‘Liberty is essential’: A look inside the lockdown protests

Why We Wrote This

Protests against lockdown orders are spreading. Even as health officials say it is too soon to end stay-at-home orders, some residents see government overreach.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Hundreds of cars encircled the Virginia capital in Richmond on April 22, 2020 to protest the state's stay-at-home orders.

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Like most United States cities in COVID-19 lockdown, Richmond, Virginia, is usually quiet. But on Wednesday last week, 12 blocks of a road leading to the Virginia state Capitol were gridlocked with honking, poster-waving cars. It was a protest calling for the reopening of the state’s economy – one of many in recent days.

“It’s time to let us work,” said one sign taped to a vehicle. “LIBERATE VIRGINIA!” said another.

The anti-lockdown protests began in Lansing, Michigan, and spread to Madison, Wisconsin, this weekend. Last week’s rally in Richmond offers a flavor of the frustration. There were elements of a Trump rally, but the purpose went beyond supporting the president, bringing together like-minded people to call for a change. “Was good to remember we’re not alone,” noted a Facebook post.

A recent YouGov/Yahoo News survey found that 60% of respondents oppose the protests. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, says the protests aren’t going to influence him. But the rally’s organizer isn’t expecting to go away. “I wanted this protest to be one and done,” he says. “But that’s not going to be the case.”

One side of East Broad Street looked like many downtown roads across COVID-19 America: empty sidewalks, locked restaurants, a handful of cars.

But last Wednesday, the other side of the Richmond street – the lanes leading to the Virginia statehouse – had 12 blocks of bumper-to-bumper honking cars, with passengers waving posters out of sun roofs. The noise was so loud it was hard to hear anyone from three feet away, much less the social-distancing guideline of six.

It was a protest calling for the reopening of America’s economy – one of many such demonstrations in state capitals in recent weeks. Most are drive-by only, to stay within the new distancing of the COVID era.

“It’s time to let us work” reads one sign taped on the side of a vehicle. “LIBERATE VIRGINIA!” says another. “The state is not God” reads a third.

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“Operation Gridlock” began in Lansing, Michigan, on April 15, with rallies following across the country. This weekend, protesters thronged Madison, Wisconsin, in the latest installment. The Richmond protest offers a window into the mounting frustration and the motivations of those turning up to demand an end to lockdowns.

Overall, the American public does not appear to support the protesters. A YouGov/Yahoo News survey conducted from April 17 to 19 found that 60% of respondents opposed protests aimed at ending sheltering-in-place. Republicans as a group did not support them, either – a plurality of 47% of GOP respondents thought they were a bad idea, according to YouGov.

Opponents note that cases of the novel coronavirus haven’t peaked in many places, making the lockdown restrictions essential. Many also charge that the protests have been partly organized by conservative business interests.

But many attendees interviewed at #GridlockRichmond on April 22 seemed genuinely frustrated with the lockdown.

“We have a right to life and liberty and the government can’t infringe in that in the purpose of keeping us safe,” says Marisa Nance, a mother from nearby Glen Allen, Virginia, who circled the statehouse in a gray van with “Liberty is essential” written in scrolling cursive across the back window.

“[This is] a great opportunity to demonstrate to our kids what we’ve always taught them. As citizens we are responsible,” Ms. Nance adds.

Following Lansing

Perhaps unsurprisingly in today’s polarized America, this general frustration blended with an array of political issues that are important to the right, from supporting President Donald Trump to anger about gun control measures, giving the protest an overall air of a MAGA rally.

“We asked people to not fly the Trump flags, that we just wanted to open Virginia,” says David Britt, one of the rally organizers. But then he adds, laughing, “people are going to do what they want to do.”

Mr. Britt, who works in a mental health facility in Fairfax, Virginia, was growing more and more frustrated with the state’s stay-at-home lockdown after Governor Ralph Northam in mid-April extended it until at least June 10.

But it wasn’t until the anti-lockdown protest in Lansing that Mr. Britt started thinking about organizing something similar in Virginia. After a conference call with other interested friends and groups, he created the Facebook group “Reopen Virginia,” which soon grew to almost 400 members.

In some ways, the resulting protest resembled a MAGA rally not just in appearance, but in effect. Like Mr. Trump’s raucous gatherings, it seemed to become a visible way for like-minded conservatives to feel part of a larger movement.

After it was over, participants left comments and posts on Facebook groups run by “Reopen Virginia” to the effect of “was so great to see everyone yesterday,” and “Was good to remember we’re not alone.”

Still, at the rally itself many protesters didn’t cite support for the president among their reasons for protesting. They talked about friends who are struggling to pay their bills, or their kids who are struggling with learning from home.

The rules seem unfair and arbitrary, says Jenny Karnes, who drove almost six hours roundtrip from her home in Roanoke, Virginia, to participate in the protest after learning about it from her cousin on Facebook.

“You can go to Walmart, Target, gas stations, and it’s like nothing is happening with these big chain stores, but yet the hairdresser and small business owner have to shut down,” says Ms. Karnes. “It’s not fair for the others who don’t have a choice.”

Virginia shouldn’t have the same guidelines as a hotspot like New York, say protesters. Blanket restrictions for the state neglect economic anxieties and constitutional liberties, they added.

“We should look at places individually, even northern Virginia shouldn't be treated the same as us out here,” says Melissa Hipes, a protest participant from the small town of Greenville in western Virginia. "The devastation on the economy is going to end up being far worse than the virus.”

Right to live versus right to assemble

Vycki Midgette is a nurse from the eastern shore of Virginia who joined the 337-member Facebook group “Virginians Against Excessive Quarantine” at the invitation of a friend. She thought the group could benefit from a nurse’s perspective. She thinks the lockdown should continue as long as it takes to guard Virginians’ safety.

“My right to live is more important than your right to assemble,” says Ms. Midgette, who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and plans to support him again in 2020.

So far, Governor Northam, a Democrat, appears to agree with that assessment. He’s said the protests did not influence him. In recent days, he’s extended the time that state Department of Motor Vehicles offices will remain closed, among other things. Last Friday, he released a plan for beginning to open some businesses in early May – if new COVID cases and hospitalizations decline for 14 days.

Mr. Britt of “Reopen Virginia” says he is not deterred.

“I wanted this protest to be one and done,” he says. “But that’s not going to be the case.”

 Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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