Covid-truthers and the Co-option of the Protest Movement

Joanna Psaros

29 June 2021

Protestors against Sydney’s July lockdown

Last Saturday, thousands converged on Town Hall square to march through the CBD in solidarity with each other; closely flanked by police on horseback, proudly bearing signs and impervious to the stares of onlookers. This is not an uncommon sight in Sydney, with rallies in in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, the rights of refugees, the liberation of Palestine and Indigenous land rights taking place in just the past few months. But this protest was different. It was a protest against the state’s current lock down, and celebration of the Covid-truther movement more generally. 

Unsurprisingly, the rally was met with widespread condemnation. ‘What we saw today was 3,500 very selfish boofheads- people that thought the law didn’t apply to them,’ said NSW Police Minister David Elliot. Horns of furious motorists blared at the participants, and to date 57 people have been charged. It was only a day after NSW saw a record breaking 163 new cases of Coronavirus.  

So what the hell were they thinking? Do these people truly believe in their muddled message? Or are they merely self-centred attention seekers? Likely, it’s a bit of both. All we know for sure is that no-one thinks of themselves as the bad guy. 

For the majority of us however, it’s hard not to feel queasy at the fact that ‘The White Rose’- an international Covid conspiracy group with members in all Australian major cities- take their name from the underground movement of young political activists who fought against Nazism in the second world war. In an infamous moment that went viral and was met with widespread outrage, a German anti-lockdown protestor compared herself to Sophie Schull, a member of the original White Rose who was executed at the age of 22. US protesters have also been seen wearing yellow stars at rallies in an unsubtle allusion to victims of the Holocaust.   

This co-option of the protest movement is nothing new to conspiracy theorists. Freedom of speech and the distrust of those in power are, after all, their key weapons against those who try in vain to silence them. 

But what complicates matters is the fact that sometimes the wildest conspiracy theories turn out to be undeniably true. For years there were rumours that the CIA was testing LSD on humans in secret experiments- a theory that seems laughable today. But in 1975, the existence of what was codenamed ‘Project MK-ultra’ proved to be correct.  

Then there’s the uncomfortable fact that other large protests, notably the BLM rallies in both the US and Australia took place at the height of Covid in 2020 -though to their credit a large portion of organisers and participants wore masks and attempted to observe social distancing protocols. Regardless, many labelled their actions as selfish… just as we did Saturday’s protest. In response, many participants may argue that public health concerns were used as an excuse to silence them. Just as many BLM protesters argued in 2020. 

Where then, do we draw the line? Much as I believe such a distinction exists, I’m having trouble finding the language to distinguish between anti-lockdown protests and ‘real,’ ‘legitimate’ causes. And that confusion is just as dangerous as any rally. 

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