In early June, Rep. Jared Huffman invited 100 constituents to register online to attend his first in-person town hall since the pandemic struck. Attendees were told to wear face masks and bring proof of vaccination to enter the San Rafael Community Center on Tuesday evening. Chairs were spaced six feet apart. “Large signs” and “banners” were declared verboten. Questions for Huffman were to be submitted online or on written forms prior to the show.
The town hall was a carefully planned effort to control not only the possibility of Covid infection, but the content of questions and the media presence. Shortly before the event, Huffman aides barred a television reporter from EnviroNews from entering, according to EnviroNews. They allowed a cameraman from Fox News KTVU to enter, however.
This reporter had scored a seat online, and submitted a question asking Huffman to explain why he has banked more campaign funds from weapons manufacturers and agribusiness corporations than from environmental groups. But half of the spaced seats were empty and most of the attendees appeared to be eligible for Medicare. It looked to be a dull event.
Huffman’s effort to control the venue backfired in a big way when minutes after the meeting commenced about 200 enraged, shouting anti-vaccination protestors stormed into the room. They were mask-free, some wore buttons proclaiming unvaccinated status. Flags included the Stars & Stripes, and banners stating, “Don’t Tread on Me” and “Fuck Joe Biden”.
Placards announced, “Marin Voters Against Vaccine Segregation,” “No Medical Apartheid,” “My Body, My Choice,” “Jab Mandate is Fascist,” “Vax Passports Illegally Discriminate,” “Freedom of Movement is a Human Right,” “Huffman, brought to you by BioMarin.”
After the anti-Vaxxers took the hall with putsch-like fervor, about a dozen people who had stood outside the center with signs protesting Huffman’s support for the culling of Tule elk at Point Reyes National Seashore edged into the hall. Wearing masks, the elk-supporters took seats, quietly, obviously astonished that they were inside, especially with large placards criticizing Huffman’s stance on the elk.
The politically adrenalized crowd flowed crazily around the room. A protestor jumped on the stage and sat down in front of Huffman waving a sign proclaiming, “All the ferrets died.”
Huffman did not call on the police, even though a squad was staged a few blocks away. He told people who were wary of getting Covid from what was just transformed into a probable super-spreader event, that they might want to exit. And then he gamely proceeded to conduct his town hall, which was streamed on Facebook. The congressman methodically answered a series of preselected questions, (which, sadly, did not include this reporter’s campaign fundraising query).
Despite the chaos, Huffman waxed professorial, seeming to delight in relaying the technical details of his legislative efforts to his few, seated, mask-wearing supporters. But faced with unremittent and loud chattering, chanting, and outbreaks of booing, the congressman paused to tell the crowd, which appeared to be local to Marin County, that they were “disrespectful of democracy, the law, and science.” They jeered.
At one point the “All the Ferrets died” protester tried to rip off the mask of an elderly man, but stopped when Huffman called her out. There were no placards or flags bearing the Trump logo, but as the meeting progressed it became clear that most of the anti-vaxxers were fervent supporters of the disgraced, white supremacist, electorally-defeated ex-president, who transformed denial of Covid-19 into a test of political fealty and the Republican Party into a fascistic mob unmoored from empirical reality and human decency. But we digress.
After Huffman criticized the U.S. Senate’s refusal to formally investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection with a commission, sections of the crowd booed, yelling, “Biden is an illegitimate president” and “no segregation” and “we want the filibuster.”
In a hallucinatory moment, a smiling woman shepherded several children wearing blue-tinged fairy wings and bearing anti-Vax signs in a march around the room to much applause.
As Huffman doggedly used the power of his microphone to explain his stances on the political issues of the day, the crowd, as if it shared an animalistic mind, repeatedly chimed in with its views. It opposed peace with Iran, universal Medicare, taxing the super rich. A snarling murmur of discontent roiled through the room as Huffman praised Biden’s diplomatic efforts in the Middle East. The masked elk supporters, however, cheered that effort, and Huffman thanked them for being polite. At which point the friends of the Tule elk began chanting pro-elk slogans and jumping up and down trying to ask more questions.
The hormonally-charged crowd calmed a bit when Huffman announced obtaining a total of $24 million to extend the SMART train to Healdsburg and to fix local infrastructure and to prevent wildfires with improved forest management. There were no snarls and chants when he spoke of improving the Postal Service. But when he noted that the population of California is growing, the crowd booed madly, presumably supposing that the growth is not of white middle class people such as themselves, but of Latino immigrants from Venezuela or Mars.
In fact, there was not a brown or black face to be seen in the anti-Vaxxer throng. Outside the center, however, a young woman wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt, held a singularly distinctive placard. One side noted that “we are standing on land stolen from the Miwok people”. The other side asked people to wear masks, because Covid is killing her people. When I photographed this brave person, a white woman accosted me with her suddenly realized grievance, demanding, “Why are you only taking pictures of her?”
As the town hall wound down, the anti-vaxxers gathered outside for a conspiratorial talk about how scores of ferrets injected with Covid vaccines have died from the treatment, which is not true. And then, satisfied with the pseudo scientific foundations of their cause, the mask-less mass marched through downtown San Raphael waving their cursing flags, chanting incoherently about the greatest hoax in the history of humankind.
This piece first appeared in Pacific Sun.