Updated, 9:44 a.m., 4/16/20
More than 3,000 people — including some brandishing Confederate and militia flags, as well as guns — piled into downtown Lansing for hours on a snowy Wednesday.
They were supposed to be there to protest Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay home order during the COVID-19 pandemic, but much of the event effectively turned into a pro-President Donald Trump rally.
“We have the power,” a protester yelled in a megaphone at the Capitol as the Michigan Militia took a group photo. “You will not take our liberties.”
True to the protest’s name of “Operation Gridlock,” traffic was backed up a half-mile away at Sparrow Hospital, the only Level 1 trauma center in the region, where the National Guard was called up Wednesday to erect a COVID-19 screening tent for patients entering the building to help better prevent the virus’ spread. However, several ambulances had difficulty pushing through the traffic in late morning and the early afternoon.
Although a Sparrow spokesman said ambulances were able to reach the hospital without incident, the area’s transportation system, the Capital Area Transportation Authority (CATA), wrote on Twitter around 2:30 p.m. that service was “temporarily disrupted downtown and in surrounding areas due to the Operation Gridlock event at the Capitol. CATA is unable to accommodate life-sustaining and medically necessary trips to or from these areas.”
Michigan has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus, with the fourth-most cases in the country, per Johns Hopkins University tracking. As of Wednesday, Michigan had 28,059 cases and 1,921 deaths. Southeast Michigan is a hotspot — CNN on Tuesday reported bodies stacked up in spare rooms in Detroit’s Sinai Grace Hospital — but few corners of the state have been left unscathed. COVID-19 has spread to 92% of Michigan’s 83 counties and deaths have been reported in 51 of them.
Like 42 other states, Michigan is under a stay home order. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the original order to go into effect on March 24, closing most businesses except for hospitals, gas stations and grocery stores.
Last week, she extended until April 30 and tightened it, banning some non-essential items from in-store purchases to prevent people from browsing, although they’re available for delivery and pickup. That didn’t stop a variety of false social media posts and memes claiming things like American flags and homeschooling are banned (they’re not).
Republican leaders and business groups like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce blasted the continued stay home order, even though it’s supported by health experts, and want more businesses opened up.
“There is no question the governor’s order and response by Michiganders has slowed the spread of COVID-19, allowing hospitals like ours the ability to maintain much-needed capacity to care for sick patients,” said Paula Autry, president and CEO of Henry Ford Allegiance Health.
“It can be incredibly hard to stay home and apart from loved ones and routine activities, but the simple act of staying home is saving lives and allowing our front line health care workers the ability to provide the most comprehensive care possible for all our patients, including those with COVID-19.”
Anti-Whitmer, pro-Trump signs
But on Wednesday, conservative groups organized the “traffic jam” near Michigan’s Capitol in downtown Lansing to protest Whitmer — even though, somewhat ironically, few other cars were on the road as a result of the stay home order, besides those belonging to media.
Other organizations attended the protest including the Michigan Militia, many of whom were carrying guns, and the Michigan Proud Boys, a self-described western chauvinist group.*
The Facebook page for the event didn’t explicitly say what the protest was for, but said, ”She’s [Whitmer] driving us out of business. We’re driving to Lansing.”
While the stay home order was seemingly the genesis of the protest, cries to fire Whitmer and expand gun rights overpowered calls to get back to work.
Most demonstrators stayed in their cars, as was supposed to be the plan, although several hundred strolled down streets or gathered on the Capitol lawn. Many attendees brought their kids, donning Trump apparel and singing songs about America. There also was some dancing, socializing and creative homemade signs.
A symphony of car horns mixed with “God Bless the USA,” as people yelled out of their cars: “She’s [Whitmer] the reason we need the 2nd amendment.” One protestor carried around a doll in a noose and said that it was meant to symbolize the governor.
Many had anti-Whitmer signs likening her to Adolf Hitler and calling for her removal from office. Nazi Germany was referenced in several signs. One sign used a swastika to claim Whitmer and Democrats as dictators taking away liberty from citizens, while some protestors had swastika tattoos.
Michigan Militia members made a call to arms, encouraging all present to join the militia. Several Confederate flags flew with Trump flags, even though Michigan troops fought on the side of the Union during the Civil War. Attorney Steve Liedel, former Gov. Jennifer Granholm chief counsel, also noted this bit of history on Twitter:
“Celebrating Confederate losers in front of the statue of Austin Blair, Michigan’s Union Civil War governor, who strongly opposed slavery & secession, led the effort to ban the death penalty and supported voting rights for African-Americans & women.”
Overall, the event often had more of a feel of a celebration of Trump, who’s up for reelection this fall, than a protest of Whitmer’s order.
Polling taken April 6 to 8 from the progressive Center for American Progress showed 71% of Michigan voters approve of how Whitmer is handling the COVID-19 crisis and 29% disapprove. Trump was at 51% positive and 49% negative.
Social distancing shunned
Whitmer’s office has noted that people still have the right to protest during the stay home order: “Persons may engage in expressive activities protected by the First Amendment within the State of Michigan, but must adhere to social distancing measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including remaining at least 6 feet from people from outside the person’s household.”
In addition, state and federal health officials have advised people not to go out in public unless it is absolutely necessary through this week, limit gatherings with close contact and wear a mask to prevent COVID-19’s spread.
“The data confirm that everyone in Michigan can help us flatten the curve, and it is crucial,” said Dr. Vikas Parekh, associate chief clinical officer for Michigan Medicine’s adult hospitals and professor of internal medicine. “In a scenario where the virus spreads throughout the local population infecting the majority of the population, our model shows tremendous differences between less and more aggressive social distancing.”
However, many conservative attendees did not adhere to these guidelines on Wednesday when they left their vehicles and congregated on streets and the Capitol lawn. Most didn’t wear masks or stand 6 feet apart.
Other protesters held up flags spat out of their cars, demanding Whitmer let them get back to work. And health concerns didn’t seem to dampen the resolve of protestors as they yelled, “Health and liberty” can coexist, citing Exodus 23:25 in the Bible.
Majority stay home
The protest of a few thousand people in Lansing attracted gobs of media attention. But for most Michiganders across the state, it was just another day observing the stay home order during the pandemic in hopes things return to normal soon.
Lori Brinks of Amble told the Advance she was happy to stay home “for the health and welfare of everyone I know and everyone I don’t know.”
“I’m staying home because I have a special needs daughter who would likely die if she were to contract this virus,” she added. “I’m staying home because I have the common sense to know that this is the only solution to this problem.”
Judy Williams of Novi is busy planning her wedding but had no desire to break the stay home order Wednesday.
“I know that staying at home is hard on everyone, but not as hard as many more deaths or life-long health damage,” Williams said. “I believe my wedding venue will be cancelled or postponed soon. Still it’s far more important to save lives!”
Attorney General Dana Nessel has been working with Whitmer every step of the way on various orders during the COVID-19 outbreak. The Democrat noted why the state was taking such drastic action in a recent post she wrote on Facebook.
“One day, because of Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency orders, there will be thousands of people who would have otherwise died who instead will go on to watch their kids graduate from school, have grandchildren, or watch the Lions win the Superbowl (Ok-maybe not that last part),” Nessel wrote.
“They may never understand why they never contracted #Covid-19, or how they managed to survive the pandemic when so many others did not. They may even be bitter with the Governor for having been kept from activities which have become such routine, unappreciated parts of life.”
Nessel also acknowledged the political downside for Whitmer.
“These people may even choose to take it out on the Governor later. Her numbers in the polls might diminish. She may not even win a second term. But if people all around our state do not have their lives cut short and instead go on to rebuild their future in the aftermath of this terrible time, then Governor Whitmer will have done her job. Even if the people she has saved and the lives she’s touched don’t recognize it or appreciate it,” Nessel wrote.
“And that’s what leadership looks like.”
Update: The description of the Proud Boys has been changed, as its founder is currently suing the Southern Poverty Law Center for classifying it as a hate group.