Across the country this week and last, protests have sprouted up against the social distancing measures in place to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. They’ve featured blocked traffic, confederate flags, picnics with people wearing few facemasks, and protesters pushed up against each other, receiving outsized attention relative to the number of people participating.
There are nearly 45,000 confirmed deaths in the U.S. related to coronavirus, and more than 800,000 confirmed cases total. In desperate efforts to slow the spread of the virus, much of the country is under stay-at-home orders that have been deemed necessary by health experts, taking a historic toll on the economy but which polls show an overwhelming majority of Americans agree with.
Protest organizers say events like these are coming together organically — a grassroots uprising against measures they argue are creating more harm than the virus itself. In some places, the protests do appear to have sprung up on their own. But some demonstrations have been guided or promoted by a conservative network of national players with ties to President Donald Trump.
While organizers supportive of the protests all insist there is no national coordination, there are multiple examples of national groups prodding along some of the political demonstrations. The engagement by national organizers appears aimed at amplifying the resentment brewing on the local level. The President himself has stoked the protesters in his tweets and comments, but some of his allies have also done more, including advising or promoting local protest groups.
Among the national figures supporting the protests is Stephen Moore, a fellow on leave from the Heritage Foundation and founder of the Club for Growth, an anti-tax advocacy group. Moore, who is also an adviser to Trump, has been advocating for the economy to reopen by May 1 and is heading the “Save Our Country” coalition, a conglomerate of conservative groups who also want to see the economy reopen and are advising the White House on how to do it.
Moore says “there’s no national group or national movement behind” the protests, which have so far taken place in more than a dozen states. But Moore says he has personally advised three groups from Ohio, Wisconsin, and Colorado, which he would not name, on how to approach protesting the stay-at-home orders. (“I kind of lost touch with what they’re doing,” he added.) The advice he says he has been giving includes stressing non-violence, respecting health measures in place, and going out of their way to do things seen as constructive.
“And then not having things like MAGA hats, you know? Those aren’t helpful,” Moore says. “And look, I’m the biggest fan of the President there is. … but MAGA hats just turn people off, and so you’re not persuading people.”
Moore says the Save Our Country coalition considered getting involved in the protests as a group, but ultimately decided not to “because we thought it would be a distraction” from the organization’s goals. At least two groups within the coalition are also providing guidance or promoting the protests. Both insisted that was independent of any of the coalition’s activity.
“Tea Party Patriots Action, outside of this Save our Country coalition — separately — we are figuring out where the protests are happening and making sure our supporters are aware of them,” says Jenny Beth Martin, a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots. That awareness campaign involves sending out email blasts targeted by state, something it often does regularly, she says.
Martin said feedback from “a few thousand” of her group’s members suggested they were eager to participate in protests, but also aware of the danger the virus poses. “A lot of our supporters, they said they could go if it was in a car, but they couldn’t get out of the car because they know they would be considered high risk. They either would not participate because they’re high risk, or they would only go if they’re staying in their own car and then going back.”
FreedomWorks, another member of the Save Our Country coalition, has also been providing guidance for some of the protesters and is also careful to draw a distinction between its work with the group and its own involvement in the demonstrations. The New York Times and NPR have reported that FreedomWorks — which also has roots in the Tea Party movement — has been giving local protesters guidance on setting up websites and has been conducting polling around reopening the economy.
About two weeks ago the group’s base began getting frustrated with the no-end-in-sight restrictions, Adam Brandon, president of FreedomWorks tells TIME. “Now we’re hearing that these [restrictions] could last until August, if not longer? Whoa, wait a second, that’s not what we signed up for. So that’s where you start seeing this like pivot … more into reopening the economy.”
Brandon says the group is not organizing any protests, but is supporting the activist community. “One thing I have to do is put a big brick wall between our work on the Save [Our] Country Coalition, and the grassroots protests. Two completely different efforts,” he adds.
One of the largest protests so far was “Operation Gridlock” in Michigan last week, where thousands of people took part in a drive-by protest in Lansing and blocked traffic. The event was organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition, and one of the key organizers was Meshawn Maddock, who sits on the board of Women for Trump and is a co-chair of the Trump campaign in Michigan, according to her Twitter account.
In response to an inquiry asking whether Michigan Conservative Coalition was “in contact” with members of the Save Our Country coalition — including Moore, FreedomWorks, and the Tea Party Patriots — for guidance while organizing, a Michigan Conservative Coalition representative said in an email that “‘any ‘contact’ might mean a phone call or conversation in a Zoom meeting. MCC had no substantive contacts with any group mentioned.”
Operation Gridlock’s Facebook page also listed the Michigan Freedom Fund as one of the hosts. Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer has said that group has financial ties to the family of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and said it was “inappropriate” for a Cabinet member to be “waging political attacks on any governor.” The DeVos family and Michigan Freedom Fund have denied any involvement by DeVos in the protests.
Tony Daunt, MFF’s executive director, says the group was listed as an event host because the group spent $250 in promoting the event, which he says was the extent of their involvement outside of covering it via his group’s social media. Responding to accusations by Michigan’s governor that the DeVos family helped fund or organize the protest, Daunt says, “That wasn’t the case. That is not the case.”
The President himself endorsed some of the protests, even as they undermined his own administration’s social distancing guidelines. On Friday, Trump shot off multiple tweets calling on his supporters to “LIBERATE” Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia, the latter which he tied to the Second Amendment. “It is under siege!” he tweeted.
The White House tells TIME it is not coordinating with any of these groups. An official with Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign says that if the President supports the protests, then the campaign is “100%” behind him. “If you look, there are states that have gone way over the boundaries on what should be considered safe limitations on what people are doing,” the official says. “The President has talked about where he thinks it’s gone too far.”
Not all members of the President’s party feel the same way. Several Republican governors have deemed the national social-distancing measures necessary to stop the spread of coronavirus in their states, and a recent Quinnipiac poll showed nearly 70% of Republicans agreed with stay-at-home orders. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, also a Republican, criticized the President for encouraging the protesters, noting it was not “helpful.”
Online organizers who have been supporting the protests and have no apparent link to the White House insist that the protests are not being coordinated, and simply reflect a widely shared concern that Americans cannot afford to stay at home much longer.
“This is very parallel to the work that I did in the early days of the Tea Party movement,” says Mark Meckler, president of the Convention of States project, which started a website calling to “Open the States”. “My goal is just to give [people] a place where they can congregate and talk to each other and put up notices about whatever might be going on in their own states.” Meckler, who co-founded Tea Party Patriots, says they are not working with any other group. Meckler also said that he’s not coordinating with the White House in any way.
Chris Dorr, a conservative activist who works with his brothers on Second Amendment issues in several states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, and Minnesota, has created Facebook groups with his brothers in several states against “excessive quarantine.” The Washington Post reported that as of this weekend, the brothers’ Facebook groups had more than 200,000 members combined. It’s the type of group where support for events like a recent rally in Pennsylvania have gathered steam.
“There’s no top-down approach to this. I hate to tell everybody that,” says Dorr, after attending the Pennsylvania protest where he says he got a sunburn. “I wish I was this all-seeing guru, and all-powerful dude, but this is the people that are just rising up here.”
Dorr says he and his brothers have not been in touch with the President or his campaign. “I’d take a call from the President, that’d be kind of cool. But we just really support whatever the President is saying as far as reopening the country.”
—With reporting by Tessa Berenson/Washington
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