The Left Can’t Just Dismiss the Anti-Lockdown Protests

The anti-lockdown protests may currently represent a Trumpian minority — but that could easily change if the choice becomes going hungry or going back to work. We need a real alternative that refuses to accept the false trade-off between economic security and public health.

Hundreds gather to protest the state's stay-at-home order, at the Capitol building on April 19, 2020 in Olympia, Washington. Karen Ducey / Getty

Michigan has been hit hard by COVID-19. Roughly 2,700 people have died so far, and that number continues to rise. Last week, amid this unprecedented medical emergency, the quasi-fascist “Proud Boys” blockaded a key intersection next to Sparrow Hospital in my hometown of Lansing.

The group was participating in an anti-lockdown protest branded as “Operation Gridlock” and organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition and the Michigan Freedom Fund. The latter is linked to the wealthy, hyper-conservative DeVos family, which has played an outsized role in funding reactionary political organizing in Michigan long before Donald Trump even appointed Betsy DeVos to his cabinet.

Many on the Right have cheered on the protesters. Centrists have mostly just rolled their eyes. The Left needs a better response. While the lockdowns are necessary, it’s unacceptable to ask everyone to continue paying their bills without far more robust government assistance. We should offer genuine solutions to legitimate economic worries even as we acknowledge that much of what was said and advocated at the protest was irresponsible and absurd.

No one should be surprised by the feelings of protesters who were worried about their financial security or their ability to pay for rent and groceries. But a surprisingly large part of the outrage in Lansing seems to have been about trivial issues like the limitations Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s lockdown order placed on buying paint and grass seed at big-box stores. This complaint was especially odd considering Michiganders can still purchase all of these items online or pick them up at big-box stores — they just can’t wander the aisles, risking the health of store employees.

To be fair, the organizers of the protest were concerned enough about the virus to encourage participants to stay in their cars and merely disrupt traffic by driving slowly in formation. Most did, but hundreds ignored the advice and poured outside to wave around guns and confederate flags and chant “Lock Her Up” in reference to Whitmer — a fairly boring centrist Democrat whose purported crime seems to be following the lead of medical experts. Judging by the photos, few protesters bothered to wear masks or stand six feet apart, so there’s a significant chance that some will either require medical attention or spread the virus to others. Similar (albeit smaller) demonstrations have broken out in more than a dozen other states.

The day after the Michigan protest, President Trump took to Twitter to encourage more residents to rebel.

Characteristically, Trump has swung wildly between different rhetorical postures. Shortly after putting out tweets that, however trollish and unserious, seem to flirt with calls for violent action, he was bragging about a “very nice” phone call with the governor of one of those very states. But his ideological allies at Fox News have taken up the protesters’ cause in increasingly strident ways.

The cynicism of the reactionary politicians, donors, and news hosts who have cheered on the protesters is breathtaking. And at least some of the participants have irresponsible or even unsavory motives.

Middle-class people waving signs complaining that low-wage workers aren’t being forced to staff the golf courses and hair salons that they miss don’t deserve our sympathy. Nor do small business owners who are willing to sacrifice the lives of their employees and their employees’ loved ones by demanding that they go back to work during a plague. It’s also easy to be outraged at the recklessness of some of the protest tactics. My brother and sister were both born at Sparrow Hospital. I used to go by it every day. Seeing a doctor in a white coat pleading with right-wing protesters to let ambulances pass through an intersection made me furious.

Still, it would be both analytically and strategically wrong for us to dismiss all of the protesters’ concerns. Even those who belong to thuggish right-wing organizations were in at least some cases motivated by legitimate economic grievances. Christian Yingling, a “former commanding officer of Pennsylvania’s Light Foot militia,” was quoted in one report explaining his willingness to endanger his health and the health of others: “My mortgage payment is late, my truck payment is late, and if I lose either of those I’m dead in the water.”

Legions of ordinary people are in the same situation right now. Things will only get worse as the lockdowns drag on. Steven Crowder may be a clownish reactionary charlatan, but he’s not entirely wrong to say that all jobs are “‘essential’ for those who rely on them for a living.” The rest of us won’t win the argument if our response makes it sound like we think basic economic concerns are as frivolous as a demand for a haircut and that everyone whose job or small business has been wiped out by the crisis should just grit their teeth and make ends meet. While supporters of the protests are a distinct minority, that might not last. The longer the lockouts last without a mass bailout for workers, the more ordinary people will be inclined to side with the protesters.

Governor Whitmer has made some of the right moves, like waving co-pays for Medicaid recipients getting tested for the virus and temporarily suspending evictions, but we shouldn’t forget that her campaign for governor was supported by Blue Cross Blue Shield. She ran against her Berniecrat primary challenger Abdul Al-Sayed’s plan to establish a state-level version of Medicare for All. And as centrist Democrats go, Whitmer is one of the good ones. In New York, Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo is trying to cut Medicaid as the pandemic rages.

Progressives and democratic socialists need to make the case that there’s a third alternative to business-as-usual centrists running the states Trump wants to “liberate” and the cynical demagogues who want to feed low-income workers to the capitalist death machine by prematurely ending the lockouts. Crowder is only half-right. If you work at a barbershop or tattoo parlor or dine-in restaurant that can’t stay open without endangering your health and the health of the people you love, your paycheck is essential to you. Actually going to work at Applebee’s instead of staying safe at home with your family is not. Fortunately, the two can be separated by means of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) combined with a complete rent freeze that made sure no one had to pay back rent when they returned to work.

With a UBI-plus-rent-freeze, even truly essential workers would have the financial security to refuse to go back to any workplace that hadn’t been certified by representatives of the workers themselves as sufficiently safe. They could fall back on their UBI payments until this demand had been met. And with everyone getting an unconditional monthly check, public and private employers would have to provide those workers with decent pay and conditions to make sure that workers continued to show up to perform these essential functions.

The pandemic can be an opportunity for the Left if we’re prepared to fight for bold measures. But the anti-lockdown protests should serve as a warning that much more sinister forces will flourish if we do not.