Panelists discuss how far-right groups used COVID-19 to achieve goals

Photo of Capitol storming
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During a virtual panel sponsored by the Othering and Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley, panelists discussed far-right groups in the United States. The panel was moderated by Phi Nyuyen, litigation director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta. (TapTheForwardAssist, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to divide opinions across the nation, panelists discussed the ways in which white supremacists have used the pandemic to further their agendas during a Thursday event sponsored by UC Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute.

The panel was held live online and included panelists from California, Georgia and Michigan. According to Denise Herd, professor at the School of Public Health, multiple actors have contributed to the movement against public health measures. These included federal government leaders, such as former president Donald Trump, and far-right activist groups that protested safety measures.

“This wasn’t confined to Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Mississippi,” Herd said at the event. “These protests and the online spaces where right-wing groups would mingle provided avenues for cross-pollenization of ideas for radicalizing and recruiting new members.”

When moderator Phi Nguyen, litigation director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, asked how far-right groups have succeeded in their movement, panelists had mixed responses.

Sky Allen, project manager for Inland Empowerment, said the movement has not been successful in changing public opinion about science and safety measures, but those in far right groups will still impact the progress of the pandemic.

“The actions of people to spew disinformation, to spew misinformation, to promote anti-science, anti-mask, anti-government sentiment is making all of our communities less safe and brought us to a point, in part, where 500,000 of our community members are gone,” Allen said at the event.

Art Reyes III, We the People Michigan executive director, added that white supremacists are “losing.” Reyes cited Michigan’s record turnout at the ballots despite attempts to disenfranchise communities of color and undermine the election.

Nguyen also asked the panelists about what they are doing to combat online misinformation. Reyes said the solution to this would have to be embedded in communities and explained how a program We the People Michigan began in 2020 gave community members the opportunities to have long phone call conversations.

“A really important principle for us right now is that the antidote to disinformation isn’t more information,” Reyes said at the event. “It’s relationship. It is also making sure that we’re explicitly building multiracial democracy.”

Panelists also agreed there was hope with a new administration under President Joe Biden but acknowledged there would still be challenges and pressure in the years ahead.

Allen particularly said although current leadership has become more diverse, policy is still the priority.

“It matters that not only you look like me but that you fight for me — that you look like my neighbor, but you fight for my neighbor,” Allen said at the event. “We need action behind the words as well.”

Natalie Lu is an academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @natalie_c_lu.