We won’t let COVID-19 measures strip our freedoms away, says U.S. protester

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A Michigan congressional candidate who protested lockdown measures this week says demonstrators are opposed to what they see as “overreach” in the steps the state is taking to curb COVID-19.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘Look, we need to keep our distance and stay at home and let’s let this thing pass’ — everybody gets that,” said Mike Detmer, a Republican congressional candidate.

“[But] we’re not going to sit back and have all of our freedoms stripped away.”

“The fear is that once you do that, you don’t get them back,” he told The Current’s Matt Galloway.

Thousands attended Wednesday’s protest in Lansing, Mich., — called Operation Gridlock as protesters drove around — against restrictions that Detmer described as “far beyond just staying home.” 

While many protesters stayed in their cars during the demonstration in Lansing, Mich. on Wednesday, some congregated outside the State Capitol. (Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal/The Associated Press)

“Businesses are affected, a lot of businesses that really shouldn’t be,” he said.

“Simple things — going to the store, what you can buy, those are the kind of things that people are upset about.”

Similar protests occurred this week in North Carolina, Kentucky and Ohio.

The demonstrations drew supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump, anti-vaccine and pro-gun advocates and supporters of small government, all calling for restrictions to be lifted. 

The Michigan protest was attended by members of the far-right group Proud Boys, one of whom appeared in a group selfie with Detmer, who said he had never heard of the group before.

He said that Wednesday’s protest was attended by “people from all different walks of life.”

Ohio protesters stand outside the Statehouse Atrium where reporters listen during the State of Ohio’s Coronavirus response update in Columbus, Oh., on Wednesday. (Joshua A. Bickel/The Columbus Dispatch via The Associated Press)

‘Callousness’ of protests

On Thursday, Trump said state governors can “call their own shots” about when to reopen businesses and schools, reversing an earlier position. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Friday she hopes to begin reopening parts of Michigan’s economy on May 1.

Conservative commentator Charlie Sykes said officials need to ensure “the regulations they put in place are understandable, that they’re coherent.”

“You need people to voluntarily go along with them,” said Sykes, editor-at-large at political website The Bulwark, and author of How the Right Lost Its Mind.

“Anything that smacks of being arbitrary or draconian is going to lead to a certain pushback.” 

But he said the rhetoric of the protests didn’t account for the fact the U.S. is “on track to lose more than 70,000 of our countrymen.”

U.S. President Donald Trump said he will release guidelines to reopen the economy on Wednesday as frustrated Americans defied stay home orders to protest the ongoing COVID-19 shutdown. 2:05

As of Friday afternoon, there are close to 670,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S., and more than 32,000 deaths. Michigan has close to 30,000 cases and more than 2,000 deaths.

“There’s a certain callousness that is shocking to me — as a longtime Conservative — watching what used to be the pro-life party basically say: ‘Yeah, people are going to have to die, but we need to reopen these retail stores,'” Sykes said.

“If you really think through what we’re talking about, it really is a discussion of the value of human life and the importance of public health.”

Detmer acknowledged that parts of the state, like Detroit and Wayne County, have been hit hard by the pandemic, but argued restrictions in other areas could be gradually eased. 

“It’s a common sense approach to start getting things rolling again.”

Group selfie showed far-right symbol

At Wednesday’s protest, Detmer posed for a group selfie with over a dozen demonstrators, but said he wasn’t worried about the public health risk of being in close quarters “for a quick picture.”

“We came together for a brief picture where people took their masks off to have their faces in the shot,” he said. 

“And then everybody went back to their distancing and put their masks and gloves back on.”

Mike Detmer, right, is pictured during the demonstration in Lansing, Mich. (Mike Detmer/Facebook)

One of the people in the picture wore a scarf over his mouth, which bore the Proud Boys logo, and made a White Nationalist symbol with his hand. 

Detmer said he had no idea who the group was before the image was taken, but has since spoken with its chairman, and said he had found no evidence that they are a hate group.

“What they say they stand for is protecting the First Amendment, which is freedom of speech, Second Amendment, right to bear arms — all of the tenets of protecting freedoms is what they say they do,” he said. 

“This is not a First Amendment-type organization,” Sykes countered, describing the group as a “neo-fascist organization, known for its anti-immigration, white supremacist, anti-Semitic rhetoric.”

In Oct. 2018, the group and its founder Gavin McInnes were banned from Facebook and Instagram over the social media sites’ policies against hate groups.

Gavin McInnes, centre, and the group he founded, the Proud Boys, have been banned from Facebook and Instagram because of policies prohibiting hate groups. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

The ban came after violent clashes between Proud Boys members and anti-fascist protesters in New York, following a speech by McInnes.

Referring to protests against COVID-19 restrictions, Sykes said there are “some clear activists who have decided that they’re going to get involved in this.”

He predicted there would be further “extreme pushback from people who I think have multiple agendas.”

Protests show ‘tribalized’ politics

Sykes worries that observing physical distancing in the U.S. could become “a sign of political loyalty” as Republican and Democratic states diverge in balancing public health with reviving the economy.

“Rather than being a moment of pulling us together, [this] is about to become another demonstration of how tribalized our politics has become,” he said.

The protest in Michigan was called ‘Operation Gridlock.’ Demonstrators remained in their cars and circled the city streets. (Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal via AP)

He warned against the pandemic becoming politicized, and people engaging in “performative disobedience.”

“The danger to the public health is very real,” he told Galloway.

“Having a protest in Lansing, Michigan — posing for selfies, gathering around without masks — frankly is grossly irresponsible,” he said.

“But I think unfortunately, it’s going to reflect the kind of politics that we have here.”


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Emily Rendell-Watson and Richard Raycraft.

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