Texas Protest Reflects Spreading Frustration With Coronavirus Closings


April 18, 2020

Millions of Americans have sheltered in their homes for weeks in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, avoiding strangers and friends alike. Mass gatherings have been canceled.

But in a public act of defiance, protesters in Texas are preparing to converge on the steps of the Capitol building in Austin on Saturday and call for the reopening of the state and the country. It would be the latest in a wave of similar protests from North Carolina to Michigan to Idaho.

By merely assembling, the conservative activists and supporters of President Trump who are expected to participate in the “You Can’t Close America” rally would be in violation of state and local stay-at-home orders that have been replicated across the country. On Thursday, protesters demonstrated outside the governor’s mansion, largely without incident.

The Texas Department of Public Safety, which secures the Capitol grounds, said in a statement that it had asked the public to comply with the social distancing guidelines found in the governor’s orders and established by federal health officials. “Our officers will take appropriate enforcement action — as with any other protest — should the situation warrant such action,” the statement read.

The urgency of the rally was dampened somewhat on Friday by Gov. Greg Abbott, who announced that he would do precisely what protesters are demanding: reopen Texas.

Mr. Abbott, a Republican, said he was starting a “phased-in” approach to reopen the state economy, including lifting some restrictions in the coming days on medical procedures unrelated to the virus, retail shopping and public access to state parks.

There have been pockets of protests across the country this week, many of them organized through Facebook groups and prominent local conservatives. One of the first substantial rallies was in Columbus, Ohio, on Monday, when scores of people shouted at the state’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, through the doors of the statehouse.

Melissa Ackison, a Republican candidate for State Senate in Ohio and a supporter of Mr. Trump, said she was moved to join the protest after hearing from farmers about their devastating economic losses and seeing the severe limits on daily life carried out by the governor.

“It triggered in me something that I couldn’t stop,” said Ms. Ackison, who promoted the event on social media, local radio shows and through her campaign email list.

Since then, people have turned out to demonstrations across the country, saying they are eager to get back to work and angered by their governors’ strict rules. At many of the protests, people don “Make America Great Again” hats and other gear that shows their support of Mr. Trump. Some demonstrators have brought guns and Confederate flags.

The largest of the protests, by far, was in Lansing, Mich., where thousands of people surrounded the Capitol in their cars in a campaign that organizers called “Operation Gridlock,” in protest of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order.

More than 200 people joined a “March for Freedom” in Huntington Beach, Calif., on Friday. Photographs from the protest showed people waving American flags and wearing Trump-themed hats; one person held a sign that said “Defy Fascist Lockdown.”

The Huntington Beach Police Department said on Facebook that, after contacting the organizers of the protest, police officers were able to “disperse the majority of the crowd” without any arrests.

“Although this event was peaceful, we do not encourage our residents to loosen their social-distancing practices just yet,” the department wrote. “It is still not okay to gather in groups.”

The upcoming Saturday rally at the Capitol in Texas was organized by Owen Shroyer, the host of a show on Infowars, the website headquartered in Austin that was founded by Alex Jones and traffics in conspiracy theories. Mr. Shroyer disrupted a House impeachment hearing in December by shouting that the Democrats were committing treason and that Mr. Trump was innocent.

Mr. Shroyer told his Infowars audience this week that the coronavirus was part of a scheme by the Chinese Communist Party and the “Deep State” to undermine Mr. Trump, that President Barack Obama “sold China the Wuhan virus” and that reports of overwhelmed hospitals were “propaganda.”

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs contributed reporting.

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