Anti-lockdown protests: A global fight for liberty or a menagerie of ill-informed activism? Whatever it is, it’s not all about Miss Rona.

Demonstrators at Open New Jersey Protest, photo provided by Ayla Wolf

“Personally, I see the correlation to Nazi Germany with this thing and it scares the living heck out of me. The reason Government feels that it has to take care of the people and has to order them to do things is because they believe we’re too stupid to do it ourselves. The idea that citizens can’t protect themselves is the problem there.”

From his home in Illinois, Josh Ellis, local business owner and founder of the online campaign group, American Revolution 2.0, vents his frustration about the U.S. government’s “unconstitutional” response to managing the Covid-19 crisis. He is calling on state leaders to end the lockdown and has created various groups to help realise this goal. Before it was unexpectedly shut down by Facebook, Ellis claims that his American Revolution 2.0 Facebook page attracted thousands of followers within days. “The Facebook shutdown actually doubled or tripled our numbers across the board”, says Ellis. “It gave us extra time to grow.”

Is this a fight for liberty…?

Beyond the concerns of economic insecurity, are those who are calling for a repeal of lockdown conditions based on a desire to uphold the law and have civil liberties respected.

In the U.S., Ellis decries the actions of state officials and expresses a strong condemnation for the “powerful” Democrat governors who have imposed lockdown measures with various executive ‘stay-at-home’ orders. Angered, Ellis emphasises that “you don’t want centralised power; you want the power in the hands of the people. They are supposed to be the most powerful.” 

The ‘Reopen America’ movement is rapidly gaining traction among its sympathisers. There is a burgeoning online presence from the movement, which is receiving endorsements, from various notable right-wing political figures including political commentator, Candace Owens, congressional candidate for California, DeAnna Lorraine and of course, the President himself. “Liberate Michigan, liberate Minnesota, liberate Virginia and save your great 2ndAmendment. It is under siege!”. Trump tweeted in mid-April.  

New Jersey mum and avid online activist, Ayla Wolf was charged with disorderly conduct after attending an Open New Jersey protest in May. She was served with a summons and is now facing six months in prison and a $1,000 fine. 

“I have two sons; I have a daughter and I don’t want them to grow up in a world where our freedoms have been taken and that’s the new normal for them. Our governors are trying to prolong the lockdown as long as possible. They’re ruling with tyranny. People aren’t allowed to go out and work. Their businesses are closed and they’re not receiving the money or the aid that’s being given. A lot of people in New Jersey are 14 weeks out without a pay cheque and yet legally they’re not allowed to work. So, they’re going to foodbanks. People are losing businesses that they spent decades building. The banks are just going to scoop them up and they can no longer open even when the shutdown is over. So, I see the suffering.” 

Ms Wolf as she speaks at protest, photo provided by Ayla Wolf

Wolf later explained that in spite of the resistance she would not stop fighting for her beliefs. She says that although she has been charged criminally for organising protests and continually harassed by the police, it only strengthens her resolve to fight harder. “I’m not out there spreading Covid-19, I’m out there spreading courage and courage is contagious”, says Wolf. 

In Britain on the other hand, reactions have been somewhat muted. However, more rebellious actions have been emerging. Just recently there were anti-lockdown protests which saw Piers Corbyn –brother of ex-Labour leader, Jeremey Corbyn – arrested in Hyde Park this month after refusing to leave the protest or give his personal details.

The protests in the UK are reported to have been coordinated by the group, UK Freedom Movement who are planning similar events in Leicester, Manchester and Southampton. But despite that, over here things seem to have taken up a slightly less belligerent tone overall compared to the U.S. According to Psychologist Stephen Reicher, it’s to do with ideological factors. Reicher says that the two countries’ attitudes (referring to the USA and UK) toward the state differ greatly. “The US was born in a revolution against the central state –it was born out of a suspicion of state power and it was organised very strongly to avoid too much centralised power.” He says, “Britain does not have an anti-state revolutionary tradition in the way that […] countries born out of anti-colonial revolutions have […] In Europe (including the UK), the state on the whole is seen as reasonably progressive and redistributive. In the States it’s seen as tyrannical.”

Protesters in Hyde Park, Photo from Sky News.com

It should be mentioned however, that despite the copious amount of media coverage in the United States, protests are actually only being undertaken by a minority of citizens. According to a survey released by the University of Chicago Divinity School and The Associated Press – NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research, only 31% of Americans actually approve of anti-quarantine protests. Of that percentage, the majority are Republican Party voters. But perhaps contrary to what one would think, a large proportion of the Republican electorate are also dubious about the demonstrations, with 51% of Republican voters disapproving of the protests. 67% of Democrat voters think the same way. Polarity within parties is a clear conclusion.

In spite of this, protests are set to continue with new movements being organised from state to state on a daily basis. However, counteraction is also being taken up, particularly by those healthcare workers whom themselves are against the Open America movement. A viral video of two uniformed nurses silently standing to obstruct an autocade at an anti-lockdown rally in Denver, Colorado, became an internet sensation a month ago.  “It really feels like a slap in the face to medical workers” said Alexis, one Colorado-based nurse who opposes the anti-lockdown movement. 

…or is it a conspiracy?

But then, what would the coronavirus be without the C-word attached to it? Coronavirus conspiracy; even the words themselves complement each other. The proliferation of insanely outlandish conspiracy theories has truly made its mark in this crisis.

A study by the University of Oxford released on 23rd of May, showed that more than a fifth of people in England believe that the coronavirus is a hoax.  

Varying theories have emerged. From Bill Gates being behind a plan for global implementation of micro-chipping vaccines to the beliefs that Covid-19 was a bioweapon developed by China to destroy the West; the speculative hypotheses are numerous and wide-ranging. 

What is concerning in the minds of many, is that those who believe in such theories are in fact less likely to adhere to Covid-19 measures. 

“Our study indicates that coronavirus conspiracy beliefs matter.” Said Daniel Freeman, consultant clinical psychologist at Oxford Health NHS Foundation. 

“Those who believe in conspiracy theories are less likely to follow government guidance, for example, staying at home, not meeting with people outside their household, or staying two metres apart from other people when outside. Those who believe in conspiracy theories also say that they are less likely to accept a vaccination, take a diagnostic test, or wear a face mask.”

Dr Gordon Pennycook, Assistant Professor of Behavioural Science at the University of Regina explains why some people are “just better” at untangling the fact from fiction. As pointed out in Pennycook’s co-authored paper, ‘Predictors of attitudes of misperceptions about Covid-19 in Canada, the UK and the USA’, it comes down to something called ‘cognitive sophistication’ which is basically the quality of a person’s reasoning.  

One of the measures contributing to people’s level of cognitive sophistication is something called, “bullshit receptivity” and yes, you read it correctly. Pennycook explains how people’s receptivity to “pseudo-profound bullshit” is an even stronger indicator than political ideology saying that “not all reasoning is politically motivated.”

He outlines one of his investigative studies and demonstrates how cognitive sophistication is taken into account when looking at people’s likeliness to have misconceptions and thus believe in conspiracy theories.  

“We take, abstract buzzwords and put them together randomly into a sentence. The sentence would be something like, ‘hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty’. The sentence has a syntactic structure, so it sounds like it means something, but really, it’s just a random sentence. We asked people to rate how profound the sentences were. We found that the more profound participants thought the sentences were, the more receptive they were to bullshit. The correlations of the study showed that people who are more sophisticated cognitively have lower misconceptions.”

It’s not just the cranky Karens and tinfoil hat Toms

Among the average protestors, lies an insidious undercurrent of far-right advocacy that is taking place rather opportunistically. Right-wing groups like the AfD and COMPACT in Germany for example, are using the protests for their own benefits and in many cases are calling for the number of protests to expand.  

“They’re looking for ways to latch on to any kind of mainstream elements that can help further their narratives about racism, xenophobia and immigration. The anti-lockdown protests are a magnet because they represent so many different things that dovetail so nicely with the pre-existing trends of right-wing and white supremacist extremism”, says Peter Simi, professor sociology at Chapman University. 

Dr Lamprini Rori, lecturer in politics at the University of Exeter also points out however, that the pandemic has in fact marginalised the far-right. On the whole, public opinion has been to respect the rules of confinement and lockdown. Given the closure of borders and various limits to “cross-border circulation”, Rori explains that to some degree national governments have in a sense “hijacked” the far-right narrative and consequently caused populists to lose support.

As a reaction, Rori says that far-right groups have “mobilised conspiracy theories in order to deconstruct the consensus over the management of the pandemic” and presented the pandemics “as an excuse to shrink freedoms and impose obedience.” In this way, the far-right try to (and always have) “capitalize from discontent linked to crises” with an aim of canalising “insecure voters towards the far-right narrative.” 

Moreover, Dr Rori also makes a point of reminding people that every party and “political actor is trying to gain leverage within the context of the pandemic”; not just the far-right. The current crisis proves “a big opportunity for mainstream political actors, like the EU, to revive their legitimacy and popularity” as well.

That which can be gathered from all of this anti-lockdown action, is that the feelings and motivations involved are certainly not all about the coronavirus or lockdown itself. With various facets and explanations behind the protests, it is clear that Covid-19 has in fact brought about a desire and drive to highlight the societal issues and concerns afflicting so many. However long these protests last, what can be deduced is that the matters that they have raised, will continue to remain a point of contention even after the pandemic has passed and will perhaps even become that more prominent with time.

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