More than 2,500 protesters descended on the Washington state capitol on Sunday to demand that governor Jay Inslee re-open the state’s economy and lift the stay-at-home order issued to slow the spread of coronavirus.
The rally, at which many attendees ignored advice to wear face masks, was centred on demands that Mr Inslee allow businesses shuttered on safety grounds to reopen, with many protesters arguing that state authorities’ order to close down their economies amounted to an attack on the freedoms fundamental to the US’s founding ideals.
Speaking to Reuters, one protester at the event in Olympia said that “Shutting down businesses by picking winners and losers in which there are essential and non-essential are violations of the state and federal constitution.”
His words echo those heard at similar protests that have sprung up in different states over the last week. At an event in Lansing, Michigan dubbed “Operation Gridlock”, signs on display included slogans including “liberty once lost is lost forever” and “security without liberty is called prison”. One placard in Olympia read “Jay Inslee = King George”.
Mr Trump has lately urged protesters defying stay-at-home orders to continue their rallies and “liberate” their states, but has been accused of potentially inciting violence against democratic governors who have issued stay-at-home orders in defiance of his calls to lift the lockdowns as soon as possible.
Asked at the daily White House press briefing if his call for “liberation” risked inciting violence against governors, the president said the protesters simply had “cabin fever”. When a reporter raised the subject of neo-Nazis’ role in threatening governors, Mr Trump responded: “Well that I would totally say no way. I didn’t see that … I’m sure the news plays that up.”
The Washington state protest included and was endorsed by known far right groups – just as the president himself denied their involvement in other rallies and defended those involved in the events across the US as “great people”. Among those who spoke at the protest in Olympia was Joey Gibson, head of the right-wing group Patriot Prayer. While Mr Gibson denies that he is a neo-Nazi, he and the group have received praise from both neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups, including on far-right website Stormfront.
Washington is home to a number of extremist groups, particularly in the more sparsely populated eastern part of the state. Among their known associates is state representative Matt Shea, who has lately called for protests against the stay-at-home order and other restrictions.
Mr Shea has been ejected from the state house’s Republican caucus over his extremist connections. In a report commissioned by the state House of Representatives, he was unambiguously described as a dangerous man: “It is more probable than not that Representative Shea is likely to plan, direct and engage in additional future conflicts that could carry with them significant risk of bloodshed and loss of life.”
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