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Fueled by a combination of economic anxiety, anti-government sentiment and conspiracy theories, the anti-lockdown movement has ballooned in the U.S., almost as quickly as the coronavirus itself.
In the last three weeks alone, more than 90 protests have gone down in 46 states. Some of these events have drawn dozens to their state capitals, others hundreds, and even thousands, in defiance of warnings from public health officials. In some cases, the demonstrations have generated ugly scenes of protesters harassing healthcare workers or waving Confederate flags.
But what was initially viewed as ultra-fringe has proven to have staying power, despite contradicting all public health guidance on stemming the spread of the virus. And a rag-tag group of Facebook users who came together this month under the umbrella of “American Revolution 2.0” think they can keep it that way by rehabilitating the movement’s image. On Friday, they’re hoping to turn out big numbers in a coordinated protest in all 50 states — in theory, a critical mass that would take the small local protests to the next level.
The so-called “March for Freedom” is trying to appeal to a more mainstream audience by framing measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic — which has killed more than 60,000 people in the U.S. and sickened over a million — as fundamentally anti-American.
“For me, I really see this as a unification event,” said Josh Ellis, who owns a business repairing water damage and mold in Naperville, Illinois. “This is the time to bring all different beliefs, cultures together, under the American flag, and just support our country.”
Ellis is running PR for the group. His job is to try and put a clean face on a protest movement that’s been dominated by extremist messaging and bizarre conspiracy theories. American Revolution 2.0 organizers are even asking attendees to forgo their MAGA hats and Trump flags — which have been mainstays of the protests so far — to give the appearance of nonpartisanship.
“The precedent must be set by ‘We The People’ that these draconian, tyrannical actions will never be accepted again,” they wrote in a press release.
But Ellis may have a serious uphill challenge if he wants to broaden the movement’s appeal by Friday.
For starters, the lockdown issue is an intensely polarized one. Recent polling by Axios/ Ipsos found that only 49% of Republicans are “very concerned” about coronavirus, down from 56% last week. That’s compared to 80% of Democrats. And the lockdowns are broadly viewed as a necessary evil: The vast majority of Americans believe that social distancing should continue to avoid a possible second wave of infections, and a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll released Wednesday found that 73% of American voters believe social distancing should continue, even if it causes additional harm to the economy.
In addition, even if the majority of people coming out to anti-lockdown protests are Americans who are desperate to return to work, they’ve been lumped in with the loud conspiracy theorists whose rhetoric and ideas have given the movement a more sinister shape and tone. Some protesters have carried signs promoting bizarre conspiracies, like 5G causing coronavirus — or shown up heavily armed.
American Revolution 2.0 has been no exception to this; Facebook removed their page earlier this month after Motherboard reported on some of the dangerous conspiracies and disinformation circulating on it. But on the very same day they got the boot, they were back — this time as a private Facebook group called “AR2.”
(Facebook told VICE News that this violated their recidivism policy and that they’d removed the main AR2 page. “We don’t allow people to create new groups to replace those we’ve removed for violating our community standards,” a spokesperson wrote in an email.)
But the state-specific AR2 groups remain at time of publication. Under the AR2 banner, Ellis is helping to coordinate 52 protests expected to take place on May 1 (one in each state, plus two in California and two in Illinois); each protest has its own corresponding AR2 Facebook group. Membership in those groups range from about a dozen or so in places like Vermont, to thousands in Los Angeles. Their numbers in some places will be bolstered by a separate drive-in “MAGA May Day” rally organized by “Women for Trump.”
Ellis is not himself a “coronavirus truther” (a term that’s increasingly used to describe people who think that the whole thing is a hoax). He believes the virus is real but thinks that the lockdown orders are offensive — ”Americans aren’t stupid,” he said — and that the government has no business getting involved in people’s health.
“We’re not deniers of the coronavirus,” he said in a recent YouTube video. “We simply are people who want to protect our constitutional rights and believe it’s our responsibility to take care of our health and our neighbors — not the government.” (So far, the courts don’t seem to agree that lockdowns are unconstitutional: a judge in Michigan ruled on Wednesday that while the measures might cause temporary harm to the economy, that harm does not outweigh the public health risks posed by coronavirus).
Despite Ellis’ reasonable position that coronavirus is real, on Tuesday he appeared on Infowars, which has peddled all sorts of bizarre conspiracy theories about the virus (the latest being that it’s a ploy to facilitate robots taking over the economy). Infowars’ host Alex Jones has been present at several anti-lockdown protests in Austin, Texas — even joining protesters in a chant of “arrest Bill Gates.”
In another effort to appear like they’ve taken public health into consideration, anyone who wants to join the AR2 Facebook pages has to commit to wearing a mask and exercise social distancing at Friday’s protests. Asked how he could reconcile his hope for a huge turnout with social distancing, Ellis pointed to a recent protest in Tel Aviv, Israel as the gold standard. Last weekend, thousands of Israelis protesting the new coalition government maintained a six-feet distance from one another. “We’re gonna take up a lot of room,” Ellis said.
Some of the protests in the last few weeks have been “drive-in” rallies, where protesters have waved signs from their cars or driven caravan-style around government buildings. But there have been plenty of examples of protests where demonstrators turned out in their hundreds, even thousands, without masks, and stood in close proximity to one-another. Epidemiologists have warned that the rallies could lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases.
Some of the coordinated protests so far have also been accused of astroturfing. They’ve given the appearance of a grassroots movement when really they had some significant financial backing from conservative interest groups, like one linked to the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, or to a group of brothers known for their activism around gun rights.
But as far as “American Revolution 2.0” is concerned, Ellis insists that they’re just “a bunch of social media friends” who connected online. And though AR2 doesn’t appear to have the financial backing that some of the earlier protests have, Ellis says that the May 1 events have started to attract some local organizers. For example, retired WWE star Gabe Tufts (aka “Tyler Reks”) in Texas is helping to coordinate the Austin rally. A group called “My Militia,” which describes itself as the “#1 patriot networking community online” will help out in Utah. The Libertarian Party of Florida put out a press release saying they were joining forces with AR2 in Tallahassee on May 1.
There’s some evidence that the mounting pressure of these protests, together with infection rates appearing to plateau in some hot zones, could be influencing some governors’ decisions to begin the process of reopening their states. Retail stores, bars, and restaurants will open in Texas on Friday with limited capacity. Georgia has also reopened restaurants, bars, barbers, hair salons and gyms, as well as other businesses, with limited capacity. And the protesters seem to have a friend in Trump, who was accused of stoking the movement through a string of tweets calling to “liberate” Minnesota, Virginia and Michigan, in an apparent reference to the protests that had taken place there.
Cover: People attend a demonstration against the government mandated lockdown due to concern about COVID-19 at the State House, Saturday, April 18, 2020, in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)