Quarantine Protests Reveal Poisonous Individualism of American Nationalism

Protesters in Ohio

As the spread of COVID-19 accelerates across the United States, a small but dangerous minority of Americans are protesting to end the quarantine. Many protests occurred, but the April 15 protest in Lansing, Michigan garnered the most media attention. The action was organized on Facebook under the name “Operation Gridlock”. Thousands of protesters jammed the state capitol with their cars, slowing traffic to a standstill. As a result, medical staff were delayed on their way to Sparrow Hospital.

Next, a segment of protesters violated Michigan’s stay-at-home order by congregating around the state capitol on foot. The crowd was estimated to be about 150, a size which grossly violates Michigan’s Executive Order 2020-21, which bans all public and private gatherings besides members of the same household. They carried guns, American flags, confederate flags, and signs calling for “liberty”.

Similar protests occurred at state capitols in California, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington. Participants attended by car or on foot. Those who protested on foot broke state law and refused to comply with social distancing protocols outlined by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There was a spike in coronavirus cases in Kentucky following the protests that took place there. COVID-19 has a median incubation period of five days, but it can take up to two weeks before a carrier shows symptoms. Therefore, it will take some time before the effects of these gatherings are known.

The organizers behind these events range from pro-Trump conservatives to far right fascists. Conservative groups such as the Michigan Conservative Coalition and the Michigan Freedom Fund were some of the primary planners. The Michigan Freedom Fund is linked to Trump’s education secretary, Betsy Devos. Violent fascist groups such as the Proud Boys and local militia groups were among the organizers. In Sacremento, California, the protest was organized by the Freedom Angels, a right wing anti-vaccination group.

These protests are deeply unpopular to the American people per several recent polls, most of whom abide by social distancing and support the quarantine. Americans oppose these protests because of the tactics and demands. The tactic of breaking quarantine is extremely dangerous because it helps spread the virus and puts vulnerable people at risk. Their demand to reopen the economy is absurd because the virus has not even reached its peak in the United States. To reopen businesses now would cause a rapid acceleration in the spread of the virus, as was seen with the 1918 Spanish Flu, in which an early reopening killed more people than World War I. Under such a scenario, the healthcare system could be overburdened, which would lead to rationing of care and a sharp increase in deaths. Despite their unpopularity, Trump signaled his support for the protests on Twitter. Such an endorsement is consistent with Trump’s history of courting support from far right extremists.

Make no mistake. These protests are not an expression of working class concerns. Many observers will attribute charitable or desperate motivations to the participants. Perhaps they want to return to work to feed themselves? Perhaps they’re worried about evictions or foreclosure? These generous assumptions are not supported by any evidence. One only needs to read their signs and social media posts. Hundreds of anti-quarantine signs have been photographed and spread around the internet, but none of them seem to express concerns over basic needs like food, shelter and medicine. Instead, what we see are appeals to vague concepts like “liberty” and a rejection of supposed “tyranny”. It is a classic right-wing dog-whistle, relying on the anxiety of mostly white, petty-bourgeois, small business owners, and, with obfuscation, seeking to rope in working class people. 

The “liberty” that they espouse is one of rugged individualism. It is a rejection of the greater good and an embrace and celebration of selfishness. It is the freedom to shout “fire” in a crowded theater. Such notions of freedom have been promoted by the ruling class to atomize the working class. However, in this case, these protesters are following individualistic ideals to such an absurd degree that they actually conflict with bourgeois interests. A pandemic is a rare occasion in which workers and capitalists share a common interest. Both seek a speedy end to the virus. But these protesters are actively standing in the way of that recovery. The far right of the United States is highly useful to the ruling class, but it constantly mutates in ways that are unpredictable and uncontrollable. Its members become encased in an alternative reality in which science and material reality are rigorously rejected. In the end, they lash out in ways that are not in anyone’s best interests.

Categories: U.S. News

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