anti-mask mandate protest

While some cited science and the right to choose as reasons for opposing vaccines and mask mandates, others pointed to previous vaccine experiences that informed their decision to march. 

"No Vax Mandate,” “Masks = tyranny,” “Nothing good is forced,” “Coercion does not equal consent” and a glittery “Nice day for revolution” poster are some of the few signs that could be seen across from JMU’s University Health Center (UHC) on Aug. 21. Individuals from across Virginia gathered in a march to oppose masks and COVID-19 vaccination mandates 10 days after JMU issued an indoor mask mandate regardless of individual vaccination status.

Virginia Freedom Keepers (VFK), an organization founded in 2019, set up the march on JMU’s campus as well as a similar protest the same day at Virginia Tech. VFK posted on its Instagram account to promote the event to its members and followers. Erin Philogene, a board member for VFK, said that parents and college students throughout the state reached out to VFK for help in facilitating the march to promote their platform.

“We are for informed consent, and we oppose forced medical mandates,” Philogene said. “That would include vaccine and mask mandates and testing.”

For the fall 2021 semester, JMU announced that indoor mask mandates would return in order to stay in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations and has pushed for students and staff to be vaccinated. If students aren’t vaccinated, they’ll be required to test for the virus once a week and will continue with practices from the 2020-2021 academic year, such as daily health check-ins on the LiveSafe app.

Two small groups formed at each end of the sidewalk, with a third larger group standing toward the middle of the Mason Street Parking Deck. As cars passed, some honked in support. On one occasion, people rolled their windows down and shouted, “Screw the vaccine!” Another time, it was, “Yeah, that’s right! Freedom of speech!”

Just as frequently, however, were those against the signs, with one person even calling for the protesters to “have fun at the hospital.” Another person was waving a mask at the groups as they drove past.

The crowds in attendance weren’t larger than 15 people at once, but the people who protested came for varying reasons. Caroline Kennedy said that, as a former biology major, she’s hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccine because there’s still so much that’s unknown.

“I come from the scientific perspective,” Kennedy said. “This is still an experimental vaccine — it did not undergo the normal studies most vaccines are required to go through. No one can answer any of the questions about the long-term effects that it could have.”

The three vaccines widely available under emergency use authorization (EUA) in the U.S. are Pfizer-BioNtech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. The CDC has released scientific briefs on the types of testing completed, recorded efficacy for the mRNA vaccines — Pfizer and Moderna — and gathered information on the adenovirus (J & J). As of Aug. 23, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) fully approved the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine to prevent COVID-19 in individuals 16 and older. 

Kennedy said the choice of whether or not to get vaccinated has become politicized.

“We’re alienating kids against each other: vaccinated vs. unvaccinated,” Kennedy said. “A lot of people want to make it seem like you’re a Trump-loving Republican [if you aren’t vaccinated]. I’m a lifelong Democrat.”

A man standing with the march’s first group then stepped in and shared his reasoning for attending the march. David Ross, the father of a college student and a brain injury physician, explained that physicians use government sources in order to keep up to date on medical articles as they’re published. 

“Since COVID, I’ve lost a great amount of trust in those sources,” Ross said.

After a patient that Ross treated for a brain injury was vaccinated, he explained that there was a significant increase in negative side effects that weren’t present beforehand. Common side effects from any of the COVID-19 vaccines include pain and redness at the injection site along with chills and fever. In rare cases — 11.1 in cases per million — the Pfizer vaccine can cause anaphylaxis. A rare side effect of the J & J is thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS), which involves blood clotting.

“I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” Ross said. “And so, I’m here to support medical freedom and the right to choose.”

There were other participants also marching for the right to choose, one of the signs reading, “My body, My choice.” This phrase, commonly used when discussing abortion rights, has taken on a new definition regarding body autonomy with the introduction of COVID-19 vaccines.

“I believe in keeping our freedoms,” Virginia resident Laurie Bennet said. “For abortion, it’s my body, my choice, but with this vaccination, they’re not staying true with that.”

Among the groups of protesters, there was a child standing with one group holding one of the signs created for the event. Harrisonburg City Public Schools announced in a July 17 board meeting that masking indoors would continue until the CDC announces otherwise.

“My family has a lot to do with [why I’m protesting],” Philogene said.

While some cited science and the right to choose as reasons for opposing vaccines and mask mandates, others pointed to previous vaccine experiences that informed their decision to march. Virginia resident Jim Gallagher was directed by his commander in the Air Force to get a mandatory Anthrax vaccine in 1999. 

“Having suffered through this experience, I don’t want anyone else in the world to face the choice I had to face,” Gallagher said. “I made the wrong choice because I lost my health that day … We need to stand for medical freedom. I fought for freedom for 21 years, but I think I fought the wrong battle. There’s medical tyranny trying to take away our freedom.”

Christina Skaggs, a board member with VFK, held a sign that read, “I was injured by vaccines.” Skaggs said she developed an autoimmune condition after getting the Hepatitis B vaccine. She said this now puts her at higher risk to develop further autoimmune conditions from other vaccines.

“It’s not ethical to say that I should have to inject those things into my body in order to participate in the free and open society that we have in the U.S.,” Skaggs said.

Protestors stood along the streets across from the UHC holding signs, and a few were seen walking through JMU’s campus before they disbanded.

Protestors stood along the streets across from the UHC holding signs, and a few were seen walking through JMU’s campus before they disbanded. While everyone who attended the march had different reasons for protesting, they came together to support a common cause — eliminating mask and COVID-19 vaccine mandates for all.

Contact McKinley Mihailoff at mihailmx@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk onTwitter @BreezeNewsJMU.