Organizers say the Nazi signs weren’t theirs; ADL condemns comparison.
Thousands of demonstrators drove to Lansing on April 15 protesting Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s extension of her “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Some protestors were seen waving Confederate flags and holding signs comparing Whitmer to Adolf Hitler, complete with swastikas.
Throughout the protest, signs ranged from “let us work,” “recall Whitmer” and “all workers are essential” to explicit Nazi connotations, including “Heil Witmer” [sic] with a swastika, and a blow-up doll of Whitmer dressed with a Hitler mustache and Nazi armband. American flags were flying throughout the streets, and some protesters carried rifles.
— Anna Liz Nichols (@annaliznichols) April 15, 2020
Many of the demonstrators were also seen wearing hats and waving flags showing support for President Donald Trump.
“Anytime somebody equates any current issue with an incident that was state-sponsored genocide, I think that is wrong,” said Carolyn Normandin, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL)’s Michigan office. “The governor is trying to save the lives of Michiganders.”
On April 9, Whitmer announced the extension of the executive order until April 30, requiring all non-essential businesses to remain closed, imposing restrictions on stores and prohibiting travel for unnecessary reasons.
The protest, “Operation Gridlock,” was organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition, a non-profit political organization that works with groups such as Michigan Trump Republicans to help organize and elect conservatives to the statehouse in Lansing. The group said the Hitler signs were not theirs.
“The people holding the signs comparing Whitmer to Hitler were absolutely not members of our organization,” Marian Sheridan, co-founder of the Michigan Conservative Coalition, told the Jewish News. “There are people who piggyback on other organization’s events, and I believe that is what happened.”
Many of the protestors remained in their cars, draping signs on the outside of their vehicles or holding them up through windows. However, according to multiple reports, there were approximately 100-150 people protesting on the Capitol lawn—most of whom were not wearing masks or following social distancing guidelines.
“People across Michigan started fearing more for their rights than COVID-19,” Sheridan said. “So much of the last executive order just didn’t make sense to a lot of people. This is a free country and people can say what they want due to our freedom of speech.”
Normandin said the signs were indicative of a larger trend of Nazi comparisons.
“It is certainly the right for someone to voice their disagreement, but it is never okay to use Hitler, Nazi propaganda, swastikas or anything that belittles the Holocaust,” Normandin said. “These kinds of references have seeped into popular culture, and the use of the word ‘Nazi’ every time someone doesn’t agree with something is at the root of the misunderstanding of what the Nazis stood for.”
The Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC told the Detroit Free Press that “the use of symbols of hate are never appropriate as part of political discourse” and they “condemn these actions.”
The organization also asked the Michigan Conservative Coalition “to immediately condemn the use of all hate speech and specifically, the imagery used at yesterday’s rally.”
Whitmer expressed her disappointment with some of the protestors for putting themselves and others in harm’s way by not following social distancing guidelines.
“The governor supports Michiganders’ right to free speech and the right to protest, but those participating should not put themselves or first responders at risk,” Tiffany Brown, press secretary for Whitmer, said in a statement to JN. “It’s disappointing to see people congregating without masks, and without practicing social distancing. People were flying Confederate flags and passed out candy to kids without gloves. This kind of activity will put more people at risk, and it could mean that more people will die.”