As people were dying in Los Angeles at an average rate of two every hour and overwhelmed hospitals were turning ambulances away, and as oxygen supplies were running perilously low, a group of some 50 anti-mask protesters stormed an upscale grocery just after 3 p.m. on Tuesday.
“Masks don’t work!” they chanted at the entrance to Erewhon on Beverly Boulevard. “It’s a conspiracy!”
A woman in a red “Keep America Great Hat” and a red hoodie with “Beverly Hills Freedom Rally” stenciled on the chest bellowed into a megaphone.
“The masks do nothing! That’s why you can wear anything! I don’t wear underwear over my face! I’ll pull off my underwear right now and put them over my face.”
California has a mask mandate, and Erewhon also requires that everyone who enters must wear one. A line of employees tried to block what two mask-wearing customers independently described to The Daily Beast as a “stampede” of barefaced protesters.
A customer named Bevan Thomas realized that the workers who kept the store open while risking COVID-19 every day were being placed in a terrible position. She had what she called a “mama bear” reaction and moved to help ward off the invaders.
“In a fight-or-flight instant, I’m a fighter,” she later told The Daily Beast. “I honestly was ready to get into fisticuffs,.”
But then she caught herself.
“What stopped me was realizing that meeting them at their level was not going to solve anything,” she said. “My higher self took over.”
The protesters seemed to her to be a diverse group of crazies, ranging from paranoids ranting about corporate conspiracies to hippie types to a woman in a red MAGA hat declaring “My body, my choice.”
“They were all a slice of the freakish pie that is part of the U.S. right now,” Thomas said.
But they were united by an unreasoning anger that she could not fathom. She has recovered from COVID-19, but wears a mask even though she is likely immune. She knows people who have died from the virus and she does not want to contribute to any more deaths.
“It was baffling to me they had so much passion against that when it came to another person’s well-being,” she said.
She noted that they were not interested in discourse.
“Just a lot of yelling and pushing and antagonism,” she said. “They had a lot of anxiety.”
But she also sensed that they were in some way enjoying it.
“There was like a smugness, almost a performance-art aspect,” she said.
Another customer, Ian Brian Miller, told The Daily Beast, “I noticed a lot of Trump hats and no one wearing masks.” He said he saw “a blond woman with a man beside her filming her going up to people, maskless, convincing them they didn’t need to wear masks either and to ‘live their lives.’”
He continued, “It seemed like everyone was pretty terrified. A lot of the masked people did flee and left out the back of the store.”
He added, “I don’t leave home without a mask.”
At the front of the store, the woman with the megaphone ranted on.
“God created you, have respect for God... They took control... The global elite... It’s time to expel the sheep out of America.”
A man wearing a mask paused to video the scene. He then began to jog down the block, pursued by a protester who held a big yellow sign reading “No Vaccine for Tyranny” on one side and “Germans Allows Nazi Party to Take Power Because They Promised Better Life” on the other.
“Sorry for your life! Sorry for your life!” the protester shouted.
Another protester cried out in a mocking tone that sounded ghoulish in this town where so many people are losing their lives to COVID-19.
“I’m going to die!... Take cover, I’m going to die!”
A half-dozen police cars pulled up to the scene.
“Burn down the store,” the woman in the Keep America Great hat said in what was apparently intended to be a joke.
Inside the store, a masked police officer stood impassive by the checkout lanes as a semi-circle of protesters harangued him. There were no reports of arrests.
Miller had come for cheese and vegetables, but he left before the police came without making his purchase.
“It’s troubling how these people are out there and think it’s OK to do this to people,” he later said. “It was scary, really... it was too crazy in there, and I just got out of there.”
Thomas had already been in the checkout line when the protesters massed at the entrance had forced their way in. She was able to make her purchases and depart after they poured into the store. She later noted that some of the protesters had been chanting “Open up L.A! Open up L.A.!” She also noted that the store had been open thanks to the workers who were bullied aside.
“It was not a peaceful protest,” she noted.
Many of the protesters at Erewhon— the name is an anagram of “nowhere”—took videos of the event, but The Daily Beast could not immediately find anything posted online that indicated their identity.
What is clear that President Trump may have been defeated, but Trumpism and the psychic sickness he stoked is still out there, taking various forms of nuttiness, inciting people to mockingly say “I’m going to die!” even as the pandemic he sought to minimize was killing two people in Los Angeles every half hour and someone in America every minute.
“It’s absolutely disgusting,” Miller said of the anti-maskers who came out of nowhere to storm Erewhon.