As the Covid-19 pandemic drags on, right-wing resistance to vaccination continues to grow. While in other countries anti-vax protesters have gotten into clashes with the police, in the United States, police “unions” have emerged as perhaps the most important political force leading the charge against vaccination.
October 25th was a big day for the police-led anti-vaccine movement. In Chicago and New York police associations led protests against vaccine mandates for city employees. Thousands came out to New York’s protest, while at the same time the largest police union in New York City filed a lawsuit against the city on the grounds that the vaccine mandate violated employees’ religious freedom. These outbursts come on the heels of similar actions in Seattle as that city imposed a vaccine mandate for city workers.
In Chicago, October 25th was the date of a city council meeting in which aldermen voted down a resolution to roll back the vaccine mandate. The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 organized a protest outside city hall that morning at 9 A.M., calling on other city employees to join them.
Nobody embodies the reactionary political thrust of anti-vax police associations better than racist goon and FOP Lodge 7 president John Catanzara. But now he’s taken up a new tune, attempting to frame opposition to the vaccine mandate as a union fight for workers’ rights. Alderman Silvana Tabares, who coauthored the failed resolution, repeated this claim on her public twitter, framing this as a labor rights issue. This is a cynical invocation of labor rights to defend the prerogatives of the violent wing of the state even though it actively undermines public health during a pandemic. The framing is important because it’s clear the FOP is trying to rally other city workers to its cause. And even more worrying is that it seems to be at least partly working.
Indeed, one of the most disheartening things about these rallies is the extent to which they’ve been able to rally the support of other city workers. The New York City demonstration drew a visible presence by city workers beyond the police. The Chicago demonstration also gathered some expressions of solidarity from other groups of city workers—in particular from both off-duty and on-duty firefighters, perhaps unsurprisingly given their cultural proximity to the police.
Early on, a Black counterprotester carried a sign pointing to conditions in prisons, where Covid spreads wantonly. Police arrested him for making noise with a megaphone. The anti-vax movement led by the police directly assaults the incarcerated and overpoliced communities who are already the principal victims of police violence.
Police are by far the least vaccinated segment of city employees, with only 71 percent reporting their vaccination status so far and 81 percent of respondents saying they were vaccinated as of the 25th. That number has climbed recently in response to the vaccine mandate, as a week ago only 63 percent had responded.
None of this should be surprising, given that Catanzara has explicitly called on police not to report their vaccination status to the city and has compared the vaccine mandate to the Holocaust. The blatant disregard for public safety from the police should be especially unsurprising to anyone who attended the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020, when police were regularly unmasked while in close proximity with protesters. The police are a public health threat in their most ordinary function as the violent enforcers of a racist order for capital, but it would seem that as they become more politically conscious as a class, they have come to fully embrace a hostility to life and the well-being of society as a whole.
While the FOP and its allied city council members were ultimately unsuccessful at rolling back the vaccine mandate, their political fight continues. Catanzara was full of defiant bluster at the city council meeting, vowing to sabotage the reelection campaigns of alders who opposed this vote. And the following morning, around a hundred cops and supporters demonstrated outside Chicago Police Department headquarters, volunteering to go on no-pay status in order not to disclose their vaccination status to the city. As of Monday, 3,735 officers have yet to disclose if they have been vaccinated.
The fact that the FOP and other police associations have decided to die on this anti-vax hill underscores their deep solidarity with far-right politics. The Covid-19 era has been a boon to conspiracy thinking of all kinds, first with the rapid spread of the Q conspiracy in 2020, and now with the proliferation of anti-vaccine ideas especially on the right. Back in March, the New York Times reported on how the same conspiracists who were insisting that Trump won the election had started to migrate to anti-vax conspiracism.
Anti-vax conspiracy thinking is not unique to the American far right. Infiltrated British Telegram chats reveal the wide purchase of anti-vax conspiracism among a far-right veteran group, whose members fantasize about staging an insurrection in which vaccination centers are shut down. Indeed, the trope of comparing vaccinations to the Holocaust has become something of a meme in these far-right circles online. John Catanzara is no doubt aware of this.
Far-right groups have been menacing public health since early on in the pandemic, as evinced by the “reopen” protests in 2020. This past September, members of the Proud Boys and other far-right activists staged a protest in Chicago with anti-vax propaganda in the foreground. The anti-vax campaign has rapidly become the cause celébre of a far right that likes to imagine itself as made up of heroic defenders of personal liberty fighting a tyrannical government. In a particularly disgusting move, these far-right forces have attempted to co-opt reproductive justice slogans like “My Body, My Choice” to give their movement a patina of respectability (or maybe just to stick it to the left).
Like the backlash to civil rights leading with “states rights,” anti-vax conspiracism allows the far right to wrap their generally unpopular politics in a more digestible rhetoric in an attempt to draw neophytes into racist or even fascist movements. That degrees of proximity to self-conscious fascism are blurred is part of the point.
This regrettable episode makes clear, if it wasn’t already, that the FOP and other police associations are among the largest and most politically powerful far-right organizations. Perhaps it should be unsurprising that in the most heavily incarcerated society in human history the armed wing of the state should have a certain default sympathy for fascism. All that’s left to see is whether Catanzara is right and there are enough cops willing to die on this hill that thousands of them won’t be employed as cops any longer. For everyone’s sake, I hope he’s right about that.