The scene in front of the Pennsylvania statehouse Monday was anything but social distanced. Hundreds of protesters gathered on the steps of the Capitol building in Harrisburg as police barricades blocked people from advancing closer to the doors.
Cars circling the building added to the demonstration. One green rig with the words “Jesus is my vaccine” spray-painted above its front fender drove down 3rd Street, its horn blaring in support.
The protests went on in spite of – or, more accurately, because of – Pennsylvania’s statewide stay-at-home orders designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The demonstrators called for a swift end to the government-imposed closures of regular business and for America to “open up.” Similar events have taken place in state capitals across the country, including in Michigan, Texas, Maryland, and Washington state, with upcoming protests in additional states.
The organizers have an ally in President Donald Trump, who over the weekend defended the protesters as “good people” and called on citizens in multiple states with Democratic governors to “LIBERATE” their states. More broadly, the President has been talking publicly and privately about reopening the American economy for weeks. He released his administration’s plan for doing so last Thursday and has since been frustrated by what he perceived as a negative response to the proposal from the media.
The gatherings represent the efforts of a patchwork of conservative groups and individuals. Much of the organizing is done within Facebook groups, including several connected to right-wing activists that have organizational footprints in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri and other states. At least one rally saw Confederate flags on display.
Yet as word of the anti-quarantine protests has gained traction on talk radio and in other conservative media, more mainstream conservative figures and groups have glommed on to the phenomenon, amplifying the demonstrations and lending organizational support to existing events.
One of the organizers of Monday’s “Operation Gridlock” protest in Harrisburg is Chris Dorr, a gun-rights activist who praised Trump for being a voice for the American people’s frustrations.
“I think the President wants this country to get back to work,” Dorr told CNN. “I think the President is on the side of the American people and he doesn’t want this country to suffer any longer than humanly possible.”
Polls tell a slightly different story about the American people’s willingness to put up with the lockdown. According to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 58% of American voters say they worry the US will move too quickly in loosening restrictions, while just 32% say it will take too long. A Pew poll from a few days earlier saw an even higher percentage – 66% – concerned about easing restrictions too early.
And despite the calls by the President to begin reopening the country, his task force of experts on the virus had continued to warn that doing so before testing capacity has improved could cause a setback in the fight against the pandemic.
Even Republican governors are not pleased with Trump’s fanning the flames of agitation against the stay-at-home orders. Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, the head of the National Governors Association who saw protests in his state capital of Annapolis, told Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday that the President’s encouragement was “not helpful.”
Professional conservatives get involved
One prominent voice supporting the protests is Stephen Moore, the founder of the Club for Growth and an unofficial economic adviser to President Trump. Moore told CNN he has been trying to organize some protests, but they’ve been overtaken by local events on the ground.
“We were trying to help organize and also provide advice to some of these groups so they can have maximum impact and turn people on rather than off,” Moore said.
Moore said he was advising a group in Wisconsin for a protest that was supposed to take place later this week, but he’s learned there was a protest over the weekend, although he’s not sure who was behind that.
“They may have just run forward. It was originally planned for later this week but I think that it spontaneously combusted,” Moore said.
Moore told CNN he has been working on this organization with FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group that gained prominence during the Tea Party era. A few weeks ago, FreedomWorks switched from asking its followers to donate blood and bring food to pantries under the hashtag #loveamerica to begin having conversations about re-opening the economy.
“There are two patients, the Covid virus and the economy,” said Adam Brandon, the group’s president. He said local activists on the ground began asking his organization for help and assistance, ranging from whom to speak with to how to go about holding events. Brandon says FreedomWorks has had about 5,000 conversations and they have helped connect like-minded people.
“We are not organizing but we are assisting people in our networks,” said Brandon. His members are motivated by similar concerns and are talking to each other, which is why, he said, there is a lot of the same messaging in different groups across the country. He said FreedomWorks isn’t organizing or financing any events.
Other conservative organizations are taking the same tack. The Convention of States Action, which is pushing states to seek a constitutional convention to rein in federal spending, has touted the protest events online and plans to retool its website to help publicize more protests as Facebook removes event pages from its platform, said the group’s leader Mark Meckler.
Meckler, who also co-founded the Tea Party Patriots group more than a decade ago, said the demonstrations represent an “organic uprising developing among the people” frustrated with the lockdowns, rather than an effort orchestrated by his organization or any conservative donors. The Convention of States Action website links to several of the Facebook groups created by Chris Dorr and his brothers.
“We’re not vetting them or judging them,” said Meckler when asked about the Facebook pages.
Protecting rights or feeding disinformation?
Meanwhile, the message of the protests in state capitals has made its way to the Trump administration, where conservative activists in Washington hope they’ll have a more receptive ear.
A group of conservative legal figures signed a letter to Attorney General William Barr asking that the Justice Department review some of the state restrictions that potentially infringe constitutional rights, including those related to guns and free speech.
The Justice Department, which last week backed a Mississippi church’s lawsuit against a local restriction prohibiting drive-in church services while nearby nearby drive-in restaurants were allowed to open, said it is reviewing the letter.
The protests in some states have drawn an amalgam of groups, including militias and groups that have attracted the interest of law enforcement in recent months because of their activities espousing violent white supremacist and anti-government ideologies. For now, federal law enforcement officials say some of the groups appear to simply be adding issues surrounding coronavirus restrictions to their list of longstanding ideological beefs used to appeal to supporters.
In law enforcement bulletins issued to police nationwide, the Homeland Security Department and the FBI warned about increasing efforts by some extremist groups to encourage attacks on people of Asian descent because the virus first appeared in China, and alternatively by other extremists to push antisemitic conspiracies that the virus was created and spread by Jews and Israel.
The burst of protest activity could also offer opportunity for foreign governments that already are running disinformation campaigns aimed at stoking political divisions during the election year in the US, according to researchers who track online Russian disinformation activity.
Earlier this year, as the virus first emerged, some social media accounts and Russian government-affiliated think tanks and news sites pushed conspiracies claiming the virus was created by the US military. The European Union has accused Russia of propelling various unfounded theories.
More recently, social media accounts with suspected Russian links have tied concerns about other issues, such as Second Amendment rights, to the restrictions aimed at preventing the virus’ spread. Others have stoked anti-Trump rhetoric, blaming the President for virus deaths.
Darren Linvill, associate professor of communication at Clemson University who studies social media and disinformation, said the Russian and other foreign influence operations simply try to capitalize on existing political activity, even if it is on the fringes. For now, coronavirus and economic concerns about the lockdowns are a natural topic, he said.
“If you’re going to be talking about anything online you’re going to be talking about Covid,” Linvill said. “Some of this coming out of Russian-affiliated think tanks. They spread these stories through a variety of mechanisms. They’re all taking part in the conversations we are all having.”
A Facebook-driven movement
Facebook has become the virtual gathering place for activists looking to organize protests, and the social media platform has seen a surge in new groups dedicated to questioning the stay-at-home orders. Many were created in just the past two weeks yet have quickly amassed enormous followings – reflecting their immense influence.
Pennyslvanians Against Excessive Quarantine was just one of a network of pages created by Chris Dorr and his brothers, including a Minnesota activist named Ben Dorr. Proclaiming to represent residents of Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin, the Dorr brothers’ pages all use the same text to accuse governors of “controlling our lives, destroying our businesses, passing laws behind the cover of darkness and forcing us to hand over our freedoms and our livelihood!”
In less than a week, the Dorr brothers’ pages have accumulated more than 200,000 members.
But while the Facebook groups may have been made to concentrate opposition to the stay-at-home orders, they also serve as the top of a fundraising funnel for gun rights groups linked to the Dorrs.
Ben Dorr is listed as the political director for Minnesota Gun Rights, which brands itself as Minnesota’s only “no compromise” gun activism group. The website also lists a number of affiliated organizations including the Wisconsin Firearms Coalition.
Now, when Facebook users visit “Wisconsinites Against Excessive Quarantine” – a group created by Dorr that grew to 100,000 members in five days – they are encouraged to visit “ReOpenWI.com,” a link that redirects to the Wisconsin Firearms Coalition’s website.
There, visitors are invited to enter their personal information so that the website can send an email to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers on their behalf opposing the lockdown. And in addition to the collection of data, the call to action also encourages visitors to become members of the organization.
The Dorrs aren’t the only ones to have used Facebook to organize protest groups in recent days. A similar, though apparently unaffiliated, network of Facebook groups pledges to “retain our liberty by organizing in large numbers and commanding the attention of our legislators and governor.”
Like the Dorrs’ network, this one also used copied and pasted language for each state-focused page. In one example targeting Illinois, the group’s description appeared to retain references to Michigan when the remainder of the bio was targeted at Illinois residents.
“Our mission is to set a nationwide example by proving the people of Michigan are resilient, courageous, intelligent, and our liberty is valuable,” the description read. “We can overcome Covid-19 without putting Illinoisans out of work and further damaging our economy.”
Similar pages have been established targeting Indiana, Kentucky and Michigan residents. It was not immediately possible to determine whether those groups emerged organically or if they were the result of a coordinated effort. The Michigan group, Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine, was first created on April 9. It now has over 365,000 members.
In response to consultation with governments in California, New Jersey and Nebraska, Facebook is removing certain pages promoting the protests, the social media giant told CNN on Monday.
The company could soon do the same for similar event pages focused on Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, as the company seeks answers from those states as to whether protests challenging the lockdowns are prohibited under governmental guidelines, said Andy Stone, a company spokesman.
“Unless government prohibits the event during this time, we allow it to be organized on Facebook. For this same reason, events that defy government’s guidance on social distancing aren’t allowed on Facebook,” said Stone.
Nebraska’s government was not aware of any specific anti-quarantine events and did not request that Facebook remove event pages, according to Taylor Gage, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts.
There are some protests that appear more independent, including Sunday’s event at the Washington state capitol in Olympia. Organizer Tyler Miller, a county-level GOP committee member, last month created a Facebook page that has far fewer members than the more coordinated groups elsewhere. Miller told CNN he has not been in touch with other protest organizers around the country.
“There’s no funding behind this. There’s no man behind the curtain,” Miller said. “This is me, I’ve been very transparent of who I am and what I represent.”
CNN’s Fredreka Schouten, Brian Fung, Donie O’Sullivan, Liz Turrell and Grace Sparks contributed to this story.