What and who is behind the US anti-lockdown protests?

While many demonstrations claim to be grassroots, common threads link many to nationwide conservative groups.

Michigan protests
Protesters drove past the Michigan Capitol to show their displeasure with the governor's orders to keep people at home and businesses locked during the coronavirus outbreak [Paul Sancya/AP Photo]

Thousands of people in the United States took to the streets over the past week to demand the country’s swift reopening.

While some protested from their vehicles, many others defied coronavirus social distancing guidelines as they rallied on state capitol grounds and in front of governors’ homes in several states including Michigan, Kentucky, Washington, Minnesota, Virginia and Colorado.

The number of people protesting was relatively small compared with those who have abided by stay-at-home orders. 

Those who protested said they were concerned that their constitutional rights and freedom were being curtailed in the fight to contain the pandemic. Many were also frustrated that they could not work or lost their jobs due to state lockdowns.  

While organisers claimed the anti-lockdown protests are grassroots movements, some groups have received funding from conservative megadonors in the past. Many of the events were also promoted by far-right groups and known conspiracy theorists. 

Here’s a look at who and what were behind the anti-lockdown protests. 

‘Operation Gridlock’

One of the first protests that took place was in Michigan last week, with a group Facebook page called “Operation Gridlock” calling for demonstrators to take to their vehicles to stop traffic near the state’s capitol building in Lansing on April 15.

The demonstration was meant to protest Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s strict coronavirus lockdown measures.

Whitmer responded by saying she understood the concerns of citizens enduring measures to control the spread of the coronavirus and welcomed their demonstrations, but criticised those whom she claimed were behind the protests.

Operation Gridlock was “funded in large part by the DeVos family and I think it’s really inappropriate to for a sitting member of the United States president’s cabinet to be waging political attacks on any governor,” Whitmer said, in reference to Betsy DeVos, secretary of the US Department of Education.

Healthcare workers denver
Healthcare workers stand in the street in counterprotest to hundreds of people who gathered in Denver, Colorado, to call for an end to the state’s stay-at-home order [Alyson McClaran/Reuters] 

Michigan’s Operation Gridlock was co-hosted by the Michigan Freedom Fund and the Michigan Conservative Coalition.

The Michigan Freedom Fund has received over $500,000 from the DeVos family in the past and was founded by Greg McNeilly, a family political adviser.

McNeilly denied to Buzzfeed that any member of the DeVos family was involved in the protest.

Matt Seely, a spokesman for the Michigan Conservative Union, told Buzzfeed that other groups had asked them to “share their template” and there will be “massive” protests in the US in the coming days. It was unclear who those groups were. 

Meanwhile, ReOpen Maryland, which held its first rally in Annapolis on April 18 and was reportedly attended by hundreds, was organised by Evie Harris, who told The Guardian that the protest in Michigan was an inspiration.

Text on that Facebook page was identical to text on the Facebook pages of similar events in Virginia, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. 

Far-right groups 

Websites and Facebook groups, as well as Reddit threads, calling for states to reopen also popped up across the US over the last week. Many featured the same introduction text on their “About” sections, including Operation Gridlock Tennessee and Operation Gridlock Los Angeles.

Though the events appear to be organised in part by mainstream conservative groups, they also have attracted fringe groups. 

Proud Boys in Seattle
A man wearing a shirt supporting the Proud Boys conservative group makes a hand sign considered linked to the far-right [Ted S. Warren/AP Photo]

Michigan’s protest drew the Proud Boys, a far-right group once considered the vanguard of the “alt-right” movement that was ascendant following the election of US President Donald Trump. 

Following the deadly rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, its original leader, media personality Gavin McInnes, began separating from the group due to its focus on race instead of “Western Values”, which McInnes claims he values. 

The Proud Boys have been accused of a series of violent acts and  racist rhetoric, and are present in several countries across the globe. 

Organisers of the Michigan protest reportedly asked the police to remove the group from the event. 

Alex Jones, a noted conspiracy theorist, meanwhile was active at a rally in Austin, Texas over the weekend, where he was photographed shaking hands with protesters. 

Jones has a long history of promoting dubious claims through his talk show, Infowars. He recently settled a defamation lawsuit filed by the father of a child murdered in the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting. The shooting, which was in the state of Connecticut and killed 26 people, including 20 children, was a “giant hoax”, Jones falsely claimed. 

Others, such as QAnon conspiracy theorists who believe in plots by the “Deep State” to destroy the US, and anti-vaccination groups have been present at some of these protests. 

Protests have also drawn militias, armed groups that have gained prominence at protests since Trump was elected. 

These groups, sometimes called “Patriot” militias, claim their civil liberties are infringed upon by the lockdown measures. Many militias are accused of far-right, racist ideology, while others maintain they are conservative groups who want to uphold US law. 

Gun rights groups

Gun rights groups also appear to be playing a major role in the protest. Reopen Minnesota and Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine (PAEQ) said on their Facebook event pages that “politicians are on a power trip, controlling our lives, destroying our businesses, passing laws behind the cover of darkness and forcing us to hand over our freedoms and our livelihood!”

PAEQ appears to have been organised by members of the Dorr family, which has lobbied against gun control and for other conservative causes for years.

Members of the Dorr family, including brothers, Ben, Chris and Aaron, are on the four-person board of directors for the American Firearms Coalition (AFC), along with Patrick Parsons, according to their website.

AFC-linked groups, which are present in several states, are known for antagonising pro-gun groups and Republican lawmakers on the state level for being too willing to compromise.

The AFC is affiliated with the Pennsylvania Firearms Association, which has a website to which PAEQ’s Facebook group links. That group is affiliated with 12 other gun-rights groups across the US, many of which are AFC-linked.

The Pennsylvania Firearms Association did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment. 

War of words 

Many governors say they are eager to reopen their states but cannot do so until widespread testing is implemented with the help of the federal government.

Trump, who has long heralded the strength of the US economy under his stewardship, could face political challenges as the global economy falters due to stay-at-home orders and the resulting lack of demand for goods and services.

Trump tweeted support to “LIBERATE” some states from lockdowns on Friday, fuelling the war of words.

Trump, who previously stated he has “total” authority over states as president, criticised governors for asking the federal government for assistance with testing.

Maryland’s Republican Governor Larry Hogan said on CBS this week that the president is attempting to “push this is off to states” by claiming there are tests and states “aren’t doing our testing, is just absolutely false”.

Regarding the protests, trusted government health expert Dr Anthony Fauci said on Monday “the message is that, clearly, this is something that is hurting from the standpoint of economics, from the standpoint of things that have nothing to do with the virus.”

While conservative groups may want the country to reopen sooner, it won’t be good in the long term, Fauci claimed. 

“So as painful as it is to go by the careful guidelines of gradually phasing into a reopening, it’s going to backfire. That’s the problem.”

Though many governors said they supported the demonstrators’ right to protest, some were concerned that not following social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders would contribute to the virus’s spread. 

Facebook, the platform most groups used to organise, said on Monday that it would ban any events or pages that “defy government’s guidance on social distancing”. 

“Unless [a] government prohibits the event during this time, we allow it to be organised on Facebook,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. “For this same reason, events that defy government’s guidance on social distancing aren’t allowed on Facebook.”

Source: Al Jazeera