What do anti-vaxxers, sovereign citizens, Second Amendment die-hards and online edgelords obsessed with “Zionist Banksters” have in common?
They’re all volunteers in Ammon Bundy’s nationwide and extremely eclectic COVID-19 protest network, “People’s Rights.”
The group is basically a glorified phone tree to funnel “reopen” demonstrators to whichever nearby dog-grooming business, playground or police station is deemed to be infringing on individual liberties through public health measures.
But it’s exploded in popularity in recent months, turning what one Montana-based group leader called an “Uber-like protective service” into a complex hierarchy with dozens of chapters across 16 states.
And according to a new report from from the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights and the Montana Human Rights Network, People’s Rights’ big tent has housed everyone from skeptics of modern medicine to rank-and-file members of fringe armed groups.
Researchers for the human rights organizations, in order to pick apart the People’s Rights network, systematically signed up for each local chapter and recorded information about them, including leadership and membership numbers. To avoid using the same phone number multiple times, researchers churned through numbers as they went.
“I think we went through like 40 different burner numbers,” said Devin Burghart, president and executive director of IREHR. People’s Rights, he said, was “being really cagey about it.”
Eventually, the groups tallied around 20,000 members. But during a phone Thursday, Bundy gleefully informed TPM that the report had lowballed him: People’s Rights, he said, was closer to 37,000-strong.
He also griped that the report had seemingly caught the attention of someone at Facebook: All of the group’s pages were removed from the social media site yesterday.
But Bundy was less concerned to hear that, according to the report, a leader of the group in California, Tony Pellegrino, shared a meme earlier this year ranting about “Zionist Banksters” and “The FRAUD and DECEPTION of the Satanic Zionist Jesuit Freemason scum.”
Bundy said that he personally was quite fond of the Jewish people — though, he noted, “not that all of them have worked ethically inside the banking system.” And he defended Pellegrino, who said he “believes in God and believes that we should be good to each other.”
“There’s criminals that are black, there’s criminals that are white, there’s criminals that are police officers, there’s criminals that are Jewish, there’s criminals that are reporters,” Bundy told TPM. “People’s Rights would stand against all of them.”
Bundy rose to stardom on the fringe right for leading the weeks-long armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. But researchers found that People’s Right’s membership extended far beyond Bundy’s relatively niche appeal, housing a spectrum of ideologies under one roof that, in most cases, wouldn’t make a lot of sense together.
“They’ve drawn in all these far-right figures and really reached out to the COVID insurrection world to try to find a whole new base of supporters,” Burghart said.
For example, one of the first big Bundy-led protests against public health orders targeted police officers who arrested Sara Brady, an anti-vaccine activist in Idaho, who was cited for using a playground that had been taped off by local authorities.
More recently, People’s Rights protesters rallied around a pet groomer in Washington state, protesting for hours in front of the home of a deputy city attorney in Vancouver because the groomer faced charges for violating public health orders. Joey Gibson, leader of the street-fighting right-wing group Patriot Prayer who currently faces felony riot charges over a brawl last year, was in attendance.
The protest gatherings “served not only as a point of defiance to the life-saving health measures, but an opportunity to organize,” Lindsay Schubiner, program director at the Western States Center, told TPM.
Bundy downplayed ideology to TPM, saying the group was merely a “platform” for local organization. That’s not quite the message one gets watching an ominous recruiting video for People’s Rights, which shows violent protesters lighting fires and destroying property and urges viewers to “Join With Your Neighbors” as part of Bundy’s national neighborhood watch.
The only reason to distrust People’s Right’s roaming bands, Bundy told TPM, was if “you don’t have a belief in mankind to do the right thing.”