A network of far-right activists organized on social media, including anti-maskers and anti-vaxx conspiracists, has been raising hell in communities all over Maine, staging armed protests and becoming increasingly aggressive on the streets. Convinced that public health measures intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 are part of a vast, yet vague plot involving Marxists, fascists, corporations and Satan, group members have discussed disrupting a new vaccination site at a racetrack in Scarborough.
The network was previously organized through the Facebook groups Mainers Against Mask Mandates, which had about 1,500 members, and Beacon For Sovereignty, which had over 500. In mid-January, a post on the Beacon For Sovereignty page announced that Facebook “just banned a lot of our members and all [administrators] from our group page,” so it was moving to the more permissive social-media site MeWe and merging with Mainers Against Mask Mandates, which has been entirely removed from Facebook.
Group members have been protesting against Maine’s mask mandate on a street corner in the small midcoast city of Belfast every Sunday since early November. On Saturdays, they demonstrate in downtown Freeport. In December, they rallied in front of Gov. Janet Mills’ residence in Augusta and vandalized holiday trees on the property with used masks.
The network also promoted attendance at a county commission meeting in Auburn earlier this month, where attendees shouted “cowards” and “shame” at officials who postponed a vote on a resolution to reject Mills’ mask mandate (the resolution was soundly defeated last week). They’ve organized and promoted several maskless social events in other Maine communities.
The protests in Belfast are becoming increasingly tense. “There are people at these protests that are coming armed,” said City Councilor Mike Hurley, who criticized the demonstrators’ “aggressive” tactics, which include accosting passersby who wear masks.
Recently posted video footage shows the Belfast anti-maskers berating a mother on the sidewalk. “Take that mask off that poor little girl! That’s child abuse!” a protestor can be heard yelling. When the mother asked the anti-maskers to “mind their own business,” the group started chanting: “child abuse.” Another recent clip shows a violent confrontation between a male pedestrian and a protester that resulted in the pedestrian being shoved into the street. “The warmer this gets, the more wild it’s gonna get,” COVID-denier Matthew Norwood said during the Feb. 21 Belfast demonstration, predicting more trouble this spring. “It’s gonna be real interesting.
Posting on Beacon For Sovereignty’s Facebook page, protester Julie Freeman observed that “things have become pretty hostile” at the group’s demonstrations, and said the “spiritual war is coming to a boiling point.” Mask-wearers “will spit and growl too because they are possessed by the devil (bill gates),” she wrote.
“Legit possessed by evil,” Norwood agreed. “The devil is building his army up.”
“As soon as they accepted the mask they changed into snarling beasts and came after me,” Freeman replied. “Not even kidding.”
The Belfast protesters have also waved a “Fuck Biden” flag and displayed a sign supporting disgraced Maine Capitol Police Chief Russ Gauvin, who was removed from duty after posting messages on Facebook last fall questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election and state mask mandates.
“What unifies them is they are in a state that Trump lost, a state that voted pro-vaccination, a town that went heavily for Biden,” said Hurley. “They’re united by a menu of pro-Trump, anti-mask, and so-called anti-government ideas.”
A counter-protestor, Ron Goff, who’d been criticizing the Belfast group online for months, said several Mainers Against Mask Mandates members recently posted a video threatening him with violence. “They filmed themselves talking about me while drunk and on drugs, with a table covered in money and guns,” Goff said. “I saved the video and reported it to the police.” Goff also reported the video to Facebook, which suspended the account where it was posted.
Richard Coffron, who lives in Hallowell and works at a LongHorn Steakhouse, describes himself as a “spokesperson” for the Belfast protesters and affiliated social-media groups. (He’s expressed a fear of being fired from the restaurant for appearing on video breaking quarantine; see video clip above.) Many of the protestors “drew a line in the sand with masks,” he said, but their real battle is against “fascism” and “Marxism.”
The battle lines aren’t exactly clear.
Coffron said he and other protestors “don’t think Trump is a fascist,” but conceded the former president might be — the odds being about the same as the likelihood that “aliens exist,” he said. “Trump could have been controlled-opposition,” Coffron wrote in a message to Mainer. “He could have been a Fascist. He could have just been a naive Billionaire. I try to focus as much as I can on things I can test/interact with.”
Asked if he could test whether Trump was a fascist, Coffron said he could not.
Coffron also struggled to identify the Marxists and fascists his group is opposing. He claimed the “leaders of BLM” were Marxists, citing a New York Post article that reported one of the movement’s organizers “studied Marx,” but later conceded that spreading Communism “probably wasn’t BLM’s goal.”
The anti-maskers’ “ultimate goal is to prevent mandatory vaccination,” Coffron said, especially for children whose parents oppose vaccines. “Most of us believe that after Covid is over, corporations will use scares like this to make us vaccinate yearly,” he wrote. “If mandatory vaccines were to come out and no one was ready to push back, there would be zero resistance for when it ‘might’ happen.”
“We could easily be in the wrong. We know that,” Coffron added. “It would be like if someone stood up against the Government when they were handing out smallpox blankets to the Native Americans. Taking a difficult stance like this is risky. It’s going to alienate many of our friends and family.”
In late January, Coffron’s crew turned their sights on a new target: Scarborough Downs, the harness-racing track that’s been converted into a COVID-19 vaccination site. On Facebook, Coffron and his associates openly discussed ways to disrupt the operation of the site, as anti-vaxx activists had recently done at Dodger Stadium. “We would need some good numbers to really shut it down though,” a commenter named Johanna Lane noted.
“We might not be able to [shut it down],” Coffron wrote on Facebook, “but we need to rally at this asap.”
“It makes sense for us to be the ones to push back,” Coffron wrote in the comment thread. “We ARE the only ones in Maine doing anything.”