Some of Oregon’s leading Republicans catered to conspiracy theorists and vaccine skeptics this week, in an extraordinary assembly on the Capitol lawn that declared the prevention of COVID-19 was worse than the disease and any attempt to check vaccination status was a form of state-sponsored discrimination.

“They call us extremists,” state Sen. Dallas Heard (R-Roseburg) told the gathering. “Not because we are extreme, but because we are not willing to go sprinting in whatever direction they are herding us in.”

About 200 people of all ages gathered in front of the Oregon Capitol on June 9 for a “vigil” organized by the group Oregonians for Medical Freedom, which has lobbied against childhood vaccinations since well before the COVID-19 pandemic began. The vigil was not to mourn the lives lost to COVID 19 worldwide, but rather to highlight losses suffered from COVID-19-related lockdowns, vaccines and face mask policies.

The size of the crowd was not unusual for a rally of vaccine skeptics: Parents opposed to childhood immunizations have packed the Capitol rotunda before. But the attendance of top Republican officials demonstrated the degree to which vaccine resistance has become a plank of conservative politics. Indeed, the unifying theme of the rally was the assertion that efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus were a pretext for restricting freedom.

Sen. Dallas Heard (R-Roseburg) at an anti-vaccination rally in Salem. (Justin Yau)
Sen. Dallas Heard (R-Roseburg) at an anti-vaccination rally in Salem. (Justin Yau)

State Sen. Kim Thatcher (R-Keizer), the GOP nominee for secretary of state last year, spoke at the vigil to decry the closing of the state Capitol to the public. (Her remarks came a day before the Oregon House expelled Rep. Mike Nearman, R-Independence, for allowing armed protesters to breach the Capitol.)

“I have been voting no on every bill that has been coming out to committee, even my own bills,” Thatcher said, “just in protest over the fact that this Capitol building has been closed to people. The hallways are empty. The only avenue for the people to redress the grievances with their government is to Microsoft Teams or the telephone.”

The Oregonians for Medical Freedom event drew advance attention for the announcement that Naomi Wolf, a celebrated feminist author, would be among the speakers. She did not in fact appear June 9. Organizers said she had canceled at the last minute, and read a statement from her.

The statement attributed to Wolf pledged support for a bill sponsored by Thatcher to outlaw Oregon’s businesses or government from checking vaccine status. “Oregon has been one of the most draconian states in the land in terms of illegal and unconstitutional restriction on liberty,” it said. “Governor Brown has imposed restrictions on assembly, mask mandates, and business closures and other measures that curtail freedom.”

Protesters compare COVID-19 vaccinations to the Holocaust. (Justin Yau)
Protesters compare COVID-19 vaccinations to the Holocaust. (Justin Yau)

Though the event was promoted as largely nonpartisan, some attendees wore Trumpist merchandise and carried flags tied to conservative movements.

Most people in attendance dressed in white. Members of the crowd carried signs comparing current COVID restrictions in Oregon and the U.S. to authoritarian regimes. “Papers Please. Never Again!” one read, with a yellow Star of David in the middle comparing vaccination cards to the Nazi identification of Jews before the Holocaust. “Stop Medical Apartheid,” read another, harking back to the racist segregation laws of 1990s South Africa.

Speakers ranged from Yamhill County Commissioner Mary Starrett, comparing noncompliance with COVID regulations to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, to Beaverton pediatrician Dr. Paul Thomas, whose medical license is imperiled by his advice to parents that they forgo the full schedule of childhood immunizations. His presentation alleged that vaccines have been tied to autism and heart disease.

Several children and teenagers alleged that masks had physically or mentally harmed them. One high school student described passing out while playing basketball with a mask on. “I thought I was going to heaven,” she said. “I thought, ‘It’s OK, it isn’t that bad compared to here.’”

Protesters against vaccination in front of the state Capitol in Salem. (Justin Yau)
Protesters against vaccination in front of the state Capitol in Salem. (Justin Yau)

The crowd cheered at accounts of noncompliance with mask mandates, jeered at any mention of Dr. Anthony Fauci or Gov. Kate Brown, and applauded calls for strong Republicans to stand up against the “tyranny” of lockdown restrictions.

“We’ve been looking at draconian behavior,” said Katherine Green, who runs a group called the Children’s Defense Organization. “I mean, the masking of children is a crime. This is child abuse. Kate Brown is legalizing child abuse in this state!”

“Get ahold of your news stations,” she concluded, “and tell them to stop lying to you. You know better!”