I didn’t expect to run into the supernatural when I made plans to attend and photograph the 52nd consecutive weekly protest against vaccine mandates in Rochester, New York. Digital photos cost nothing, though, so if a surly agitator, or possessed agitator, shows up, it’s not as if you don’t have the film to cover it. Money’s not an issue.
I thought an article about the weekly protests’ first anniversary would allow me to catch up with some of the event organizers. I’d interviewed some of them for articles previously. This new article, however, wound up being anything other than a nostalgic look back.
I’ll start the day when I arrive in front of the University of Rochester Medical Center a few minutes before the protest’s scheduled start time. The indomitable radio host Shannon Joy, whom I knew from past interviews, showed up a bit later. Joy is widely recognized as Rochester, New York’s lead vaccine skeptic, and is one of the organizers of the weekly rallies.
The oddity regarding her was that where we’d had multiple interviews before, they’d all been somewhat red-carpet interviews. She was always friendly to me but only gave me the same quotes she’d give anyone else. However, the anniversary day circumstances were a bit different.
I asked Joy for an interview at the start of the rally, and she put me off, but then she also asked me to go with her while she met with campus police.
At a protest a month before, a rare arrest of one of the medical freedom demonstrators had taken place. Joy checked in with the officers pre-rally, I’d guess, to help keep everyone on good terms. My thought was that the reason I’d been asked there was that she expected I’d visibly play the part of a reporter, to let the officers know just as they had their eyes on Joy and friends, someone also had an eye on them. I photographed Joy with a portrait lens I’d brought, using the police as the backdrop.
Shannon Joy, Photo by Richard Gagnier, UncoverDC
The rally began uneventfully on the whole, as I’d imagined it would continue to run for the rest of the day. I thought I’d probably leave for home early.
WRENCH IN THE WORKS
The larger body of protesters usually lines the south side of Elwood Avenue in front of the medical center. On the opposite side of the street, the smaller half lines the sidewalk in front of a cemetery fence. And that’s the way it was smoothly running.
Two medical freedom protesters using bullhorns stood before the cemetery fence. The only one of the two you need to remember for this article is an older woman in a patriotic get-up, which included a cape, which is sort of appropriate to the street battle that was coming up.
I thought I could also see near the two people with bullhorns, someone wearing a little black preparing what turned out to be a third bullhorn. A duel of bullhorns developed with the addition of the third. I stood near Joy and some of her compatriots as they kept an eye on the growing discord taking place on the opposite side of the street.
Joy and crew, to put it mildly, weren’t overjoyed. The local news had skipped many protests where nothing ugly had transpired. Still, television photographers were there that day for two apparent lunatics going at it in close quarters with bullhorns—a great photo-op. The counter-protester got up in the face of the woman with the cape, or maybe both were guilty. The counter-protester had her own memorable outfit. She wore pitch-black sunglasses and a baseball cap that read “Daddy’s Lil’ Monster.”
Now, onto the day’s second photo shoot (as tensions ramped up):
I left Joy’s side of the street to join in taking photos of the bullhorn duel and found myself center of a very odd interaction.
Both women armed with bullhorns wore crucifixes on necklaces, but the counter-protester – Daddy’s Little Monster – with me nearby taking photos of both women standing very close to one another — put on a little show. Lil’ Monster took her crucifix, and with her eyes on the woman with the cape, Daddy’s Little Monster put the cross in her mouth, licked it, and said that she hated Christ.
I have to say something about my method of photographing. I’m a hit-and-miss photographer. I have all the skills of anyone with no skill, and all I know to do is to take a million shots for the few that work. Additionally, my camera is delayed as it focuses, so I can never get the exact shot I want, but always something a few seconds off. For example, I’d been shooting around the time of Daddy’s Little Monster’s crucifix move and wound up with a shot of her bringing the crucifix to or from her mouth.
Shortly after, Shannon Joy and company came across the street and arrived at the duel. And Joy, you could say, was somewhat right to worry about the press. In the video clip of the duel that appeared on that night’s local evening news, the caped woman shouted unintelligibly at Daddy’s Little Monster, allowing Daddy’s Little Monster to look like the more reasonable of the two women.
In the general area of the commotion, Joy said something to the air about shutting the rally down and packing it up for the day. I’m not sure that would have helped. I think by then, the damage had been done. No one, thankfully, reacted to Joy’s statement about throwing in the towel. However, she did manage to get some people to follow her back across the street. I think the idea was to drain the less populated and insane side of the street.
But regardless, Daddy’s Little Monster caught on to the change in wind direction and moved her show across the street. Once Daddy’s Little Monster hit the more populated side of the street, at least two protesters attempted to counter that special magic she brings that lights up a room.
One man, dressed in athletic wear for biking, looked to me like he was trying the tactic of speaking to her calmly. Another man, a sort of large kid actually, attempted a different tactic. He returned Little Monster’s energy and shouted back at her. Neither approach worked, for what that’s worth.
IF YOU CAN MAKE IT THERE
Daddy’s Little Monster claimed the main corner where the freedom protesters gathered in front of the URMC. Her most-usual chant seemed to be, “FuckYouNaziFuckYouNazi,” or that was, at least, the most memorable phrase I’d registered hearing from her. A nice turd in the punch bowl. You couldn’t not watch her. Joy and I, among others, were transfixed.
Daddy’s Little Monster would cease her chant every now and again and go on long political diatribes. I wrote down one bit where she gave her thoughts on religion: “You can pray. There’s nobody up there.” Her endless march around the street corner was the nadir of the day as the many protesters looked on without recourse. The cops couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do anything to stop her.
Eventually, a group of twenty or so protesters organized a prayer circle. Twenty people huddled together for prayer on the same corner where Lil’ Monster had staked her claim. They finished and broke out of the huddle a minute or so later.
The prayer didn’t seem to have any effect at first. But if it wasn’t a miracle what came soon after, it was close enough.
THIS LITTLE LIGHT
A protester arrived with a speaker set-up and began playing the music to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Protesters began singing along spontaneously, and soon their volume drowned out that of Daddy’s Little Monster and her bullhorn. The next song is Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American.” Again, the crowd unified in singing, and Daddy’s Little Monster drowned out.
It wasn’t as if there was ever a photographable moment of clouds parting—which I could have tried to photograph, but it would have been a delayed shot—but the moment felt like a spell had been lifted. So I leaned in and told Joy she’d better be sure to have music on hand every rally now.
After the music stopped, the crowd of protesters began assembling around a collection of candidates and others set to make speeches. The little speech event didn’t look like it would happen for a while, and the nightly newscast mentioned that the speeches had been canceled. Daddy’s Little Monster kept up her running disturbance during the presentations, but after the group sing-along, it was as if someone had punched her volume down a couple of notches.
The most profound speaker of the day was State Assembly candidate Marcus Williams. He’s a guy I’m really coming around to. In a speech that I don’t think could have been equaled at that particular moment by any speaker drawn from history, Williams spoke of bodily autonomy and hit applause mark after applause mark. At the same time, by contrast, the white woman with a Daddy’s Little Monster cap attempted to shout over Williams, a black man. The optics weren’t good for Lil’ Monster.
Here’s a key line from Williams’ speech—directly inspired, no doubt, by Daddy’s Little Monster’s disruptive running commentary:
“We must take a stand in the face of those to try to drown us out, who would try to stand against us, standing up not only for our rights but us standing up for theirs.”
Speech begins at 1:23:30 mark
That line from Williams received cheers. The mood had shifted as everyone stepped into a Hallmark card, and everyone knew it. Joy was completely elated following the presentations. Where she’d put me off for an interview earlier, she now enthusiastically threw me a bone.
She asked if I wanted my interview right then, that moment. It was funny how she said it, like a wife who berates her husband for eating sugar, comically relenting for a special occasion and allowing him a slice of cake.
But the weirdness and odd coincidences hadn’t ended. Not just yet.
Of all the places Joy could have stood for our interview, she positioned herself with her back to the crowd. That allowed me a view over her shoulder of an interaction between Daddy’s Little Monster and someone else. It may have been the same young man who had tried to match her volume earlier in the day; I’m not sure. What I know is that I saw quick flashes of Little Monster’s hand as she took a couple of swings at the person. The police saw the same thing, too, and they moved in.
I broke away from the interview I’d been waiting all day for as Daddy’s Little Monster, flanked by two officers, walked in my direction. I took a blurry photo of the three approaching and one of their backs as they moved past. I was about to try for a few more shots on the theory that only one of ten photos works out, but an officer gave me an order over his shoulder not to follow them.
My temporary right to photograph officers as a backdrop was rescinded. Back to reality.