Conservative activists cheered on in some cases by Donald Trump are vowing to step up street protests against lockdowns imposed to stop the spread of the coronavirus, arguing the restrictions violate their civil rights and threaten their ability to earn a living.
The demonstrations in recent days have echoes of the anti-establishment agitation that led to the rise of the Tea Party movement a decade ago, and have involved activists who customarily espouse more traditional rightwing causes — such as the fight against gun control measures.
Denny Tubbs, 67, the leader of Ohio Stands United, a gun rights group, said he would attend a protest on Saturday in the state capital of Columbus against closures ordered by Mike DeWine, a Republican governor.
“I’m not saying it doesn’t have to be dealt with [but] shutting down and crushing the economy is not the way to do it,” said Mr Tubbs, a gunmaker by trade. “Our civil rights have been stomped on.”
While the unrest so far has only involved a relatively small number of people in states including Minnesota, Michigan, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Florida, it comes as the US president has raised expectations for a lifting of restrictions while the US death toll from the pandemic nears 35,000.
Mr Trump took to Twitter to support the protests on Friday, a day after he backed away from claims that he had “total” authority to reopen the economy and said state governors should make such decisions, based on his guidelines.
“LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” he wrote, before adding, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN”, referring in both cases to Midwestern states where protesters have taken aim at restrictions ordered by Democratic governors.
Several hundred people gathered on Friday outside the residence of Tim Walz, Minnesota’s Democratic governor, to protest with placards that had slogans such as “Facts not Fear”. Footage of the event revealed that the overwhelming majority of them were not practising social distancing.
In Michigan, the state with the fifth-highest number of Covid-19 cases, protests erupted after Gretchen Whitmer, a Democratic governor who has been seen as a possible vice-presidential running mate for Joe Biden, tightened and extended restrictions.
Matthew Seeley, a member of the Michigan Conservative Coalition that organised protests against the governor’s policies, said he supported the initial lockdown. But he said new restrictions — such as on what items can be sold in stores — were intolerable.
“The solution cannot be lock every American in their home, let the economy collapse and when the last case is resolved, you can emerge from your hole in the ground,” said Mr Seeley, a Republican councilman from a Detroit suburb. “It’s not sustainable.”
Some businesses have also raised objections. In Columbus, Ohio, the owner of Gilded Social, a shop that caters for bridal parties, has filed a lawsuit against Amy Acton, the director of Ohio’s health department who has been nicknamed “Doctor Death” by some of her critics.
Maurice Thompson, head of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law who represents Gilded Social, said the suit was “not a haymaker suggesting the government cannot have regulations to protect people from a pandemic”.
He said businesses should be able to appeal and also to petition to be considered an essential business, particularly since the penalty for disobedience is up to 150 days in jail.
The resistance has been fortified by conservative media. Tucker Carlson, a Fox News host, this week interviewed the Democratic governor of New Jersey, Phil Murphy, about his stay-at-home order and asked: “By what authority did you nullify the Bill of Rights?”
Tom Zawistowski, a well-known conservative activist in Ohio, said “civil disobedience” would be the next step if the situation was not remedied by May 1. “We’re gonna tell them go to hell, you can’t tell me what to do,” he said. “Our government’s job is to represent us, protect our rights and instead they turn into tyrants, including a Republican like Mike DeWine.”
Polls suggest a majority of Americans support lockdown measures, with one survey by the Pew Charitable Trust saying that two-thirds are worried the restrictions would be lifted too soon.
Nan Whaley, the Democratic mayor of Dayton, Ohio, said Mr Trump was “detached from reality” in promoting an end to lockdowns because cities lack the capability to implement the Covid-19 testing needed to safely reopen. She estimated as much as 20 per cent of people in her state harbour anti-lockdown sentiments.
“There are groups of people that value their economic liberty over someone else’s human life,” she said. “We want to get people’s liberty back when we have PPE [personal protective equipment] and testing. But I have a hard time with ‘let’em die’ attitude.”
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