The Thursday, April 30 armed demonstration inside of the Minnesota state legislature shows increasing level of unhinged reactions the far right is having to state government attempts to counteract the Covid-19 pandemic. The Lansing, Michigan protest featured members of the Michigan Liberty Militia. (Bringing the weapons in was technically legal because of the state’s lax gun laws.) Some state senators were so fearful they donned bulletproof vests. The state guard had to step in to stop the armed far rightists from forcing their way onto the legislative floor.
This is just the latest in a series of protests which have been ongoing in the United States since early April against the Covid-19 quarantine measures. While some kind of chaffing at the restrictions is to be expected, the rallies are almost entirely run by far right activists, including armed militias, and white nationalists are frequently sighted in attendance.
Wealthy conservatives started the protests, and they have have been egged on —at least in states where there is a Democratic governor— by President Donald Trump. Now the protests are using increasingly inflammatory rhetoric as firearms are seen at them more and more often.
The psychology behind these protests is somewhat elusive. While scapegoating immigrants for diseases has a long pedigree on the far right, attempting to force the lifting of health measures has not been a typical issue for them. And since Trump has endorsed the quarantine measures, there is a delicate dance his base is doing with him: they show wild hostility at these rallies, but make sure that they do not target him.
The far right response to quarantine measures has been an unexpected surprise. Part of it seems like a unbelievably callous move: far right leaders are willing to sacrifice their followers’ lives for the sake of a temporary political opportunity, which only fits their agenda in a general way (i.e., less government interference).
For some white nationalists, it’s simply a way to scapegoat Jews or Chinese people, while others hope to take advantage of the situation to sow more chaos as an accelerationist strategy. (This idea, popular with neo-Nazi militants today, follows the age-old strategy of making things worse so their faction can take advantage of the chaos).
One of the keys to the protests’ popularity is the widespread dissemination of conspiracy theories on social media. Despite over 60,000 deaths in the country, the notion that the pandemic is a “hoax” is widespread. This idea completes along with the idea that the quarantines are illegal, that state governments that enforce them are comparable to the Nazis, or that the Chinese people —or government— are at fault for causing and spreading the virus. Sometimes it is alleged the Chinese state has intentionally spread the virus as a bioweapon. So it should come as no surprise that many observers have noted that anti-vaxxer activists are helping organize the demonstrations.
Trump is also spreading conspiracies; in one press conference, he suggested bleach might be used to cure the virus (For years crackpot pseudo-medicine advocates —who have long gone hand-in-hand with the far right— have advocated that people drink watered-down bleach to treat various ills; this is marketed as MMS.) A Trump health spokesman blamed the Rothschilds and George Soros for exploiting the pandemic for their own gain.
As with many far right issues, the protests attract a small but committed audience. One study found that only 12% of the U.S. population thinks the quarantine restrictions are too tight; but a far right monitoring group counted well over 400 Facebook groups, with over 1.6 million combined members, dedicated to opposing them.
The protests were jumpstarted by wealthy conservatives. Media Matters reports, “Those include the Dorr family, which draws in hundreds of thousands of dollars each year operating a number of pro-gun and anti-abortion groups, and the Michigan Freedom Fund, which is linked to the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.” Trump has also egged them on —at least in states with Democratic governors. On April 17, he tweeted “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!”, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”, and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA”.
But the protests have been taken up by local activists and become increasingly militant, with some groups hoping to turn them into armed insurrections. “Boogaloo” is alt right slang for an armed civil war, and attendees at multiple protests have brought signs with this slogan. At least 125 Facebook groups coordinating anti-quarantine protests use it in their titles. At many rallies, far right activists wear Hawaiian shirts, a coded reference to the boogaloo (the shirts are a nod to the phrase the “Big Luau,” get it? Well, no one said the alt right was actually clever or funny.)
Unsurprisingly, there have been some extreme incidents related to these protests. In Huntington Beach, California, a knife-wielding man forced a TV cameraman into a van and made him delete his footage. In Michigan, a vehicular protest called “Operation Gridlock” blocked the entrance to an hospital emergency room. But the wildest incident involved the neo-Nazi Timothy Wilson. In late March he was stopped by police in Missouri, allegedly on the way to bomb a local hospital, and killed in the confrontation.
While white nationalists have been sighted at the protests, most are organized by fanatical Trumpists, militias, and “alt lite” activists. (The alt lite is the moderate wing of the alt right; they accepts Jews, people of color, and gay men as members.) The violent Proud Boys have heavily promoted the protests; in late April in Miami, Florida they carried a banner saying “Fuck the Chinese Government.” Patriot Prayer’s Joey Gibson —who has been the main organizer of years of violent clashes between antifa and the far right in Portland, Oregon— spoke to 2,000 people in Olympia, Washington on April 19. Numerous rallies were also held on May 1, including in Seattle, Washington and a large one in Sacramento, California.
Militias have organized many of the protests, as well. Ammon Bundy, who led a 2016 armed militia occupation in Burns, Oregon, organized a gathering on Easter Sunday in Emmett, Idaho, in defiance of state stay-at-home orders. Matt Shea, a member of the Washington state legislature who has close ties with militias and whose writings justify murder and theocracy, appeared at an May 1 rally at the Spokane County Courthouse. Alex Jones’s Infowars, a hugely popular far right conspiracy platform, has organized protests in Austin, Texas. Until this weekend, even when these actions have been clearly illegal—they have often violated social distancing regulations— police have not intervened. However, on May 1, 32 people were arrested at the Sacramento rally.
It is hard to tell what the next step will be. Things feel incredibly unhinged as the country is being pulled in different directions. The day before the Michigan protest, in New York City police were called to a funeral home. They were over-capacity and had stacked corpses in unrefrigerated trucks parked on the street. Bodily fluids seeped out and neighbors, unnerved by the stench, called the authorities. A demonstration to reopen businesses in New York City happened on May 1. Twenty people came.
Spencer Sunshine is a longtime researcher of Far Right movements. Follow him on Twitter @transform6789
Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect arrests made in Sacramento on May 1.