U.S. President Donald Trump described hundreds of armed, primarily white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building as “very good people,” amid accusations that the gun-toting demonstrators were acting like “terrorists” in the way they protested the state’s coronavirus lockdown.
Many of the protesters showed up with AR-15 rifles, tactical gear and a mix of camouflage and star-spangled apparel for their “American Patriot Rally” at the state capitol in Lansing, Mich., on Thursday. The group crowded into the state capitol building and tried to force its way past Michigan State Police to break up a meeting about the crisis, while chanting for the state to end the lockdowns.
One striking photo captured at the event shows a bearded man screaming in the faces of masked Michigan State Police. The image provoked intense backlash on social media, where many described the group as “Michigan terrorists.”
Critics also suggested that the protests showed the difference between how white and Black protesters are treated, because police did not use force against the armed far-right group.
“White privilege is being able to storm the Michigan state capitol heavily armed and not be treated like a criminal,” one woman said on Twitter.
“When black people peacefully protest, it’s a very different scene,” added another user.
Video captured from the protest shows the bearded man screaming “Hey Redcoat!” at the police, in what appears to be a reference to the American Revolutionary War.
It was the latest in a series of protests — many of them led by far-right groups — that have demanded an easing of restrictions meant to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the state. Much of their fury has been directed at Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat and frequent Trump target who has imposed some of the most sweeping lockdowns in the United States.
Trump himself seemed to encourage protests against Whitmer last month, when he urged his Twitter followers to “LIBERATE” three states with Democratic governors, including Michigan.
He backed them again on Friday in a tweet that urged Whitmer to “give a little” to put out the “fire.”
“These are very good people, but they are angry,” Trump said. “They want their lives back again, safely!”
Many critics online pointed out that Trump’s remarks echoed his response to the white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.
Trump infamously claimed that there were “very fine people on both sides” of a clash between far-right racists and counter-protesters at that event. One member of the Unite the Right rally ultimately killed a counter-protester by hitting her with his car.
The economic impact of the lockdowns has been felt across the political spectrum in the United States, raising real concern about people’s livelihoods in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. More than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits since the lockdowns began. More than 1 million Americans have been infected by the virus and more than 63,000 have died from it.
The vast majority of anti-lockdown rallies appear to have been organized by far-right and pro-Trump groups. Red MAGA hats and “Trump 2020” campaign signs have been frequent sights at these events, which often take on an anti-government tone.
In a video tweet by reporter Leon Hendrix — who was at a Michigan rally — two girls are shown dancing on a stage, with one donning a Trump mask and the other in a Barack Obama mask.
Some protesters have even been spitefully donning shredded face masks as a sign of disdain for public health advice. Many others have brought “protection” in the form of military-style weapons, while not wearing face masks that could protect others from the virus.
The president has refused to condemn the anti-lockdown protests, which health experts say fly in the face of social distancing measures.
“They listen to me, they like me,” Trump said of the protests last month. “They seem very responsible to me.”
The armed protesters on Thursday built a massive sign with Trump’s name outside the state capitol. They also waved signs promoting various bonkers conspiracy theories about the virus, and other signs that compared the governor to Adolf Hitler.
Whitmer stood by her emergency lockdown measures on Thursday, despite opposition from the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature.
“While some members of the legislature might believe this crisis is over, common sense and all of the scientific data tells us we’re not out of the woods yet,” she said in a statement.
“By refusing to extend the emergency and disaster declaration, Republican lawmakers are putting their heads in the sand and putting more lives and livelihoods at risk.”
Police only made one arrest at the rally, Lt. Brian Oleksyk of Michigan State Police told the Guardian.
One protester was taken into custody for allegedly assaulting another protester, Oleksyk said.
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.
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— With files from Reuters and The Associated Press