Kansas Legislature throws two-day anti-vax rager, extremists welcome

November 2, 2021 2:09 pm

Special Committee on Government Overreach and Impact of COVID-19 Mandates chairwoman Renee Erickson, R-Wichita, presided over two days of hearings that resembled a wild house party, Clay Wirestone writes. (Clay Wirestone illustration/Kansas Reflector, front image Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector, back image Ellen Ordóñez/Wikimedia Commons)

On Friday and Saturday, as an average of one Kansan per hour died from COVID-19, the Kansas Legislature threw open the doors of the Old Supreme Court Room for a delusional frat party of anti-vaccine rhetoric. Like the best keggers, the hearing held by the Special Committee on Government Overreach and Impact of COVID-19 Mandates was packed with colorful characters, mind-altering substances and a shocking lack of personal responsibility.

Sure, the stated goal of the meeting was studying federal mandates meant to combat the virus. House parties have stated goals too — celebrating birthdays, holidays or the end of the week — but everyone knows those are simply pretexts.

“I’m just trying to look for anything we can use at the state level to fight this and give people personal liberty,” said Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, according to the Kansas Reflector’s Sherman Smith.

In other words, you’ve gotta fight for your right to party.


The front rooms

For the first chunk of the first day, the hearing sounded much like the front rooms of a house party. Folks appeared relatively respectable. Sure, they were there to have a good time like everyone else, but they had a certain image to maintain.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt speaks via video link to overreach committee, where he outlined plans to challenge a vaccine mandate for federal contractors. (Kansas Legislature YouTube screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, for instance, appeared via video link, with the uncomfortable air of a business school student assured by friends he would make important connections with fellow frat brothers at this party.

“We anticipate challenging that exercise of federal authority,” he said about part of President Biden’s far-reaching vaccine mandate. He redundantly added, “and I do anticipate that we will challenge that exercise of federal authority. I think it will happen rather quickly, but we aren’t in a position to do it as we sit here.”

He has a campaign for governor to run, folks! He can’t appear too eager, but please enjoy the event and remember him next November.

Chairwoman Renee Erickson (R-Wichita) tried to keep up appearances too, like someone assuring the grouchy grownups living next door to the frat house that this was just a quiet little get-together of close friends. They might have one drink, maybe two at most, before heading home.

“For attendees, we are here to listen to you,” she said at the beginning of the second day of hearings. “We want to hear from you. In order to do so, we must have an orderly and respectful process.”

Let’s nod and roll our eyes along with the imaginary neighbors.


Where the action is

Head upstairs, and you’ll find the real action of the party.

This is where the hearings headed at the end of the first day and for much of the second. In these blacklit upstairs rooms, folks were getting high on conspiracy theories. And these weren’t the ordinary bong hits of vaccines not preventing infection or transmission. These were hardcore psychedelics, like believing that vaccines were made with baby livers.

“It is easy to see the decades of planning and preparation that has gone into this operation,” said Shawnee resident Joann Atchity. “We have been systematically conditioned and propagandized to willingly hand over our freedoms. We have been poisoned by fluoride in our water and glyphosate in our food. We have become progressively more and more wards of a ‘nanny’ state.”

“There is abundant evidence that COVID-19 is a globally coordinated, planned, and executed terrorist attack on humanity,” said the impeccably named Darwin Peterson.

In these blacklit upstairs rooms, folks were getting high on conspiracy theories. And these weren’t the ordinary bong hits of vaccines not preventing infection or transmission. These were hardcore psychedelics, like believing that vaccines were made with baby livers.

– Clay Wirestone

The promise of psychedelics, of course, is that they transport you to another world. One where COVID-19 is a global hoax, rather than a scourge that killed 5 million and counting. One where the villains are doctors and nurses and the heroes are everyday folks swapping ivermectin and hydrogen peroxide treatments online. One where the government seeks to control everything you say and do, as opposed to, you know, bringing a once-in-a-century pandemic under control.

In one bathroom, you could even see folks experimenting with Holocaust comparisons.

“In my opinion, that’s the start of a huge problem because now we’re basically saying you’re the modern day Jew,” said Cornell Beard, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in Wichita. “You’re going to wear that star, and you’re going to wear it, and we don’t give a damn if you complain about it or not.”

As addictive as Nazi references might be, they wear off pretty quickly. Then you just look ridiculous to those paying attention.


Ready to rumble

We haven’t even visited the back of the house yet.

That’s where most guests only venture while looking for a restroom or a closet for making out. You’ll find guys and gals poised for conflict in every corner. Maybe they had a bit too much to drink or smoke. Maybe they came to the party ready to rumble. Regardless, they’re talking about dire consequences and don’t care who listens.

“A lot of people might not like what I have to offer for standing up,” said Justin Spiehs. “We’ve got to bully them out of our lives. It’s not pretty and it doesn’t look good. It feels good.”

“Under the Kansas statutes, my employer gives me the authority to use deadly force if someone attacks the plant,” said Wolf Creek security officer union representative Phillip Martin. “That’s a pretty heavy thing.” The nuclear plant employee then led the crowd in singing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”

They might go too far — accosting another guest inside the house, for example. This happened when Spiehs started a profane rant directed at Kansas Reflector editor in chief Sherman Smith. Someone tried to delete evidence of the outburst, much as someone throwing the party might try to delete video of a conflict from guests’ cell phones. But compromising video always escapes.

These back rooms lead to serious questions: Who decided to hold the party? Who summoned these conspiracy-minded guests, each one more concerning than the next? A truly out-of-control celebration might be fun, but it’s not exactly safe, is it? If this party leads to violence or destruction, was it worthwhile?

Perhaps we’ve spent enough time here tonight. Maybe, we whisper, it’s time to leave.


The deadly threat

Out front, the sidewalk is dark and difficult to navigate.

People have tripped and died here, over and over. Since the beginning of the pandemic, COVID-19 has killed 6,422 Kansans. But no one inside the party house notices. Even if someone peered out for a moment, they don’t rush to help or call an ambulance.

The facts remain what the facts have always been. COVID-19 is a deadly threat to our friends, neighbors and fellow partygoers. Vaccines prevent you from contracting or transmitting the disease. Masks work. This pandemic won’t end until we all put the common good ahead of our individual selfishness.

The keg party rages on regardless, tearing through two days. And the bodies keep piling up.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.