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This Is How A Group Linked To Betsy DeVos Is Organizing Protests To End Social Distancing, Now With Trump's Support

Thousands of demonstrators showed up in Michigan to protest the governor's stay-at-home order, and they're helping other groups organize across the country.

Posted on April 17, 2020, at 8:05 p.m. ET

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Paul Sancya / AP

A trailer carrying a "Trump Unity" sign is parked at a protest in front of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing.

While thousands of demonstrators swarmed the Michigan State Capitol to protest the governor's stay-at-home order Wednesday — honking horns, waving flags, and bringing traffic to a halt — dozens of Facebook groups were already springing up to organize similar rallies across the country.

"Indiana Citizens Against Excessive Quarantine," "Operation Gridlock Tennessee," and other groups with similar names drew people calling an end to stay-at-home orders, measures that health officials say are essential to stopping the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Protests against the guidelines are being planned across the country. The Michigan Conservative Coalition, the same organization that planned the Lansing protest against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday, is helping organizers.

"You're going to see some massive protesting going on," Matt Seely, a spokesperson for the Michigan Conservative Coalition, told BuzzFeed News. "We've been asked to basically share our template with other groups to do the same thing, and we've done that."

Like the protest in Lansing, groups opposed to stay-at-home orders are pushing for businesses and public spaces to reopen and for public gatherings to be allowed.

But the protest in Lansing, and those being planned in other parts of the country, have also drawn right-wing organizations like militia groups that oppose stay-at-home orders, calling them a violation of civil liberties and warning supporters of the possibility of martial law being imposed.

Paul Sancya / AP

On Friday, President Donald Trump seemed to take a similar tone, airing support of groups protesting the orders and calling on people to "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!"

Trump, who on Thursday introduced guidelines for states to begin opening up, wrote similar tweets regarding Minnesota and Virginia.

LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!

A Twitter spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that, despite the president calling for the liberation of states, the tweets did not violate its rules. "The use of ‘liberate’ in the Tweets you referenced is vague and unclear, and not something that allows us to reliably infer harmful physical intent," the spokesperson said.

Despite Trump's rhetoric, the three states' Democratic governors seemed uninterested in wanting to getting into war of words with the president.

"As the governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, I'm fighting a biological war," Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said during a press briefing Friday. "I do not have time to involve myself in Twitter wars. I will continue to make sure that I do everything that I can to keep Virginians safe and to save lives."

A spokesperson for Whitmer said the governor's focus was on addressing the safety of Michigan families.

"We are all on the same team when it comes to defeating COVID-19," Robert Leddy told BuzzFeed News. "As the governor has said, we're not going to reopen Michigan's economy via tweet."

As of Friday afternoon, Michigan has seen more than 30,00 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as well as more than 2,200 deaths. In the last 24 hours, 134 people who have contracted the virus have died in the state.

But protesters argue the financial hardship on people has also been heavy, prompting the demonstrations on Wednesday.

"People are at a breaking point," Seely said. "People put their own families' future on hold for 45 days for the better good of the country and their fellow man, and that is getting overlooked as if it was a trivial sacrifice."

Seely said he was not surprised by the turnout on Wednesday's protest nor the number of groups that have reached out hoping to duplicate the demonstration in their own communities. He said he knew of at least a dozen groups that the Michigan Conservative Coalition had helped to organize protests similar to its own "Operation Gridlock."

Organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition and the Michigan Freedom Fund, the protest has drawn criticism over its links to Betsy DeVos's family.

"I think it's really inappropriate for a sitting member of the United States president's cabinet to be waging political attacks on any governor," Whitmer said, referring to the education secretary.

The Michigan Freedom Fund was founded by Greg McNeilly, a political adviser to the DeVos family, who has provided financial support to the organization.

Seely said the DeVos family has played no role in the protests and that the Michigan Freedom Fund was independent of the DeVos family, calling the attack a deflection from Whitmer.

The protesters in Michigan have, nevertheless, already caught Trump's attention.

"I think they're listening to me," he 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."

Meanwhile, more groups organizing protests across the US continue to show up on Facebook. Some have garnered only a handful of supporters, while others have quickly built up hundreds of followers.

"Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine" has garnered more than 48,000 members, while "Minnesotans Against Excessive Quarantine" has more than 17,000.

Both groups have nearly identical descriptions.

"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!" the pages for both groups state.

Meanwhile, another group called "Operation Gridlock Tennessee" notes that while "this has been an excellent reminder for everyone to practice hygienic diligence - wash your hands, stay home when you are sick," the pandemic "should not give any government body the right to mandate that we close our businesses and order us to 'shelter in place.'"

Across the country, "Operation Los Angeles" offers the same description for its protest.

Screenshot

And while some groups are receiving guidance from Michigan about how to organize their own protests against stay-at-home orders, they too are passing the playbook to other states, urging them to replicate the demonstrations.

Facebook

Despite concerns from health officials that lifting stay-at-home orders too early could usher in a new wave of infections, Seely said people needed to start living in a "new normal."

He echoed Trump's comments about reopening the country, saying outbreaks across the country could be addressed regionally if needed. But he said keeping the country's economy shut down was not an option.

"This isn't America," he said. "We need to resume life and get back to life while this plays out."

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