Promoted on Facebook and Telegram, the "Worldwide Demonstration for Freedom" scheduled for Saturday promises that people around the world will rise up in unity against a nebulous enemy, using lofty phrases like "peace," "human rights," "democracy," "sovereignty" and "solidarity."
The soft framing and new age-y presentation belies a hard-edged message of protest against COVID restrictions that will be clearly understood by anti-lockdown stalwarts but vague enough to appeal to a wider audience. Launched by an obscure outfit in central Germany called Freie Bürger Kassel (translated as Free Citizens of Kassel), the Worldwide Demonstration has received a promotional boost from Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an anti-vaccination campaigner and nephew of the 35th US president, who has been building transatlantic links with the German anti-lockdown movement over the past six months.
The group pledged in a Feb. 23 Facebook post to "form the biggest demonstration of the current time" with simultaneous actions in dozens of countries scheduled for Saturday, but social media engagement suggests it will fall short of the goal: Stockholm, one of the larger European capitals with an event page, shows only 30 people "interested." The US footprint is even more modest: Among 25-some events, the Alabama rally is taking place not in Birmingham, the largest city in the state, but at a distillery in Madison, a small city outside of Huntsville. The address for the Dallas event is actually an undeveloped parcel in suburban Arlington.
The art for the rallies features an identical font with iconic images from each of the locations processed through a golden filter and tagged with the hashtag #WewillALLbethere. The Facebook page for the project is churning out announcements for dozens of new locations a day, with a parallel effort on Telegram where some of the posts were reshared upwards of 15,000 times on Tuesday.
While the social media presence for the US events shows little evidence of ground-level buy-in, a handful have been adopted by local organizers. A rally at the Huntington Beach Pier in southern California will feature speakers, including a San Jacinto city council member. Events in two cities in North Carolina are being promoted by the state's far-right Constitution Party. And a group on Facebook called #PAFreedomCampaign is promoting an "Americans for Freedom Rally" in Pittsburgh that promises speeches from state legislators.
Freie Bürger Kassel makes no secret of the group's hardline stance in a press release posted on the organization's website, although not on its Facebook, Telegram and Instagram accounts.
"The excessive and unlawful coronavirus restriction measures must end immediately," the press release says. "The unreasonable and tyrannical suppression of dissent by police forces must be stopped. In the past year, people's livelihoods and freedoms have been destroyed by the lockdowns and border closures. We have had our bodily autonomy violated by mask mandates, and plans to mandate coronavirus vaccinations are being rolled out internationally." (In the United States, President Biden has said he does not think the coronavirus vaccine should be mandatory, according to the Poynter Institute's PolitiFact, which also reported that states have the constitutional authority to mandate vaccinations. All 50 states and the District of Columbia already require students to get certain vaccinations, although some states allow exemptions.)
Within the broader anti-lockdown movement in Germany — known as Querdenker, or "Thinking Outside the Box" — Freie Bürger Kassel is a relatively small player.
Sebastian Koos, an assistant professor for corporate responsibility at the University of Konstanz who monitors the movement, said he was not familiar with the group.
"Last weekend, we had the first protests in a while," Koos said in an email to Raw Story. "Seems like new initiatives are entering the scene, even though potentially organized by the same old networks."
Germany is experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases, up to 83.7 per 100,000 people, compared to 68 a week ago, according to Reuters. The state-owned news website DW reported that protests last weekend against COVID restrictions left police officers in Dresden injured, and in Stuttgart demonstrators attacked members of the media.
The German organizers of the upcoming Worldwide Demonstration are attempting to counteract the violent reputation of some in the German anti-lockdown movement by declaring, "We reject all acts of violence, identity politics, and discrimination of any kind within our movement."
In the United States, some far-right activists are using the upcoming Worldwide Demonstration as an opportunity to reposition after the failed coup at the US Capitol on Jan. 6 resulted in a law enforcement crackdown and public relations fiasco.
Tonya McFalls, a North Carolina organizer, asked attendees to show up wearing "red, white and blue" to the upcoming Worldwide Demonstration in Raleigh, near the Governor's Mansion.
"It's a freedom rally," McFalls said during a Facebook Live video on Tuesday evening that was hosted by the "Impeach Roy Cooper"Facebook group. "We're all tired of living in communism and socialism. The mask mandates need to stop. It's time to open back up. It's gotten out of hand, and we do have a communist governor, and he needs to go." (Cooper, a moderate Democrat, handily won reelection in 2020, with analysts saying voters credited him for his cautious handling of the pandemic.)
McFalls co-organized a Nov. 28 anti-lockdown protest in Raleigh that enlisted about 50 Proud Boys as "security." Later, McFalls joined Trump supporters outside the US Capitol on Jan. 6.
"I know a lot of people have shied away since Jan. 6," McFalls said in the video on the private Impeach Roy Cooper Facebook group, with more than 85,000 members. "We've all been quiet. We've all stayed home, kind of kept to ourselves, but it's time to rise back up.
"It's time to remember what you were fighting for in the beginning," she continued. "It wasn't always about Trump, even though we know the election was rigged and stolen. But it wasn't always about him; it was about people. So, we've got to get back to that platform."
McFalls said the event will feature a speaker from Back the Blue NC, along with "a bunch of elected officials" whom she declined to name.
The North Carolina Constitution Party recently assumed control of the Impeach Roy Cooper Facebook group from Reopen NC leader Ashley Smith, whose husband went on Facebook Live last May and said people should be willing to kill, if necessary, to resist the "New World Order" and emergency orders to contain the coronavirus.
"In working with Reopen North Carolina for the past year, our leadership team and their leadership team during social media events, joint impeachment efforts, interviews and such, we decided to combine our efforts to create Impeachment 2.0, if you will, because there's always strength in numbers," Constitution Party Chairman Al Pisano said in a public Facebook Live video on Feb. 4.
McFalls struck a defiant tone during the Facebook Live video on Tuesday, while being careful to hedge against charges of promoting violence.
"The government is scared of us because they know we are trying to take this country back," she said. "Not in a violent way — we need to be clear on that. We're constitutionalists, and that's what we live by. They have forgotten the Constitution, so you have to take that back, and remind these elected officials. You have to remind them that they took an oath, and they need to uphold it."
The poster for the rally in Huntington Beach, Calif. features headshots of Republican gubernatorial candidate Sarah Stevens, Instagram influencer Amber Nichole Miller; and Brian Eugene Hawkins, a Republican member of San Jacinto City Council. Miller is the girlfriend of Mayor Pro Tem Tito Ortiz.
Hawkins told Raw Story he plans to bring a message of unity and reconciliation when he speaks at the event. He declined to share the name of the person who is responsible for organizing the local event, who also invited him to speak.
Hawkins told Raw Story he regrets that the pandemic has become so politicized, and indicated his own views are not doctrinaire.
"I'm not a big fan of vaccines," Hawkins said. "I've never been vaccinated in my entire life until last month. The reason I got the COVID vaccine is I think it's important to help calm the fears. I didn't struggle with it as much as some people."
Hawkins said he plans to run for Congress in California's 36th Congressional District.
The Americans For Freedom Rally in Pittsburgh, demanding an end to the "mask mandate," promises speeches by three state lawmakers — Rep. Rob Mercuri, Rep. Eric Nelson and Rep. Eric Davanzo — along with two judicial candidates.
The private Facebook group #PAFreedomCampaign with more than 2,200 members is promoting the rally and asking attendees to carry American, Gadsden and "1776" flags, banners and signs.
Koos, the assistant professor at University of Konstanz, said he doubts the rallies organized by Freie Bürger Kassel on Saturday in Germany will be approved, and a large turnout might force their cancelation.
Despite the Worldwide Demonstration's modest prospects, the effort has received a boost from Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who recorded a promotional video circulated on Telegram on March 13 that casts suspicion on efforts by health authorities and world governments to curb the spread of coronavirus.
"You all know that about a year ago, we saw the beginning a disease epidemic and a response to that epidemic that was not proportionable to the threat," Kennedy said. "We saw a deliberate effort by the media and the pharmaceutical industry and regulatory officials to pump up fear and then to clamp down totalitarian controls. And we've watched in astonishment as our democracy has been subverted, and we are transforming the Western nations into surveillance states."
With Children's Health Defense's logo running across the top and the name, March 20 date and website for the Worldwide Demonstration displayed along the bottom, Kennedy says, "Children's Health Defense is working with allied groups all over the world to plan a worldwide rally. We already have 40 nations participating and we hope that you'll join us. The date is March 20th. It's the Worldwide Rally for Democracy and Freedom."
Despite Kennedy's promotion of the Worldwide Demonstration, there's no mention of the event on the Children's Health Defense website or that of its European branch. The video was no longer available online as of Tuesday evening; Telegram content disappears after 48 hours, and the organizers have not re-circulated it.
Reached by phone on Tuesday, Kennedy told Raw Story that he recorded the video at the request of Children's Health Defense's European branch. He said he thought Marcus Haintz, a German lawyer, brought the initiative to the organization.
Despite the drumbeat of comments Kennedy has made raising doubts about vaccines, he said he's "not skeptical of vaccines." Among his concerns, he said the US health system is not properly equipped to track injuries, seemingly at odds with his rhetoric raising fear about Western nations transforming "into surveillance states."
FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that a new video documentary called Medical Racism: The New Apartheid that was co-produced by Children's Health Defense "repeats misrepresentations about vaccines, generally, and exploits historical cases of unethical medical conduct to suggest without evidence that COVID-19 vaccines are unsafe." The video was released on March 11.
The article said Kennedy, a lawyer, "ends the video by discouraging viewers from following the advice of public health officials, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, before urging them "to review the package inserts for vaccines and question whether the ingredients are safe."
Haintz appears in a new COVID-skeptic film called Planet Lockdown. The Washington Post reported that a clip of the video that Kennedy shared on Instagram on Dec. 29 drew more than 900,000 eyeballs before the social media company took it down.
Haintz joined Kennedy for a press conference launching Children's Health Defense in Berlin on Aug. 28, 2020. Kennedy assailed Fauci and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates by suggesting they are part of a sinister "biosecurity agenda" and charged that 5G internet "has created a surveillance state."
Touting his work with Waterkeeper Alliance and litigation against powerful corporations, Kennedy framed his argument in a way that is likely appeal to a left-leaning audience. But he built to a point that aligns with the far-right, populist view that shadowy "globalist" forces are conspiring to strip away people's rights.
"Many people argue that this pandemic was a plandemic, that it was planned from the outset, it's part of a sinister scheme," Kennedy said during the press conference. "I can't tell you the answer to that. I don't have enough evidence. A lot of it feels very planned to me. I don't know, but I will tell you this, if you create these mechanisms for control, they become weapons of obedience for authoritarian regimes no matter how beneficial or innocent the people who created them."
The following day, Kennedy stood arm-in-arm with Haintz at the Brandenburg Gate as tens of thousands of Germans protested against coronavirus restrictions in Berlin.
The rally drew international headlines when far-right activists attempted to storm the Reichstag, the German seat of government, in a transatlantic prelude to the attempted coup at the US Capitol on Jan. 6. In Berlin, some of the stormers reportedly carried the flag of former imperial Germany that is used by the far-right Reichsbürger group.
Predictably, most German anti-lockdown activists generally dismiss the incident as a false flag event.
Senta Depuydt, president of Children's Health Defense Europe, described the incident as "pure invention" in an account of the Aug. 29 anti-lockdown protest posted on the Children's Health Defense website. Suggesting a conspiracy between law enforcement and the media, she wrote that "some witnesses reported seeing teams of journalists coming straight out of police stations, while acolytes placed on nearby rooftops orchestrated the maneuver."
But Depuydt acknowledged an alignment of views between the German far right and what she called "a nonpartisan popular citizen movement" while alluding to the establishment of the modern German state through the Allied occupation after the defeat of the Nazis.
Depuydt wrote that "many German citizens" feel that "the German constitution would not be legitimate since it is not the result of the will of the people, but the result of an external authority, that of the Allies." She wrote, "Unfortunately, this claim, which seems legitimate to a nonpartisan popular citizen movement, is also echoed by far-right parties."
Kennedy has attempted to distance himself from any far-right associations engendered by the Aug. 29 rally. He told Raw Story he is suing the Daily Kos over an article headlined "Anti-vaxxer RFK Jr. joins neo-Nazis in massive Berlin 'anti-corona' protest."