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Anti-vaccine protests are the new MAGA rally
A Delusional 'Worldwide Rally For Freedom' in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Across the country, Trump supporters are still showing up at state capitols to spread conspiracy theories and demand the 2020 election results be overturned. Anti-vaccine protests are the new MAGA rally.

With a President despised by the right and little hope of reinstating the previous one, the Make America Great Again crowd has found a new reason to gather in public places with firearms and red baseball caps: to spread disinformation about everything from mask mandates and vaccine conspiracies to the threat of school boards indoctrinating children with “critical race theory.”

On September 9, more than 200 people gathered in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in front of the state’s capitol building to hear a series of people speak at the Worldwide Rally For Freedom 3.5. Among them was the creator of the event’s Facebook page, a gym owner wearing a shirt that read “Beware of the Alpha Variant,” and a woman that started a rightwing moms’ group.

The “Worldwide Rally” was spread across the country, with gatherings in at least three states. In the Telegram channel that members organized these rallies on, they described themselves as “Freedom fighters who decided to build a streamlined system for American citizens to easily connect with one another in an effort to battle tyrannical power & government overreach.”

Photo: Zach D. Roberts, © 2021

The participants of the Worldwide Rally for Freedom in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania were focused solely on their version of freedom and saw people wearing masks as “living in fear.” The sign above was not the only reference to Hitler.

Harrisburg is surrounded by conservative Trump country, with many far right extremist groups in the vicinity who often travel to the state capitol for rallies. This man here is a Three Percenter, which is an ideology that the Southern Poverty Law Center considers extremist. They’re usually also part of militias such as the Oathkeepers.

Photo: Zach D. Roberts, © 2021

The anti-vaxx crowd has come to embrace the pro-choice slogan “My Body, My Choice” without irony, especially as many of the crowd have expressed anti-choice opinions when it comes to reproductive rights.

Photo: Zach D. Roberts, © 2021

The “Appeal to Heaven” flag, which has its origins in the American Revolution, has come to take on a Christian nationalist meaning, and much like the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag is now nearly an exclusive rightwing extremist banner.

Photo: Zach D. Roberts, © 2021

On the East Coast, capital cities including Harrisburg and Richmond, Virginia, have become places where rally goers regularly show up with assault rifles and handguns. Militias, such as the Oathkeepers, and groups like the Proud Boys appear at gatherings on any right-of-center issue, including voting “integrity” and, of course, mask mandates and vaccines.

Photo: Zach D. Roberts, © 2021

The anger at Vice President Mike Pence was still palpable among some members of the crowd. This man told me that the former Vice President could have done something to at least “slow down” the process while they “figured something else out.”

Photo: Zach D. Roberts, © 2021

There are many elected politicians in Pennsylvania still fighting for an Arizona-style audit of the states’ 2020 election. This woman holds a sign popularized by the Stop the Steal movement, showing how the election-night numbers switched from a Trump lead to a Biden lead.

Photo: Zach D. Roberts, © 2021

The new cause célèbre of the right are often business owners who refused to shut down their businesses or allow masks in their stores. Ian Smith, pictured here, traveled from New Jersey to tell how he kept his gym open throughout the pandemic, even as he faced more than $100,000 in fines. He started a GoFundMe campaign that raised $500,000.

Photo: Zach D. Roberts, © 2021

One of the final speakers of the day was Steve Lynch, who is running for Northampton county executive on a platform of calling for an audit of the 2020 vote. He claimed that he is planning to take over school boards with “strong men,” a plan that was met with loud cheers. “Forget going into these school boards and bringing data, you go into these school boards to remove them,” he said. “That’s what you do. They don’t follow the law. . . . I’m going to speak in front of the school board and I’m going to give them an option. They can leave or they can be removed.”

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Zach D Roberts is an investigative photojournalist who covers far-right extremism, and voter suppression in America. He covered the Unite the Right Rally in Chalottesville and his work there helped put four white extremists in jail. He also co-produced Greg Palast's The Best Democracy Money Can Buy and is a Palast Investigative Fund Fellow.

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