Trump World Star and Budding Conspiracy Theorist Lead Protest of Michigan’s Virus Lockdown

Pilar Melendez, Will Sommer
Jeff Kowalsky/Getty
Jeff Kowalsky/Getty

Hundreds of protesters, some of them armed with assault rifles, gathered at Michigan’s state Capitol on Thursday, demanding entry onto the state Senate floor to confront lawmakers set to debate an extension of the stay-at-home order in place to curtail the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The “American Patriot Rally” outside of the Lansing building was aimed at Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who had made an appeal this week to extend the public health order as the state continues to battle a surge of COVID-19 cases. To date, 3,670 people have died and 40,399 have been infected by the virus across the state, according to a tally by John’s Hopkins University.

Carrying American flags and pro-Trump signs—along with their firearms—many people at Thursday’s anti-lockdown rally blatantly ignored the national social-distancing guidelines as they clustered together outside the Capitol in the morning hours to argue that Whitmer’s order violated constitutional rights and demanded a return to public life amid the ongoing pandemic.

“We’re the only nation that went to war with the South to free other men. Are we that same nation?” Tom Norton, a Republican U.S. congressional candidate, told the crowd that held up “Open Michigan Now” and “Make American Work Again” signs.

Sheriffs Buck the Law, Refuse to Enforce Lockdown Orders

In the crowd, many shouted, “You cannot lock us out. This is the people’s house.” Others were heard yelling “let us in” and accusing police of being “redcoats.” As residents filed into the Capitol building to continue their right to protest, police officers were seen taking their temperatures in accordance with new COVID-19 guidelines.

State Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D) noted the effect the armed observers had on the chamber, claiming that some state senators were wearing bulletproof vests.

Facebook had deleted the event page days before the rally, citing rules against defying social distancing orders. But that didn’t stop droves of protesters from showing up on the Capitol grounds anyway.

Though the rallying cry for the event was largely around the need to restore economic activity in the state, the gathering featured at least one Trump-world star, former Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, and Jason Howland, a budding conspiracy theorist.

Howland, one of the rally’s organizers posted footage on YouTube last week of empty hospital parking lots, part of a right-wing movement to somehow prove the pandemic is overblown by filming areas where patients aren’t treated. In one of the videos, hospital security warns Howland to leave the property before they call the police.

“What are they really doing?” Howland said in a video.

In another, he speculated that tents set up as a temporary coronavirus hospital are actually FEMA camps—a reference to a long-running conspiracy theory that FEMA is about to arrest American citizens and imprison them in “FEMA camps.”

Howland defended the many protesters who didn’t wear masks, saying that it would have looked “pretty stupid.”

“If I’m gonna protest somebody, and I do it by the rules that they’re laying down on me, I’m going to look pretty stupid by the end of the day,” Howland said.

He confirmed that armed militia groups were brought in to provide “security” at the rally, but declined to name the militias. In the face of mounting criticism online of the protesters’ attempt to storm the legislative chamber, Howland said his rally-goers were “peaceful,” although he conceded that they were loud.

“I believe that is activism at its best, because they could hear us and we got what we wanted,” he said.

During his speech to the crowd, Clarke, an outspoken Trump supporter, urged the crowd to “become defiant” in the face of Whitmer’s social-distancing order and questioned CDC guidance that people stay six-feet apart.

“How did they come up with this number of six feet?” Clarke said. “I think they just pulled it out of their rear-ends.”

Anti-Vaxxers and Lockdown Protesters Form an Unholy Alliance

Thursday’s rally comes just two weeks after “Operation Gridlock,” where Trump supporters organized thousands of people to jam the streets of Lansing, Michigan, in protest of Whitmer’s strict stay-at-home order. Since April 15, the state Capitol building has been the site of various anti-lockdown protests, and Whitmer has faced the wrath of the president’s criticism.

Despite intense criticism, Whitmer extended the state’s stay-at-home order last week to May 15, but notably eased some restrictions on previously-banned public activists. On Tuesday, however, the Michigan Senate urged Whitmer to consider further easing the restrictions, highlighting the long-term economic ramifications on the state. On Wednesday, Michigan’s Court of Claims defended the order, stating it does not violate citizens’ constitutional rights or infringe on the residents’ right to due process.

“Those liberty interests are, and always have been, subject to society’s interests—society being our fellow residents,” Judge Christopher Murray wrote in the ruling, denying a request for a preliminary injunction against the order.

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