'We Shall Over-WHOMST?' White Anti-Vaxxers Colonize Civil Rights Rhetoric in California Protests

Photo: Rich Pedroncelli (AP Photo)

The protestors came out in droves at the California State Capitol, furious over new legislation that, if passed, would hack away at the remaining medical exemptions for vaccination in California. But their rage—one protestor reportedly threw a menstrual cup of what appeared to be blood at state legislators—wasn’t the most remarkable thing about the demonstrators.

As Politico first reported, the group—comprised of mostly white women—leaned heavily into the rhetoric and messaging of the civil rights movement at a protest this past Friday, singing “We Shall Overcome” and chanting, “No segregation, no discrimination, yes on education for all!” The article notes that some of the protesters even donned shirts that read “Freedom Keepers.”

Advertisement

In earlier protests, the women referred to their state as Calabama, a reference to Jim Crow, and Nazifornia, a reference to, well, you know (and in case there were any doubts, they included a drawing of a swastika).

It was a stunning appropriation of the language of social justice and civil rights, even in an era when Martin Luther King Jr. sermons are laid over car commercials.

Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove, a member of the California Legislative Black Caucus, called the display “borderline racist.”

“This is misappropriation of a movement that really is not over and proves to be challenging to overcome,” Kamlager-Dove, who represents Los Angeles, said. “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.”

Advertisement

California lawmakers have cracked down on medical exemptions allowing parents to bypass childhood vaccination in recent years; new legislation passed within the last week work to further break down loopholes. The new provisions allow state officials to investigate doctors who give five or more vaccine waivers a year, as well as schools where the immunization rate has dropped below 95 percent—the threshold for “herd immunity,” according to health experts (below that rate, children are more vulnerable to measles outbreaks and other viral diseases).

The American Council of Science and Health heralded the new laws as a model for the rest of the country. But California anti-vaxxers have drummed up intense public opposition to the new laws: legislators told Politico they’ve been subject to months-long “harassment” campaigns, and comments shared on social media about Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), a Taiwanese American doctor who authored the new legislation, have veered unabashedly into racism.

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

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 wrote in a tweet to Pan.

Advertisement

Freedom Fighters indeed.

The sheer caucasity of the anti-vaxx movement is noteworthy, particularly in California. While the anti-vaxx movement touches all races and backgrounds (notably, a handful of the leaders of the protests appeared to be Latinx) the children who received child immunization waivers in the Golden State are predominantly white and wealthy, according to one 2015 study by the American Public Health Association in 2015.

Advertisement

The schools affected by the new California bill are also disproportionately—in some cases, blindingly—white.

From Politico:

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.

Advertisement

Some noted that the disruptive anti-vaxx protests would have begotten much stronger response from law enforcement had they not largely been composed of white and white-passing women.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who represents San Diego, noted her constituents “would definitely be arrested” had they engaged in the same behaviors the anti-vaxxers did.

Advertisement

Bu these anti-vaxxers, in appropriating the language of the civil rights movement, are signaling how they view their issue: that isn’t just a matter of reproductive autonomy, as they often claim, but of discrimination and state violence.

Advertisement

This is so ridiculous it almost hurts to unravel the “logic” of it—America’s racial caste systems, exemplified most notably in the Jim Crow South but certainly not restricted to it, are the country’s purest examples of holistic, mechanized violence. It touched where you lived, where you ate, where you worshipped, where you could be buried, and whether you could participate in the democracy that codified these restrictions.

The women who have taken on the mantle of the anti-vaxx movement and attempted to rebrand it have disproportionate power in civic life, particularly compared to women of color. Far from being obtuse or uneducated, in colonizing the language of racial justice, these anti-vaxxers have proven themselves to be as shameless as they are white.

Share This Story

About the author

Anne Branigin

Staff writer, The Root. Sometimes I blog slow, sometimes I blog quick. Do you have this in coconut?