Warning: This article contains some graphic and disturbing content.
On May 14, protesters again descended on Michigan’s capitol, declaring their dissatisfaction with Michigan’s female, Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, her stay-at-home orders, and their impact on the Michigan economy. After several of these displays, including notable ones on April 15 and 30, it’s become clear that the protesters’ talk of patriotic ideals, civil liberties and economic suffering serve as mere fig leaves to cover their true motivations. Pull back the foliage and underneath you’ll find a dick-waving exercise for men more fixated on the size of their literal and metaphoric willies than on actually helping others. You can call these protests “intimidation displays spurred by personal insecurities” if you’d rather, but I think we all know what these (mostly male) protesters are really worried about. And when a group of men act solely out of concern for their phalluses, nothing good comes as a result.
First off, let’s dispense with the notion that this is a spontaneous grassroots movement of people seriously concerned about the negative economic or civil rights effects of the stay-at-home orders. In reality, support for these protests was stirred up by far-right and pro-gun extremist groups. In Michigan, some of those groups are further backed by money from the conservative DeVos family, of which Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a member. Prominently involved in instigating “Operation Gridlock,” the April 15 protest, were several aggressively pro-Trump Michigan Republican party members, such as Meshawn Maddock. Michigan United for Liberty helped organize all of these protests, including the one on May 14, which was ominously dubbed “Judgment Day”. The founder and main organizers of the group are anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists, including about COVID-19.
So it should come as no surprise that the April 15 “Operation Gridlock” seemed more a Trump campaign rally than a true protest of Whitmer’s orders.1
“Operation Gridlock”, by design, also deliberately jammed Lansing streets, including access to the county’s only hospital and local small businesses, i.e., the very kind of businesses the protest was supposedly supporting. Proud boys and people waving Confederate flags were among the more conspicuous participants. All of this serves as evidence that these protests are far less about grassroots concerns and real issues with the orders than they are about displays of power and intimidation.
To that point, the April 15 protesters included lots of men who arrived draped with long guns, like a socialite showing off her diamonds at a gala. At the April 30 protest, numerous people, including many with firearms, tried to storm the floor of the Michigan legislature, as seen in the now-famous photograph of the protester yelling in the face of Michigan law enforcement. Others went to the balcony of one of the houses and yelled threats at the legislators. In Michigan, the public is not allowed to carry protest signs into the capitol building. There is no such prohibition against guns.
Such aggressive shows of power and intimidation often arise from deep seated insecurities, particularly about manhood. It should not surprise anyone that rhetoric on the social media pages of those organizing or stirring up participation for these events has been disturbing from the outset. Days before the May 14 protest, Facebook finally shut down two of these pages, including Michigan United for Liberty’s, for violations of community standards. Various private Facebook groups supporting the upcoming protest were filled with threats of physical violence and lynching against Michigan’s governor, including, “Drag that tyrant governor out to the front lawn. Fit her for a noose”, a comment that was followed by similar supportive suggestions to kill the governor. This was nothing new to these protests. A sign from the April 30 protest said “Tyrants Get The Rope.” There can be no question that Governor Whitmer was the tyrant to which the sign alluded. Insecure men often target women to assuage their own feelings of inadequacy.
In response to the presence of firearms and escalating behavior at prior protests, the increased threats leading up to the May 14 event, and the fact that the organizers gave the planned gathering the ominous name “Judgment Day”, the state police reminded people on May 13 that the law would be enforced the next day, while Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey called for any protester brandishing a firearm to be arrested. What’s interesting is that Shirkey, a Republican, has not only quashed common sense gun legislation but also generally supported laws that would make it even easier to carry firearms in an already gun-friendly state. Republican legislators were largely supportive of “Operation Gridlock”, even posing for pictures with protesters. Yet the events of April 30 moved even them. Once it was his own safety that was under threat, Shirkey came out as condemning the behavior and tactics of the “so-called protesters who used intimidation and the threat of physical harm to stir up fear and feed rancor.” He further called into question the sincerity of the majority of the protesters by noting, “They do not represent the Senate Republicans. At best, those so-called protesters are a bunch of jackasses.” For once, Shirkey and I have some points of agreement.
While Michigan law allows someone to carry a gun at the capitol or in the capitol building, bandishing the gun in a threatening manner is illegal. However, men standing in the balcony of one of the state houses, yelling threats at law makers, does not necessarily constitute brandishing, especially if no one drew their firearm. After the legal but unsettling displays on April 30th, Michigan law enforcement issued only a very mild threat about enforcing brandishing laws. Such a tepid admonishment really did not merit much change in behavior on the protesters’ part. Nevertheless, on May 14, while some people again arrived with long guns, it appears many were worried enough to leave their guns at home.In addition, far fewer people bothered to attend “Judgment Day” than did the previous protests.
For people claiming to be patriots, armed so they can fight for freedom and against tyranny no matter what, it looks like many of them got scared by the mere threat of a minor repercussion. We know how people truly committed to such ideals really act. Decades ago, when African-Americans in the South fought for civil rights, they faced not just jail time, but savage beatings and possible death. 2
They refused to turn away, and, although unarmed, came back again and again. Freedom Riders who came down to join them were told to make sure their wills were filled out before they went, because the threat of death was real. People, black and white, still came, still showed up, and still protested, despite the extraordinary risks. That’s what people do when they truly believe fundamental rights and freedoms are on the line.
In contrast, when protesters supposedly standing up for Constitutional rights balked on May 14, it revealed that these so-called patriots fighting for liberty at these anti-stay-at-home protests don’t protest out of any commitment to the ideals to which they claim allegiance. Their signs about freedom are a facade. At the first sign of government push-back, they put their guns first, even though, according to their own defenses of their behavior at past protests, the chances of them brandishing a firearm and getting ticketed or arrested was supposedly nil. They protest not for liberties but because they want to feel big and badass by displaying their big, gun-shaped, manly masculine manliness.
I have a few male friends whom I consider to have been sucked into the Void, as I call it, of the far-right, conspiracy theory-laden world where, as time goes on, one gets further and further divorced from fact and reality and increasingly angry and abrasive. All of those I know personally have one feature in common: they all experienced some event that made them feel incredibly emasculated. Some truly difficult situation occurred that not only left them feeling victimized, impotent, and hurt, but also took away their sense of manhood. At that moment, those men were looking for sympathy and validation; for someone other than family and friends to say, “You were wronged, and whoever did this is and always has been a jerk.”
According to articles I have read, this is how the Void sucks you in. It preys on the vulnerable, usually online or through social media, and particularly targets males who have trouble finding sexual or romantic success or who otherwise feel impotent in their lives. By initially offering sympathy for the man’s plight, the Void slowly convinces the target that only those in the Void truly understand what they are going through. Therefore the worldview that the Void offers eventually becomes the only one that the target believes “gets it.” Eventually all other viewpoints are considered tools of the enemy; this is how the Void protects itself from any facts or appeals that might undermine it. That process of indoctrination and radicalization leads to protests like these by making the attack on opposing viewpoints (such as the scientific/left wing consensus on how to address the pandemic) a means of defending against the pain of vulnerability. Hence, the bigger the gun, the more comforting it is to wave around: displays of power and intimidation become necessary in order for these men to reassert in their own minds that they are indeed very masculine and to assuage their insecurities, at least temporarily.
The problem is that these displays have harmful, real-life consequences. Because the May 14 “Judgement Day” protest was, at the planning stage, filled with comments that suggested real violence should be visited on public officials, and because the prior protest had involved armed participants shouting from the balcony of one of the houses and trying to force their way onto the floor of the legislature, both the Michigan House and Senate chose not to meet on May 14, although they unconvincingly tried to explain the closure as being for other reasons. As these protests have taken place, several people have pointed out that participants had their guns safely holstered, arguing that this meant it didn’t matter that they were carrying at all. However, the legislature’s closure, especially in the wake of the April 30 protest, renders the question of whether guns were actually present at “Judgment Day” immaterial. We are no longer talking about responsible gun handling. Whether pulled or not, there or not, the mere threat of the presence of guns already had an impact. This is domestic terrorism, pure and simple. The acts and words of these protesters caused the government not to function. Far from the protesters’ claims, this is not a triumph of democracy. This is the destruction of democracy by a minority trying to enforce its will on the government through terror. The (fortunate) lack of deaths or injuries at these protests doesn’t change that fact. Michigan Senator Mallory McMorrow summed up the stakes well to her colleagues on May 12: “I want to remind people that it only takes one person.”
Condemnation is the bare minimum. It is not enough. It won't stop an angry person full of hate from taking action. And someone's going to get hurt, or worse. The Majority has the ability to set rules for each chamber. What will they do? #mileg https://t.co/duyHO0HZCa pic.twitter.com/KWHEW37xZz— Mallory McMorrow (@MalloryMcMorrow) May 12, 2020
An analysis of a small skirmish that occurred between the protesters at “Judgment Day” reveals so much of the protesters’ hypocrisy, as well as their real motives. It started with James Chapman, who is a state congressional candidate with a criminal history that includes stalking and assaults with a gun and a knife. He appeared at the protest with an American flag attached to a fishing pole. Also attached was a naked female doll with brown hair hanging from a noose, a clear representation of lynching Governor Whitmer. 3
When he stood directly in front of speakers on the capitol steps, one of them fought with him to snatch away the fishing rod, flag, noose, and all.
Although the prop was returned to him by other bystanders, Chapman ducked back into the crowd to return holding a weapon. Some overreacting snowflake snatched it away from him–his own personal property which he was entitled to carry and demonstrate in the face of those who have differing views! Though Chapman didn’t even brandish the weapon, the jack-booted authoritarian thugs came anyway and hauled him and his weapon away. The crowd roared their anger at this obvious violation of their dearly held Second Amendment rights!
Just kidding. Chapman had an ax, and someone quickly disarmed him, while the protesters called for the police to intervene. Although the police took Chapman and his gear away, he was not arrested, and the crowd was on board with the removal. The incident demonstrated that those who mock concerns about the presence of firearms at protests like this should put a sock in it. One ordinary, not even semi-automatic ax which does not appear to have been brandished caused panic, upset, and calls for the police among this crowd. And truthfully, they were right to be concerned. Adding any weapon to a crowd of people who are crammed together with passions running high greatly escalates the chances of someone getting seriously hurt or killed. The crowd recognized that when they saw the ax, and they didn’t even know about Chapman’s history of violence. Now imagine he had had a gun instead. When a firearm is in play, all it takes is one wrong step, whether intentional or not, and instead of a scuffle, we have a tragedy. When a group of people consider an ax a deadly weapon that should be confiscated but believes a gun to be the perfect protest accessory, it’s hard to take any of their stances seriously.
Then there is the irony of the crowd’s desire for any governmental intervention at all. Only a few weeks before, at another protest organized by Michigan United for Liberty, protesters screamed in the face of law enforcement and authorities for daring to block them from entry to the floor of the legislature, a place they were not legally allowed regardless of what they were protesting. On May 14, those same protesters shouted for help from those same police. It is amazing how quickly those who spout libertarian ideals and accuse any authority’s action of being an overreach will rely on that same authority the moment even a tiny thing goes wrong for them. When they do that, they expose the level of hypocrisy and privilege on which their supposedly lofty ideals rest. They demand government be hands-off until they are the ones that need it. Those protesters have been yelling about how the government cannot tell them how to express themselves, but they were quick to demand it step in to tell one of their own how he could express himself. As Frank Wilhoit wrote, “Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.” Far from their professed claims of noble democratic principle, the protesters’ true beliefs are inconsistent, hypocritical, and fascist.
In addition, the response to Chapman’s demonstration highlighted just how much of these protests’ touted ideals are a false-front. Michigan United for Liberty has been involved in the organization of all the protests at the Michigan capitol through April and May, including “Operation Gridlock” on April 15, the storming of the Michigan houses on April 30, and “Judgment Day” on May 14. The rhetoric going into all of these protests has been more about political division, with Whitmer portrayed as the ultimate evil who needs to be taught a lesson, than about small businesses, the unemployed, or Constitutional rights. Posts by protesters on the “Operation Gridlock” Facebook event page referred to Governor Whitmer as “wHitler”, compared requests that people wear masks to demands by the Gestapo, called for Whitmer to be deposed, and bragged that liberals had been told off because Michigan had spoken. Rhetoric before the May 14 protest included such gems as, “Plain and simple she [Whitmer] needs to eat lead and send a statement to the rest of the democrats that they are next.” Even though Michigan United for Liberty denounced Chapman’s use of the effigy, both in the moment on the steps and to the press afterwards, his graphic demonstration reflected, rather than was counter to, the ideology surrounding these protests.
In fact, we know this for sure in Chapman’s specific case because he did this same demonstration once before, with no comment or condemnation from Michigan United for Liberty. At the April 15 “Operation Gridlock” protest, which, again, was organized by the same group as “Judgment Day”, Chapman showed up with the same fishing rod, flag, and effigy. As captured in a photograph of the protest by the Detroit Free Press, he stood on the capitol steps with it, chatting up a fellow protester who was all smiles. No one seemed dismayed, even as he explained his effigy to the press. No one took it away. His disgusting display, negative publicity and all, was perfectly acceptable the month prior to “Judgment Day”. Michigan United for Liberty felt no great need to disavow him then. What changed? The added threat, from a government led by a woman, to future displays of their metaphorical junk.
Due to international attention drawn to the protests after photos of angry, gun-toting men at the April 30 protest went viral, the “Judgment Day” organizers went into May 14 much more conscious and protective of their image. They knew they were treading on thin ice. How the protest went could impact the tolerance for future protests of this nature. Chapman’s effigy was not taken away because the organizers found the meaning of his expression to be unacceptable, but because Michigan United for Liberty was afraid of losing the fig leaf of “peaceful” protest. While under a big banner saying “Freedom”, the event organizers were happy to prevent Chapman from expressing himself, even though that exact same form of expression had been acceptable enough to stand on the capitol steps and smile at two protests ago, and even though free expression is supposedly what these protests are all about. Fellow protesters did not shut down Chapman over ideology, but rather to ensure they could play dress-up and march around for the cameras another day. 4
For most of these protesters, all the talk about freedoms and rights, lost job opportunities, and unemployment is just window dressing. If these protests were really about supporting the unemployed, I would expect to see a great deal more brown faces from Detroit in those crowds, not an unbroken sea of white. Instead, this was about people feeling cooped up and impotent. This was about parading around in the costume of patriotic warriors to chase away their own impressions of powerlessness. Far from lofty ideals or support for those facing economic hardship, these protests have largely been about showing off guns, supporting Trump, and bashing a Democratic, female governor for daring to be any of those things. When pressed, the majority of protesters did not practice what they preached or show commitment to their supposedly sacred ideals. They came to put on a display for their own egos.
Even though James Chapman may have been a victim of these protesters’ hypocrisy, he also exemplifies it. Chapman envisions himself as some modern-day reincarnation of American Revolutionary patriotism, but seems more addicted to the pageantry than any actual ideals. When given an opportunity to explain his flag and noose gesture, Chapman seemed more fixated on Governor Whitmer’s political party affiliation than true ideology and even said it symbolized a need to purge his own party of those who lack appropriate commitment. Like many of the other protesters, he strongly supports President Trump, who has a well established track record when it comes to trampling on freedoms and civil liberties. Chapman and his fellow protesters rally behind Trump, even though he embodies values in polar opposition to those for which they claim to fight, because he is the narcissistic bully-in-chief. “[P]art of Trump’s appeal is the permission his narcissistic bullying behavior gives to his supporters to think and act the same way.” Bullies put on displays of power and intimidation to deal with their own feelings of insecurity and impotence, and that’s exactly what Chapman and the others at these protests are doing.
Not every protester was a man, and not every insecurity boils down to a need to compensate for impotence through intimidation. But the driving impetus for these protests has been steeped in toxic masculinity, a need to dick-wave, and a fair bit of misogyny, particularly against female authority, to everyone’s loss. If these protesters truly supported the sentiments they claimed to espouse, they would have started reasonable dialogues about the real issues people face when this many jobs and small businesses are at stake. They could have tried proposing realistic solutions that take into consideration the health risks, the science, and the economic hardships at play. They could have stayed in their damn cars or all worn masks and made a serious attempt at physical distancing, as some protests in other countries have managed to do. They did none of those things. Whether carrying guns or not, the participants were instead protesting to convince themselves that they were packing, both literally and metaphorically. Given the stakes of the pandemic, their egos may cost them or others their lives, all because these protest participants never understood that it is not the size of your protest or your penis that matters; it’s how you use it. Next time, and a next time is already planned, I hope they spare us all the pretext and just call it “Operation Look At My Huge Dong.”
Update: As this article was going to publication, four Minnesota police officers murdered George Floyd, an African-American restaurant security guard, while a group of people begged them to stop. Authorities met the following day’s protest against this racist, heinous act with tear gas and rubber bullets. From those who supported the Michigan protests against Governor Whitmer’s COVID-19 orders, the silence about these actual acts of tyranny is deafening.
Ann Anderson is a contributing writer for Torchlight and, when time permits, for her own blog on social and political topics, Strigiforms.com. She has a familiarity with the legal profession, history, and an eclectic potpourri of informational tidbits. She can be reached at email@example.com.
- As can be seen from the photos in this Guardian article about the event.
- Arguably they still do, whether they are protesting or not.
- By stripping the doll of any clothing, this was more than a statement about lynching. The doll’s nakedness implied sexual assault and rape. The lack of clothes indicated this was about the rejection of a woman for daring to exert power over men, and thus she was to be taught a lesson in the age-old way of de-powering women, by assaulting them sexually and leaving them naked and exposed. This is not new messaging for women, and, as a woman, I received it loud and clear.
- To be entirely fair, as video footage shows, some protesters did support Chapman’s right to expression and managed to get his disgusting display back to him. One small win for freedom of expression and misogynists everywhere.