Hundreds of Michigan residents waged a protest in the state capitol of Lansing on Wednesday in response to the state's coronavirus lock down measures. The uproar, officially called “Operation Gridlock,” was a movement to express collective outrage over Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s strict stay-at-home order — one of the most extensive in the nation — that went into effect last Thursday. The order includes limits on how many essential workers can work a shift based on the size of the store, it bans all public and private gatherings outside homes, and even suggests people limit the number of people in their household who run errands. The real issue, according to protestors, lied in the businesses that were closed: residents in Michigan took issue after they were unable to access stores that sold gardening equipment and other home goods, and the state was issuing fines up to around £800 to anyone violating the rules.
Organisers from the Michigan Conservative Coalition and the Michigan Freedom Fund asked protestors to gather in downtown Lansing, at “high noon” according to the Facebook event, but to remain in their cars. The event encouraged participants to decorate their cars and honk as they circled the capitol building; however, many demonstrators including some clad in red “Make America Great Again” hats and t-shirts supporting President Donald Trump decided to line the sidewalk.
In late March, Trump directly called out Whitmer in a phone interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity saying that “all she does is sit there and blame the federal government.” Now, it appears that the defiance of Whitmer's efforts to slow the spread in Michigan — which is currently the third highest state in coronavirus cases in the U.S. — is taking a more serious turn.
While some wore protective masks, many defied social distancing recommendations to remain six feet apart and donned offensive signs like Nazi-nods with the word "Heil Witmer" on them. Others waved confederate flags in masses down the streets as a symbol of collective defiance. As they gathered, many also held signs reading “Impeach Whitmer” and “My Freedom is Essential.” reports ABC News. A group of men claiming to be members of the Michigan Liberty Militia joined the protest and walked up and down the sidewalk outside the capitol carrying rifles.
In a local Fox News interview, one protestor explained why she was against Whitmer's stay-at-home order, saying, "It's time for our state to be opened up. We're tired of not being able to buy the things that we need, go to the hair dressers, get our hair done..." Another protestor echoed frustrations over not being able to walk between houses or get things like lawn fertiliser as needed.
As a result of the crowd-lined sidewalks and streets of honking cars, roads and entrances to hospitals were blocked by protestors. There were a number of reports of ambulances unable to get through traffic, despite their best efforts. “It’s disappointing to see people congregating without masks, and without practicing social distancing,” Press Secretary Tiffany Brown said in a statement to Refinery29. “People were flying confederate flags and passing out candy to kids without gloves. This kind of activity will put more people at risk, and it could mean that more people will die.”
Prior to the protest, Whitmer’s office said they would not be trying to stop the protest, but instead asked that demonstrators do so safely and keep the health and safety of others and first responders in mind. "Not one of us wants to go through this again, not in a month, not in the Fall. And I want you to have your freedom. I want to have mine, too. We will get to a place where we can be with our friends and family again,” Whitmer said in a daily briefing earlier this week. “It's okay to be frustrated, it's okay to be angry. If it makes you feel better to direct it at me, that's okay, too. I've got thick skin. And I'm always going to defend your right to free speech."
Whitmer’s office also pointed out that one of the groups organising the protest, the Michigan Freedom Fund, has ties to Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s secretary of education. “It’s highly inappropriate for a group that’s primarily funded by a member of the president’s cabinet to be launching a partisan political attack during the worst public health crisis in a century,” Chelsea Lewis, Whitmer’s deputy press secretary told Business Insider. “We should all be on the same team fighting the same enemy, and that’s COVID-19.”
Michigan confirmed its first case of coronavirus on March 11. Since then, more than 27,000 people have been positively diagnosed and 1,700 have died, according to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Whitmer and medical professionals said that these measures — though some may call them extreme — are essential to reducing the spread of the virus especially in more rural parts of the state where hospitals and public health infrastructure cannot handle a surge of cases.