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OPINION

The Boston lawyer behind the anti-mask and vax protesters

To William E. Gens, the battle over COVID vaccines and masks is part of a much bigger war.

Richard Higgins of Attleboro (left) speaks to his lawyer, William E. Gens, during his appearance in a South Boston courtroom in June 2018.Pool/Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

The Worcester County gym owner who refused to comply with Governor Charlie Baker’s lockdown order in the spring of 2020. The owner of a Lynn tax preparation service who defied state and local mask mandates. The anti-vaccine group that calls itself Boston First Responders United, whose members have been targeting Mayor Michelle Wu’s residence.

All are represented by Boston lawyer William E. Gens, who is hailed on a Boston First Responders United fund-raising website as “a rock-solid resource for spearheading the battle against these unjust mandates.” Or, as WBZ-TV political analyst Jon Keller recently put it — Gens is “a go-to guy for pandemic restriction refusers.”

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He’s also a go-to guy for conspiracy theories about COVID-19. The government, he told me, has been running “a fear campaign” fueled by “arrogance and corruption,” and rooted in superstition, not science. He believes masks and vaccines are as useful in warding off the coronavirus “as carrying around a rabbit’s foot.” He dismisses the death toll attributed to the pandemic nationally and in Massachusetts as “normal deaths . . . that were shoved into the COVID column” and says hospitals were “paid a bounty to mark COVID on the death certificate.”

That’s standard anti-pandemic patter — coming from a lawyer who, according to his website, graduated cum laude from Tulane University Law School in 1990, where he was editor of the Tulane Law Review; and in 1997, was selected “Lawyer of the Year” by Lawyers Weekly USA. It’s a warning that all anti-vaxxers aren’t who we think they are, and that dismissing them as a group of uneducated deplorables who will fade into an endemic sunset could be a mistake. Gens, for one, doesn’t plan on disappearing.

Earlier this month, he argued the case of Ariana Murrell-Rosario, the Lynn business owner who banned the use of masks inside her Liberty Tax Service, before the Supreme Judicial Court. The state, represented by Attorney General Maura Healey, is arguing that the case is moot because the mask mandate has been lifted. But as reported by CommonWealth magazine, Gens wrote in a court brief, “It is clear based upon announcements by the governor that any orders may at any time be reinstated.”

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Gens also represents two Boston Public Schools teachers who filed a lawsuit against their own union over an agreement struck with Wu concerning COVID-19 and the use of sick time. The suit argues the agreement violated union bylaws because the vote taken to endorse it did not give proper notice. After it was filed, Gens said, “The school committee tabled their vote and referred it to legal counsel. . . . It’s sitting there dead in the water.” Which is where he wants it to stay. In addition, at least one protester who was staking out Wu’s Roslindale home also challenged the city’s mask mandate at the Boston Public Library, an example of another way to expand the pandemic battleground.

To Gens, the battle over vaccines and masks is part of a much bigger war. Keller’s article for the political newsletter MASSterList linked to a podcast interview Gens did last September in which Gens said his focus is “on defending people who have said ‘I will not comply.’ ” That, said Gens on the podcast, is “the first step toward vindicating your rights and that can take you on a path that might lead in any number of directions. For the Founding Fathers, it led, of course, to a . . . guerrilla war in which they lost most of the battles that they fought, but they stood their ground and by attrition, death by a thousand cuts, they wore down the greatest military force on earth at the time, and that’s what I’ve been attempting to do.”

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As Gens describes it in the podcast, his legal strategy is to “obstruct, delay, to cause grief, to cause expense, to protect my clients, to keep them in business so they can continue to defy and continue to thrive.” He now senses a public weariness with COVID-19 that could help his cause. Referring to a lawsuit brought by the Boston Firefighters Union (which he doesn’t represent) that resulted in a recent court decision to block the city’s vaccine mandate, Gens said that whether the injunction survives an appeal “is an interesting question. Six months ago I would say it wouldn’t. But the wind is blowing against the COVID narrative.” Wu, he said, “is not going to go down the same road as Justin Trudeau,” a reference to the actions taken by the prime minister of Canada to remove truckers who clogged roads and bridges to protest vaccine mandates.

If Gens is right, that would be a victory for the vax resisters and the conspiracy theorists who hang out with them. From his perspective, it’s just one small step toward undercutting what he calls the “arrogance and corruption” of government — and what others see as reason and the common good.

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Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her @joan_vennochi.