Harlem Vaccine Forum: RFK Jr.’s fiasco of an attempt to court African-Americans

Over the last couple of weeks, I discussed the strange saga of the Harlem Vaccine Forum, a free public forum that was originally scheduled to be held on September 14, rescheduled for October 19, cancelled, and then held anyway at a different venue. It was, of course, in reality an antivaccine forum that was originally going to be held at Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network headquarters and feature a number of antivaxers, including Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Gary Null, Curtis Cost, Mary Holland, Sheila Ealey, and more; that is, until the press got wind of the forum and started asking questions and writing articles about Rev. Sharpton hosting antivaxers. Rev. Sharpton, unsurprisingly, canceled. He also lied about his interest in the forum, claiming that he wasn’t even sure that he was going to attend, even though Curtis Cost had written on his blog that RFK Jr. and Rev. Sharpton had chosen October 19 so that both could attend. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, RFK Jr. would not be deterred, and his child-endangering Children’s Health Defense found another location, historic Riverside Church in Harlem, and the antivax confab went on as planned.

Before I describe the event, let me provide a bit of a spoiler: It was a disaster, a total train wreck. Basically, because of poor planning and speakers unable stay within their allotted time, the event went way, way over the time period for which they had rented the church’s assembly hall, leading the church to cut off the microphone in the middle of RFK Jr.’s talk (naturally, he spoke at the end) and kick the Children’s Health Defense and all the attendees out. It was epic in its hilariousness. Also, not surprisingly, it spawned a bunch of conspiracy theories about how “They” were so threatened by the Harlem Vaccine Forum that “They” made sure to shut it down.

The Harlem Vaccine Forum

For my purposes, it helps a lot that antivaxers are always eager to publicize their activities; so helpfully they livestreamed the event on multiple Facebook pages. You can watch their antivax confab in Harlem if you wish, although I wouldn’t recommend it. It lasted over three hours, and even I couldn’t handle that much antivaccine propaganda. So I merely sampled it. Here’s part one:

Here’s part two:

And here’s a shot of the audience. I can’t help but note an—shall we say?—unexpected paucity of melanin for an event held at a Harlem church:

You can see the point where the confab went over and the whole group was kicked out of the assembly hall at around the 30-35 minute mark in this video:

Also see the 18 minute mark or so in part 2.

Getting kicked out of the space led RFK Jr. and the rest to go out on the street:

Naturally, the conspiracy theories flowed. In this post, an antivaxer commented:

No, they cut off the mic and told everyone to leave because we were slightly over time. Bobby offered to cover the cost, but they just got mad at us and yelled at us to get out.

And another:

because he dared speak about the corruption on this issue of a certain political party. That pastor knows what side his bread is buttered on. The irony of timing of the shut down and what Bobby was speaking about was not lost on me.

In another place, antivaxers claim that it was “overcapacity”:

Maybe. Or maybe it was because the church pastor or manager of the space didn’t realize that this was an antivax confab when he accepted a last-minute deal to rent the place to RFK Jr. and wasn’t going to let them go beyond the bare minimum it took for the church to honor its contract. Or maybe the church had an event scheduled in the evening that it needed time to set up for, such as Saturday evening church services or a wedding? Maybe the church realized that it had made a massive mistake in booking this group and wasn’t going to let RFK Jr. off the hook by accepting his offer to pay for the additional time the Harlem Vaccine Forum went over. I was also not surprised at the sheer sense of entitlement of the organizers and attendees. This manifested itself in outrage when the church told them that the event had run too long and the church’s lack of interest in more money to continue the event beyond the allotted time.

Indeed, RFK Jr. himself took to Instagram later on Saturday:

Meanwhile, antivaccine sites tried to amplify this message and proclaim that RFK Jr. had been “silenced.” For example, here’s the antivaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism portraying RFK Jr. as “Silenced at Harlem Vaccine Forum Event,” citing a blog post from an antivaxer whose ‘nym is Fed Up Democrat. (Why do I get the feeling that this guy is a Trump supporter? I’ve learned that “disaffected liberal” and “fed up Democrat” are basically synonyms for Trump supporters.) In any event, this Fed Up Democrat proclaimed the Harlem Vaccine Forum as:

500 People Attend Vaccine Forum

Amazing Diverse Turn Out!

No Mainstream News Coverage

RFK Names Names!

“Amazing diverse turn out”? I suppose that’s one way to spin the small number of African-Americans who attended compared to what one would expect at an event in Harlem specifically targeting the African American community. I must admit, though, I found it utterly hilarious that all the antivaxers on the bill were so long-winded that their bloviations ended up cutting off their keynote speaker before his speech was finished and getting them all kicked out of the venue! Now that’s some bad planning! One man even could be heard mentioning it in the video for part 2, complaining about “five moms” who “all said the same thing” that took up so much time that RFK Jr. ran out of time, asking why they couldn’t have had just three instead?

But what about the content itself? I’m going to admit again right here and right now that I didn’t watch the whole thing. Rather, I surfed it and picked out interesting bits to comment on. Much of what I saw was the same nonsense that I’ve heard a million times before from antivaxers, the same pseudoscience, the same conspiracy theories, the same everything, with Curtis Cost as the MC. I also saw pandering to the African-American audience, such as when Mary Holland, the first speaker, invoked Frederick Douglass, wondering what side he would be on regarding the issue of vaccine mandates, claiming that he spoke out against vaccine mandates. Unfortunately, it’s true. Frederick Douglass did tell a reporter in 1882 that he believed that mandatory vaccines encroached on people’s liberty and freedom of choice, stating that compulsory vaccination had long offended his “logical faculty” as a man opposed to every species of arbitrary power. Of course, back then medicine was much more primitive and one might understand a former slave feeling that way. Of course, a white privileged lawyer invoking slavery to label vaccine mandates as an offense against freedom is the height of irony and lack of self-awareness.

Fortunately, there are at least two antivaxers providing blow-by-blow accounts, the aforementioned Fed Up Democrat announcing Health Freedom in Harlem, NY and James Grundvig, who incongruously bills his title as Investigative Reporter and whose account, RFK Jr Kicked out of Church: Vaccine Censorship Rolls on, was published on the antivaccine blog Vaxxter yesterday.

In any case, the next speaker was Dr. Lawrence Palevsky, an antivaccine pediatrician that we’ve discussed before. He started out using a bogus example of a car manufacturer who can’t be sued for defects in the cars it manufactures and whose car the state mandates that everyone buy. All I could think listening to this was: How is one of these things not like the other? Also: Parents can sue for compensation. The law just requires that they go through Vaccine Court first. He also complained about how other pediatricians have told parents not to come back to see them if they continue to see Dr. Palevsky. I can see how that would appeal to antivaxers, but in reality if I were a pediatrician I would very much hesitate to see a patient who’s going to see such a quack for vaccine and other medical advice as well.

As described by Fed Up Democrat, he also laid down heaping helpings of antivaccine nonsense:

Dr. Palvesky said in over 20 years that he has spent working with vaccine injured children, he can say the following injuries can and do result from vaccination:

Asthma, allergies, eczema, ear infections, sleep disorders, cancer, Autism, ADD/ADHD, sensory disorders, speech disorders, problems with motor coordination, behavioral problems, autoimmune disease, infertility, commas and death.

Because to antivaxers, the opinions of a lone pediatrician extolling his “clinical experience” (which can be profoundly misleading) is more likely to be correct than the mountains of science that have failed to find a link between vaccinations and any of these adverse outcomes. (Also, vaccines cause “commas”? Who knew?) Palevsky also blamed those evil atheists and secularists:

Palevsky also warned that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) passed a resolution in August recognizing non-religious affiliation in our country as being on the rise and they desire to empower those people. Dr. Palevsky said the effect of this resolution will be an attempt t0 take away both the religious and conscientious beliefs of the individual. He said that he doubts if most elected Democratic officials are even aware of this resolution or it’s implications.

Sure, Larry. Whatever.

Next up were several parents, including Sheila Ealey, an African-American mother of an autistic son who was featured in VAXXED and, alas, has become a de facto ambassador to the African American community for Andrew Wakefield and other white antivaxers. Eventually, we got to more of the headliners, starting with Phil Valentine, who started out saying, “Greetings to all you antivax deplorables”. He was actually a little funny, in that he used self-deprecating humor, at one point saying that he was here to “report on the latest conspiracy theories from the antivax lunatic fringe”, although he quickly added, “soon to be heretics from the high handed religion of vaccination”. Later in his talk he invoked the Nuremberg Code, which of course is a code regarding the ethics of research involving human subjects. Antivaxers love to invoke it, largely because it allows them to let the Nazi and Holocaust analogies flow freely with respect to vaccine mandates, but it doesn’t really apply to standard-of-care nonexperimental treatments.

At this point, part 1 ended, and Cost announced that there would a ten-minute break, with the promise that RFK Jr. and Gary Null would speak next. At the beginning of part 2, RFK Jr. took the stage. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t say anything that I haven’t heard before from him. (I really have listened to too many of his speeches.) He started out discussing how it was mercury in vaccines that first got him, as an environmentalist, involved in “vaccine safety”. It’s true, of course. His “Deadly Immunity” article was all a conspiracy theory in which the CDC knowingly covered up evidence that the mercury in vaccines then caused autism. Recall that, up until 2002, many childhood vaccines used the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal. After that, the thimerosal was removed from most childhood vaccines, and it wasn’t long before it was removed from all childhood vaccines. Autism prevalence continued to climb with nary a blip, perhaps the best natural experiment refuting the claim that mercury causes autism one can imagine. That didn’t stop RFK Jr., though. Although RFK Jr. did cling to the thimerosal/autism conspiracy theory for a lot longer than most antivaxers, even Generation Rescue (which has since apparently pivoted to a more general autism quackery grift), he did eventually pivot to a more general set of “vaccines are bad” pseudoscientific claims, including the toxins gambit and many others.

RFK Jr. also bragged about having access to officials “at the highest level of government” and with the heads of many government science and regulatory agencies because of his family name, name dropping, for instance, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins. Indeed, RFK Jr. bragged about talking to high CDC officials and heavy hitters in the world of vaccine science like Dr. Paul Offit, and how unimpressed he was by their arguments. Unbelievably, RFK Jr. claimed that none of them could provide him with a coherent or convincing argument with respect to the science. He even claimed that they lied to him, a claim that I call BS. He claimed that, for instance, when he asked Dr. Offit why there were all these warnings against eating fish because of mercury when at the same time the government was saying that it was safe to “inject mercury”, Dr. Offit responded that there are two kinds of mercury, good mercury and bad mercury. Knowing Dr. Offit personally, I highly doubt he said it like that. He might have used similar terminology, but I really doubt he was that flippant or simplistic. That’s just not how Dr. Offit rolls. It is correct, though, that elemental mercury is not the same, chemically speaking, the same as ethyl mercury (thimerosal). In any event, I was amused that RFK Jr. was dwelling on an old antivax claim, the refuted hypothesis that mercury in vaccines causes autism, a claim that’s not even relevant any more given that it’s been 17 years since there’s been significant mercury in childhood vaccines. Children born the year mercury was taken out of vaccines are now close to finishing high school! That being said, I did not in the least appreciate RFK Jr. accusing Dr. Offit of lying. Don’t get me wrong. Dr. Offit can be mistaken about some things, just like any other human being can be. For example, claims in a recent book that Rachel Carson’s criticism of DDT resulted in the unnecessary deaths of millions in Third World countries due to malaria. He’s excruciatingly wrong about this, but he’s not a liar. Quite the contrary, in my interactions with him, at least, he’s always been honest and polite to a fault, a true class act.

In any event, it was just RFK Jr. being RFK Jr.: A crank with no honor.

Also, as I mentioned above, the most vocal and activist antivaxers tend to be overwhelmingly white and fairly affluent. They also tend to be entitled and have a massive victim complex. Unfortunately, that’s why it’s not surprising that the antivax webpage Hear This Well is making some truly offensive analogies:

Have these people never heard of a contract? Presumably RFK Jr. or his representative for Children’s Health Defense signed one. Presumably that contract specified a start time and an end time for their access to the venue. Having dealt with these sorts of contracts occasionally in the past, I know that there’s often some flexibility, but the church was under no obligation to extend the time, even for more money. Again, I wonder if perhaps the pastor knew when he signed the contract what he was renting the church’s space for and had had second thoughts in the interim between signing the contract and the actual event.

Enter the conspiracy theories

This brings me to the James Grundvig’s post about the Harlem Vaccine Forum, which he ahistorically renamed the “Harlem Children’s Health Forum” (never mind that every flier advertising the confab called it the Harlem Vaccine Forum). Grundvig both lays down antivaccine conspiracy theories as to why the event was shut down and tries to defend RFK Jr. against the charge that white antivaxers are preying upon vulnerable communities.

Let’s see how Grundvig characterizes the fiasco that occurred on Saturday:

The war to silence vaccine injuries came to a head on a leafy autumn Saturday in a Harlem church overlooking the Hudson River. I witnessed the display first hand when I attended the three-hour event, “The Harlem Children’s Health Forum” on October 19, 2019. The event had been set up weeks before with Reverend Al Sharpton scheduled as one of the keynote speakers. But the firebrand reverend, the enforcer of rights for the African-American community, abruptly dropped out of the forum two days before putting the event and its location in doubt.

The forum’s host and producer, Curtis Cost, author of the 2010 book “Vaccines Are Dangerous,” continued to negotiate with the church on Friday, narrowing its scope from a four-and-a-half-hour event down to three hours.

Clearly, Big Pharma and its proxies moved swiftly to subvert and prevent the forum from taking place. No doubt, chasing Sharpton away from defending his own community was no small victory for Big Pharma and the bought politicians of New York City.

Well that’s interesting. My guess is that Rev. Sharpton canceled the Harlem Vaccine Forum because he’s acutely sensitive to public relations and public opinion. When newspapers, both local and national, started to report on his involvement with the forum, he showed that he valued his National Action Network more than he valued doing a solid for what I assume to be his buddy Curtis Cost. Of course, Curtis Cost, as I noted before, was antivaccine before Andrew Wakefield sparked the latest iteration of the modern antivaccine movement nearly 22 years ago; so that makes Rev. Sharpton suspect to me on the topic of vaccines.

What was of most interest to me was Grundvig’s description of what happened when the church cut off RFK Jr.’s microphone. (Oh, how I would have loved to see that in person!) According to Grundvig:

By the time Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., stepped up to the podium it was 3:40 pm. A fifteen-minute break, combined with too many speakers, had robbed him of his time to speak, the information that the people of Harlem and elsewhere had come to hear.

As he was explaining how he transformed from an environmental activist to health advocacy and vaccines, Curtis Cost slipped Kennedy a sheet of paper. RFK read the note aloud: “One minute! I have one minute left to speak?”

As confusion and a furious discussion set in, the church’s (micro-) manager came forward and told them the forum was over and that they had to leave. People booed and shouted. Kennedy tried to negotiate, stating he would pay the church for the extra time.

No. Nothing doing.

The very rude and diminutive church manager stridently refused the offer. Kennedy picked up the mic to address the audience, but then the church cut the power to the audio system.

Confusion reigned.

The loud church manager shouted for everyone to get out now, declaring how the crowded hall was suddenly a fire hazard. She then called the police, which sent one SUV to the front of the church on Riverside Drive to clear the hall.

The obviously Pharma-forced eviction from the church empowered Kennedy to finish his speech on the streets of Harlem, a move that would have made MLK proud.

And there an antivaxer goes again with the specious, highly offensive comparison of the “plight” of white, affluent, privileged antivaxers who’ve lost their personal belief exemptions to school vaccine mandates, a.k.a. (to me, at least) the “I don’t wanna” exemption, to the struggles of African-Americans to claim the civil rights denied them for so much of our history. One more time: The antivaccine movement is not the “new civil rights movement,” no matter how much its members try to delude themselves otherwise. There’s also no evidence that big pharma had anything to do with shutting down the Harlem Vaccine Forum. It’s just an all-purpose bit of antivax conspiracy mongering to try to blame it on that. I also can’t help but note that Grundvig basically insulted the church manager for being short (“diminutive”).

It can’t be repeated enough times how incredibly offensive Grundvig’s comparing the antivaccine movement to the civil rights movement and to victims of violence and discrimination due to race or sex is. I mean, really. Getting kicked out of a church because your planning and discipline were poor and you went over the allotted time you paid for is nowhere near like having acid thrown at you or being denied opportunities because of your gender. Their claimed “right” not to vaccinate is not anything like the right to equal treatment under the law and to freedom from discrimination that blacks, minorities, women, and LGBTQ people have been fighting for.

In fact, white antivaxers have tried to take advantage of minority communities on more than one occasion in the recent past. Remember, it was antivaxers in Minnesota, overwhelmingly white, who spread misinformation that convinced the Somali immigrant community in Hennepin County that vaccines cause autism and led them to refuse vaccination, creating multiple large measles outbreaks. During the political battle over SB 277 in California, the law that eliminated nonmedical “personal belief exemptions” to school vaccine mandates, RFK Jr. teamed up with the Nation of Islam to promote his message to African-American communities. It’s an alliance that continues to this day and now appears to include the Church of Scientology, with which the Nation of Islam is closely allied. After the release of VAXXED, the antivaccine propaganda film disguised as a documentary, Andrew Wakefield, Del Bigtree, and other antivaxers went to Compton to try to recruit African-Americans to the antivaccine movement.

Grundvig tries to defend this, too. He cites a Tweet by Dr. Peter Hotez criticizing RFK Jr. for targeting vulnerable populations. Then he says about the Somali immigrant population in Minnesota:

Without adding context to his “predatory targeting” race-baiting screed, Hotez failed to support his vaccine Molotov cocktail with facts. No matter. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., addressed the issue in a 2017 article, “Somali Parents’ Rational Concerns About Vaccine Safety.”

In the detailed scientific referenced article, RFK Jr. wrote:

… the children of Minneapolis’s Somalis suffer the highest known rate of severe autism in the world—one in 32, according to University of Minnesota researchers.

The strange (not really) part about Dr. Hotez’s statement of “predatory protection” boils down to the untested, unsafe vaccines and its bloated schedule that he’s fully aware of the academic research and the high autism rate in Minnesota.

No, Mr. Grundvig. Dr. Hotez is quite correct. Antivaxers saw information about a higher than expected prevalence of autism among the Minnesota Somali immigrant community and pounced. White antivaxers descended upon the community with fear mongering about vaccines, and the result turned out to be measles outbreaks, thanks to the very low uptake of the MMR vaccine that resulted from all the antivaccine misinformation and fear mongering among the Somalis. Hell, even in the depths of a measles outbreak, antivaxers doubled down promoting antivaccine misinformation.

Of course, Grundvig also can’t help but invoking the “CDC whistleblower”:

For five years, Peter Hotez has been fully aware of the CDC’s corruption of data, science, and the truth. He knows about the CDC whistleblower Dr. William Thompson, who recounted the corruption in his epidemiology study masking the fact that African-Americans male infants were 340% more likely to get autism from the MMR vaccine than boys from other populations. (1) (2) (3) Strike three, you’re out, Hotez!

No, Mr. Grundvig. Just no. As has been explained many times, the whole “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory does not show that the MMR vaccine produces an increased risk of autism in African-American boys.

Antivaxers know that African-Americans have ample reason to distrust the medical system and seek to take advantage of that understandable distrust. Now they’re doing it again. What’s disappointing is that Rev. Al Sharpton was all ready to aid and abet this effort and only backed out because the national press noticed. Fortunately, given that the turnout appeared to be, by and large, the same people in the New York City area who always turn out to these events, they appear to have failed. Unfortunately, as you can see from the posts quoted above, that failure has already provided the seeds for conspiracy theories about how “They” shut this conference down. It didn’t, however, make any significant inroads for antivaccine views within the African-American community beyond the old school antivaccine beliefs that were already there.