Anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers now present a real threat of violence

Across the country, more anti-vaccine extremists are turning violent. It's time to take the threat seriously

Published September 8, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

A group gathered at an anti-vaccine protest (Brenton Geach/Gallo Images via Getty Images)
A group gathered at an anti-vaccine protest (Brenton Geach/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Not all opponents of mask mandates and anti-vaccine activists are alike. They constitute a diverse and heterogeneous group. But a certain segment of the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers comprise extremists who represent a violent and nefarious influence in our country as we work to defeat this seemingly endless pandemic. 

There is a small but loud and forceful group of people who object to wearing masks. Studies indicate that those people generally believe they are ineffective and are violating their civil liberties. Some of those people are increasingly behaving in violent and dangerous ways.  

As early as July 2020, the Retail Industry Leaders Association expressed alarm over the number of instances of hostility and violence experienced by front-line employees. That same month, a survey of McDonald's employees showed that 44% had experienced verbal or physical abuse from customers not wearing masks. 

These repeated incidents necessitated the CDC to offer new guidance for retailers and restaurants on how to prevent workplace violence from customers. These suggestions included installing panic buttons and cameras, and recognizing the signs that angry customers might be on the verge of violence. 

Things since then have only worsened. 

 In June 2021, a customer shot and killed a cashier and wounded a sheriff's deputy at a supermarket after an argument about face masks.  

In August 2021, Christopher Key, who calls himself the "vaccine police," live streamed himself and his "Missouri Crew" entering a Walmart Supercenter. The group was targeting the pharmacists who they believe should be "executed" for administering the COVID-19 vaccine. They berated the workers, informing them they have been put "on notice" and that "if they give one more vaccine … they can be hung up … and executed."

The group brought with them "sworn affidavits" that supposedly proved that 45,000 people had died within days of being vaccinated against COVID-19. That belief is based on a lawsuit filed by a group called America's Frontline Doctors (AFLD), recently described in a Time magazine expose as "the 21st-century, digital version of snake-oil salesmen." AFLD was founded by Dr. Simone Gold, who was arrested for her participation in the U.S. Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021.  

A COVID-19 drive-through testing and vaccination site in Georgia was recently forced to shut down after being threatened by a group of anti-vax protesters. Reports indicated that the health care workers were harassed via email and on social media.  

Health care workers have repeatedly faced threats for promoting vaccines, especially prominent public health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Peter Hotez. Both have faced serious death threats. A man was arrested for allegedly sending threatening messages to Dr. Fauci, saying that he and his family would be "dragged into the street, beaten to death and set on fire." Dr. Hotez notes that the threats faced by health care workers have created "an unprecedented culture of antiscience intimidation." 

Three men recently ambushed the principal of a school in Arizona. They brought plastic handcuffs, ready to perform a "citizen's arrest." They were upset about the "injustice" of the principal asking a child to quarantine because of possible exposure to COVID-19. One of the men, Kelly Walker, a well-known anti-masker, live-streamed the event on his business Instagram page.  

That same victimized principal described some of the death threats she has been receiving, including this ominous warning: "Next time it will be a barrel pointed at your Nazi face."  

There is also evidence that extremist groups such as the Proud Boys are behind some of the anti-mask organizing. As some experts have noted, "violence is at the heart" of their ideology.   

At a recent school board meeting in Florida, a woman stated that anyone who believes in vaccines or mask mandates in schools is a "demonic entity" and bears "the mark of the beast." She then warned that "all of us Christians are sticking together to take them all out" adding that "all the police officers that kick us out ... will also be going down with them." 

Not all anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers will become violent. But these cases illustrate the propensity of some to threaten and erupt into violence as they attempt to overwhelm others with their positions. 

It may be easy to laugh off or dismiss these incidents, but minimizing or denying the potential violence associated with these groups and individuals is a grave mistake. Pretending it does not exist is irresponsible and gives implicit permission for further violence and destruction.


By Christine Sarteschi

Christine Sarteschi, PhD, LCSW, is associate professor of social Work and criminology at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. She is the author of multiple works on mass violence and sovereign citizens.

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By Alan D. Blotcky

Alan D. Blotcky, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Birmingham, Alabama, and a clinical associate professor of psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

MORE FROM Alan D. Blotcky