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'Operation Gridlock' protesters decry 'fake' pandemic, restrictions

Conservatives angry about the catastrophic economic situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and government restrictions on businesses and citizens drove around the state Capitol Sunday in protest, hoping to persuade Gov. Doug Ducey to lift his stay-at-home order and “re-open” Arizona.

Many of the protesters displayed support of President Donald Trump, flying Trump flags, wearing the president’s signature red campaign hats and other campaign paraphernalia. 

Trump has encouraged such protests, saying that some restrictions enacted by governors to blunt the spread of COVID-19 “are too much.” In Arizona, only businesses deemed “essential” are allowed to remain open, and they must enforce social-distancing measures that keep customers six feet apart. Ducey’s executive order runs through April 30, though he can choose to extend it past that date.

Ducey has so far resisted calls to quickly lift restrictions, and has said science and public health concerns will guide when and how he does so.

The protest, dubbed Operation Gridlock by organizers and an off-shoot of  a controversial Michigan protest last week that was tied to a group funded by the family of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, consisted of cars circling the Capitol for about two hours as protesters inside displayed signs and honked their horns. Some blared air horns, while others blasted patriotic music from their vehicle sound systems.

It is unknown if Ducey was at the Capitol during the protest. A message left with a spokesman was not immediately returned.

Most of the protesters drove in a single-file around the Capitol at 17th Avenue and Washington Street and Wesley Bolin Plaza, which sits directly east of the Capitol complex. The vehicles mostly stayed in a single lane, allowing other traffic in the area to freely move around it as the cars and trucks circled the area. 

The result was more reminiscent of a merry-go-round than of gridlock. Unlike Sunday’s protest here, the April 15 protest in Lansing, Mich., stopped traffic in that city’s downtown, including around the region’s only Level 1 trauma center.

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Some of the protesters wore masks and gloves, but many did not wear any protective gear. A common theme among attendees was that fear of COVID-19 was overblown and that the illness was not as serious as infectious disease experts and government officials – including Trump – have said it is. 

“Fake pandemic, fake numbers, fake news,” read a t-shirt worn by one attendee. “It’s not the plague, it’s just the flu,” a sign held by another attendee said. 

As of April 19, there had been 4,929 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Arizona, and 184 deaths have been attributed to the illness. Nationally, more than 722,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and almost 34,000 have died.

Almost 2.4 million people around the world have contracted the illness and about 165,000 have died, according to the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine Coronavirus Research Center.

Conspiracy theories were something that was prevalent at the rally. Multiple cars displayed references to the fringe far-right conspiracy theory “#QAnon,” including one that was flying a giant QAnon flag.

Although most of the protesters stayed in their vehicles, some did leave their cars, mostly to take photographs, livestream or, in the case of U.S. Senate hopeful Daniel McCarthy, meet prospective voters.

A few protesters brandished weapons, including Jennifer Harrison, leader of the far-right extremist group AZ Patriots, who walked around the Capitol grounds with an AR-style assault rifle. 

Another man in the back of a pick-up truck had what appeared to be an AK-style assault rifle with a bayonet as he held a sign saying “Make China pay!”

A separate protest planned for Monday at Wesley Bolin Plaza will see people gathering in the park instead of driving around the Capitol. 

The “Patriot’s Day Rally” will take place at “high noon” at Wesley Bolin Plaza and has been shared widely in conservative social media circles, along with the hashtag #ReOpenAz. 

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The Arizona Department of Administration, which oversees Wesley Bolin Plaza, has not received any permit requests for the area for April 20, ADOA spokeswoman Megan Rose told Arizona Mirror.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy/Arizona Mirror

A protester at the Operation Gridlock protest at the Arizona Capitol on April 19, 2020.


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