Dozens of protests across the United States have received significant media attention, suggesting that many Americans are against COVID-19 stay-at-home orders.
However, as states work to protect their citizens, governors and journalists are reporting that these protests are not growing organically, but are in fact political maneuvers organized by conservative groups.
In Michigan, protests have been supported by a group with ties to Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education in President Donald Trump’s administration. Trump, who has publicly sparred with state governors, has voiced support for the protests. However, with polling showing most Americans are in favor of the restrictions, the political gatherings have drawn small numbers.
After an initial round of protests were announced for April 15 in Lansing, Michigan, the state’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, claimed that one of the organizations behind the protest was connected to Betsy DeVos, the current Secretary of Education.
The Michigan Freedom Fund “is funded in large part by the DeVos family,” Whitmer claimed in a press briefing on April 13. Referencing Betsy DeVos indirectly, she said “I think it’s really inappropriate for a sitting member of the United States president’s cabinet to be waging political attacks on any governor.”
DeVos has not responded to the comments.
Some far-right individuals have organized their own COVID-19 protests. Ammon Bundy hosted a small gathering on Easter Sunday in Idaho to protest the state’s stay-at-home orders. In 2016, Bundy organized an armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. He and his father, Cliven Bundy, have made headlines over the years for their opposition to the federal government.
At the same time, pro-gun groups have been found to be pushing the protests on Facebook, using the COVID-19 crisis for their own political agenda.
Gun sales in the US have seen a marked increase during the pandemic.
The mission of Michigan Freedom Fund
Michigan Freedom Fund is one of two organizations associated with Operation Gridlock, a nationwide anti-lockdown movement that is organizing protests on Facebook. The organization’s executive director, Tony Daunt, denied creating Operation Gridlock but acknowledged spending US$250 to advertise the protest.
The DeVos family is from Michigan and has reportedly contributed US$500,000 to the Michigan Freedom Fund. The founder of the organization, Greg McNeilly, is also a political advisor to the family.
Michigan Freedom Fund says its mission is “to champion conservative policies on behalf of Michigan taxpayers. We are committed to the principles of limited government, transparency in government, and the freedoms found in the Constitution.” The group has been vocally critical of the state’s Democratic governor and the lockdown orders, calling them “arbitrary and capricious.”
In a heated response to Whitmer’s comments, the Michigan Freedom Fund denied financially contributing to the Michigan Conservative Coalition, a conservative political group that also operates under the name Michigan Trump Republicans. Michigan Freedom Fund’s response called the group behind the protests “a huge organic Facebook community.”
A Facebook event page for the April 15 Operation Gridlock protest says it was hosted by both Michigan Conservative Coalition and Michigan Freedom Fund. The event description calls on conservatives to “Come prepared for a traffic jam in Lansing! We WANT gridlock.”
Who is Betsy DeVos and her family?
Betsy DeVos, who became the Secretary of Education in 2017, is the richest member of Trump’s administration, with a net worth of US$2 billion shared with her husband, Dick DeVos. Dick’s father, Richard, who passed away in 2018, co-founded Amway, a multilevel marketing company that sells beauty products and home care goods. He was worth around US$5.4 billion when he died.
DeVos was a controversial choice for Secretary of Education, specifically because she had no public school education experience.
DeVos also supports school vouchers, which allow families to spend tax money on private schools. School vouchers are divisive because they take money out of public schools, impacting educational quality for families who cannot afford a private option.
DeVos has enacted a series of budget cuts and rollbacks that have hurt after-school programs and led to more crowded classrooms. She has been accused of “destroying public education” in America and has been so unpopular in her role that she has been booed and yelled at when visiting schools.
National protests have Trump’s support
Beyond Michigan, similar protests against the stay-at-home orders have occurred in Ohio, Kentucky, Utah, Colorado and Florida. The protestors have been supported by members of the conservative media, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who said of Governor Whitmer, “I hope she loses her job because she certainly deserves it.”
President Trump has also openly expressed support for the protests, even as protestors flout the guidelines recommended by his administration.
In a succession of tweets on April 17, Trump exclaimed, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”, “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!”, and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”
A minority of voices
Polling released by the Pew Research Center on April 16 shows that Americans are more concerned that COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted too quickly, as opposed to too late, by a margin of nearly 2-to-1.
60% of Republicans who consider themselves moderate or liberal are concerned that the restrictions will be lifted too quickly. However, 53% of self-described conservative Republicans are more concerned that the restrictions will not be lifted quickly enough.
It is perhaps a reflection of these broad views that many of the protests have been sparsely attended. In Sarasota, Florida, an Operation Gridlock-inspired protest on April 20 only drew enough people for a pedestrian display at one intersection.
On April 21, Florida House Representative Val Demings tweeted, “Don’t be fooled or distracted. The vast majority of Americans—both Democrats and Republicans—support the stay at home orders.”
Ben White, the Chief Economic Correspondent for Politico, has said the attendance was minuscule, tweeting on April 20 that “these protesters are a fringe group of largely deranged people.”Elsewhere on Twitter, overhead footage of a protest in Ohio revealed a noticeably small gathering of people.