‘Reopen’ Protests Stir Up the Far-Right

Members of the Proud Boys rally at an anti-quarantine rally in Olympia, Washington, on April 19, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Troy Schulz)

Right-wing protest events against states’ stay-at-home orders and nonessential business closures have sprouted up across the country, attracting far-right activists who see a friendly avenue for their own extreme messages.

​Protesters rallied in at least six states last week in opposition to measures taken to curb the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, including orders to avoid public spaces, cancel social events, and close businesses deemed nonessential. The ​”Reopen” events are the manifestation of a push by a powerful coalition of right-wing groups​, including FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity​, and the Heritage Foundation, to advance the reopening of the U.S. economy.

The Michigan Freedom Fund, a group linked to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ family, is helping organize ​the state events on Facebook, and NBC News found that a family-run network of pro-gun Facebook groups is responsible for some of the largest protest pages.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the protests have received glowing coverage in right-wing media. Fox News has advertised the protests ​while the network​’s hosts have spoken favorably about participants. The sudden spark of big-donor groups, state organizing, and right-wing media coverage invokes strong parallels to the astroturf ​origins of the Tea Party movement.

Minutes after a Fox News segment Friday about the protests, President Donald Trump tweeted, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!,” “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!,” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”​ All three states are led by Democratic governors.

NBC News reported that Trump’s tweets led right-wing extremists online “to speculate whether the president was advocating for armed conflict,” which extremists have spent decades claiming is inevitable in the United States. According to NBC News, the Network Contagion Research Institute recorded a major spike in the term “boogaloo,” which is a phrase popular with far-right extremists online to refer to a supposedly inevitable modern civil war.

In Michigan, protests reportedly attracted members of the violent hate groups, anti-government militias, anti-vaccination groups, and religious-right fundamentalists. The Guardian reports​ that members of the Michigan Proud Boys hate group participated in a vehicle convoy​, and an activist from Michigan Liberty Militia whose Facebook page “features pictures of firearms, warnings of civil war, celebrations of Norse paganism and memes ultimately sourced from white nationalist groups like Patriot Front” was interviewed by local radio.

At the Texas state capitol in Austin ​last weekend​, members of the Infowars entourage including conspiracy theorist Alex Jones reportedly attracted hundreds of protesters for a rally called “You Can’t Close America” organized by Infowars host Owen Shroyer. As Right Wing Watch reported earlier this month, Shroyer had threatened to encourage the Infowars audience into “revolting” against social distancing measures if they were not lifted​ in a week. After protests in Michigan​ last Wednesday, Shroyer followed through on the promise and announced the Texas rally, wh​ich anti-vaccine activists ​attended.

A QAnon supporter is seen protesting at an anti-quarantine rally in Olympia, Washington, on April 19, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Troy Schulz)

The Colorado Times Recorder reported that “anti-vaccination activists, conspiracy theory advocates (including a Q-Anon supporter) and members of the Proud Boys hate group” were present at a “ReOpen Colorado” rally Sunday. Nathan Bernard reported that a “ReOpen Maine” rally Monday was organized in part by a state representative who “is known locally for spreading white nationalist conspiracy theories,” such as the claim that abortion and immigration are part of a plot to eliminate white people.

Protesting against stay-at-home orders has become a common cause for those among the far​-right ranks. By calling COVID-19 a big hoax, asserting that the threat is overblown for political reasons,​and advancing conspiracy theories about the search for a coronavirus vaccine, right-wing activists and media figures have created an environment ​for these protests to take hold. Meanwhile, unabashed extremists see ​the “Reopen” protest movement as fertile ground for their agendas–whether it be fomenting a rebellion against the government or ​targeting minority groups for hate.