Rita Palma, left, with an RFK Jr. sign on the...

Rita Palma, left, with an RFK Jr. sign on the Pinelawn Road overpass above the Long Island Expressway recently, and an RFK Jr. banner on the overpass. Credit: Newsday/Randi F. Marshall

Blue Point resident Rita Palma has fought the tide for decades.

Early on, those conflicts weren’t as public, popular or political as they are now. But they were grounded in unfounded rhetoric that pushed against the scientifically proven safety and efficacy of school-age vaccines for everything from measles to polio.

Over the years, Palma stuck to her messaging, often riddled with misinformation and myth, while truly believing she’s moving in the right direction against the political current. She’s become a savvy activist who built support and learned the political game.

People have listened — and still listen to her. That’s why we must listen, too.

Now, Palma’s in the national spotlight, thanks to her brief stint working for Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign for president and her comments linking a Kennedy vote to a potential victory for Republican Donald Trump, whom she once backed.

Like so many Trump supporters, Palma distrusts the establishment and backs those who seek to shake up the status quo. Long Island has long been quite the center of such broad agitation, from the standardized testing opt-out movement to the fights against vaccination pre-COVID-19, to the battles against masking, lockdowns and pandemic-related mandates.

Palma consistently has led the local charge. First, it was about her own kids. Then, it was about others’. Through her organization “My Kids, My Choice,” other families paid Palma to help them obtain immunization exemptions. She began building a like-minded community and as social media grew, her voice did too. And when she fought a 2019 ban on religious exemptions for school vaccine requirements, Palma rallied alongside longtime vaccine skeptic Kennedy Jr.

Palma, like many Long Islanders, backed Trump in 2016 and 2020, even attending the Jan. 6 Stop the Steal rally, where she promoted a “vaccine choice” message. But that support waned when Trump himself joined the status quo.

“He lost me on the [COVID-19] vaccine,” Palma says now.

COVID-19 changed the game for Palma, who once called the pandemic “God’s gift to vaccine choice.” Suddenly, she had a far larger audience. In July 2021, Palma and others pushed a dark, false anti-vaccine narrative to a standing-room-only crowd gathered in an East Northport church.

“I’m telling people don’t take this thing,” Palma said. “It’s poison. It could kill you.”

The vaccine couldn’t kill you — though COVID could. But Long Islanders believed Palma, just like many now believe in Kennedy, on vaccination, health care and foreign policy.

Yet his message, like Palma’s, centers around distrust and fear. Palma and Kennedy use similar language, with phrases like “vaccine choice” and “health freedom” — code words, often, for more harmful anti-vax rhetoric. Eventually, Palma began working for the campaign, to help get Kennedy on New York’s ballot. Long Island’s an important piece; Kennedy this month will hold a Melville fundraiser, costing donors $1,500 to $6,000, and a Holbrook rally.

Palma was to host the fundraiser. But earlier this month, video surfaced showing Palma describing how a vote for Kennedy could help Trump, which, she said, was good because the “mutual enemy” was President Joe Biden. Palma was fired from the Kennedy campaign; she says she now serves in a “volunteer capacity.”

Palma can’t be ignored. Wishing her misinformed ideas would disappear is a perilous approach. We need to understand how the curtains that once cloaked such views have opened so widely, allowing disrupters like Palma — and Kennedy Jr. — to find a spotlight.

To combat the danger they bring with them, we need to understand why.


Columnist Randi F. Marshall's opinions are her own.


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