Social media and cable news lit up recently with images from Lansing, Mich., where armed protesters descended on the Capitol to demand an end to the state’s coronavirus lockdown. “I have never appreciated our Sergeants-at-Arms more than today,” tweeted state Sen. Dayna Polehanki, as right-wing groups screamed in the faces of Michigan State Police officers.
At the federal level, the response to the protests has been muddled. President Donald Trump urged Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, to “make a deal.” But his coronavirus task force coordinator, Deborah Birx, tried to guilt the protesters into backing down.
“It’s devastatingly worrisome to me personally because if they go home and infect their grandmother or their grandfather who has a comorbid condition and they have a serious ... or an unfortunate outcome, they will feel guilty for the rest of our lives. So we need to protect each other at the same time we’re voicing our discontent,” Birx said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Birx’s worry is personal: As she described it at a White House briefing, her great-grandmother died of the 1918 flu after Birx’s grandmother brought the disease home from school. Birx said her grandmother lived the rest of her life with that guilt. But Birx’s exhortation misses what underlies these protests: not individual morality but political power.
Consider first the fact that the protesters were armed. Given the lack of threat to protesters’ safety, the only reason to conspicuously display weapons was to project strength beyond their small numbers. (Note that nearly 80% of Michiganders support continuing the stay-home order.) Let’s also acknowledge that the protesters pushing cops and toting rifles into the Capitol were white. As marketer Frederick Joseph pointed out on Twitter, had black protesters tried that, “we’d be dead.” Different Americans have different First Amendment rights.
Consider too what the protesters in Michigan and elsewhere are saying. Some demonstrators do challenge the official death tolls and downplay the virus’s lethality, but that hasn’t been their biggest focus. (That Trump is president and has largely refused to challenge the death count has complicated right-wing efforts to portray the virus itself as a conspiracy.) Instead, most are arguing that it’s worth the death toll, with messages like “freedom isn’t free” and “I want my job back.”
These value judgments have been echoed by Republican officials. On ABC’s “This Week” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, said he had to reverse his order mandating face masks in stores — a measure that could have saved lives — because it was a “bridge too far.” People, it turned out, “were not going to accept the government telling them what to do,” DeWine said. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, infamously told Fox News last month that the country needed to reopen because “there are more important things than living.”
So no, those protesting stay-home orders in Michigan are not going to be persuaded by guilt. Lives saved is not a metric that will sway their minds. The more officials understand that, the better they’ll be able to deal with these protests in the future.