At these "reopening" protests, there were signs of political extremism. At some, health care professionals who counter-protested to support social distancing and other measures to curtail disease spread were vilified. Since then, it has become glaringly obvious that these protests and the arguments about backing off from pandemic suppression efforts have become caught up in an increasingly ugly political reality. We have noticed some specific trends.
Local Political Leaders Endorsed Extremism
Not only the "reopening" protesters, but their supporters among local political leaders have endorsed extremist symbolism and viewpoints. Recent examples follow in chronological order per when they were reported.
Ohio State Senator Compares State Health Director, Who is Jewish, to the Nazis and Anti-Christ
Per Raw Story on April, 22, 2020, after Ohio Health Director Amy Acton suggested letting people who are immune from COVID-19 get a certificate to that effect, State Sen. Andrew Brenner’s wife, Sara Marie Brenner tagged her husband with a Facebook post that included:
This is the mark of the beast type talk.
'This is worse than China, for heaven’s sake,' they added. 'This actually feels like Hitler’s Germany where you had to have blonde hair and blue eyes to be able to function anywhere, and you were damned otherwise. When are people going to say enough is enough?'
The lawmaker signaled his endorsement of his wife’s post by vowing 'we won’t let that happen in Ohio,' in a Facebook comment.
Kentucky State Representative Endorses White Supremacist Militia Member
During an early May "reopen" protest in Louisville, per the Courier-Journal on May 3, 2020:
State Rep. Savannah Maddox, a Republican from Dry Ridge who alleged Kentucky's government has made residents 'prisoners in your own homes' during the rally, was pictured standing next to a woman wearing military-style gear and carrying a gun while flashing a hand signal associated with white supremacist groups.
Tara Brandau, the woman in the photo making the hand gesture, posted the picture to her Facebook page with an endorsement of Maddox.
Brandau lists her hometown as Live Oak, Florida, on her Facebook page, which includes photos of her at several recent protests of coronavirus restrictions in other states. Brandau posted another picture to her Facebook page with a group of people at the Kentucky protest wearing military-style gear, several of whom are flashing the same 'OK' hand gesture, which has become a prominent symbol of white supremacist groups in recent years, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Brandau is an active member of the Florida Three Percenter Security Force, a far-right militia movement and paramilitary group. She also has ties to the League of the South, which the SPLC labels a secessionist neo-Confederate hate group.
Louisiana Representative Compares Stay at Home Orders to Nazi Dictatorship
As reported by Big Easy magazine on May 12, 2020, Representative Dodie Horton:
compared the stay-at-home restrictions to living under 'Nazi Germany.'
Ironically, Rep. Horton was primarily concerned with her inability to attend church on Sundays during the lockdown.
'What happened to separation of church and state?' she first queried, neglecting to mention that the public health order did not specifically target any religious practices.
'Can the fire marshal still be able to go in and close a business down [under HCR 58]? Can the Department of Health still close down restaurants? Our tax dollars – are they paying for that?'
'I mean, are we in Nazi Germany?'
The magazine got a response from Aaron Ahlquist, Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League’s South Central Region.
To make a comparison of the Governor’s order to protect the health and welfare of the residents of Louisiana to a brutal regime that intentionally tried to exterminate the Jewish people and other vulnerable communities, is not only inaccurate, but cheapens the horror of Nazi Germany and the losses experienced by the victims
So anyone who would openly oppose the "reopen" movement by supporting public health measures against coronavirus, including measures advocated by the US government and the President's coronavirus task force could expect to be vilified as a "Nazi," (even if you are Jewish), or the Devil.
Guns and Militias
"Reopening" protests increasingly included people dressed in pseudo-combat gear, sometimes carrying military style weapons. Many of these were apparently members of militia groups. The most vivid examples are from protests in Michigan, although armed protesters have also appeared at "reopen" rallies in Pennsylvania (look here) and Virginia (look here).
Armed Protesters Invade Michigan State Capitol
The most obvious example occurred in late April. Per the Independent, April 30, 2020:
Michigan politicians have decided to don bulletproof vests when going to work as armed protesters defy lockdown orders.
State Senator Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat, revealed the protective decision some of her colleagues were making when sharing a picture of protesters on Twitter on Thursday.
In the picture, multiple men in the Michigan State Capitol building were armed with guns.
She wrote: 'Directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us. Some of my colleagues who own bulletproof vests are wearing them. I have never appreciated our Sergeants-at-Arms more than today.'
When contacted by The Independent, the senator shared a picture of her colleague Senator Sylvia Santana, a Democrat, wearing a bulletproof vest and face mask while working.
The Guardian's coverage on the same day noted:
One protest sign outside the statehouse on Thursday read: 'Tyrants get the rope.'
But protesters also included
militia group members carrying firearms and people with pro-Trump signs
Members of the Michigan Liberty Militia were at the protest, armed with guns, and one member said that the group was there as a 'security detail' for the event organizers, MLive.com reported. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors American extremist organizations, includes a 'Michigan Liberty Militia' among its list of extreme antigovernment groups.
Note that the AP reported in retrospect on May 13, 2020, that the armed protesters may have also been members of the "boogaloo" movement (see below).
Another anti-lockdown rally is planned for Thursday at the state Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, site of an angry protest last month that included armed members of the Michigan Liberty Militia. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has been the target of violent threats on Facebook forums, including a private one called 'The Rhett E. Boogie Group.'
Later, via NBC News, May 2, 2020, an article written by Michigan State Senator Mallory McMorrow noted that the protests also numbered:
protestors with a swastika, Confederate flags or a massive Trump 'bridge' float.
Given all that symbolism, it should not be surprising that Trump as quick to endorse his apparent supporters, per the Guardian on May 1, 2020:
A day after armed protesters against Michigan’s stay-at-home order entered the statehouse in Lansing, Donald Trump once again expressed support for the rightwing movement.
Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, should he said 'make a deal' with the demonstrators.
'The governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire,' the president wrote in a tweet on Friday morning. 'These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.'
So at this one "reopen" protest, protesters carried signs with Nazi and Confederate symbolism. Armed militia members appeared, and pushed into the capitol building. Yet, protesters also carried signs in support of President Trump, who later endorsed them as "very good people."
Later Protests at Michigan Capitol
Protests at the Michigan state capital have continued, although the armed protesters seemed deterred from their most recent protest by a bit of rain. Per the Guardian, May 14, 2020:
dozens of conservative protesters descended on the state capitol on Thursday morning.
Some arrived armed with assault rifles while others held up signs portraying the governor with a Hitler moustache and one speaker taunted police and called for Whitmer to be pulled outside and arrested for breaking the law with her emergency orders.
But the fears of serious violence that had preceded the event proved unfounded. Instead, a steady downpour and lightning pushed most of the protesters to their vehicles after about 90 minutes.
So anyone who would openly oppose the "reopen" movement by supporting public health measures against coronavirus, including measures advocated by the US government and the President's coronavirus task force could expect attempts at intimidation, even by members of armed militias.
Threats of Violence Against "Reopening" Opponents
Beyond the vilification of health care professionals acting as counter-protesters (see our post here), some "reopening" supporters made apparent threats of violence against their perceived opponents.
Death Threat Against Governor of Kentucky
In the context of protests of Governor Beshear's lock-down of businesses, per The Hill on April 22, 2020: an attorney, John Troutman, was on Facebook
reportedly having an exchange about protests planned in opposition to Beshear’s stay-at-home order amid the coronavirus pandemic
when he stated
with any luck the Gov will be the one at whom the shooting will be directed
Just for emphasis, he also referred to the story of
William Goebel. For those of you who don't know the history...it's a good read...
The Hill explained:
Goebel, Kentucky’s 34th governor, was shot in 1900 the day before being sworn in after a divisive election and died four days later. He remains the only state governor in United States history who was assassinated during a contested election.
Boogaloo Militia Fans Threaten Various Violence
The background came from the New York Times, May 3, 2020:
Last month, the Department of Homeland Security warned law enforcement officials throughout the United States of the mobilization of violent extremists in response to stay-at-home measures, according to a senior law enforcement official and a congressional staff member, who were not authorized to discuss the warning publicly.
A department memo dated April 23 noted the recent arrests of individuals who had threatened government officials imposing coronavirus-related regulations. The memo was distributed to law enforcement “fusion centers” that counter terrorism nationwide and to congressional committees, the officials said.
In particular, there is a loosely set of people who could be called the "boogaloo" movement:
Some label their expected second civil war 'the boogaloo,' and experts have tracked a spike in interest in the term on social media, plus a proliferation of advice on how to prepare.
The name is a pop culture reference derived from a 1984 movie flop that became a cult classic called “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.” It went through various mutations and emerged sometimes as the “Big Igloo” or the “Big Luau.” That is why adherents sometimes wear Hawaiian shirts, say those who track them. Many such shirts were in evidence when armed protesters stormed the state capital in Lansing, Mich., Thursday and they have appeared in rallies across the country.
Specific threats came from people tied to this movement:
Timothy R. Wilson, 36, an extremist suspected of planning an attack on a Missouri hospital, was killed in a shootout with F.B.I. agents in late March. An F.B.I. statement said he was 'motivated by racial, religious, and anti-government animus.'
The federal government sought to harness the pandemic as an 'excuse to destroy our people,' Mr. Wilson wrote on an online channel for violent neo-Nazi groups, Dr. Squire said, while also describing it as a Jewish 'power grab.'
An Arkansas man, Aaron Swenson, 36, had used an alias to 'like' more than a dozen 'boogaloo' Facebook pages, said the Tech Transparency Project report. He then went on Facebook Live on April 12 to announce that he was hunting for a law enforcement officer to ambush and execute in Texarkana, Texas, where the police arrested him, according to a police statement.
Mr. Swenson, who remains in jail on $85,000 bail, was charged with making terroristic threats, evading capture and carrying a weapon illegally.
In March, a Missouri man with ties to neo-Nazis was shot and killed when FBI agents tried to arrest him. Timothy Wilson, 36, was planning to bomb a hospital in the Kansas City area on the day that a COVID-19 stay-at-home order was scheduled to take effect, authorities said. Wilson told an undercover FBI agent that his goal was 'to kick start a revolution' and referred to his plans as 'operation boogaloo,' according to an agent’s affidavit.
Militia Member Planning to Attend Colorado "Reopen" Rally Arrested for Possession of Pipe Bombs
Per Vice News, May 4, 2020:
A Colorado man was arrested Friday when federal agents found pipe bombs at his home, hours before the anti-lockdown rally that he reportedly planned to attend at the state Capitol.
Bradley Bunn, 53, allegedly told agents that he planned to use the bombs against law enforcement if they attempted a forced entry, according to an arrest affidavit.
Federal agents with the FBI and ATF reportedly became aware of Bunn after a series of aggressive social media posts, according to an anonymous official who spoke to ABC News after being briefed on the case.
The Denver Post also reported that Bunn, who’s allegedly a member of an anti-government militia, boasted online that he’d bring high-powered weapons to the state’s Capitol for the protest.
Threats Against People who Complained about Violations of Washington's Stay at Home Order
Per the Seattle Times, May 9, 2020:
Two Facebook pages during the past week posted names, emails and phone numbers of state residents who had complained to the state about businesses allegedly violating Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order. Some of the complainants say the Facebook posts have generated threats of violence and harassment against them.
One group publicizing the names, the Washington Three Percenters, has promoted the stay-at-home protests, and one of its leaders spoke at Saturday’s demonstration.
On its Facebook page, the far-right group of self-described 'God fearing Patriots,' had this message: 'Want to snitch on your neighbor? Don’t expect to hide behind you (sic) computer screen.' With the message, the group provided a link to a spreadsheet containing the names and contact information of people who made reports to the state.
In one case,
A woman on the list shared by the Washington Three Percenters said she quickly got threatening emails and phone messages. The woman, who lives in King County and asked not to be identified because of threats to her safety, had reported a business she said she believed was operating improperly despite Inslee’s stay-home order.
She sent The Seattle Times a voice message that she said was left on her phone. A man says, 'You got 48 hours to get the [expletive] out of Washington, or I am coming for you, and your loved ones.'
Note that the Three Percent group is also related to the "Boogaloo" militia. Further note that a Kentucky state legislator seemed to endorse another member of the Three Percenters who appeared a "reopen" protest in that state (see above).
Michigan Governor Threatened on Facebook Before "Reopen" Rally
Per the Detroit Metro Times, May 11, 2020:
Dozens of angry Michiganders, fueled by conspiracy theories and disinformation about the coronavirus, are promoting violence and mobilizing armed rallies against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Facebook, in violation of the social media company’s policies.
On Sunday, after being contacted by Metro Times, Facebook removed one of the groups, Michigan United for Liberty, and deleted posts on others for violating the company’s policy against inciting violence. Facebook announced last month that it will remove groups and events that encourage people to defy social-distancing measures. Facebook also is investigating the other groups.
'We removed one group for violating our policies and will remove any other violations as we continue our review,' a Facebook spokesperson tells Metro Times.
Assassinating Whitmer is a common theme among members of the groups. Dozens of people have called for her to be hanged.
'We need a good old fashioned lynch mob to storm the Capitol, drag her tyrannical ass out onto the street and string her up as our forefathers would have,' John Campbell Sr. wrote in a group called 'People of Michigan vs. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer,' which had nearly 9,000 members as of Monday morning.
Steve Doxsie had the same idea: 'Drag that tyrant governor out to the front lawn. Fit her for a noose.'
'Either President Trump sends in the troops or there is going to be a midnight lynching in Lansing soon,' Michael Smith chimed in.
There were many more. Note that some of the threats came from a "Boogaloo" related group as discussed above.
So anyone who would openly oppose the "reopen" movement by supporting public health measures against coronavirus, including measures advocated by the US government and the President's coronavirus task force could expect not merely attempts at intimidation, but threats of violence and even death. There have been instances in which people have made concrete preparations to carry out such threats.
Many dooctors and other health care professionals traditionally have not been very interested in health policy, and often have avoided activism, much less any appearance of partisanship. Pushed by the suffering of COVID-19 patients and their own vulnerability in the pandemic, many have tried to educate the public about the need to suppress the pandemic through social distancing and various physical measures.
This has given some an impetus to protest unsafe conditions in health care facilities (look here), and to try to educate "reopening" protesters about the medical and public health risks of premature efforts to decrease the economic effects of the pandemic (look here). Yet that put them in uncomfortable positions. Hospital managers did not appreciate their protesting when it put management in a bad light. Some "reopening" protesters responded to their educational counter-protesting with anger and vilification.
Health care professionals must open their eyes about whom and what they are up against. The "reopen" protests seem to be more about a particularly ugly version of politics rather than economic concerns. Political supporters of "reopen" protests are no more afraid of vilifying those who disagree with them than are the protesters themselves. Protesters include armed militia members trying to intimidate their opponents. "Reopen" campaigns often generate threats of violence against perceived political enemies.
Further, as we documented here, the "reopen" protests are supported by powerful, often opaque right-wing political groups, backed quietly by some of the country's richest plutocrats.
Even more intimidating, "reopen" protesters often pledge allegiance not to obscure cult leaders, but to the President of the United States, Donald J Trump. Trump, after all, helped to fan the flames of the protests by calling for the "liberation" of some states led by Governors of the opposing political party, as noted here. Finally, as discussed above, Trump clearly has signaled his support even for protesters who dress to intimidate in pseudo-military garb and carry guns into state capitol buildings, apparently threatening armed insurrection.
So health care professionals trying just to uphold their mission to put patients' and the public's health first have stumbled into a conflict far beyond anything we have seen in our lifetimes. Upholding the mission will be difficult, unpleasant, quite likely dangerous. The danger is not just from the virus, but from our fellow humans. That does not make the mission any less important. Innocent lives are still hanging in the balance.
"And if not now, when?"