February 28, 2021

News West

West Coast News Network

Meet the anti-vaccine fringe that targeted Dodger Stadium

A year ago, before coronavirus changed the world, stand-up comedian Jason Lefkowitz was shopping a script, working three nights a week as a Beverly Hills waiter and posting on social media about Bernie Sanders (like), high-fructose corn syrup (dislike) and the Philadelphia Eagles (love).

Now, he supports Donald Trump, believes there is an elite ring of pedophiles running loose in Hollywood and Washington and led a protest that shut down the vaccine clinic at Dodger Stadium last week.

“I want my life back. I want to go to work. I don’t want government checks,” Lefkowitz said in an interview with The Times Wednesday. “They have made me what I am.”

Lefkowitz contends that his group did not intend to shut down the vaccine site Saturday, and he was surprised when fire authorities closed the gates, blocking cars from entering for about an hour in what city officials later described as a precaution to allow vaccinations to continue inside. But he also felt pride when he realized what the group had done, believing it had saved lives by stopping the shots.

“I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is totally going to make the news now. This is going to cause a big stink,’” he said.

The Dodger Stadium protest, said Lefkowitz and others, isn’t the last.

Across California, motivated activists are turning energy once directed at federal politics towards more local concerns. Loosely connected online through causes such as ending COVID-19 shutdowns, the recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom, conspiracies fostered by QAnon and even far-right takes on Christianity, they all agree that government at every level is oppressive and must be resisted.

Ignoring public health orders and the coronavirus deaths of 450,000 Americans, they are entering stores without masks, eating at restaurants that refuse to shut down, hosting curfew-breaking parties at the beach — and thinking of ways to go bigger.

“I believe things are going to become much more local and vocal,” said Peggy Hall, an Orange County activist who champions those who would contest orders for business closures, masks and vaccinations.

Though she said she doesn’t protest herself, she is a frequent speaker and event promoter who has worked with Nari Choi, who ran the Facebook group Shop Mask Free Los Angeles, which promoted the vaccination site demonstration. The end of Trump’s presidency as a rallying point will not deter those who championed his causes, she said. She envisions continued activism, and believes this is a high point in American civic engagement.

“People like drama. They like to be in the fight. They like to be in the frame. They want to be in the thick of things,” Hall said.

The Californians who turned out at Dodger Stadium came from as far away as Sacramento but they shared the combativeness and theatricality Hall points out. The CDC has deemed the two available vaccines safe and effective, but anti-science activists put little stock in such findings.

Omar Navarro went on Facebook Live outside Dodger Stadium the morning of Jan. 30 and said he was concerned L.A. residents were being forced to take a coronavirus vaccine “that they don’t need.”

“The left has instilled fear in every American in this country,” said Navarro, a conservative media figure who has run against and lost to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) multiple times, and who once backed out of speaking at a far-right rally after accusing his then-girlfriend of doing cocaine and sleeping with the Proud Boys. He also pleaded guilty in 2016 to a misdemeanor charge related to illegally placing a tracking device on his estranged wife’s car, and in 2020 was sentenced for a felony count of stalking and a misdemeanor count of making criminal threats, according to the San Francisco district attorney’s office.

“If you think about it, what they’re doing right here is a mass, mass, massive, massive indoctrination,” Navarro said. “They want to basically hurt people because this vaccination is definitely not good.”

Navarro then denounced Gov. Gavin Newsom, saying that he has destroyed the state’s economy and calling him a hypocrite for attending a dinner at the Michelin-starred French Laundry restaurant in November.

Siaka Massaquoi, an actor who has played bit parts on shows including Fox’s “Lethal Weapon,” according to IMDb, also filmed himself protesting at Dodger Stadium last Saturday.

He panned his camera to a line of cars outside the vaccination site, saying that the gates had been closed because authorities are “afraid that us here who are protesting will come and attack,” referring to the storming of the U.S. Capitol last month. A woman near him carried a poster that said, “This sign tested positive for covid-19.”

In the video, he spoke with Nick Yaya, an actor and host “The Free America Podcast” which on its website describes itself as “a show that was created to destroy the lies and disinformation perpetuated by the Mainstream Media.” Yaya, dressed in what appeared to be a white lab coat, hosted Lefkowitz on his show earlier this month.

“Essentially, what they’re doing right now is a big experiment with people,” Yaya said, of vaccination efforts.

On his Instagram account, Massaquoi also expressed support for an effort to recall Newsom. In a video posted in late December, he urged local businesses to “take back California” and open up on Jan. 1. A written post accompanying the video said that “tyrannical lockdowns” were not supported by data and science.

Massaquoi did not respond to a request for an interview. Yaya also said protesters did not intend to stop vaccinations, but were there to educate those waiting that the shots are “potentially deadly.”

Lucas Reese Isturiz was another of those present Saturday, prompted, he said in an interview with The Times, by his conservative Christian beliefs. A self-declared citizen journalist who films anti-lockdown events for his YouTube channel, Isturiz is also a follower of ultra-conservative Los Angeles pastor and radio and webcaster Jesse Lee Peterson. Peterson preaches that men are being feminized by current culture.

He has recently tweeted that new U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg’s only qualification is that he is “shamelessly & openly ‘GAY,’” and that “Men should never listen to women.”

“I don’t even call myself a Trump supporter or a Republican, I am just a patriot,” Isturiz said. “I am just trying to keep order in America.”

Isturiz was also cited for failure to disperse on Jan. 6 at a pro-Trump rally in downtown Los Angeles where a Black woman was assaulted in what is being investigated as a hate crime, according to police records. Isturiz said he spoke with the woman who was attacked that day to warn her not to approach those with whom he was protesting after “she gave me the stink eye,” he said, but he was not involved in the attack.

“Everyone swarmed her,” he said. “I tried to tell her that something is going to happen.”

Isturiz said that he has received death threats for attending rallies and has been harassed online.

For Lefkowitz, the path to becoming the leader of the disparate group on Saturday began with the death of baseball legend Hank Aaron on Jan. 21. A week before the home-run king passed away, Aaron received his COVID-19 vaccination to help allay fears in the Black community about its safety.

“It’s just a small thing that can help zillions of people in this country,” Aaron said at the time.

But Lefkowitz has suspicions that the vaccine killed Aaron. With his mind circling around baseball and vaccines, he said, he hit on the idea of protesting at Dodger Stadium.

The event was the culmination of a year that has turned him from a Hollywood striver to a conservative agitator. When the shutdown happened last spring, he lost his waiter job. A comedy show he was headlining was canceled, and two production companies that were interested in his script put plans on hold, he said. Stuck at home, he began to do what he describes as online research.

He said he quickly found seemingly alarming information about sex trafficking. Many of those conspiracies, often labeled as #savethechildren, are related to QAnon and have been debunked numerous times. But Lefkowitz saw stories of villains and heroes led by Trump, fighting against “one big nasty party” of child abusers, he said.

“A man is supposed to protect women and children,” he said.

So he went to a rally against sex trafficking in front of the CNN building in Hollywood. Within a few months, he was at a “freedom” rally in Beverly Hills, and a protest in front of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s house demanding that he reopen L.A. He began to gravitate toward those in attendance without masks, making new acquaintances and sharing their frustrations. “We were like, we have got to go shopping and take our masks off.”

So they did. About two months ago, Lefkowitz said he began joining “shoppings” organized by others. They went to the Ralphs on La Brea Avenue, and a nearby Trader Joe’s. At first nervous, they entered in pairs and small groups, keeping their masks on for a minute or two before roaming around.

Entering stores mask free has become a common tactic for protesters across California and the U.S. At some of of the mask-free demonstrations locally, such as one Jan. 23 at a Family Dollar in Riverside County, participants harassed and berated store employees and even shoppers, and, after refusing to leave the property, were arrested on allegations of trespassing.

In late December, Lefkowitz took the lead for the first time, bringing about two dozen compatriots to force their way into the Erewhon market in the Fairfax district. When staff tried to block the door, they swarmed and pushed their way in.

Lefkowitz said he was surprised they weren’t more welcoming — he believed with their counterculture ethos, the Erewhon staff would be sympathetic to the group’s position. Police were called, however, and Lefkowitz and the others left peacefully. He said he believes mask-wearers are brainwashed.

“They look at you and they think you are the enemy,” he said. “I feel sad for them.”

Like Isturis, Lefkowitz said he receives death threats and has been stalked online. But he is undeterred.

“For me personally, I am going to try to focus on some bigger things,” he said. “This all plays into my stand-up background. I have no stage fright and I don’t care what people think of me.”