Anti-vaccine protesters are likening themselves to civil rights activists

Anti-vaccine protesters

Protesters march through the California Capitol. | Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo

health care

The approach reflected the level of desperation among families staunchly opposed to vaccinating their children.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A chorus of mostly white women sang the gospel song “We Shall Overcome” in the California State Capitol, an anthem of the civil rights movement. Mothers rallied outside the governor’s office and marched through Capitol corridors chanting “No segregation, no discrimination, yes on education for all!” Some wore T-shirts that read “Freedom Keepers.”

But this wasn’t about racial equality. In the nation’s most diverse state, protesters opposed to childhood vaccine mandates — many from affluent coastal areas — had co-opted the civil rights mantle from the 1960s, insisting that their plight is comparable to what African Americans have suffered from segregationist policies.

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The approach reflected the level of desperation among families staunchly opposed to vaccinating their children — a desperation that peaked Friday night when an activist threw a menstrual cup with what appeared to be blood at several state senators during floor session.

But the civil rights claim shocked lawmakers, especially those representing minority communities that have suffered generations of racism and economic injustice. Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove (D-Los Angeles) called it “borderline racist” and said vaccine protesters need to revisit their history books.

“This is misappropriation of a movement that really is not over and proves to be challenging to overcome,” said Kamlager-Dove, a member of the California Legislative Black Caucus. “The whole conversation around vaccinations is actually one about privilege and opportunity. It’s a personal choice. It’s a luxury to be able to have a conversation about medical exemptions and about whether or not you think your child should be vaccinated.”

Hundreds of vaccine protesters galvanized this month against legislation that would crack down on medical exemptions to childhood immunizations. Four years ago, California eliminated personal belief and religious exemptions, which had long been the most common ways to avoid vaccines and still enroll children in school.

Now, California was taking aim at the last option for families deeply opposed to vaccinating their children, following a wave of measles outbreaks across the country. A handful of doctors sympathetic to their beliefs had been providing waivers that allowed parents to keep their kids unvaccinated, including Robert Sears, a member of the famed Sears medical family that had dispensed pediatric advice to parents for decades.

According to the California Department of Public Health, the number of unvaccinated children in homeschooling has skyrocketed since the state banned personal belief and religious exemptions in 2015. Students with personal belief exemptions in California schools were predominantly white and wealthy, according to a study by the American Public Health Association in 2015. Medical exemptions, intended for children with weakened immune systems, have surged since then — and are disproportionately white.

Gov. Gavin Newsom gave the anti-vaccine movement a brief window of hope in the penultimate week of legislative session when he demanded late amendments to the main medical exemption crackdown bill, Senate Bill 276. But the governor ultimately signed two measures to implement the law, which added fuel to the anger of the anti-vaccine movement. Protests continued for four days after Newsom signed the bills, with rhetoric growing ever more extreme.

Activists had earlier rolled out a sign during bill hearings that said “Welcome to Calabama, y’all” — a reference comparing Newsom, a liberal Democrat, to former Alabama Governor George Wallace, a Republican infamous for his defiance against desegregation. After the bills were approved, some held signs stating, “Welcome to Nazifornia,” complete with the Nazi symbol.

The new restrictions target schools with an immunization rate below 95 percent, the level health experts consider to offer “herd immunity.” Anything below that percentage poses a public health risk, making children more vulnerable in the instance of a measles outbreak or exposure to other diseases.

While leaders of the protest movement insist that their ranks are ethnically diverse, data suggest that the schools likeliest to face state scrutiny have a greater share of white students than the California public school average. The 50 public schools with the lowest kindergarten vaccination rates in the state — all less than 50 percent — are disproportionately white, according to an analysis by POLITICO. While less than 25 percent of California public school students are white, an average of 55 percent of students are white across the state’s 50 least vaccinated campuses.

At Valiant Academy of Southern California, less than 5 percent of its 300-plus students have all their required vaccinations, designating it as one of the “most vulnerable” schools according to the Department of Public Health. At the El Cajon school, nearly 70 percent of students are white, according to the California Department of Education.

Community Outreach Academy, a charter school near Sacramento, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state, with less than half of its students fully vaccinated. There, 98 percent of students are white.

Christina Hildebrand, president and founder of A Voice for Choice, condemned the protester who is facing assault charges for throwing the menstrual cup on the Senate floor. But she defended those who compare the issue to the civil rights movement. She pointed to the gay rights movement and women’s suffrage, asserting that this is about bodily autonomy and parental rights.

“The Legislature is equating it to the black civil rights movement but to me, civil rights movements have happened throughout our history in the U.S.,” she said. “To me, do I think it is comparable to MLK and the civil rights movement? I think we’re probably in the beginning stages of getting to something like that.”

Hildebrand pushed back against those who see a lack of diversity in the movement, saying that has changed significantly since protests began over a similar law in 2015.

“At that point, I agreed. It was people that could afford to come to Sacramento. The middle to lower class can’t afford to take a day off,” she said. “But now I’m surprised they feel it’s white privilege. If you look at the pictures of who came and protested, there was every race and every color there.”

Other political juxtapositions have sparked outrage. After some women were arrested, Assemblyman Devon Mathis (R-Visalia) joined protesters in comparing the issue to the separation of immigrant parents and children at the border.

Some protesters donned red capes and white bonnets, borrowing a tactic from abortion advocates who compare themselves to characters in “The Handmaid’s Tale” — a dystopian future where women have no rights.

Lawmakers wondered if reactions to the protests would have been different if the participants weren’t mostly white women. What would have happened if, instead, it was dozens of black men standing on chairs, refusing to leave hearing rooms and beating on the doors of the Senate chambers? Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) said on Twitter she’s “never seen so much privilege.”

“I just want to point out, if constituents from my district waged months-long social harassment campaigns against a member, threatened them with death, harassed and threatened their family… then came to the Capitol and disrupted session for hours… they would definitely be arrested,” she said in another tweet.

In addition to being threatened online and physically pushed by an anti-vaccine protester, Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), a Taiwanese American doctor who wrote the legislation, faced racist slurs.

One Twitter post included Pan’s head shot in a lineup of three other Asian doctors who are pro-vaccine with the phrase “Authoritarians Unite!” “Notice anything else about them?” the image said.

Actor Rob Schneider, one of several celebrity vaccination opponents, compared Pan to former Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong. “My congratulations to the People’s Republic of Chinafornia Chairman Mao Jr.,” Schneider said in a tweet to Pan.

The California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus condemned the attacks. “For too long, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been seen as perpetual foreigners and generations of contributions from our communities have been ignored. We call on SB 276 opponents to publicly condemn the racism expressed by members of the anti-vaccination movement,” said Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco), caucus chairman, in a statement.

Pan said he and his colleagues have faced escalating harassment this year.

“It’s unfortunate that’s the kind of tactics the opponents have decided to resort to, perhaps because they don’t have science and facts on their side, so they resort to personal threats and harassment,” Pan told reporters. “I think it’s disappointing that that’s what they have to engage in.”

Angela Hart contributed to this report.