The friendship with Kennedy and the Vaxxed filmmakers gives the NOI a new and powerful propaganda tool: the film itself, which is presented as an authoritative, scientific, impartial look at vaccines. The NOI’s theories on vaccines, in turn, got a big boost from the film, a pseudo-scientific veneer of respectability, and a new, specific conspiracy —the idea that the CDC is concealing the dangers of the MMR vaccine—to graft onto existing and deep-seated distrust of vaccines and the medical establishment.

Vaxxed, Muhammad says, “helped me to do my own research,” and it helped convince him that pharmaceutical companies are not to be trusted.

Image for article titled The Anti-Vaccination Movement Is Working with the Nation of Islam to Scare Black Families

The anti-vaccine movement has traditionally been led by higher-income white people who are more likely to trust their own (usually internet-based) research than professional medical advice. For now, doctors who work with predominantly black pediatric patients aren’t seeing a huge rise in vaccine refusals.

“I’m not hearing any more refusals from Black families than I used to,” writes Dr. Byron White, a Virginia-based physician who has worked in pediatrics. “I’ve worked in different practices, so my numbers vary by geography, but I would get full refusals from parents less than eight percent of the time. In Black families, less than three percent.”

The main obstacle keeping the Nation of Islam from effectively spreading an anti-vaccine message is a basic one: in 2007, the group’s core membership was estimated at around 50,000 people and there’s no indication it’s grown much since then. The group’s rhetoric can also be alienating. According to the L.A. Times, a broad coalition of black social justice and political groups were disgusted by the Tuskeegee comparison during the SB 277 debate:

“Unfortunately, recent attacks on the measure have been vicious, unfounded and distort the science and history of childhood immunization within our community,” said a statement by the California State Conference of the NAACP, the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, the Charles R. Drew Medical Society, the California Black Health Network and the Network of Ethnic Physician Organizations.

“Our organizations denounce assertions that vaccination of black children would be another Tuskegee experiment,” the statement said.

“I’m not so clear how many African-Americans are following through on the advice of the NOI because they’re somewhat peripheral,” says Dr. Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, a physician and author and speaker who lives in the Bay Area. But she’s watched the NOI and anti-vaccine forces try to grow their support using means they think will sway black people: “One of the things they did to broaden their base was to engage rappers in this effort, Like Snoop Dogg, he was the main one.” (Snoop Dogg made a video in April 2016 declaring “Fuck that, I’m not taking no flu shot.” The NOI has also said that the rapper T.I. showed up at their 2016 vaccine summit.)

Pierette also pointed to an incident earlier this year where children in a Somali immigrant community in Minnesota suffered a large measles outbreak. Parents there got the idea that vaccines cause autism from Wakefield himself. There was a sharp drop in immunization rates, according to the Star-Tribune: “For Somali 2-year-olds, they were as high as 92 percent in 2004, but today stand at just 42 percent.”

That means that anti-vaccine rhetoric can have a direct measurable impact on community health, even if the overall numbers are small. “The concern is that it could happen elsewhere, absolutely,” Dr. Pierette says.

If families who live in urban areas are convinced by Kennedy and Muhammed’s message and decide to significantly delay vaccinating their kids or avoid vaccinating altogether, the public-health risk is clear. They would make themselves and a large community around them susceptible to vaccine-preventable diseases. Not to mention what it does to the infants themselves: even delaying vaccines can put them at increased risk of fever-related seizures.

And the people pushing this message are getting around. In recent months, Andrew Wakefield himself has largely receded into the background; he appears to be busy holding Vaxxed screenings in Europe, particularly his native England. But Bigtree, with whom he made Vaxxed, has made several joint appearances with Muhammad and Kennedy. At one recent appearance at the D.C. Press Club, they were joined by actor Robert DeNiro, who has a son with autism and has very publicly promoted the theory that vaccines cause autism.

At the event, Muhammad declared that “the Tuskeegee experiment could be back, alive, and well. It took a Kennedy to shut down that experiment. Now we have to ask ourselves as a community, could it be that it’s happening to us again?” Muhammad added that he’s visited 30 cities to show Vaxxed to audiences “that are full of poor people.”

Later this month, Kennedy, Bigtree and Muhammad are set to appear together at a Baptist church in Atlanta for an event titled “State of Emergency.” The flyer for the event asks “Tuskeegee Experiment, Again?”

And there are signs that these ideas about vaccines are edging further into the mainstream. On June 14 of this year, the influential New York radio station Power 105.1 aired an interview on the Breakfast Club, their most popular show, with Freddie Gibbs, a hip-hop artist who recently joined the Nation of Islam. Joining him was Tony Muhammad. One of the Breakfast Club’s hosts, Charlamagne tha God, asked Muhammad, “What’s some of the work you’re doing with vaccines?”

“Well you know i’m the one that Bobby Kennedy came to,” Muhammad began. “Bobby Kennedy was given some startling information. There is a scientist who works right now for the CDC. Forty years ago we had the Tuskegee experiment, and that experiment was done by the United States Health Service. It was so atrocious they changed their name to the CDC. It was Ted Kennedy that shut that down. And 40 years later we found out that the Tuskegee experiment has not stopped.”

For the next twelve minutes, without any real objection or pushback from the hosts, Muhammad was allowed to deliver an error-filled virtual monologue on the dangers of vaccines, which he linked to an uptick in both autism and ADHD.

“I’ve never vaccinated any of my children and they’ve never been sick,” he told Gibbs and the hosts at one point. “It’s the vaccinated children that get sick.”

Tony Muhammad on "The Breakfast Club"

“It ain’t new, and it’s spiritual,” Muhammad said on air, going on to claim to that black boys are more susceptible to being harmed by aluminum than black girls and encouraging parents to wait to vaccinate their kids. Muhammad also claimed, like Wakefield, that by 2032 “one in two children will have autism. Eighty percent of the boys. They’re absolutely creating zombies and Frankensteins, and we’re the targets.”

Muhammad told Jezebel he’s hoping to get other celebrities involved in the anti-vaccine effort. “I’m not going to mention their names, but since that interview we’re about to have some big meetings. We’re gonna do our own documentary. We’re going to do our own studies. We’re not going to rely on white scientists who are persuaded by political pressures for the sake of injecting my child.”

At the same time, he said, he doesn’t hold a grudge against NOI members who decide to vaccinate. “I never tell people what to do. If people want to vaccinate, go ahead, play Russian roulette. That’s your right.”

The NOI held a meeting on June 22 for black clergy members in Atlanta to try to create a broader black anti-vaccine coalition. And on August 27, they’re promising to march on the CDC yet again. “We’re gonna march on the CDC and we’re gonna shut it down,” he says. “We’re going to go in so deep, God willing. We’re not going to stop until people see there’s a problem in America.”

This story was produced by Gizmodo Media Group’s Special Projects Desk. Email senior reporter Anna Merlan at