The protests at first were mostly small and scattered, often organized by a few ardent gun rights activists, but the events drew mainstream attention and support this week, and dozens more are planned for the coming days. Hundreds of protesters in Michigan — many of them carrying guns and wearing military gear and some shouting at officers wearing protective face masks — entered the state capitol in Lansing on Thursday.
“What an incredibly beautiful and freedom-invoking vision,” said Karen Kirkpatrick Hoop, 49, a consultant in the insurance industry who drove two hours to attend the protest in Lansing with her two children, demonstrating alongside members of militia groups dressed in army fatigues and carrying rifles. “This is an international movement of people that are fed up with an increase in government control.”
Images of that protest and others — some of them doctored to make the crowd appear bigger or alter the messages of the protesters — spread around the world through news reports, as well as links on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, underscoring the social media savvy of the protesters and their potential to create similarly vivid new scenes around the nation.
The growing political stakes were heightened overnight as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), hours after the protest, extended stay-at-home restrictions until May 28, prompting President Trump to tweet Friday morning that she should “give a little, and put out the fire.”
Many of the protesters are motivated by the deepening economic crisis caused by the pandemic and frustration with the stay-at-home orders issued by governors and mayors across the country. In Washington, D.C., truckers parked near the White House on Friday, honking their horns, to protest low rates for freight during the pandemic.
“We’re compassionate people, and we care about lives. Our whole movement is because we care about lives. Not only people directly affected by covid, but for the millions of people who have filed for unemployment and are lining up at food banks, and the business owners who have worked for years to build their business,” said Jeremy Wood, a home supply business owner who is a spokesman for the “The Great 48!,” a private Facebook group of Arizona business owners that has more than 25,000 members and is organizing a protest for Sunday.
Others active in the burgeoning movement question the legality of the restrictions and whether they are an overreaction to a pandemic that has killed more than 64,000 Americans since the end of February and infected nearly 1.1 million.
“If this was as bad as everybody says, the employees at Kroger and Walmart should be dropping like flies, and they’re not,” said Lee Watts, a Kentucky chaplain organizing a protest planned for the state capitol steps on Saturday. Kentucky has had 248 covid-19 deaths, and dozens of grocery workers have died from coronavirus across the U.S., according to the United Food and Commercial Workers, the union that represents them.
In many cases the protests, which have been supported by conservative megadonors, have ties to a host of darker Internet subcultures — people who oppose vaccination, the self-identified Western-chauvinist Proud Boys group, anti-government conspiracy theorists known as QAnon, and people touting a coming civil war.
These groups see the coronavirus crisis as a vehicle to spread their beliefs, said Devin Burghart, president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, a nonprofit group that monitors far-right activity and has been tallying the protests. More than 100 such events in 32 states are planned for the coming days, Burghart said. But he added that it was unclear how many were actual events or merely the work of local and far-flung activists throwing up a Facebook page to try to build more momentum for their causes.
“By organizing on Facebook, these groups are harnessing the coordinated power of the Internet to stage flash protests in public places — strategies that were once tactics used by left-wing movements like Black Lives Matter,” said Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. “Now, though, it threatens the health of the protesters and the police who must enforce stay-at-home orders.”
The protests also are fueled by an Internet echo chamber of medical misinformation that has been amplified by conservative news personalities, some business leaders and by Trump.
A debunked viral video by two California doctors, for example, claiming that covid-19 is no deadlier than the flu was touted on Twitter by Tesla chief executive Elon Musk. YouTube’s removal of the video landed the doctors an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox, adding to its legitimacy and its reach.
Erica Pettinaro, 28, who works part-time as a medical assistant and doula near Flint, Mich., said she is suspicious of the death toll reported from covid-19 and does not believe the government should be counting people who contract the virus and die of pneumonia, even though the term describes any infection that invades the lungs
Pettinaro, a mother of five, co-founded Michigan United for Liberty with a woman she met through her work as an activist in the “medical freedom” movement, which opposes mandatory vaccinations. The group has sued Whitmer over the restrictions imposed during the pandemic and urged businesses to open Friday in defiance of the state order. It organized Thursday’s protest at the state capitol.
She thinks states are “fluffing” their numbers because they have a perverse incentive: “The more deaths and cases that you have, the more federal funding you get,” said Pettinaro.
The group’s members have attended and organized protests that have rattled the state capitol in recent weeks, drawing heavily armed militia members and creating a spectacle that made international news. Its Facebook page has more than 6,700 followers, and it now has a website. It has offered legal assistance to business owners who face prosecution for opening in defiance of the governor’s shutdown orders.
Some of the more visible protests include elements that appear designed to become Internet memes and make the protests appear bigger than they are or change the messages on signs. In one instance, a sign carried by a protester in California that said “Give me liberty or Give me Death” was changed to one that appeared to blame former president Barack Obama for the coronavirus.
Earlier this month, a video of an Idaho mother who was arrested after letting her kids play on a playground that was surrounded by police tape went viral in far-right circles, pushed out by the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
The mother, Sara Walton Brady, is an anti-vaccine activist with connections to a number of conservative groups, said Donovan. The video was live-streamed on Facebook by supporters, and the incident followed an earlier anti-quarantine demonstration in Idaho organized by anti-vaccine activists, the gun rights group Second Amendment Alliance, and the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a politically prominent conservative group in the state.
Brady did not reply to calls and texts seeking comment.
Shortly after Brady’s arrest, far-right anti-government activist Ammon Bundy staged a protest outside the home of the Idaho police officer who arrested her and posted the video online, prompting several copycat standoffs against police, said Burghart, of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights.
Bundy acknowledged that the protest was a stunt designed to draw attention to his concerns that government officials had gone too far in imposing and enforcing coronavirus-related restrictions in recent months.
“All of it is to show people and get people to see what’s going on,” Bundy said. “The question is whether it’s for the right reason. I think it is.”
He and others were preparing for an “Idaho Is Open for Business” rally on Saturday afternoon at the Idaho State Capitol in Boise.
“Creating spectacles for media isn’t new, but now organizers are working to ensure that the protest is optimized to be live-streamed, tailored to become a meme,” said Renée DiResta, technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory. “The audience for a local protest is much bigger than the local community. It’s the ideological community online.”
Even though the hate group Proud Boys were not early protest organizers, they have shown up at protests to spread their ideas. Members have appeared or spoken at rallies and demonstrations in Michigan, Colorado, Nevada and Florida, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Group members have spread xenophobic messages, including blaming China and Chinese people for the virus.
In Michigan, the protests come as Whitmer, the first Democrat to lead the state in nearly a decade, continues to draw the ire of Trump, whose response to the pandemic she has called inadequate. Trump railed against her on television and in briefings, at one point calling her ungrateful and saying that he had instructed Vice President Pence, who is coordinating some of the pandemic response, to not call “the woman in Michigan.”
Whitmer’s own national profile, meanwhile, has risen, spurring speculation that the Biden campaign is considering asking her to join his ticket.
But this has not helped her standing with Republicans, who dominate the statehouse. The governor remains in a tense standoff with GOP lawmakers, who say she does not have the authority to extend the emergency declaration and laid the groundwork to sue her Thursday. On Friday, after extending the emergency declaration over the objections of Republicans, she reflected on the demonstrations that had drawn heavily armed protesters to the capitol.
“Yesterday’s scene at the capitol was disturbing, to be quite honest,” she said. “Swastikas and Confederate flags, nooses and automatic rifles do not represent who we are as Michiganders. This state has a history of people coming together in times of crisis.”
Dwoskin reported from Oakland, Calif., and Balingit from Lansing, Mich. Julie Tate contributed to this report.
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