Then he goes on to tell another dangerous lie.
“Legally,” he says, “all those people giving vaccinations are war criminals. I’ll repeat that. Legally, all those people giving vaccinations are war criminals.”
This claim—which cites a bogus legal theory based on Nazi war crime trials—is not true. That hasn’t stopped conspiracy theorists from spamming it in Facebook comments and uploading it across the internet, where individual clips have received more than 100,000 views. Meanwhile, conspiracy theorists are planning new in-person demonstrations outside vaccination sites. One, a sequel to a now-notorious event that shut down one of the largest such sites in America at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, is being organized by a vaccination opponent who himself accuses health-care workers of war crimes, The Daily Beast has learned.
It’s the new front of the COVID-denialist right—and it’s veering increasingly toward targeting the individuals providing Americans with vaccines.
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In anti-vaccination Facebook groups and Telegram channels, some users are furiously familiarizing themselves with the Nuremberg Code, a 1947 document laid down at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal that prescribed new guidelines against forced medical experiments. Those rules came in response to the horrors of the Holocaust, during which Nazi doctors conducted cruel procedures on non-consenting subjects.
Ongoing COVID-19 vaccinations, which provide safe inoculation to consenting patients, do not come anywhere remotely close to violating the guidelines laid out in the post-Holocaust code. Nevertheless, a viral video and multiple spin-offs falsely suggest that, under the Nuremberg Code, doctors and nurses who provide the COVID-19 vaccine are akin to SS officers.
It’s a claim that could put health-care workers at risk.
“This idea that the medical establishment is evil, that they’re up to no good, is an old story, unfortunately,” said David Broniatowski, an associate professor of engineering management at George Washington University, where he has studied the anti-vaccination movement. “But taking it to the next level and saying, ‘They’re war criminals in violation of international law’ obviously takes that rhetoric and ups the ante. We have seen, building for years, death threats and threats of violence against physicians.”
The growing anti-vax movement, which already had support from the far right, was only turbocharged in 2020, after members hitched their momentum to pro-Trump conspiracy theories. “Wherever there is an audience, I want to get the message across that our bodies are ours,” one prominent anti-vaxxer told CNN of speaking at a Jan. 6 rally in D.C. that preceded the attack on the Capitol.
But the alliance goes farther, the recent demonstration in Los Angeles revealed.
The late January event outside Dodger Stadium saw dozens of anti-vaxxers temporarily stall operations when they marched with signs decrying vaccines and COVID safety measures. In attendance were multiple people who’d attended the Jan. 6 rally preceding the riot in D.C., as well as a far-right perennial political candidate and Facebookers who’d promoted maskless raids on L.A. stores. (Facebook did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)
In a message distributed through an anti-vaccination email list, obtained by The Daily Beast, anti-vaxxers claim to be planning a follow-up demonstration outside Dodger Stadium this Saturday, Feb. 13. In an apparent effort to persuade relatively moderate converts, the message urged participants not to bring signs that promoted Donald Trump or (unlike at the January protest) that called COVID-19 a hoax.
“The focus is on: THE HARMFUL EFFECTS OF THE VACCINE,” the email read. “In addition, signs about the oppressive lockdown, masks, the ruining of the economy, loss of livelihoods are fine. Thus, we want to convey one unified message. Please do not bring MAGA or Trump signs or American Flags, or signs such as ‘Covid is a Scam’, or ‘Covid is a Hoax’ which triggers the ‘extremist’ label from the mainstream media. If you do, we will need to ask you not to exhibit those.”
Jason Lefkowitz, the organizer behind the event, told The Daily Beast he believed health-care workers were breaking the Nuremberg Code (they aren’t) and that the inoculations are not vaccines (they are).
“We plan on informing people that they are submitting to a medical experiment and if not told so by the health-care worker, that health-care worker can be tried for crimes against humanity as stated by the Nuremberg code,” he said, adding that his group did not intend to stop people from getting vaccines if they wanted them.
Lefkowitz said he wasn’t worried about bad actors in his own group engaging in violence against health-care workers, despite the Nuremberg language.
“Do I worry about actions against health care workers from within my group? Absolutely NOT!” he said via email. “Am I worried about infiltrators? Yes. I’ve been communicating with the LAPD just as I had before the first event; and we are both going to be vigilant. I’ve informed my group that anyone we don’t know, we report immediately to the cops.”
Los Angeles Police previously told The Daily Beast that demonstrators did not break any laws with their January protest, which temporarily halted entry to the vaccination site. But online, where conspiracy theories likening nurses to Nazis are spreading, the risk for radical recruitment is higher. At the previous protest, that meant participation from hardcore QAnon fans and a failed politician convicted of stalking. (A spokesperson for L.A.’s fire department, which runs the vaccination site, told The Daily Beast they were aware of the upcoming demonstration.)
Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, a burgeoning anti-vaccination movement was taking aim at individual doctors. In October 2019, months before the first COVID cases were spotted in China, anti-vaxxers gathered outside a Long Island, New York, pediatrician’s office to antagonize the doctor for her support of child vaccination, NBC News reported that year. “Are you vaccinating your baby?” the demonstrators reportedly asked parents who were bringing their young children to appointments.
Their demonstration was based on repeatedly debunked conspiracy theories that claim vaccines cause autism, or other health conditions. And while it would be unfair to label every vaccine-hesitant person an extremist, Broniatowski cautioned, the anti-vax movement is increasingly compatible with right-wing ideologies.
“We’re moving more into an environment where the issue is not the safety and efficacy of vaccines, but civil rights—do I have the right to choose whether or not to wear a mask or get vaccinated?” he said. “Then these themes start to overlap with other civil liberties arguments like the right to bear arms. More and more, we’re seeing people opposed to vaccines adopting the more extreme—and in some cases more militant—language of people in other political issues.”
He said that explicit political realignment started gathering steam in southern California—home to the Dodger Stadium protesters—in the mid-2010s, following a measles outbreak at Disneyland, and subsequent vaccine mandates in the state. Those political tensions led to the assault of a pro-vaccine legislator (who is also a doctor) by anti-vax activists in 2019.
“That was a first step in this direction,” Broniatowski said.