Ammon Bundy didn’t waste his opportunity Tuesday: A video began circulating virally that day in far-right circles showing an Idaho mom being arrested at a playground closed under the state’s anti-COVID-19 lockdown orders. By that evening he was leading a cluster of protesters outside the home of the arresting officer.
It didn’t matter to either Bundy or the protesters that the mom in question was a well-known Boise-area anti-vaccination activist who had been participating all week in mini-protests against the lockdown, and that the confrontation with police at the playground—including the heavy presence of children—was a classic far-right setup that had in fact been planned all along. What mattered is they had the martyr they needed.
Bundy and his “Patriot” movement cohorts have been leading the “resistance” to Idaho Gov. Brad Little’s stay-at-home order nearly from the day in mid-March that it was issued, claiming that it was an unconstitutional abridgement of people’s rights to free association. Along the way, he picked up support from the hyper-libertarian Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF), as well as the community of anti-vaccination activists who believe the pandemic is mainly a hoax, many of them affiliated with the IFF.
Indeed, anti-vaccination activists—who have a long history of crossover affiliation with the far right, given their shared predilection for conspiracy theories and antigovernment sentiments—have become a significant component of the anti-lockdown protests that have begun organizing over the past few weeks. As Christopher Mathias at HuffPost observed, “Public health experts fear the anti-vaxx movement could, once a COVID-19 vaccine is developed, undermine a national inoculation program.”
A rally in North Carolina on April 14 was organized by an anti-vaccination activist named Ashley Smith who not only advocates ignoring social-distancing and stay-home measures, but will oppose the use of any vaccine to combat it: “I am against mandatory vaccination,” Smith wrote to The News & Observer. “That is a personal right and as a sovereign citizen I have the right to choose what medical procedures I and my children receive. Pandemic status/state of emergency doesn’t change that.”
Similarly, a popular post at “Reopen Missouri,” a Facebook group devoted to rapidly reopening businesses, featured a vow to never take any future coronavirus vaccine. “I refuse to receive said vaccine to make others feel more safe,” it read. “I won’t set myself—or my children—on fire to keep you warm.”
The mom arrested by Meridian police officers Tuesday was one of these activists: Sara Walton Brady was well known to Boise-area health officials as one of the most assiduous anti-vaccination fanatics. Her Facebook page, “Idahoans for Vaccine Freedom,” organized a series of protests over the past few years, including an appearance at a January legislative panel in Boise aimed at dealing with faith-healing laws in the state that turned the hearing into a circus.
Over the past week, following the appearance of IFF founder/president Wayne Hoffman at Bundy’s Easter Sunday service in defiance of the lockdown—at which Hoffman called the pandemic “the ultimate work of the devil”—the organization been promoting a “Disobey Idaho” campaign aimed at undermining the stay-home orders. The campaign included such mini-protests as illegal yard sales, “Disobey Dodgeball,” and notably, “playdate protests” in which parents took their children to playgrounds closed by the pandemic.
Brady shared the plan to organize a “playdate protest” at Meridian’s Kleiner Park on the Idahoans for Vaccine Freedom page, and participants all showed up at the park—which was otherwise open, except for the closed playground area—at the appointed time Tuesday with their children, tore down the yellow police tape that had roped off the equipment, and began playing. It was all carefully set up, with cell phones ready to record police when they inevitably arrived.
The IFF’s communications director, Dustin Hurst, acknowledged as much in a Medium post: “To my understanding, a group of moms decided together to defy the stay-home order by letting their kids play at Kleiner Park in Meridian. They used social media groups and posts to spread the word.” However, IFF denied any involvement whatsoever in the protest that Bundy organized afterward.
As a video posted to Facebook by a fellow protester (and later removed, but preserved above) showed, when police arrived, they asked Brady and others gathered at the playground several times to leave, explaining that the equipment was closed by city order. Brady and others objected, demanding to know why.
Eventually, after an officer told her she had five seconds to leave, Brady told the officer to arrest her. Then she turned her back to him, putting her hands behind her and demanding he arrest her.
“Arrest me for being difficult. Do it,” she said.
So the officer handcuffed her and led her away. Brady urged her compatriots to immediately contact the IFF.
In the version of the event that appeared in the viral video, however, all of that context disappears—all viewers see is Brady being handcuffed and led away. It was promoted on Alex Jones’ Infowars program, and became widely shared on Facebook among “Patriot” movement. The IFF also organized a protest outside Meridian City Hall later that afternoon, which also included gun activists from the Second Amendment Alliance.
However, the most hair-raising protest came near sundown at the home of the arresting officer in Meridian, when Bundy and some of the same people who were at his Easter Sunday shindig—including “motivational speaker” Diego Rodriguez—arrived with the intention of serving the officer with a “constitutionalist” sovereign citizen-style document. They were met by several police officers who were guarding the man’s home.
Rodriguez led most of the early conversation with the officers, but eventually Bundy stepped forward and confronted them.
“There was a woman at a park with her children and she was arrested!” Bundy screamed at the police. “Completely inappropriate.”
It went on for another six minutes or so. “The people will not allow you guys to do this for very long!” Bundy yelled at the cops. “You will not go into the park and arrest people! You will not go into parks and arrest mothers, and you will not go anywhere and arrest us for exercising what our rights are.”
Bundy presented them with a “Petition for the Redress of Grievance”—a favorite sovereign citizen-style document featuring pseudo-legal language claiming to address the officer’s behavior and demand compensation, another version of which Bundy had earlier in the day taped to the door of Gov. Little’s home—and, upon being refused the opportunity to present it to the arresting officer at his door, handed it to the police, who then taped it to the front door. This seemed to largely satisfy the protesters, who eventually broke up and drifted away.
The sequence of events in Meridian underscored the growing reality that, as Anna Merlan explains, the “coronavirus truthers” who are leading the paranoid contingent opposing pandemic containment measures are people who fundamentally don’t believe in the concept of public health measures. “While 'medical freedom’ may be the rallying cry, the root of their protests are against vaccination,” observes epidemiologist Tara C. Smith of Kent State.
The protests, Smith said, “make me very sad. Odds are good that a number of those who are out protesting will become ill because of their activities, and spread the infection to others in their families and communities. I think they're wrong, but no one wants anyone to die over their beliefs, and I see that coming in the next month for some of these protesters.”