Our response to the Michigan Conservative Coalition and other criticisms of our stories about “Operation Gridlock.”
In our coverage of the April 15 Lansing protests to “re-open” Michigan, we at the Jewish News chose to highlight the fact that several of these protesters carried signs and props equating Governor Gretchen Whitmer and her policies to those of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. This has prompted a fair amount of reader response, much of it negative.
The most prominent criticism of our coverage has come from Marian Sheridan, co-founder of the Michigan Conservative Coalition (MCC), which organized that day’s protests. We had interviewed Sheridan for our story. On April 30, the same day a new crowd of demonstrators (unconnected to the MCC) went to the state Capitol building to protest Whitmer’s latest extension of statewide COVID-19 restrictions, we received a letter from Sheridan objecting to how we framed the April 15 events.
The JN’s coverage, Sheridan said, “highlight[ed] a small fraction of outliers who had nothing to do with the organizers and what the entire protest was about… It’s unfortunate that the Jewish News chose to dwell on a couple of people carrying controversial flags and ignored the thousands there to voice their concerns over their agonizing losses.”
“It was obvious your article’s true intent was to disparage the legitimate protesters, and the Michigan Conservative Coalition,” she continued. “The attention given to these sign carriers actually rewards and encourages this type of behavior.”
Sheridan concludes, “Shame on the Jewish News.”
She wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Commenters on our website and several letters to the editor from our regular readers accused us of ignoring the protesters who obeyed social distancing protocol and did not carry inflammatory signage; of ignoring the fact that the protesters themselves were not supporting Nazism; and of not applying the same standards when figures on “the left” make similar analogies to President Trump and other right-wing figures in power.
As it happens, the discussion prompted by our Lansing coverage fits into one of our larger JN editorial goals for the year: The Anti-Semitism Project, in which we seek to understand and contextualize what constitutes anti-Semitism in the modern age. And that, in fact, is our “true intent.”
In this case, the questions at hand are: Were the Lansing protests anti-Semitic? And were we right to report on them? Reader concerns are important to us, so this is a good opportunity to explain our own thinking on these matters, and to respond to the MCC and to others who have objected to our work. You don’t have to agree with our perspective, but I’d ask that you take the time to read it.
As the largest Jewish news organization in the state of Michigan, we have a responsibility to report on notable instances of anti-Semitism and its associated evils within our community. These include, yes, trivializing or mocking the horrors of the Holocaust, or equating any person or policy one does not like to Nazism. Such a comparison is not only crass and ugly, it’s also ahistorical, ignoring the unique, genocidal inhumanity of the Third Reich and weakening our ability to educate future generations about the Holocaust.
Some Holocaust survivors have spoken publicly about how our current lockdown makes them recall the darkest chapters of their own lives. We can and should honor their struggles and their valid psychological reactions to COVID-19. And we can do that while still being clear about one thing: Not even the worst, most devastating outcome of our state’s current policies — a long-term economic collapse resulting in widespread job losses — is an appropriate comparison for the goals and tactics of the Nazis and their systematic efforts to round up and exterminate European Jewry. The intentionality is not even on the same playing field through which one might employ a “slippery slope” argument. Such an analogy comes from a place of ignorance, which is the same place where more overt anti-Semitism emerges from.
If such a comparison is being made in the public square, and is reaching enough people, we must speak out about it so that our readers understand the tenor of dialogue that is being employed in the current moment, and how that may impact us and our shared history. So now we turn to the second part of the criticisms: was this component of the protests worth drawing attention to?
Here it’s worth noting that Sheridan’s letter did not express support for the protesters who held signs reading “Heil Whitmer” or displayed blow-up dolls dressing up the governor as Hitler, to name two examples spotted at Operation Gridlock. But nor did she or the MCC outright condemn such messages in their letter to us. Their position, instead, is that these protesters were “a small fraction of outliers” holding “controversial signs”, and that they did not reflect the larger goal of the demonstration. And on this point, we disagree.
Though small in number, the individuals brandishing overt references to Nazism were not on the fringes of the crowd that day. They were right in the thick of it, sometimes on the Capitol steps themselves, and being cheered, not sidelined, by the protesters around them. More importantly, the Nazi allusions were part and parcel of the dark, inflammatory tone being employed throughout the event, with words like “tyrant”, Confederate flags and firearms visible among the crowds.
Those firearms, incidentally, are part of why we took this “small fraction” of the protests so seriously, because the overt specter of violence in the public square should always warrant serious concern for the health of our community. Case in point: On Sunday, May 3, a security guard at a Flint dollar store was fatally shot by family of a customer after doing his job by refusing to allow them to enter the store without a face mask.
Nazi allusions have also emerged at similar protests in other states, often directed at Jewish officials. There is a clear pattern at play. A sign reading “Arbeit macht frei,” repeating the infamous “Work Makes You Free” message emblazoned on the gates of Auschwitz in its original German, was spotted at a rally protesting Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, who is Jewish, and prompted an official condemnation from the Auschwitz Museum and Memorial in Poland. And in Ohio, the wife of a state senator compared the actions of the state’s health director Dr. Amy Acton, who is Jewish, to those of Nazi Germany, earning a strong rebuke from Mike DeWine, the state’s Republican governor.
“The comments showed a complete lack of understanding of the Holocaust,” DeWine said, demonstrating that this should not have to be a partisan issue.
Yes, these are a few people out of thousands. But yes, it is assuredly our responsibility to report on them. The sight of a “small fraction” of particularly vocal and angry citizens pushing or attempting to push a large body toward an extreme conclusion has its roots in historical precedence that the JN cannot ignore. To put it another way: Because they fit right into the goals and tactics of the larger movement, these were, in fact, “legitimate” protesters.
And they may not be a small fraction for much longer. This fanning of such violent, conspiratorial flames — not only as they relate to the Jewish people, but also to the public citizenry at large — has been “rewarded and encouraged” by groups like the MCC itself over the last few weeks. Following Operation Gridlock, the MCC’s Facebook page has shared partisan articles and memes casting Whitmer as exactly the sort of Hitler-like figure these protesters declared her to be (“Tyrannical”, “Pure Evil”).
How We Have Dialogue
Our readership includes many Holocaust survivors in the Detroit area, and many more descendants of survivors, as well as Jews from across the entire political spectrum. Indeed, the JN is the rare media outlet where it is still possible to find people of wildly different political ideologies congregating together, and it is our full intention to do this kind of reporting no matter who is on the receiving end. In this current moment, the Lansing protests are the most pressing story for us to cover. Another time, there will be different movements with different goals, and we will cover those fairly and responsibly, too. If you are wondering why we are “not covering” something related to anti-Semitism, there is a good chance we do, in fact, have a story in the works about it. But we also appreciate your tips, as always.
We can and do often disagree with one another about policies, and about the proper government response to the linked tragedies of a global pandemic and recession. But we must do so without the histrionics that compel us or our neighbors to reach for the metaphor of Nazism with no historical context, simply because it is a convenient evil to brandish in an argument.
The JN will continue to cover the COVID-19 crises within the state: both the medical and economic ones. And we will continue to cover any signs of anti-Semitism, bigotry and ignorance that emerge from this moment in time. We welcome your thoughts on all of this in the meantime, even (and especially) if you disagree. It’s why we’re here in the first place.