On a sunny May Day in Los Angeles, the steps in front of City Hall were a sea of American flags and posterboard. Chants of "Recall Newsom" echoed through megaphones as a poster floated by, depicting California Governor Gavin Newsom as Hitler, mid-Sieg Heil. Parents stood proudly with their small children holding placards about wanting to return to school as people photographed them. Signs filling the steps ranged from the professionally printed with phrases like "Keep the sick safe and the healthy free" to rougher handmade ones with sentiments like "Surfing is not a crime" and the spicier "Remember when the Jews were quarantined?" It was safe to say, surveying the scene, that one industry not in danger of going out of business is the manufacture of American flags.
A man with a shaved head walked by yelling something unintelligible and hostile at a group holding banners in the street. The back of his shirt read, "Fuck your vaccines. Fuck your feelings." The group he was yelling at were at members of RevCom, a splinter Communist group counter-protesting the flag-wavers on the steps. They blocked the road, holding a large banner with "America First" crossed out and "Humanity First" above it. Members of the LAPD, observing expressionlessly, eventually moved the counter-protesters across the street.
This was the scene at an anti-lockdown protest organized by a murky consortium of Reopen America groups, a seemingly well-organized and occasionally polished outfit that has been steadily gaining momentum around the country. They have found an impressive balance of being anti-government authority and pro-president at the same time, a contradiction whose weight most people would find difficult to bear. Some protesters brandished depictions of the Constitution next to others who shouted that the government is illegitimate.
One point they seemed to converge on is their dislike of Governor Newsom, the recipient of the blame for the current lockdown in California. The second most popular target of ire was Bill Gates, who is tied to either the cause of the virus or the threat of a subsequent vaccine. "Fuck Bill Gates" chants built in momentum as a massive stretched Hummer drove slowly by, its occupants holding star-spangled fabric out of the sunroof as a cacophony of car horns sounded repeatedly and constantly from the surrounding perimeter of drive-by protesters.
The hundreds swarming the steps on May Day and honking as they passed were a big change from the week before, when barely a dozen protesters stood on the sidewalk holding signs for the slow-moving parade of car-bound protesters. Not far away in Huntington Beach a similar swell had taken place week to week, reflecting, at least in southern California, a rise in the numbers of those willing to congregate in public—and out of their cars—over this issue.
The outsized presence of Trump flags and the popularity of MAGA merchandise could have passed this off as a Trump rally at a brief glance. That seems only logical, considering that the president himself had previously tweeted out his support for reopen protests, singling out Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia. While legal experts have pointed out that the tweets incite insurrection, which is illegal, they have played well with his base and helped bolster the movement.
The protesters are not planning on taking a break any time soon: The next event in Los Angeles is scheduled for May 9th, two days after Governor Newsom plans to announce the specifics of relaxing the stay at home order. While having retail shops and Orange County beaches reopen might be enough to take the momentum out of Reopen California, it remains to be seen how the protesters' demands may continue to shift with what feels like a victory under their belt.