including the multi-level marketing supplement lines It Works! and New U Life. Her presence at the conference demonstrates the broader communities the anti-vaccination movement is reaching in Western New York, as Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, explains.
In an email, Burghart described the “Prophetic Freedom and Health Conference” as “the latest attempt to cultivate symbiotic relationships between anti-vaxxers and far-right movements.” He said that participating in such conferences helps radicalize anti-vaxx activists “and [has] shifted many towards the Far Right ideologically.”
“Organizers of the Buffalo conference appear to be applying that symbiotic model to area militia, anti-abortion, and anti-vaxxer groups,” he continued. “This nascent effort should be the early warning sign of something far more troubling ahead on the Far Right in the post-pandemic world.”
With anti-vaccination movements courting communities of color on the one hand, and providing a platform for far-right organizing on the other, Western New York is bracing for a two-prong attack, yet many people still don’t know it’s coming.
Heidi I. Jones is an attorney, activist and researcher in Buffalo, NY.