Small bands of protesters have staged demonstrations over the government-ordered lockdowns in the otherwise empty streets of a number of Democratic-led U.S. states, driven by the social-media tactics of a coalition of gun-rights activists and far-right groups.
Mostly in states with Democratic governors and sometimes encouraged by President Donald Trump, protests have sprung up to demand an end to social-distancing measures that have closed schools and businesses. Although relatively small, the gatherings strike an unusual picture these days — people gathered in groups together.
Egged on by libertarian activists like those who favor gun rights, oppose vaccines and other government involvement in individual activity — as well as the conservative Tea Party movement and Trump campaign surrogates — people who have lost livelihoods and life savings because of the shutdown are demanding that the restrictions be lifted, even if that means more people are sickened by COVID-19.
Social media has been the spark, with Facebook pages springing up to amplify the message and making the movement seem like more of a grassroots effort than it may be so far, even as some pages attract tens of thousands of likes. Activists are employing methods like hashtags to broaden the effort.
Whether it grows depends on the public’s still-unsettled attitude about the delicate balance government is trying to strike between allowing people to return to work and keeping people healthy. That will also depend on how Trump handles the movement.
Trump expressed support for the protesters again Tuesday at a White House briefing.
“People want to get back to work,” the president said, saying the protesters were also respecting government guidelines by “doing social distancing, if you believe it.”
The Dorr brothers, who live in Iowa, Ohio and Minnesota, have been able to amass an audience of about 200,000 Facebook users across all groups, which include “Minnesotans Against Excessive Quarantine,” with 22,000 members, and “Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine,” with about 70,000 members. They plan on using the power of Facebook to plan future protests too, including drive-thru events in Wisconsin, Ohio and New York.
Facebook has said it will crack down on posts that promote defying government social distancing guidance to protest.
Aaron Dorr, 40, said he and his brothers wanted to create a platform for conservative activists to raise concerns about the quarantine and contact their elected officials.
“Members of our gun-rights organizations asked us to give them a way to talk with their lawmakers the way we do with gun politics, so we kind of did this mostly in reaction to their needs and their requests from us,” Dorr said in an interview.
“These things went viral on their own, exploded in growth because people are sick and tired of being stuck home watching their life’s work fade before their eyes.”
Those who oppose vaccines and supporters of QAnon, a group that believes a “deep state” is trying to undermine Trump and his supporters, have joined the social media effort, along with a small number of far-right users in Canada and the U.K., said Cindy Otis, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst who researchers online misinformation.
These users, some of whom blame the virus on Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates or 5G telecommunications technology, have spread hashtags such as #openupamerica, #openamerica #liberatemichigan and #openpa on Twitter, Facebook and other social media, Otis said.
Trump has joined the cause, tweeting “Liberate Minnesota!” as well as Michigan and Virginia, encouraging his supporters to protest Democratic governors who have ordered people to stay and home.
Gun-rights groups registered domain names related to the protests, said Brian Krebs, who runs the blog KrebsOnSecurity. He found scores of web domains with names that contain the word “reopen” and allude to the protest movement — such as reopenva.com or reopeningchurch.com — that had been registered in April.
His blog documented the way these websites obscured their ownership but are linked to “various gun-rights groups, state Republican Party organizations, and conservative think tanks, religious and advocacy groups.”
Evie Harris, 49, a registered nurse in Maryland, pulled together a Facebook page to bring together workers in businesses and industries that had been impacted by the virus. What began as a 700-member group, called “Reopen Maryland,” quickly turned into 20,000.
“Neither side is less important, that’s not what we’re saying,” said Harris, explaining that the group isn’t affiliated with any political party. “We have 24-plus million Americans who have been forced out of work, who are able to work, and by no fault of their own are forced to stay home. That’s a human toll as well.”
Tom Zawistowski, an Ohio Tea Party activist who has been complaining about the state’s restrictions long before the protests started, said Melissa Ackison, a Republican candidate for the Ohio Senate, played a leadership role but that groups interested in issues such as gun rights, opposing vaccines, abortion, in addition to “Truckers for Trump,” are largely organizing their own people, he said.
“The Tea Party was mostly older Republicans who understood the economic issues. That was what drove it. Obamacare was our rocket fuel,” he said. “This is different. This has got a way broader base.”
Ackison, 41, said she thinks only people with compromised immune systems need to be protected from the virus. People with low immunity are especially at risk as are the elderly and people with underlying health conditions, but young and otherwise healthy people have also died of the virus.
“For us, this was about sending a loud, strong message that crushing an entire country’s economic standing is not the wisest thing to do,” she said.
In Colorado, the state’s Libertarian Party took the lead in organizing “Reopen Colorado” protests. Two days before the event, Victoria Reynolds, one of the organizers, said she was contacted by Republican organizers and precinct leaders from around the state, as well as independent groups, looking to participate. Reynolds agreed, but asked them not to bring Trump signs to the protests in fear of alienating participants.
While Governor Jared Polis had good intentions when he closed down businesses, Reynolds said, “I don’t think that he envisioned the economic catastrophe that it would cause.”
“It’s not his job to allow or not allow businesses to re-open,” she said.
In Michigan, an April 15 event called “Operations Gridlock” — to protest Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s extended stay-at-home order, was organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition, a group with ties to Trump’s campaign. Whitmer is a possible running mate for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Its chief organizer, Meshawn Maddock, is an advisory board member of Women for Trump. The event was also promoted by the Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative group whose chairman Greg McNeilly has been an adviser to the Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s family.
Tony Daunt, executive director of the Michigan Freedom Fund, said the organization did buy a Facebook ad for about $250 to support the rally but did not play any other role in organizing it.
Daunt acknowledged that the Michigan protest drew some far-right elements and expressed frustration with the groups waving Confederate flags and displaying guns, saying that it paints a false picture of the people who were mostly there to push Whitmer to allow more businesses to reopen.
“Any group that we can get back to work safely will help get the economy back on track, get them off unemployment and frees up resources for those who need them,” Daunt said.