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Established N.H. Libertarian Activists Drive Coronavirus Protests

people with signs protesting covid-19 vaccination stand in front of the State House in Concord
Dan Tuohy
Anti-vaccination demonstrators gather outside the State House in Concord.

Coronavirus-related disinformation has steadily escalated in New Hampshire: at the State House, in debates over school policy and in public protests. Some of it has taken the form of individual protests, with citizens showing up with homemade signs on street corners and the State House lawn.

But plenty of the activity is driven by anti-government groups with long-standing ties to libertarian politics in the state. With coordinated social media, fundraising efforts, candidate endorsements and advertising, and activist training, the effort resembles, in some ways, a burgeoning political campaign.

“Covid-fascism is our motivation, stopping that from happening,” said Andrew Manuse, a former Republican lawmaker who’s long been active in libertarian-leaning activism in the state and is behind several of the groups organizing protests.

“I think we have a lot of work to do,” he added. “I’m not sure we’re planning to go away anytime soon.”

The public faces of this protest presents a mix: There are fervent citizens for whom the pandemic has been a personal awakening and those with no apparent ties to traditional political organizing. There are people with years of experience in anti-government protests: those who frequented Tea Party rallies of a decade ago, pro-Trump events in recent years, or even run-of-the-mill partisan Republican events.

But this movement is more than a few activated people. There are also several organizations working to build broader support behind these efforts. Groups with names like Absolute Defiance, the Government Integrity Project, Rise Up NH appear loosely connected on social media via Facebook, listserv emails, or on right-leaning platforms like Telegram. They share information about upcoming protests, give updates on local COVID developments and post news stories — much of it fueled by conspiracy theory or disinformation — about what they call the risks of vaccination.

All available evidence shows vaccination from COVID-19 is safe and represents the best way to prevent death or serious illness related to the disease. Wearing face masks is also one of the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

RebuildNH is perhaps the most conspicuous of these organizations. Since the start of the pandemic, it has fought COVID-mitigation measures imposed by Gov. Chris Sununu. Originally launched as ReOpen New Hampshire, the group now has more far-reaching goals, including limiting the power of governors to issue executive orders and rejecting federal efforts to share in the pandemic response.

Though the group itself is relatively new, it was founded by three people who’ve been active in New Hampshire conservative politics for some time: Andrew Manuse, J.R. Hoell and Carolyn McKinney. Manuse and Hoell are two former House members with ties to libertarian politics. McKinney is the former leader of the New Hampshire Liberty Caucus.

Rebuild NH’s current executive director is state lawmaker Melissa Blasek. She, like many people looking to lead this movement, presents the current moment in stark terms:

“People are really, really scared,” she said in a video posted to the Rebuild NH website about proposed vaccine mandates. “If this can be done, there’s no limit to the authoritarianism.”

Rebuild NH’s foothold in elective politics is reflected in how they operate. It was formed as a political action committee that endorsed and bought Facebook ads for state candidates in the 2020 elections.

The group has also spun off two other enterprises: The Liberty Defense Fund of New Hampshire, a corporate entity raising money for lawsuits around pandemic and vaccination policies. The group also founded New Hampshire Health Care Workers for Freedom, to organize health care workers in fighting employer vaccine mandates.

In October, Rebuild NH will facilitate a training for activists from the the Foundation for Applied Conservative Leadership, a Virginia- based non-profit run by a political consultant who has worked for Ron and Rand Paul. The training, which will cost $40 to attend, will purportedly show activists how to navigate elected officials and be “FEARED and RESPECTED.”

Fear and respect is one goal, but it’s hard to discern the direct impact of this activity on the state’s COVID response. Still, there already appear to be overlaps between the activism and the policy-making.

Just days after a large September anti-vaccine protest at the State House, where protesters heckled Republican lawmakers, a legislative committee turned down $27 million in federal money meant to boost the state’s vaccination efforts.

The Republican chairman of that committee, Rep. Kenneth Weyler, said he simply did not believe what state health officials were saying about COVID infections and cited disinformation about the efficacy of vaccines.

“There’s no one in government you can trust,” said Weyler, one of the top-ranking lawmakers in the State House.

Last week, one of the loudest New Hampshire anti-vaccine mandate activists, a nurse named Terese Grinnell, had a phone call with Sununu’s chief of staff, Jayne Millerick. Both sides said it wasn’t a “negotiation,” but Grinnell did present the governor’s office with a list of policy goals -- most of them straight from what protesters have been demanding.

Grinnell said she told Millerick: “Either [Sununu] steps up and he does his job, or he’s going to have a whole other pandemic on his hands, because there is so much civil unrest and righteous anger right now.”

A spokesman for Sununu said the meeting with Grinnell was a “routine conversation” with a constituent.

The pressure extends beyond the governor’s office. Some bills proposed by Republican lawmakers for the 2022 session push for policies which would undercut government control over medical decisions around the coronavirus. There are bills to limit the powers of government during a pandemic, to blunt vaccine mandates, to revisit the notion of the state’s vaccine registry and to bar employers from considering vaccination status in hiring decisions, among others.

In many ways, New Hampshire is fertile ground for these types of ideas. The Granite State has a history of government mistrust from our founding: The right of revolt is in the state constitution. There is also vaccine hesitancy here that predates COVID, and a predisposition towards medical privacy: New Hampshire was the last state to have a vaccine registry, for instance. We also have a citizen legislature, and that's always been a permeable membrane for citizen activists. With that comes a history of grassroots conservative-slash-libertarian activism — around gun rights and limited government — reinvigorated in recent years by the Free State Project.

Recent polling from the University of New Hampshire suggests while vaccination rates for COVID are generally pretty high in the state, distrust of pharmaceutical companies has risen since June.

But it’s hard to know how much of that increase has to do with activism around COVID-19 vaccines. But those looking to limit the government’s reach on the pandemic will tell you they see a rising tide.

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