overhead view of the parade of vehicles intended to block streets in the Lansing, Michigan Capitol district, during government protest dubbed, "Operation Gridlock"

The Dark Money And Extremists Behind National COVID-19 Anti-Government Protests

 

by Richard Cameron


 

Dark Money And Extremists Behind National COVID-19 Anti-Government Protests

Late last week, in a handful of states, governors who have their hands full managing their states through a deadly health crisis, were confronted with yet another distraction – groups of people protesting state coronavirus mitigation orders.

The protests, in most cases, involved relatively few people, although in Michigan, “Operation Gridlock” as it was dubbed by the organizers, clogged several blocks in the Capitol district in Lansing and impeded emergency vehicles and blocked entrances of nearby medical facilities.

 

photo of armed protesters at "Operation Gridlock" event at the Michigan State Capitol.

“Operation Gridlock” was also replicated in Colorado, Texas, Idaho, Arizona, Minnesota, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky.

By now, you have seen many of the reports. What we’re going to look into in more detail here, is the network of right wing groups that are organizing and funding this activity, as well as their connections to (impeached) president Donald Trump and his administration.

The local group that put together Operation Gridlock, was the Michigan Conservative Coalition, also known under its DBA as “Michigan Trump Republicans”. Assisting in the funding of the event and providing promotional support, was the Michigan Freedom Fund, founded by Greg McNeilly, who advises Trump cabinet member Betsy DeVos and her family on political matters.

It’s somewhat ironic that the protests that McNeilly has participated in spearheading, are being characterized as a facet of conservative “culture wars”.

One wonders how many of the protesters know of McNeilly or about McNeilly’s background, other than his decades long involvement in GOP politics in Michigan. McNeilly happens to be one of the first gay men in the state of Michigan, to become a partner in a same sex marriage.

Evidently, if the “culture warrior” shares most of your other views, gay marriage, which is ordinarily an anathema in their religious conservatism codebook, is just one sour note in an otherwise glorious symphony. 

Michigan’s Governor, Gretchen Whitmer, referring to Betsy De Vos’ behind the scenes involvement, remarked, “it’s really inappropriate for a sitting member of the United States president’s Cabinet to be waging political attacks on any governor, but obviously, on me here at home.”

De Vos, Trump’s Secretary of Education – as well as the Michigan Freedom Fund, deny that De Vos played any role in the funding of Operation Gridlock.

That statement becomes tenuous when a search conducted by the Center For Media And Democracy, revealed that “from 2017-19, MFN has been almost entirely financed by members of the DeVos family”, according to state campaign finance records. CMD also notes that “several DeVos family members combined to give the group $255,000, or 98 percent of the MFN’s contribution revenue during that time.”

The Koch Brothers‘ various conservative action and lobbying arms form a funding stream for numerous of the groups that are now advocating defiance of state virus mitigation directives.

photo of Phil Robinson, the leader of the Michigan Militia who participated in the anti-government protest in Lansing, Michigan, called "Operation Gridlock"
photo of Phil Robinson, the leader of the Michigan Militia who participated in the anti-government protest in Lansing, Michigan, called “Operation Gridlock”. Robinson, on his Facebook page, denied that he attended the protest, carrying a firearm, but this photo shows that claim to be false.

Another of the various right wing fringe organizations that took part in the Lansing protest, a group called the Michigan Liberty Militia, (sometimes known simply as the “Michigan Militia”), is headed by Phil Robinson, whose own Facebook page has referenced White Nationalism and speculation about another civil war in America.

Michigan Militia has been around for awhile. Convicted Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh attended their meetings in the 1990’s.

The Irish Times reports that members of the Michigan Militia participated in the violent demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia. “Thirty two members of militia groups from six states, including several wearing Michigan Militia shirts, showed up at the rally dressed in military fatigues and armed with assault rifles and army-style communication devices.”

One of the groups involved in the protest, is nationally notorious, the White Nationalist “Proud Boys”. It was reported that some of their contingent impeded access by blocking the entrance to Sparrow Hospital in Lansing. “A doctor came out of the hospital to plead with them to let the ambulances through,” tweeted Chad Loder, founder of Masks for Docs, a volunteer group that collects protective equipment for medical professionals.

A hospital worker, Chelsea Barrera, said of the protesters:

“You have the right to express your freedom of speech, but what you DON’T HAVE THE RIGHT to do is block the entrance/exit of a level 1 trauma hospital or delay the response time for paramedics to get to people due to backed up traffic or your unwillingness to move your car over in order for them to get through,” wrote staffer Chelsea Barrera, who posted the video.

“While you’re honking your horns, yelling and protesting, YOU are putting people at risk. YOU are making it impossible for EMS to get to LIFE AND DEATH situations. YOU are disturbing the peace of people who are already admitted to the hospital. YOU are Preventing health care workers to swiftly respond to cardiac arrests etc. Stay home. Save a life.”

By no means is the Michigan Freedom Fund, the only right wing organization that is fomenting malcontents. The rest include a who’s who list of extremist groups, that monetize an appetite for conspiracy theories and other reactionary, anti-government tropes, such as the American Conservative Union, Judicial Watch, Freedom Works, the American Legislative Exchange Council and the demented Stephen Moore, (who compared protesters against stay at home orders to civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks) – via the Heritage Foundation.

“I think there’s a boiling point that has been reached and exceeded.  I call these people the modern-day Rosa Parks — they are protesting against injustice and a loss of liberties.”

Alex Jones, not surprisingly, is involved. His outlet, Info Wars TV, hosted and broadcasted live, the protests outside the Texas capitol in Austin on Thursday, during which chants of “Free Texas” and “Make America Free Again” were heard.

Last, but not least, there is the “Tea Party Patriots”, whose founder Jenny Beth Martin, encouraged its followers on Twitter, to participate in the protests in Michigan and other states. 

All of the groups and participants in these hysteria laden protests against common sense public health orders, dub themselves as “Patriots”. It’s a curious concept.

The Anti-Defamation League defines the classification, “Patriot Movement” as:

A collective term used to describe a set of related extremist movements and groups in the United States whose ideologies center on anti-government conspiracy theories. The most important segments of the “Patriot” movement include the militia movement, the sovereign citizen movement and the tax protest movement. Though each submovement has its own beliefs and concerns, they share a conviction that part or all of the government has been infiltrated and subverted by a malignant conspiracy and is no longer legitimate. 

 

illustrated meme of Samuel Johnson and his famous quotation that, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."

 

What these people are not, are “patriots” or “constitutionalists”, no matter how much they believe they are or profess to be.

They are however, angry fanatics who harbor deep seated resentment against the emergence of a pluralistic society and see the duly constituted authority of state governments as a step, not toward the de-acceleration of a deadly contagious pandemic – but as a power grab by elected officials.

On the social media pages of the groups Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine and their companions in Michigan and Minnesota, their rallying cry is that, “Politicians are on a power trip, controlling our lives, destroying our businesses, passing laws behind the cover of darkness and forcing us to hand over our freedoms and livelihood!”

Trump is openly encouraging rebellion against legitimate public health directives and the governments that issued them.

If Michigan is any indicator of whether Trump’s irresponsible, politically motivated messaging is resonating beyond this fringe element, a poll conducted by the Center For American Progress, discovered that it is not gaining traction in public opinion writ large. 

The poll found that 71% of the respondents approved of Governor Whitmer’s handling of the crisis. Trump’s rating in comparison, was 20 points lower. The poll reflects national trends, showing 65% of Americans favor staying the course and fully breaking the back of the pandemic – returning to some degree of normal activities when it is safer to do so.

But Trump does have the ear of the extremists and they have his. “I think they’re listening to me,” Trump said during a White House briefing. “They seem to be protesters that like me and respect this opinion, and my opinion is just the same as about all of the governors. They all wanna open.”        

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