Federal officials to monitor Washington anti-vaccine-mandate rally for potential violence and extremist activity

·12 min read

Federal law enforcement in Washington, D.C., has been closely monitoring social media for signs of potential violence and extremist activity ahead of a widely publicized demonstration against vaccine mandates this weekend, according to documents obtained by Yahoo News.

“Defeat the Mandates: An American Homecoming” is being billed as a peaceful gathering to promote unity among people who oppose COVID-19 vaccine requirements implemented across the country in an effort to mitigate the impact of the ongoing pandemic. The event is scheduled to take place on the National Mall this Sunday, Jan. 23, beginning with a march from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, followed by a rally featuring speeches from several prominent anti-vaccine advocates, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose nonprofit advocacy organization, Children’s Health Defense, is one of the event’s sponsors.

According to a permit application submitted by Children’s Health Defense to the National Park Service last month, approximately 20,000 people are expected to attend the event.

Anti-vaccination buttons
Anti-vaccination buttons at a protest against the New York City COVID-19 vaccine mandate, October 2021. (Stephanie Keith/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Defeat the Mandates has attracted the attention of the Department of Homeland Security as well as the U.S. Capitol Police, both of which have circulated intelligence bulletins in recent days assessing the potential for violence stemming from Sunday’s march.

As of Friday, none of the reports obtained by Yahoo News concerning the event have cited evidence of specific or credible threats linked to it. However, as one recent assessment from the U.S. Capitol Police Intelligence and Interagency Coordination Division states, “Due to the heightened divisive atmosphere surrounding COVID-19 mandates and vaccinations, altercations or interpersonal violence cannot be ruled out.”

The unclassified Capitol Police report, which was produced on Jan. 14 and marked for official use only, raises concerns about a number of potential scenarios that could result in violence by those likely to be in attendance at Sunday’s march based on discussions of the event on social media.

In addition to organizations dedicated specifically to opposing COVID-19 regulations — including a group called New York Freedom Rally, which the report notes has been linked to violent or aggressive behavior at past protests — the Capitol Police bulletin notes that white nationalist and far-right extremist groups like the United Patriot Party and the Proud Boys, both of which were present at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, have also promoted the anti-mandate march on their social media channels and appear to be planning to bus members into Washington to participate in the event. Details about Sunday’s demonstration have also been shared on social media by local left-wing activist groups with histories of clashing with the Proud Boys and others on the far-right, raising the possibility of counterprotests “if they interpret actions from the Defeat the Mandate participants as antagonistic.” However, the Capitol Police report states, “At this time, no explicit calls for counterprotest activity were seen by either group.”

“This demonstration, as with most protest activity, is a soft target,” the Capitol Police bulletin warns, adding that “extremists have become more comfortable with violence as a means to achieve political goals. The threat of a lone wolf or smaller-scale attack on a soft target remains high.”

An anti-vax protester holds a sign
A protester at Boston City Hall, where Mayor Michelle Wu was holding a press conference on the city's response to the coronavirus pandemic, Dec. 20, 2021. (Pat Greenhouse/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

While the report states that “IICD and our intelligence partners have not identified any expressed active or credible threats of violence to the upcoming event or any intentions for participants or malicious actors to travel to U.S. Capitol Grounds,” it emphasized that “many threat actors have migrated communications to encrypted methods, making it difficult for law enforcement to detect and interrupt attack planning.”

The assessment goes on to say that “Although there are no plans for participants to visit the White House, should the group turn disruptive or violent, the White House may be a target as protesters see many of the vaccine and mask-wearing mandates as being commanded by the Biden Administration.” The Biden administration’s efforts to impose vaccine requirements for both government and private sector workers have faced tough legal challenges. Last week, the Supreme Court struck down the administration’s vaccine-or-test mandate for large private companies, and on Friday a federal judge in Texas blocked the administration from enforcing its vaccine mandate for federal workers.

Earlier this week, Defeat the Mandates issued a press release stating that over 6,000 federal workers were planning to join the march, along with firefighters and other first responders who oppose vaccine mandates. The press release, as well as other promotional materials shared on the Defeat the Mandates website and official social media pages, describe Sunday’s event as a “peaceful march” that they hope “will help bring about new federal, state, and local policies to eliminate the blatant discrimination and censorship” that they claim opponents of vaccine mandates are currently facing.

“We are keeping a close eye on the demonstration planned for the National Mall on January 23,” U.S. Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger said in a statement to Yahoo News. “I am confident in our preparation for this weekend.”

The U.S. Capitol
The Capitol surrounded by security barricades on Jan. 5. The barricades have been in place for over a year. (Susan Walsh/AP)

The Defeat the Mandates march is not the only potentially volatile high-profile event happening in Washington this weekend. On Friday, tens of thousands of anti-abortion advocates were expected to descend on the National Mall for the 49th annual March for Life.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis circulated multiple situational reports this week evaluating the potential for violence surrounding the March for Life and Defeat the Mandates, as well as another, unconfirmed Proud Boys event being discussed on social media. The DHS reports obtained by Yahoo News, which were marked unclassified, law enforcement sensitive and “for official use only,” include details about a number of security preparations in place ahead of this weekend’s events, including plans for multiple coordination calls between federal and local law enforcement partners leading up to and during the events.

“The events come during a time of heightened threat, and domestic violent extremists (DVEs) have used narratives associated with pro- and anti-abortion rights or perceived government overreach surrounding the COVID-19 mitigation efforts as justification to promote or commit violence,” reads a report issued by the DHS intelligence office on Jan. 19. The report also mentions concerns expressed by local authorities that Defeat the Mandates and the March for Life may attract counterprotesters, “which historically has led to violence at similar events,” but states that the DHS intelligence office “currently lacks information on specific or credible threats emanating from these events.”

Another report issued on Jan. 20 states that while the DHS intelligence office has seen “a limited amount of publicly available content” regarding both upcoming marches on social media forums and messaging platforms and channels popular among Domestic Violent Extremists, it has observed social media users not associated with a violent extremist ideology sharing links to event websites, discussing transportation to the Washington, D.C. area to participate in the marches and commenting on possible weather disruptions for this weekend.

According to the Jan. 20 DHS report, users discussing the Jan. 23 Defeat the Mandates march said they planned to attend because they “hate the biomedical security state”, and “we must stand up to these demonic tyrants” and complained that they could not find “any true patriots that’ll go to D.C. with me this weekend. Everyone is scared of going to the gulag.”

The report references comments made by one user who claimed they were “at J6,” in reference to the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, and advised attendees at the anti-mandate protest: “If shit gets weird...get weird back. Ain’t no reason to give anyone up to the DC mafia. I’d rather be called a terrorist than doing nothing.” According to the DHS Intelligence office, users in the Defeat the Mandate’s official public instant messaging channel chat claimed there are over 100,000 registered attendees for the event.

“The Department of Homeland Security does not have information indicating any specific, credible threats related to the events occurring tomorrow and this weekend in the National Capital Region,” a DHS spokesperson said in an emailed statement to Yahoo News. “However, as noted in the current National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) Bulletin, the United States is in a period of heightened threat. Domestic violent extremists (DVEs) and those inspired or motivated by foreign terrorists or other malign foreign influences continue to pose a threat to the homeland.”

Anti-vaxxers march to the Golden Gate Bridge
Anti-vaxxers march to the Golden Gate Bridge to protest mandates in San Francisco, Nov. 11, 2021. (Scott Strazzante/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Sunday’s protest against vaccine mandates comes one week after D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser issued a city-wide order requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination to enter restaurants, gyms and other indoor establishments. The Capitol Police and DHS documents obtained by Yahoo News point to concerns raised by some in Washington about the potential for altercations between anti-mandate protesters and local businesses owners enforcing the new vaccine requirement.

“We are worried that with the new vaccine mandate there is potential for violence or conflict,” a senior law enforcement official told Yahoo News. What will happen when they are asked to show their vaccine card? We just don’t know.”

The official said that D.C. Metropolitan Police officers are planning to be “out all around downtown” and would seek to “make sure they don’t cause trouble and to hopefully be a deterrent.”

In an emailed statement to Yahoo News, Brianna Burch, a public affairs specialist with the Metropolitan Police Department, confirmed that “MPD members will have a visible presence around the city during this time.”

In a statement to Yahoo News, Louisa Clary, director of the March to Defeat the Mandates, denounced “ALL organizations and individuals who would use this March as an opportunity to further their own agendas of extremism, intolerance and violence,” saying that the event’s organizers have hired private security contractors “who will work in concert with local and federal law enforcement” to ensure that the protest remains peaceful.

“In light of recent raised concerns we have increased our already comprehensive security measures,” Clary said in the statement, adding that, “Participants in the March are asked to please report any suspicious or threatening activity to law enforcement which will be on hand at the march.”

A press release issued Friday by Defeat the Mandates echoed Clary’s statement, and disputed suggestions that participants in the anti-mandate march were planning to enter local businesses to challenge the city’s new vaccine requirement, accusing their opponents of engaging in “disinformation campaigns that attempt to turn fiction into reality.”

Earlier statements from Defeat the Mandates organizers have publicly urged those participating in Sunday’s march “to be respectful to those affected local businesses, including dining establishments and hotels forced to operate under DC’s mandate.”

However, according to a report published Friday by NBC News, users on the event’s Facebook group “have spent the last week strategizing ways around Washington’s indoor vaccine mandate.”

In a separate statement provided to Yahoo News, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose well-funded anti-vaccine nonprofit is one of the sponsors of Sunday’s march, went even further, suggesting that any violence stemming from Sunday’s rally may be deliberately incited by the government.

“While coerced submission with experimental medical products is clearly government sponsored violence, the anti-mandates movement is committed to non-violent resistance,” said Kennedy. “In fact, there is a long history from Kristallnacht to Operation Northwoods, of totalitarian elements staging violent provocations as a pretext for escalating oppression against freedom movements like ours.”

While some of the march’s organizers have sought to frame the event’s agenda as anti-mandate, rather than anti-vaccine, Kennedy has emerged as one of the most influential creators of anti-vaccine content on social media, according to an analysis published last year by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, an advocacy organization aimed at combating vaccine misinformation.

Max Rizzuto, a research assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, pointed to the involvement of Kennedy and Children’s Health Defense in coordinating the march as evidence that “conspiracists will play a central role in the day’s proceedings.”

Rizzuto and his colleagues have been tracking discussions about Defeat the Mandates on social media and he told Yahoo News that the march has quickly become publicized to “a wide-ranging audience that includes followers of [Fox News host] Tucker Carlson, Joe Rogan,” who has promoted the event on his popular podcast, as well as “high profile medical professionals, political commentators, and anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists in a relatively short window of time.”

Still, while Rizzuto and his colleagues have “observed logistical conversations about lodging and travel that indicate at least some mobilization,” Rizzuto said “it remains unclear how many people will congregate on January 23 for the event” and what ideologies will be represented.

Jared Holt, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab who researches domestic extremist movements in the United States and how they use the internet, confirmed that the anti-mandate march is on the radar of at least some of the extremist groups he monitors and said “there is always a possibility that far-right groups may make a showing at this event.”

“Since the onset of the pandemic, far-right movements have sought to capitalize on broader resentment toward government measures taken against COVID-19 and to use it as a vehicle for pushing their presence and propaganda to larger audiences,” Holt told Yahoo News. However, he noted, “we have not found typical indicators that often preface the assembling of a large, violent crowd as we saw before events like the Capitol riot and will generally see before violent street brawls at protests.”

Still, Holt said, “because the subject matter is so attractive to right-wing extremist movements seeking to make gains in broader politics, the concern of possible conflict is not entirely misplaced. Law enforcement would be responsible to consider its possibility and be prepared to respond in the event it manifests.”