May 17, 2020

As the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 pandemic progress, the strategies of the forces leading the protests around the ensuing lockdowns appear to be evolving with them. Mass protests of the kind that have been organized in state capitals and large cities around the nation—mostly featuring motley crews of armed “Patriot” militiamen, “Boogaloo Bois” itching for a violent civil war, anti-vaccination fanatics, QAnon cultists, and a variety of conspiracy theorists, mingled with smatterings of ordinary businessmen put out of work—may be becoming too risky even for skeptics.

So now they’re diversifying their tactics, with an emphasis on smaller gatherings—primarily to “defend” small businesses that seek to defy lockdown orders and reopen. So the armed militiamen and other “ReOpen” protesters are now showing up on the streets outside taverns, tattoo parlors, hair salons, barber shops, and restaurants, claiming the governors’ orders ordering them to close are “unconstitutional.”

“Rather than a shift in strategies, the ‘ReOpen’ protest groups are expanding their arsenal of tactics to dangerously and prematurely bring an end to COVID-19 stay-at-home directives,” Devin Burghart of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, which has been monitoring the protests, told Daily Kos. “What started with ‘gridlock’ vehicle protests quickly shifted to armed rallies, followed by armed defiance by militia-backed business owners, even as more states are relaxing their restrictions.”

Mass rallies have proved problematic. After more than 70 people in Wisconsin were found to have been infected with the novel coronavirus in the wake of having attended “a mass event”—roughly two weeks after a similar anti-lockdown protest at the state Capitol in Madison—the protest scene in that state has declined sharply. Currently, no further large protests in Madison are in the works.

Thursday’s anti-lockdown protest in Lansing, Mich., turned out to be a complete bust, with only a couple hundred showing up to march in the rain. Other protests are still being planned around the nation, but there are fewer of them than two weeks ago, when they could be found occurring in nearly every state under lockdown.

However, smaller protests aimed at “defending” reopening businesses from law enforcement are starting to become more common:

  1. In Ecton County, Texas, the sheriff and his deputies have been inundated with death threats following the arrests May 3 of six men who were brandishing their weapons outside an Odessa tavern that had opened illegally, ostensibly protecting its “free speech rights.” The groups that organized the original protest outside the tavern later protested outside the sheriff’s office and a home they believe is his residence.
  2. In Michigan, militiamen stood guard outside an Owosso barbershop that defied Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s lockdown orders by reopening, part of a protest event. The event’s primary organizer was a real estate agent from the Grand Rapids area named Ryan Kelly, who told The Washington Post that he invited members of a local militia to the protests in Lansing as “security.” One militiaman told WILX: "If we have enough people to block entry and people are willing to be arrested, then we'll do that.”
  3. In the East Texas town of Shepherd, armed militiamen led by a man named Philip Archibald—many of them wearing the Hawaiian shirts that are the uniform of so-called “Boogaloo Bois”—showed up to patrol outside Crash N Burn Tattoos, which had announced it too was reopening in defiance of state lockdown orders. Archibald led armed patrols outside a handful of other Texas businesses as they reopened illegally. “It’s not for looks,” one of his cohorts told The New York Times. “We’re willing to die.”
  4. In Wickenburg, Ariz., protesters—many of them on motorcycles—turned up outside of the Horseshoe Café and other businesses in town that decided to defy Gov. Dough Ducey’s lockdown orders. “You got to stand up for what you believe in,” the café’s owner said. “This is America, this isn’t a communist country.”

Violent rhetoric has abounded at all these events, with ominous undertones. “We go out there because we want peace, but we prepare for war,” one of the Odessa militiamen told The New York Times. “I hope this never happens, but at some point guns are going to have to cease to be a show of force and be a response to force,” he said.

IREHR has been monitoring the lockdown protests around the nation, in large part because so many of them have primarily served as platforms for right-wing extremists to indulge in fear- and hate-mongering. Despite the virus’ lethal effects, it has seen the protests growing in intensity and number.

“Militia-backed business rebellion has grabbed the spotlight for the moment and is likely to remain a popular tactic, at least until the next round of mass rallies scheduled for Memorial Day weekend,” Burghart told Daily Kos.

According to IREHR’s count, the leading states in numbers of lockdown protests have been California, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Washington, and Texas. The protests are primarily organized by Facebook groups. The site currently has 513 such groups on its platform, with a total of 1.9 million members.

“Judging by the way many of these groups have started changing their names, one thing is certain: many in this nascent network of far-right COVID-19 protest groups are already thinking about how to remain visible and politically relevant in a post-reopen world,” Burghart said.

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