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Chapter One

COVID Denial as “Culture War”

On September 3, three Vancouver, Washington schools were forced into lockdown after the menacing presence of militant anti-maskers on school grounds just four days into a new school year. The anti-mask protesters included a large contingent of the violent, racist, far-right Proud Boys, who attempted to “escort” an anti-mask student into Skyview High School.

Inside the school, students were forced to hunker down in their classrooms during the lockdown. Outside, the Proud Boys and other anti-maskers belligerently chanted “U-S-A!” and harassed students.[3] The next day, many of those Proud Boys traveled to Olympia, Washington, for an anti-vaccine-mandate protest. While in Olympia, Proud Boys physically assaulted and maced a journalist, and during a clash downtown, shots were fired that struck violent Proud Boy activist “Tiny” Toese in the foot.[4]

The public face of the Vancouver anti-mask protest was a 14-year old female first-year student at Skyview High School.[5] The young protest leader refused to wear a mask while inside the school and would not comply with the numerous accommodations which would have allowed the student to remain unmasked.

Before attempting to enter the school as an unmasked group, a member of the Proud Boys placed one hand on the student protester, the other holding a red “MAGA” hat to his Proud Boys polo-covered heart, saying, “God we pray that you raise up a hedge of protection around her. That you raise up men in this community who need to be following her example. Men who would not let their daughter be on the frontlines of this culture war.”[6]

The “prayer” for culture war over, the Proud Boys stood and shouted, “Uhuru!” – a Swahili phrase appropriated by the racist group as their rallying call.[7]  The student protester later wrote to the Proud Boys, “I just wanted to come say Thank You to everyone who came out and supported me this week!!”[8] She downplayed Proud Boy racism and bragged about how they became “like family” during the protests. [9]

The protest did not appear to have other student participants, yet it received national attention. The culmination of the groups’ on-the-ground organizing efforts was forged in the two waves of COVID denial Facebook group growth. Although she was just starting high school, the protest leader was already a seasoned COVID denial activist, thanks to Facebook.

A Case Study in COVID Denial Radicalization

The student protester had not always been a COVID denier. Early in the pandemic, she was featured on local news for launching a COVID-19 victory garden contest for kids.[10] But things took a turn. She told a reporter in December of her depression, adding, “I was having like mental breakdowns daily, multiple times a day.”[11] She mentioned that she stopped participating in school in the spring and alluded to attempting suicide.

The story is heart-wrenching. Like other students who struggled with distance learning during the pandemic, the protest leader reportedly felt isolated and depressed. But, sadly, instead of facilitating community among her peers or getting mental health information and community support into the hands of friends on Facebook, the platform drew her into the world of COVID denialism.

In these Facebook groups, she was fed a constant diet of misinformation that encouraged her to advocate for policies that prolong the pandemic and endanger the lives of many in her community.

In December 2020, she co-founded the Facebook group Open Schools USA. The group has 2,921 members and organized “multiple protests to open schools with over 40 states participating.”[12] That month, she participated in a protest in nearby Portland. In February, she led an “open schools” protest outside the office of the Washington Education Association-Riverside—the local teachers’ union.[13]

She also became a member of many different Facebook COVID denial groups, including Unmask our kids in Virginia, Unmask Our Babies, Maskless WA women’s group, Unmask Our Children, and WA State Against Mandatory Masks, Jabs & Lock-Downs. In addition, in several out-of-state groups, she announced plans to “organize a national mask off sit in for students.”[14]

The student’s mother, Megan Gabriel, is an equally sad and disturbing case of how quickly people can fall down the Facebook COVID-denial radicalization rabbit hole.

Before the pandemic broke out, friends of the family ran a GoFundMe campaign to help cover rent and food for Megan Gabriel and her children, who were locked in a custody battle.[15] However, as the pandemic wore on, Megan Gabriel appeared to find identity, meaning, and purpose in COVID denial groups.

She joined different Facebook groups, including ReOpen WA state schools; Unmask Washington; Unmask our kids Washington; Open Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada and Colorado; and the Parent Coalition for Fully Opening Schools in WA.

Like her daughter, she was inundated with misinformation on Facebook. She also got drawn into far-right efforts against the myth of “Critical Race Theory.” She joined the far-right Facebook groups, No Critical Race Theory in School and Northwest Parents against Critical Theory. By June, she was active with RiseUpWA, a group pushing “school choice” efforts to undermine public education.[16] She also posted material on Facebook promoting an anti-mask/anti-vaxx/anti-CRT “Freedom” rally in Olympia.[17]

In July, she ran for a position on the Vancouver school board. In the middle of the race, she told The Columbian that she moved out of the district and was no longer eligible, then said she was not moving out of the district and was resuming her campaign. She also posted about schools flouting mask mandates, getting encouragement from one Facebook friend who wrote, “I hope you win!!”[18] She finished last in the primary, receiving 14.06 percent of the vote.[19]

After losing the election, Megan Gabriel and her daughter formed a new group on Facebook, For the Kids Washington.[20] The group has grown to 1,636 members, along with spawning nine county-level groups that have 361 members. In August, the group used the platform to organize “Unmask Our Kids” COVID denial protests across Washington.[21] The student protester spoke at a rally in Longview on August 8.[22]

Enter the COVID Insurrectionist Army

On August 31, the first day of school for students in the Vancouver school district, the student protester took a photo of herself wearing a yellow star-of-David, like those forced on Jews in Nazi Germany. The misappropriation of this symbol has become commonplace inside the COVID denier ranks. She stood next to a whiteboard that read, “First Day of High School Freshman year! When I grow up I want to be a politician. This year I will end mask segregation.”[23] After previously protesting over the harm of being kept away from peers, the student protester turned to fight against a policy that would have allowed her to be with other students.

On September 1, things escalated at the high school so badly that Vancouver Public Schools filed a trespassing notice against Megan Gabriel for “disruptive and uncivil conduct.”[24] This might have stayed a little demonstration of defiance by a single struggling student and her mother were it not for the added attention it received from Facebook COVID denial groups and on-the-ground organizing by far-right groups.

On September 2, the far-right COVID insurrectionist group founded by Ammon Bundy, the People’s Rights network, and their associates in Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys entered the fray. All three groups grew on Facebook before eventually being deplatformed. The People’s Rights network was at the vanguard of COVID denial, bringing groups like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys into the fight.

That day, People’s Rights Washington published the address and phone number of the high school on Telegram, announcing, “PEOPLE’S RIGHTS – CALL TO ACTION SKYVIEW HIGHSCHOOL.”[25] It continued, “THE TIME TO STAND FOR PEOPLES RIGHTS IS TODAY!! ALL GROUPS AND ORGANIZERS MUST UNITE BEHIND THIS FAMILY!!! #RosaParksIt #directAction” [Capitalization in original. Unless otherwise specified, this report’s capitalization, punctuation, and formatting appear as in the original posts].[26]

People's Rights leader Kelli Stewart at Vancouver Protest

People’s Rights leader Kelli Stewart at Vancouver Protest

A video posted with this call to action featured People’s Rights Washington leader Kelli Stewart at a protest in front of the Skyview High School. With a banner behind her declaring “#STOP THE MANDATE,” Stewart stated,

“Hey guys, this is Kelli Stewart here with People’s Rights Washington. We are down here at Skyview Middle School (sic). We are just getting set up. We need all hands on deck. Today is day three, she’s [Student Protester] decided she’s not going to be able to carry her papers anymore, it goes against her own beliefs and convictions to have to walk around and prove why she doesn’t have a mask on…Her mother tried to get in there to be with her as a witness and they trespassed her. They had security come out and physically remove her mom. Her mom is down here standing with us. We’re just getting set up, guys. We’ll be down here all day. And we need you to come. Bring your tents, bring your voices, bring anybody you know that will come out and help us stop this mandate…So please show up…Skyview High School.” [Italics added][27]

Stewart gave out the school address and added, “Bring your American courage, for crap’s sake. That’s what we’re missing in this country. Enough is enough. Send these kids back to school and stop muzzling them.”[28]

That same day, the far-right street-brawlers of Patriot Prayer kicked into gear, issuing a statement:

“Mother at Skyview High School in Vancouver, Wa needs immediate assistance. Her daughter refuses to wear a mask. She is being constantly ridiculed but holding her ground. As revenge, they trespassed the mother today and said she will be arrested.  They just kicked the daughter out of school, but she is now going back inside demanding an education.”[29]

Patriot Prayer declared, “Bring signs. Need a huge show of force asap.”[30] Patriot Prayer’s call for a “huge show of force” came as Joey Gibson is facing felony riot charges for his actions outside of a Portland pub in 2019. Patriot Prayer also posted a video of the student protester making an appeal and repeating the absurd and offensive claims that school mask requirements were equivalent to “segregation” and “Nazi Germany.”[31]

Tiny Toese and Joey Gibson at Skyview

Tiny Toese and Joey Gibson at Skyview

The mobilization drew throngs of far-right COVID deniers. Members of People’s Rights, Patriot Prayer, the Proud Boys, and others showed up to protest. The menacing presence on school grounds led to the lockdown. After the protest, Patriot Prayer posted a photograph of Proud Boys kneeling in a group, commenting, “Much respect to these Proud Boys for praying over and marching [Student Protester] into Skyview High School.”[32]

On September 6, in the Patriot Prayer group, queried about whether the situation had been resolved, the student protester and her mother responded,

“no not resolved, the proud boys (sic) did get me a meeting with the district and my mom made them remove my principal from my 504 team so he can’t make decisions anymore about my mask exemption and what accommodations the school is willing to make. I’m speaking in Olympia tomorrow, my meeting is Wednesday. if (sic) they continue to refuse to honor my exemption then i’ll (sic) be back out front of my school protesting immediately after meeting Wednesday.”[33]

On September 7, People’s Rights posted a new call to action from Megan Gabriel and her daughter,

“Please spread the word!! I need the sidewalks at Skyview High School in Vancouver packed with people tomorrow. I am walking through fire right now and I’m facing horrible mistreatment because I know in the end it will pay off. In the end I will be heard and a statement will be made and i (sic) will gain back rights for everyone!! I cannot do this on my own I need an army behind me and standing with me!!” [34]

After the Proud Boy-induced lockdown, Clark County Superior Court Judge Suzan Clark granted an injunction prohibiting disruptive protests near school campuses. The injunction is effective as long as state-issued mask mandates are in effect.[35]

Despite the injunction, on September 10, a large group of demonstrators returned to Skyview. Among the protesters were Joey Gibson of Patriot Prayer and notoriously violent Proud Boy/Patriot Prayer activist “Tiny” Toese, recently off parole for a 2018 assault conviction. Again, there were no arrests for violating the injunction. Later that day, the group also tried to protest at the home of the judge who issued the injunction but failed to locate it.

On-the-ground activism that led to the school lockdown was shaped by Megan Gabriel and her daughter’s relationship with People’s Rights, Patriot Prayer, and the Proud Boys. However, the potential for expansion of the confrontation became plain when their protest became a cause célèbre in Facebook COVID denial groups.

A search of Facebook COVID denial groups found accounts of Gabriel’s efforts against mask mandates, and calls for support in Reopen Washington Action Network, Unmask Our Kids WA, Reopen Washington State – #ReopenWA, Unmask Washington – Be Brave!, Unmask Our Babies, F%#k You Inslee, WE WON’T COMPLY, Unmask Washington, Maskless WA women’s group, The state of WA State schools, UnMask WA, UNMASK WASHINGTON, Unmask Our Children, Reopen California Schools, and Unmask our kids in Virginia.[36]

Calls to take part in the September 10 protest at Skyview High School were issued by the administrators for Washington, Parents Rights in Education (3,989 members), WA State Against Mandatory Masks, Jabs & Lock-Downs (2,504 members), and Unmask Our Kids WA (1,615 members), and by members of Unmask our kids Washington (6,806 members), Mead School District and Community for Parent and Student CHOICE (8,93 members), Unmask the Gorge (1,884 members), Washington State citizens against the MRNA injection mandate (34,749 members), Eastern Washington Coalition for Patriotic Parents (364 members), Unmask Washington (587 members), Open Spokane Schools! (3,011 members), Reopen Washington State – #ReopenWA (7,529 members), Reopen Washington Action Network (1,361 members), UNMASK WASHINGTON (1,865 members), ReOpen Kitsap (1,991 members), Unmask UKC Students (375 members), Unmask Our Kids Washington State (116 members), UnMask WA (376 members), UnMask Washington – Be Brave! (1,243 members), UnMask NJ Schools (2,484 members), Unmask Our Children Movement (6,767 members), Unmask Our Babies (1,946 members), and Unmask the USA (292 members).[37]

As of the publication of this report, the situation in Vancouver is still unresolved. Students and parents are stunned and traumatized. Yet far-right COVID deniers continue their fight against efforts to slow the spread of the pandemic.

Like so many other COVID deniers, the student protester’s activist trajectory flowed seamlessly from the COVID denial first wave emphasis on reopening to the second wave’s militant opposition to wearing masks and opposing mandates. Facebook facilitated a young student’s transformation of personal trauma into full-fledged COVID denial, pushing her into the waiting arms of her new “family”—the violent, racist Proud Boys.

As the data in this report highlights, thanks to Facebook, across the county, millions have become involved in more than seventeen hundred COVID denial groups on the platform. The Vancouver protest is one of the hundreds of similar demonstrations, many organized on Facebook over the last month. Students, teachers, administrators, doctors, nurses, and other public health officials have been harassed or harmed at many of these protests. Left unchecked, the sheer number of those attracted to COVID denial on Facebook and potentially radicalized into the far-right could be staggering.




Two: The Data


[3] Levinson, Jonathan, and Brynelson, Troy. “3 Vancouver schools placed on lockdown after Proud Boys try to enter during masks protest.” Oregon Public Broadcasting website. September 3, 2021.

[4] Associated Press. “‘Prominent member’ of Proud Boys shot in foot after groups clash in Olympia.” The Oregonian. September 6, 2021.

[5] Though the student has been publicly identified in the press and is a visible public figure in the COVID denial effort, IREHR is choosing not to publish the student’s name as they are still a minor.

[6]Patriot Prayer events w/Joey Gibson. Telegram. September 3, 2021.

[7] Patriot Prayer events w/Joey Gibson. Telegram. September 3, 2021.

[8] Patriot Prayer events w/Joey Gibson. Telegram. September 3, 2021. ttps://

[9] In a letter to Vancouver schools Superintendent Jeff Snell, the budding far right activist also took time to defend the Proud Boys against charges of racism and violence: “Dear Dr. Snell…Almost all of the people who came out to protest I met for the very first time ever. However over the span of 3 days a lot of them became like family and for once I didn’t feel alone!! I get it the Proud Boys have a bad reputation. But those guys everyone is calling white supremacist came and prayed for the strength and safety of a Jewish girl!! They weren’t violent!” Gabriel, [Student Protester]. Facebook. Posted in Unmask our kids in Virginia. September 9, 2021.

[10] Hansen, Ellen. “COVID-19 garden contest: Hands-on learning for kids at home.” KOIN 6 News. May 18, 2020.

[11] Koumoué , Christelle. “Oregon 8th grader opens up about mental health struggles with pandemic, distance learning.” KGW* News. January 16, 2021.

[12] Cooldude777. “[Student protester] Student Activist.” Rumble. August 26, 2021.

[13] Valencia, Paul. “Emotions Run High at Small Rally to Open Schools.” Clark County Today. February 3, 2021.

[14]Gabriel, [Student Protester]. Facebook. Posted in Unmask our kids in Virginia. September 9, 2021.; Search for “[Student Protester]Gabriel” in a subset of about 200 Facebook COVID Denial groups. September 9, 2021.

[15] De Silva, Melanie. “Legal/Rent/Food fund.” Gofundme website. January 15, 2020.

[16] Gabriel, Megan. Facebook. June 29, 2021.

[17] Gabriel, Megan. Facebook. June 29, 2021.

[18] Gabriel, Megan. Facebook. July 30, 2021.

[19] Wochnick, Meg. “Vancouver school board race close in early returns.” The Columbian. August 3, 2021.

[20] Cooldude777. “[Student protester] Student Activist.” Rumble. August 26, 2021.

[21] Koumoué , Christelle. “Oregon 8th grader opens up about mental health struggles with pandemic, distance learning.” KGW* News. January 16, 2021.

[22] Heffernan, Marissa. “Parents, political candidates turn out for ‘unmask our kids’ rally Friday.” The Daily News. August 6, 2021.

[23] Stims, Justyne. Facebook. August 31, 2021.

[24] Neighbors United & People’s Rights Washington. Telegram. September 2, 2021.

[25] “A students mask medical exemption is not being honored. Yesterday she was forced to carry papers and be segregated from other students. She refuses to carry papers today. She was held in a room with 4 adults who interrogated her without a parent present! They are trying to physically remove her from the school! NOT ON OUR WATCH!!!!! Her mom has just been trespassed. Police have been called. Please get there now to stand with Melanie!!!!!! She has a right to attend school!” Neighbors United & People’s Rights Washington. Telegram. September 2, 2021.

[26] Neighbors United & People’s Rights Washington. Telegram. September 2, 2021. Unless otherwise specified, all capitalizations included in this report are reproduced as in the original posts.

[27] Neighbors United & People’s Rights Washington. Telegram. September 2, 2021.

[28] Neighbors United & People’s Rights Washington. Telegram. September 2, 2021.

[29] Patriot Prayer events w/Joey Gibson. Telegram. September 2, 2021.

[30] Patriot Prayer events w/Joey Gibson. Telegram. September 2, 2021.

[31] “So on Friday [September 3] from 10:45 to noon, I need everyone to be at Skyview High School, because we are going to protest against segregation and discrimination that is coming from, I would say Skyview high school, but it’s more like Nazi Germany.” Patriot Prayer events w/Joey Gibson. Telegram. September 2, 2021.

[32] Patriot Prayer events w/Joey Gibson. Telegram. September 3, 2021.

[33]Megan/[Student Protester] Gabriel. Comment in Patriot Prayer group. Telegram. September 6, 2021. The 504 process is a means of protecting students with disabilities from discrimination based on Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Vancouver Public Schools. Section 504.

[34] Peoples Rights WA and Neighbors United Chat. Comment “Forwarded from Megan/[Student protester] Gabriel.” September 7, 2021.

[35] “Court injunction granted against protests at Skyview High School and other schools.” Clark County Today. September 8, 2021.

[36]Search for “[Student protester] Gabriel” in a subset of about 200 Facebook COVID Denial groups. September 9, 2021.

[37] Robinson, John. Facebook. Posted in Unmask our kids Washington. September 10, 2021.; Seaver, Dawn. Facebook. Posted in Washington, Parents Rights in Education. September 9, 2021.; Knox, Mercy. Facebook. Posted in Mead School District and Community for Parent and Student CHOICE. September 10, 2021.; Cole, Angie. Facebook. Posted in Unmask the Gorge. September 10, 2021.; Willbanks, Anna. Facebook. Washington State citizens against the MRNA injection mandate.; Robinson, John. Facebook. Eastern Washington Coalition for Patriotic Parents. September 10, 2021.; Sarah, Sarah. Facebook. Posted in Unmask Our Kids WA. September 9, 2021.; Robinson, John. Facebook. Posted in Unmask Washington. September 9, 2021.; Knox, Mercy. Facebook. Posted in Open Spokane Schools! September 10, 2021.; Robinson, John. Facebook. Posted in Reopen Washington State – #ReopenWA. September 10, 2021.; Robinson, John. Facebook. Posted in UNMASK WASHINGTON. September 10, 2021.; Robinson, John. Facebook. Posted in ReOpen Kitsap. September 9, 2021.; Walser Burt, Shelly. Facebook. Posted in WA State Against Mandatory Masks, Jabs & Lock-Downs. September 9, 2021.; Fox, Gerald David. Facebook. Posted in Reopen Washington Action Network. September 10, 2021. Reopen Washington Action Network.; Search for “Skyview” in less than 200 Facebook COVID Denial Groups. September 10, 2021.


Facebook and COVID Denial

How the platform is fueling another wave of far-right activism, insurrectionism, and violence, and what we can do to stop it.
A Special Report of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights

Copyright © 2021. Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights.