The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The anti-vaxxers are coming to D.C., and their leader is a Kennedy

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. with his wife, actress Cheryl Hines, in 2018. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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The nation’s capital will once again be awash in the aura of an electrifying Kennedy this weekend.

But this is no Camelot.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — a prince of disinformation in the anti-vaccination kingdom — is marching on Washington with thousands of largely maskless followers this Sunday.

The Kennedys — despite my pestering — aren’t talking about it. At least, not to me.

“I love my uncle Bobby,” Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s niece, Kerry Meltzer, a doctor, wrote in an opinion piece about her uncle’s celebrity status in the murky world of anti-vaccine science. “But when it comes to vaccines, he is wrong.”

His membership in the exclusive “Disinformation Dozen,” the biggest spreaders of covid-19 hoaxes and mistruths by researchers who studied social media, has made him a pariah in the Washington circles his family members dominated.

Vaccine reluctance makes no sense in a nation of patriots

But he is beloved by the luxe and wacky anti-vaxxers of his Napa Valley and Malibu social circles in California, many of whom will join conspiracy theorists, discredited doctors, angry MAGAs and at least 200 D.C. firefighters who are unhappy with the District’s strict covid protocols.

The permit they filed with the National Park Service said they expect 20,000. They’re bringing in 97 port-a-potties. Even though D.C. police are expecting closer 3,000 people, it may be the biggest superspreader event we’ve had yet.

If you haven’t been following Kennedy’s ascent in this world, it’s a little jarring.

He was 14 and a student at Georgetown Prep when he learned that his dad was assassinated in Los Angeles. After some stumbles, he became a respected environmental lawyer and activist, winning a $289 million jury verdict against Monsanto and winning multiple cases to protect coastlines and waterways.

Then it got weird. (He was banned on Instagram.)

“While coerced submission with experimental medical products is clearly government-sponsored violence, the anti-mandates movement is committed to nonviolent resistance,” Kennedy said this week in a statement provided by his anti-vaccine group, Children’s Health Defense.

The outlier of our nation’s premier political dynasty began questioning vaccines — loudly — before the link between mercury in vaccines and autism was discredited by most of the world’s medical community.

Back then, the Kennedys batted Bobby Jr. away when his involvement in a fringe movement that was linked to measles outbreaks and annoying Facebook posts sullied the Kennedy luster.

“Robert F. Kennedy Jr. … is part of this campaign to attack the institutions committed to reducing the tragedy of preventable infectious diseases,” a coalition of embarrassed Kennedys wrote in a Politico opinion piece in 2019. “He has helped to spread dangerous misinformation over social media and is complicit in sowing distrust of the science behind vaccines.”

And now? The anti-vaccine movement has global impact. And his Children’s Health Defense organization, rooted in his environmental law work, has ballooned into a “juggernaut,” according to an investigation by the Association Press, that “has raked in funding and followers as Kennedy used his star power as a member of one of America’s most famous families to open doors, raise money and lend his group credibility.”

While much of the nation’s advocacy groups struggled during the pandemic, Kennedy’s group had $6.8 million in revenue in 2020 — more than double it had in previous years, according to charity regulators the Associated Press consulted.

At $30 to $50 a seat, they’re hiring buses and coming to D.C., with followers who are “fighting medical tyranny” and also flying in from Ohio, Illinois and from a platinum travel lounge in a California airport.

“I’ll be there! We’re driving from Ohio to fight for our freedom!”

“Suffolk County … 4 a.m. pickup”

“Anyone else coming from Illinois?”

“Before I change the world …. gotta get my drinks on,” wrote Michelle Thomas Page, an anti-vaccine activist in Northern California, posting photos of her mimosa and bloody mary breakfast drinks from an elite lounge in San Francisco International Airport on Wednesday.

The group encouraged protesters to book hotels in Virginia to avoid D.C.’s newest mandate, which requires restaurants and hotels to check customers’ vaccination cards before letting them in. Already tired of mask policing, the pandemic’s front-line workers in the hospitality industry are now tasked with more checks.

When it comes to unmasking, do we trust each other to follow the rules?

“I’m so sorry to do this to you,” said our favorite server at the Chinatown hole-in-the-wall our family visits nearly every week, as she asked for our cards.

“But we’re glad you’re doing this,” a grateful customer interjected.

Other workers are worried about thousands of unmasked, unvaccinated protesters descending on the city.

“This is doubly dangerous amid the omicron wave that hit D.C. hard with record numbers of cases,” said Jackie Ross, who advocates for hospitality workers through Ward Circle Strategies.

The marchers aren’t there to cause trouble, Children’s Health Defense spokesperson Rita Shreffler said. She sent me Kennedy’s statement on my question.

“We understand, as Gandhi taught us, that violence is both immoral and counterproductive,” Kennedy said. “In fact, there is a long history, from Kristallnacht to Operation Northwoods, of totalitarian elements staging violent provocations as a pretext for escalating oppression against freedom movements like ours.”

Nope. Definitely not Camelot.