A Small Lockdown Protest Features Sweeping Conspiracy Theories | Off Message

A Small Lockdown Protest Features Sweeping Conspiracy Theories


Chris Richardson - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Chris Richardson
Vermont’s “excessive quarantine” protest was off to a lackluster start. An April snowstorm was passing through Montpelier, and the few rally-goers who came to the Statehouse lawn to demand an end to coronavirus lockdowns were outnumbered by journalists looking for a quote.

Reporter Michael Bielawski of the conservative news website True North Reports did his best to get a zinger, teeing up perennial state GOP candidate H. Brooke Paige, who was gripping an enormous American flag.

“In the beginning, they said it was going to be hundreds of thousands of deaths. Now they’re saying 60,000-ish deaths, pretty much in line with flu season,” Bielawski said. “But they’re saying they saved us, because we did all this. Do you see any concern there, that they got it really wrong, but they saved us?”

Paige, wearing a cowboy hat and surgical mask, started into what, by the day’s standards, would count as a measured critique of the government’s pandemic response. Paige said he favored voluntary measures instead of state-ordered lockdown, while maintaining that Democratic leaders — not the Republican President — should have acted sooner.
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • H. Brooke Paige
Paige was a few minutes into his response when Chris Richardson strutted across the street carrying a Don’t Tread on Me flag that was signed by Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist who heads Infowars.

“Freedom, baby, this is America!” Richardson, 39, belted out, stealing the stage. “Let’s open it back up. What’s up? We can’t starve to death. We gonna all sit here and be poor, can’t feed my kids?”

A leader had emerged.

“Now you gotta lock down because China locked down? When’s the last time we take orders from Communist China?” Richardson, a restaurant server from Williston, asked the crowd of protesters and journalists gathering around him.

He kept going, and others fed off his hype.

“Open this bitch!” one man yelled, referring to the home of the brave.

“Constitution, baby, let’s go!”

Richardson spoke out against coronavirus vaccines and recited the conspiracy theory du jour: “Nanotech ID mark of the beast so Bill Gates’ society can force-inject you!” he said.

An older man wearing a QAnon T-shirt shouted the digits of a Microsoft patent, which a recent conspiracy theory claims to match Biblical prophecy. 

“I ain’t taking no vaccine!” someone else proclaimed.

It was too much for Paige, who later said he slinked away as the protest “devolved” into an airing of conspiracies.
Kevin Hoyt of Bennington holding a flag - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Kevin Hoyt of Bennington holding a flag
Larger protests pushing a quicker end to stay-at-home orders have taken place at statehouses around the country, egged on by President Donald Trump’s tweets and organized in some instances with the help of opaque right-wing funders.

Wednesday’s action in Vermont only managed to garner participation of a small coalition of conspiracy theorists, Second Amendment activists, Make America Great Again loyalists and old-school Libertarians. At its peak, no more than 20 protesters were gathered. A few people drove by and honked, but their intent was open to interpretation. One woman rolled down her window, leaned on her horn and thrust out her middle finger.

The Facebook group that hosted Wednesday’s event is administered by Debbie Regimbald, who led opposition to refugee resettlement in Rutland in 2016. A woman who identified herself as Regimbald to True North reporter Bielawski attended the protest. She could be heard explaining to Bielawski that she didn’t believe the coronavirus death tally was as high as the government says.

The same woman declined to give her name to Seven Days. “Go piss up a rope,” she said when asked.

Another Facebook page, titled Vermonters Against Excessive Quarantine, did not advertise Wednesday's rally but has been pushing a similar cause since forming on April 15. “Sponsored” posts by the group have been appearing on users’ Facebook feeds, according to screenshots provided to Seven Days by Facebook user Brian LaClair, of Burlington.
  • Screenshot courtesy of Brian LaClair

Its posts have generated hundreds of shares and comments, including from Vermonters who accused its administrators of living out of state. The group's administrators have not identified themselves besides posting that they live in Killington. There is no record of advertising by the group in Facebook’s public ad library. The page lists [email protected] as its only contact information.

The ads irked LaClair — and piqued his curiosity. So he used a “forgot your password” tool on Mail.com to look for clues about the account owner. He posted his findings publicly to Twitter and Reddit: The site had displayed a partial email address and cellphone number that matched public work contact information for Bradford Broyles, a Mendon resident and cofounder of Public Spectacle Media and Right and Funny Productions.

Broyles, a former Rutland County Republican chair, was behind conservative media brand News Done Right, which lampooned Gov. Phil Scott, a moderate Republican, in satirical web videos.

Broyles did not respond to a request for comment. The recovery account for [email protected] has since been changed.

In a Wednesday afternoon post, the still-anonymous administrator of Vermonters Against Excessive Quarantine disavowed “the small attendance rally” in Montpelier.

Some protesters acknowledged that the event had been a bit of a bust. At the end of an interview with Bielawski, the flag-toting Richardson opined that the cold weather had kept supporters at home.

“When it gets warm and nice out, and everyone is really sick of it, this whole place is going to be filled up,” he said. He then repeated it, so Bielawski could take down the quote.

By that point, the reporter and subject had established a rapport. Bielawski complimented Richardson’s Infowars swag, and then flashed an Infowars sticker that was affixed to his own phone.

“You’re on the scoop, man,” Richardson replied. “Do that real journalism.”

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