This past weekend, there were over 160 anti-lockdown protests, ranging from a bevy of armed militia members storming the capital in Michigan to angry protesters screaming “diaperface” at masked healthcare workers in Oregon. FreedomWorks and other right-wing, anti-union organizations have begun to support such protests publicly, while the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, which tracks the far-right, has located 492 organizations and close to 2 million people affiliated with them.
The protests themselves are a confluence of angers; some understandable, like the dwindling bank accounts of those temporarily unemployed by the Covid-19 pandemic, and others simply a defiant statement against doing whatever the forces of social liberalism ask them to do.
“There is some really dumb stuff that is being done in the name of protecting people from the virus,” Suzanne Monk, the founder of Reopen America and Trump supporter, told me when I spoke to her about them. “We don't want people to be destitute, not able to get medical care for anything else, not able to go to church.”
Monk’s group is just one of hundreds of groups that are attempting to bring an end to “shelter in place” orders. These measures were the baseline that health experts recommended to stem what could have caused deaths on an unprecedented scale — something which could still happen if reopening happens faster than public health officials say is wise.
Like the Tea Party during Obama’s presidency, or the surge of right-wing “free speech” rallies that took place after Donald Trump’s election, these anti-lockdown events have become an entry point for far-right groups. Militia organizations like the III%s, far-right street gangs like the Proud Boys, and even white supremacists have become commonplace, as they attempt to use this unbridled anger as a way to slip back into political relevance.
While most of these protesters have been met with mockery — or their threat reduced to the immediate danger their uncovered, closely crowded faces offer amid a pandemic – it is their ability to sway regional public policy that could have a profound effect on public health.
“We actually are going to start talking with the sheriffs’ departments across the country,” said Monk about what strategies their movement will work to end shelter-in-place orders. “Some sheriffs’ departments have started not to enforce, or softly enforce, the order. And I think that has in those states given those people more liberty to get back to work.”
In Arizona, two sheriffs refused to enforce Governor Doug Ducey’s stay-at-home order this week, and in Snohomish County, Washington, Sheriff Adam Fortney has also said he will not enforce the local order. Fortney is identifying as a “constitutionalist,” a phrase that will be familiar for those who have tracked the Patriot movement.
Appealing directly to the sheriff has a long history for far-right sectors of the militia movement, who have in the past pushed many of these local authorities to say they will stand down on new control restrictions or federal land use laws. The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPCA) was formed in 2011 by Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack (also a board member for the Oath Keepers) and is meant to unite law enforcement against what they see as overreach of the federal government. The implication is that they will not enforce what they see as unjust laws. Barry County Michigan Sheriff Dar Leaf, who the CSPCA claims on social media as a member, said that he would not enforce the stay-at-home order in the way that the governor had issued in mid-April. Three other northern Michigan sheriffs agreed, showing that a break in the chain between policy and enforcement was possible. Michigan eventually pulled back on the shelter order early anyway, likely a sign as to where the political lever of the counties was pulling.
Right now the sheriffs’ injunctions on coronavirus measures are minimal, but the mechanism is clear because it has been exercized in the past. Rural right-wing movements have been built on harnessing the power of regional elected leadership, which have the ability to refuse orders that are politically unpopular with a radicalized base. This is an audience than much of the urban liberals fighting for tighter restrictions do not have access to. These movements have also gotten the ear of far-right politicians in major office, like member of the Washington House of Representatives Matt Shea, who has been speaking in support of the anti-lockdown protests and has a cozy relationship with the militia movement. In Grants, New Mexico, Mayor Martin Hicks decided to defy the order entirely and re-opened businesses, a move that he seemed to hold as a badge of honor.
The anti-lockdown protests have many of the same constituencies as those who protested land use issues in Nevada or the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. They have deep roots in rural areas of the country, where they are used to pushing regional politicians like the sheriff to break with consensus policy. The fact that they ordinarily do not have the ear of major politicians and decision-makers may simply not matter: they have the ability to break the chain in command if they can get sheriffs and regional leaders to stand down on enforcement. And with the interconnected world we live in, we are only as safe as the least observant counties in the country.
While the organizations that prop up these movements are often far outside the mainstream of American politics, they have found a point of leverage that could blow open containment of the virus. And it doesn’t take a lot of political power to do this; just an organized group of people determined to see their vision through.
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